Originally published in September 2012
I had begun to think of this room as the ‘Yellow room’. Subconsciously we give things names. It had become a second home to us in a move nobody wanted to make. We would arrive early in the morning and find a vacant spot by the window seats and sit down, contemplating why we were here, staring at the walls painted a cheerful, buttercup yellow, offset by the white wooden fittings; the empty bookshelf, the windowsills beneath the large sash windows, the seats—single, twos and threes.
Within a few moments we ventured down the corridor to my father’s room. We’d place our bags quietly beside his bed, arrange the chairs and settle ourselves to stay close to him for the rest of the day. Most of the time he was asleep, just like the other patients in this ward. But this was unlike any other ward in the hospital—it was a departure lounge; a place of surrender, the end of the battle with terminal illness. Each patient was quietly slipping away. Visitors were, for the most part, quiet too. What does one say when they witness the process of dying? Room after room was silent.
Every few hours I returned to the yellow room—the plaque on the door read ‘Family Room’—a cruel irony for families about to lose a member. For the past three days, the silence was broken; there were raised voices, and the room was filled with conversations that sounded like questions, regrets, anger, and desperation. In the morning, around four members of a new family arrived, which grew to an average of ten by the afternoon. Sometimes they all spoke at once, then they’d fall silent for a few moments and begin their discussions again.
One young girl, probably in her late teens, sobbed aloud and spoke in bitter, short inflections. She cradled a baby girl in her arms, and set her gaze on her as her tears fell on the baby’s hair. Often, one of the older ladies, who sat with her husband, would take the baby from her and feed her a bottle or bob her up and down the yellow room. I didn’t recognise their language and guessed it was Greek, or from an Eastern European country, perhaps. What did it matter—anguish is a common language—everyone around could understand their pain. Over those three days, elderly relatives came in too; we smiled at each other, but there was no other communication. The rest of the family never made any eye contact, we never spoke.
Then, on the fourth day, as I was about to enter the yellow room for a cup of tea, the lady who walked the baby approached me. She told me it was her sister who was here with a recurring brain tumour. It was this sister’s baby they were all looking after. Their youngest sister, the teenager, she continued to tell me, was finding it the hardest. Then she hesitated and said:
‘My sister’s about to go. We’re Muslim…We’re Turkish. If you don’t mind, can you stand by the door and say some prayers. I want someone to say some prayers…She’s going. Please.’
I was overwhelmed by what she told me and didn’t quite understand: ‘You mean prayers from the Qur’an—recite Qur’an?’
‘Yes, yes—we’re Muslim. Not now, come in 5 minutes—it’s that room,’ and she pointed to a door ajar. Inside I caught a glimpse of the patient’s husband, sitting on a chair beside the bed, wringing a small towel as he fought his tears.
Five minutes later I stood outside the door. I started to recite in the quietest whisper. I sensed the lady didn’t want other members of the family to see me there. In the intensity of the moment, and the fear of any of her family members coming out and getting upset, I wasn’t sure which surah (chapter) I began with, but I recited. Then more conscious of what I was doing, I began again, and recited Surah Fatihah (The Opening, Qur’an 1) slowly. And then Ayatul Kursi (Qur’an 2:255), the last four surahs of the Qur’an (Qur’an 111, 112, 113, 114), the last verses of Surah Baqarah (Qur’an 2:285-286), then the few du`a’s (supplications) I knew, then back to Surah Fatihah. For a moment doubts raced through my mind: was this the right thing to do, should I be standing here, what difference was it going to make? But I didn’t dwell on these questions. The enormity of the angel of death being in that room dawned on me in those minutes of being truly awake to what life is, to what death is, and for what our souls yearn.
I don’t know how long I spent outside her door, maybe four minutes. But, it was a time outside of time. Something between living and dying, an experience that hasn’t faded in the five years that have gone by, but only intensified. And the memory has intensified because society and culture for the masses does everything to make us forget. Contrasts sharpen our perception.
We are beguiled into believing this world will never end; the luxuries, the ‘fun’ that prefixes every product and action, the food, fashion and music will make this world eternal. Layer after layer comes between the soul and its true nature, depleting it, cheating it and most tragically detaching it. But there’s something about death that cuts through all the clamour of the world; where our souls are touched and want that sacred connection.
‘So where are you going?’ (81:26) we are asked in the Qur’an repeatedly, following vivid images of the Last Day and the hereafter. And in the very next surah, Al Infitar—we are awoken again:
‘When the sky breaks apart
And when the stars fall, scattering,
And when the seas are erupted
And when the [contents of] graves are scattered,
A soul will then know what it has put forth and kept back.
O mankind, what has deceived you concerning your Lord, the Generous,
Who created you, proportioned you, and balanced you?
In whatever form He willed He has assembled you.
No! But you deny the Recompense.’ (82: 1-9)
Surah after surah we are reminded, questioned, guided, but we forget—as we fall back on the maxim ‘We’re only human.’ Allah knows we’re human, and that’s why we are reminded. Before it’s too late.
Those few minutes outside the door passed and I found myself sitting on the window seat in the yellow room. I looked out on to London’s stylish South Kensington streets; cafés sprawled on to the pavements serving customers with their designer dogs and pushchairs, and coiffured silver-haired ladies spoke with animated expressions. Inside, for the rest of the evening the family were silent. The men folk sat outside on the steps of the hospital building, smoking. The voices, the intonation, the pain had melted away, somewhere beyond our perception. The yellow room was silent once more.