Spring in Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn, is glorious. There are budding trees, bright yellow forsythia blooming, and grass reaching for the sky. One morning last week, I came across an elderly black man in a heavy grey coat, a knit hat, and thick black shoes. He was shuffling down the hill to the back staircase. I greeted him, “Good morning old timer.” He replied, “Young man, I’m 81 one years old. Let me tell you something.” I of course nodded my head and looked into his cloudy eyes waiting for his words. “At my age, I could go at any time. You could be as strong as an ox, you could be healthy…” he trailed off and with one tooth he collected the saliva in his mouth. As the spit dripped from his lip to the newly green ground, he said, “When God says it’s time, it’s your time.”
Five days before this encounter, my beloved mother-in-law passed. Her springtime passing makes me reflect on all the transitions that we make in life and how we prepare and deal with the ultimate transition. If you believe in some notion of an afterlife (I do), then you likely have a framework with which to approach those final hours. Your final hours could be at any point. You could die today. I could die today. Am I doing the right things? What do I believe about myself? How am I helping or hurting others? What am I leaving as my legacy?
“Heaven is a choice and hell is a choice,” the old man said. “I choose heaven. That’s where my mother and father are, it’s where my wife is.” Then he paused, “I got eight babies in heaven.”
My mother-in-law was a firm believer in a creator and an afterlife. She did more good deeds than anyone I knew. She fed countless people, taught countless children, took care of the elderly, planted countless trees, attended births, weddings, funerals, gave handmade gifts for every occasion, and never said a bad thing about anyone. She always said it was what she was commanded to do: leave the world better than she found it. She believed deeply in “Sadaqah-Jariyah (saad-ah-quah-jaa-ree-yah),” a term in Arabic that means “ceaseless charity.” She did everything she could to ensure that the good things she did would continue to benefit people and planet even after her death. She was truly preparing and I believe she was prepared, to meet her maker. She lived an honorable and selfless life. Her husband, daughters, grandsons, siblings, nieces, nephews, and hundreds of friends and acquaintances, buried her under a tree in a beautiful cemetery near the home she tended to and the community she nourished. She chose heaven.
In the coming months (and even years), nothing will be the same. Sounds will be heard differently, smells will bring up memories, and questions will be rehashed over and over. My sons have and will continue to ask the toughest ones. “What time will Nanima be alive again?” “When will she come out of the dirt?” “Why did we plant her like a tree?” My answers to them will evolve as my own understanding of death and transition does. What I am able to explain now is that we have limited time on this earth and we need to live it with purpose. Like Nanima did.
I cannot imagine the life that the old man in the park lived where he lost eight children before his own death. I can only assume, based on his ramblings about Brooklyn and changing neighborhoods and wars in far off lands that his family was trapped in the scourge of the crack era and others were deployed. Before he walked off, the old man told me a story about Moses.
“God said, I have let you see [the promised land] with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it. And Moses the servant of the Lord died there … yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone.”
Moses, the baby found in the river and the last hope of a desperate people, died before he could see the fruit of his labor. My mother-in-law, besides wanting to leave the world having done good deeds, wanted to help raise righteous grandchildren. She left them too young, in their age of innocence. At her funeral, my instinct was to protect the boys. Instead, I saw in them a new light – they were playing on the grave, rubbing dirt between their hands and throwing flower petals back and forth.
Without their grandmother, but with her great legacy, my little boys are now beginning their own journey up the river.
To learn more about Behbood Ashraf’s final Sadaqah-Jariyah project, click here.