Within the past ten years we had five deaths in our family, two of them were my parents, and the latest one was my aunt, who died last week. In between the family deaths I lost a very close friend of mine who died suddenly before I got the chance to return her call, my art teacher, and the wife of a friend whom I met on my climb of Kilimanjaro. The latter two died within two days of each other.
Death used to draw me like a helpless moth to a flame. On many summer mornings in our place by the beach I would wake up to distant screams and shouts over a drowning person everyone is trying to save and I rush to the balcony, anxiety taking over every inch of me, only to discover on most times that no one could save them. I would then spend the rest of the day thinking of them and their families, wondering what a drowning experience must feel like.
I tend to dwell on the details of death. When I kiss a dead person goodbye – and I’ve done that five times – the sensation of their cold skin against my lips stays with me and comes back whenever I recall it. I see their dead faces when I close my eyes alone in bed at night. The silence of their still bodies next to the weeps and prayers of their loved ones pulls me down to its hollowness. I find myself staring at two worlds simultaneously; our stricken, uncomprehending, loud, one-dimensional world and their seemingly apathetic, knowing, silent world that seems to suck me into a bottomless stillness. My mind continues to drift along with their bodies as they’re carried to the grave. I wonder what it would feel like to be wrapped in that white Muslim shroud, covered head to toe, and laid to the ground for eternity. I put myself in their places and I find myself running out of breath as those claustrophobic thoughts begin to suffocate me. And when the first night draws in I think of them alone in the grave, and it haunts me how only 24 hours before they were safe in their beds with their families and friends, and I wonder where I would be 24 hours from then.
I came close to death twice in my life. On the first time I was unaware of the danger as I kneeled towards an unexploded cluster bomblet in south Lebanon after the end of the 2006 war, my face was only inches away because I wanted to take a good picture of it. The second time was a brush with death that happened only three weeks ago, and I don’t think I saw death the same way since.
I was diving in the red sea with a large group of people and I lost my diving partners and my air was closing in on the red mark. Normally this should be just enough to get me to the surface, but due to the current I found myself being pulled to the surface faster than I safely should, my computer was beeping like mad. So I went back down yet my lack of experience and practice had me doubt whether or not I was safe. Such worries are laughable when I think about them now since I wasn’t at a dangerous depth, a safety stop for 3 minutes is usually required after a deep dive to prevent lung rupture. At 20 meters it wasn’t even mandatory. Yet my hesitation caught the attention of another diver who was visibly a few meters lower than me. He asked me what was wrong and I tried to explain to him my hesitation but I’m not sure he understood. At the end of my invented sign language speech he offered me his air and gave me his extra regulator. I didn’t think I needed that but he insisted. Again, my hesitation and lack of confidence had me assume that he knew better. So I took it and as I tried to inhale my mouth was flooded with water. I tried to retrieve my regulator and there was water again. At this point I had run out of breath and there was little air left in my lungs to push the seawater that got into my mouth out, and instinct was beginning to pull the water into my lungs as my system tried to breathe. I realized then that I was drowning and panic struck. A voice inside me kept saying, “This is it. This is your hour.” My body began to jerk in all directions and my mind was clearly pushed to the backseat and silenced. My hand reached for his regulator and pulled it out of his mouth. But again, water. That is when my feet started kicking to push me up to the surface, desperate for air, and he surfaced with me. I gasped at the surface and looked at him apologetically. “We got out too fast!” His eyes were hazy and his voice was barely audible. He murmured, “It’s alright. Don’t be afraid.” My cousin suddenly appeared from behind me and held my frantic arms. My eyes were still on him. I was very concerned that I had forced him to surface with me. He left me with my cousin and put his face down in the water. For a fraction of a second I was looking at my cousin when suddenly I heard divers screaming, “NO! AHMAD!” I looked around and he was unconscious in the arms of three of his friends, foam and blood were streaming out of his nose and mouth, and it seemed to me that matter was coming out of his eyes and ears as well.
Ahmad died before anyone could save him. And I was left alone with the horror of death, which seemed to take a last minute steer as it was descending upon me and took someone else instead.
The chaos and the confusion and the conflicting theories of divers over Ahmad’s death tell me that I will never know what killed him. And I will never know if he died instead of me or if it was his angel of death looming towards us as I felt its presence in my struggle for breath underwater. But I do know that there is a reason why I was the last person he saw, and that I was last person he tried to help minutes before he died, and I may spend the rest of my life trying to figure it out.
For many nights since then I hated myself for not being more experienced. I hadn’t realized that Ahmad’s lack of reaction as I struggled with the regulators was a sign that there was something wrong with him, that it was he who needed help, not me. The sudden turn of a situation where I thought I was going to die but saw someone else die instead has shaken my soul. Yet no. I did not cheat death on that day, because no one can. When death strikes there is nothing we can do to stop it no matter how hard we try. In a room where there is death, death always has the upper hand. This thought, as morbid as it may seem, has led me to acceptance.
I don’t only accept death now because I have no control over it, I accept it because it has proven to me, personally, how close and common and casually present it is along with everyday life.
I will never be able to tell Ahmad how sorry I am for being the hazardous mess I was in his final hour instead of being a source of comfort. But I accept the barrier that has come between us.
When my aunt passed away suddenly a few days ago I did not shed a single tear. I’m not sure if that is because I have become numb inside or if it is because of death’s forceful return into my life. It wouldn’t even wait for me to process and digest why it brought a stranger into my life minutes before taking him right in front of me. It came back and struck right then and there, while I was unsuspecting it, as a humbling reminder of my lack of control.
It will take me some time to stop anticipating death almost ten times a day, or to silence my obsessive thoughts of it whenever I get a shortness of breath or close my eyes in bed every night, but I think I have already put my feet on the right track. I have accepted its unexpected arrival, and I’ve learned to sit and watch it take its course as I look at the grief-stricken people it leaves behind. Nothing I can ever do or say can alleviate their pain, so let the lesson of death ease it for them over time. So when I woke up yesterday to screams coming from the beach I tossed in bed and closed my eyes again.
The dying stranger’s last words to me were “Don’t be afraid.” He’d seen death a lot more clearly than I did, so clearly there is nothing for me to be afraid of.