A Heart's Legacy: My Father's Greatest Gift

Feb 19, 2024By Soul Air Reality

SA


Growing up as a Muslim Arab American presented its own unique set of circumstances. My siblings, cousins, and I were all first-generation Americans, as our parents had immigrated from the Middle East in the 70s with the goal of pursuing the American dream. My father's primary focus was on achieving a stable and a sustainable life. Being the youngest child, I was known for my spirited nature. I was often teased and willingly took on the role of doing tasks for others, without any complaints. Additionally, I possessed a great deal of enthusiasm, sensitivity, and curiosity.

The house I grew up in had a dynamic that was firmly rooted in Arab traditions and values, yet it also embraced a vibrant blend of American wit and influences. My parents exemplified the kind of couple you might see on TV sitcom. My father was incredibly animated, a math whiz, straightforward, and always had a punchline ready from a movie, show, or book he had read. Meanwhile, my mother was an enthusiastic chef who knew how to hold down the fort. Their unique combination of personalities created an environment that was both entertaining and insightful.

To infuse even more enthusiasm into our household, my father made the decision to bring his mother, Kalthoum, to live with us following the passing of my grandfather. This remarkable woman was like a modern-day grandmother with a touch of aristocracy. She had a unique ability to be hilarious, even in serious situations, but it wasn't in an overt way. Her influence was passionate, purposeful, and always right on point. She loved the beach, traveling, fashion, and social events, but not more than the wellbeing of her family. My father was her second born, with a 7 year age gap between him and my aunt, the firstborn. Making him the first son named after his grandfather. 

You could say that my dad grew up with the responsibility of being a family leader, it was ingrained in him from a young age. His dad worked in a different country and was always away, therefore, the cultural upbringing emphasized the importance of maintaining it. He was strict and unapologetically himself. He had seen enough of life to be unafraid to go against societal norms, while willing to adapt and incorporate whatever was necessary to uphold his principles of proper conduct. 


My father possessed a remarkable intellect, often surpassing his own good. Like all of us, he had his moments of brilliance and inspiration. What set him apart was his unwavering commitment to learn anything. He enjoyed learning about history and read mystery novels for hours throughout the day. Despite his intelligence, he never displayed arrogance or a competitive spirit. His pursuits in life were driven by a genuine desire for personal happiness and the well-being of our family. His intentions were always humble and rooted in goodwill.

My upbringing was distinct from that of my siblings. I didn't grow up in the same neighborhood or under the same influences, they were Gen-X'ers and I was the incoming millennial. As the youngest, I was known for my spirited and emotional nature. I was always quick to defend what I believed was right and would become emotional when feeling misunderstood. However, I would quickly regain my composure. It wasn't until my thirties that I started to realize I have always been highly sensitive with a side of EQ.  Understanding and appreciating this combination has been a journey for me. Aside of the challenges, these qualities have not only benefited me but have also had a positive impact on other people in my life.

My father owned a convenience store called Indian Hills, which was his final venture before retiring. He had a deep affection for the establishment and ran it successfully. I recall going with my mom to assist during the day, I enjoyed pricing the items or sorting coins for the bank. Interacting with customers was always interesting. My dad would treat us to lunch daily (he was such a foodie) and he made it fun by allowing me to choose any drink or candy I wanted. However, my brother,  who was working the store one night, faced a robbery at gunpoint. Thankfully, both he and the security guard emerged unharmed. This incident prompted my father to realize it was time to retire, leading him to sell the store. 

As my teenage years approached, with my father retired now, coincided with my sister's marriage and relocation upstate. This shift in our family dynamic brought my grandma, mom, dad, and me even closer together. We all played unique roles in supporting one another. Spending time with these retirees helped me embrace and understand the culture our family created as Muslim Arab-Americans.

At one point, all of my aunts and uncles in the area were retired, leading a leisurely lifestyle. Food played a significant role in our daily routine, with my dad wanting a Sunday breakfast every day and dinner always being a focal point. Arab cuisine requires time, skill, and above all, a genuine passion. Our love for food is deeply ingrained in our lifestyle, especially when hosting guests. I found myself both observing the cultural importance placed on quality food while actively assisting my mom, learning along the way. However, culture cuisine was not the only central aspect of our lifestyle; hospitality and manners were and remain equally important. With my parents who were free from the daily grind of work, they had more time to teach and model sustainable manners. 

Growing up as the youngest, I acquired an abundance of enthusiasm, I embraced that role wholeheartedly without an agenda but with genuine curiousity. So I was the "goody goody" always hanging out with my parents. I learned a lot helping my parents manage the house and caring for my elderly granny.  We did a lot of daily activities together and my dad always wanted to hang out, watch a movie, play tawleh (backgammon), or make an authentic dish that would turn into a whole shindig.  The front porch was our preferred hang out spot. We spent our summers in Jordan, where my parents owned an apartment. We would stay for atleast two months there to spend time with our family. This opportunity allowed me to absorb a wealth of culture and understanding. It was an advantage to witness the diverse values and perspectives of people and life during this time. 

After getting married, I struggled with feelings of inadequacy for being away from my family. My grandmother's declining health weighed heavily on my mind as I felt like I had left my mom to handle the responsibilities I usually took care of for her. The absence of my family was deeply felt, prompting me to make frequent trips to visit them during the week. In retrospect, I am thankful for having my parents as a support system. I realize now that my visits to see them  were more beneficial to me than the assistance I provided for them. I realize now I was going through an adult version of separation anxiety, but for a different type of preschool, ha!

Motherhood and a new house arrived together. I was still in my twenties, which is like the toddler stage of adulthood. Being a mom entails  various stages of confidence, doubt, and concern, mirroring the different developmental stages our children go through, each with its own set of challenges and milestones. As I entered my thirties, everything seemed to fall in place-- my children were busy with school and extracurricular activities, we had a routine and always prioritized quality time together. When my father in-law passed away, my mother in-law came to live with us, leading to a lot of changes and adjustments happening constantly. Growing up in the same circumstances with my mom and grandma helped me navigate this living arrangement with a positive outlook. 

In 2020, it became evident that my dad's health was challenged. By June, his health was deteriorating and my mother needed more help in caring for him. Coincidentally, my sister and her daughters decided to temporarily move in while I was already visiting multiple times a week to help out. Turning us into one big Tanner--or rather, Taher-family. My parents house became like Grand Central Station, with constant activity. I would only go home for a short while and then head back. It felt like we had set up camp there. They loved that. Of course, it wasn't always kicks and giggles. We affectionately dubbed our mom "The General" because she was as strict as a drill sergeant, ensuring tasks were completed and we weren't just lounging on the porch. "She's got her suit on!" that was my dad's way of warning us that she was channeling her inner general. 

The passing of my father deeply impacted me, leaving an indelible mark on my heart. While we were aware that his time was near and he had expressed his readiness to depart, It comes as no surprise that he made his last days with us entertaining. He was bed bound and we were readily on demand to help and just be there with him. He was hilarious and delightfully dark. Which made our goodbyes easier. My father was known for his rebellious spirit, but not in a negative way. He possessed true wit and wisdom, and being around him was always filled with excitement. He was hilariously straightforward, but always with reason and gratitude. 

In the aftermath of his passing, I had a conversation with his primary doctor, who shared that during their last meeting, his foremost worry was not wanting to impose his health needs on his family. So I immediately felt an overwhelming need to express my gratitude for him and to honor his legacy. It was a privilege to be his daughter and he made our lives easy in so many ways. I would help him again if I had to-- in a heartbeat. His presence had an incredible influence on my life. As a Muslim, I was aware of the benefits of reciting special dua and other charitable deeds on behalf of a deceased person. So I made it a priority to dedicate time each day to make dua and read The Quran in his honor. 

The grief I felt in his absence truly inspired me to explore and contemplate the concepts of life and death. I started reflecting on the nature of the soul and its relationship to life and Allah (swt). The soul is a sacred entity, however, observing his passing in the hospital and the subsequent burial a few days later made me differentiate how the mind and body do serve as the vessel for our souls.  These deep emotions stemmed from losing the guiding light of my life was the very reason that sparked a desire to delve deeper in our deen and gain knowledge.

Through this reflection, I also discovered that my grief was also a way of masking other voids in my life—matters that I had tucked away and that needed real attention. I began to unravel as unanswered questions kept resurfacing. In that time, I made the decision that if I wanted to deserve anything, I needed to first correct myself. One fundamental rule in Salah and connecting with Allah SWT is to rectify one's prayers. Even though prayer has been an integral part of my adult life, I found myself seeking to get out of the "auto-pilot" mode of praying and approach it with more sincerity. 

I wasn't consciously embarking on a spiritual journey; rather it was a gradual shift towards improving my prayers, dua and connecting to Allah (swt). This journey also led me to discover genuine peace and solace, helping me find relief from any lingering grief. Throughout most of my adult life, I followed the principle of "giving it to God," which is tawakkul, where I would fulfill my responsibilities and entrust the rest to Him. This practice was not simple; it demanded a profound introspection and self-discipline. However, once I mastered it, I came to value this significant grown-up milestone. 

Towards the end of 2021, I was embracing a more dedicated prayer routine. I was becoming proficient in performing all the additional Sunnah prayers, seeking guidance through Istikhara for important matters.  As I became more determined to improve and excel in my learning, more responsibilites seemed to come my way. At that point, I had a bedtime routine to recite specific verses from the Quran and do tasbih, aiming for a restful and safeguarded night's sleep. Interestingly, I began waking up spontaneously st 2:30am with nothing to do. It dawned on me that this was a chance to engage in Tahajjud prayer, which I was influenced by my mother-in-law's strong encouragement to pray during those early hours. This prayer is truly unique; I think of it as the "Ramadan" part of the day. 

In the summer of 2022, I found myself drawn to wearing looser fit clothing, eventually leading me to consider wearing an abaya. This shift in style posed an interesting and challenging situation for me. As those close to me are aware of my specific fashion preferences of effortless comfort. Adapting to the abaya was particularly tough given my active role in my family's life and my modern mindset. Initially, I viewed the abaya as a restriction on my freedom. Introducing new habits is always tough, and we often try to find excuses to avoid inconvenience. However, it became increasingly evident that embracing this change was an important step for me.

Moreover, during that summer, I successfully kicked the habit of smoking, which was a significant achievement for me. Those familiar with me would say that quitting was never on my agenda. However, my health concerns became a pressing issue, as I found that my smoking habit clashed with my other healthy practices. I vividly remember the Tuesday when frustration led me to throw my pack of cigarettes. But it doesn't end there-- about a week later, just as I was on the verge of giving in and returning to smoking, I had a dream in which my father appeared, congratulating me on quitting. This unexpected and heartwarming dream served as the motivation I needed to persevere, kicking a 20 year habit, with my father's influence playing a pivotal role in my success (he was a smoker too). 

Ramadan 2023 had arrived, and I was still inconsistent with wearing the abaya. However, early in the first week of fasting, I had a dream/inspiration to wear the niqab. I remember waking up at 3 am and taking immediate action by ordering some niqabs on Amazon. Upon receiving them, I still struggled to fully commit to the change. But then, I had another dream that reaffirmed the importance of this decision for me. Significant events in my personal life has transpired, providing me with a sense of security that allowed me to confidently wear the niqab.

Despite this newfound assurance, the decision was challenging due to the potential influence of cultural norms and talk, which could misconstrue my intentions. Nevertheless, this choice was shaped by an undeniable experience I had. It was an inspiration that echoed the guidance and confirmations I had previously received through my prayers. So I couldn't disregard this connection simply because the task seemed challenging.  I developed and nurtured sufficient trust to understand that Allah (swt) does not leave you to navigate blindly and since then, I have slowly understood His attributes and His names.

In my experience  Allah (swt) has been guiding me for longer than I had realized or expected. It was no coincidence that the most caring man in my life passes away,  leading my heart to seek a deeper connection with Allah(swt)  Looking back, it's as if my father's presence had been a shield for me, so when he passed, Allah's inspiration led me on a path to trust Him wholeheartedly, learning how to safeguard myself and also my children. As I continue on this path, I'm grateful for the reasons and the lessons learned-- the good, bad and the reality. 

By being mindful and wholeheartedly trusting in the Quran, I have come to realize that faith is not merely a temporary solution or a band-aid for our wounds. Instead, it is the holy grail that effectively processes our matters, helping us to define and reason with the occurences and inflictions that have or can happen. It is guidance and reassurance, enabling us to filter out unnecessary debris in our lives

This link explores the cultural context surrounding loss: https://www.themarginalian.org/2023/11/21/necessary-losses/


Here is a video that delves deeper into the concept of the soul. Sheikh Belal explains and clarifies Islam's perspective on this subject.