Time will tell us if we’re out of answers when it stops

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After the rain, originally uploaded by yaznotjaz.

Mother
Can you keep them in the dark for life
Can you hide them from the waiting world
Oh mother

Driving across town a few days ago, I came to a stop at a red light. Diagonally in front of me, in the next lane, was a silver Honda Accord of the type I’ve become accustomed to looking for during the past two months. I automatically glanced at the license plates: Is it 4MUH810?

But, of course, it wasn’t.

My sister, late on the evening we heard that Dr. Zehra Attari and her car had been recovered from the Oakland Estuary, said something like, “It’s easier knowing that it’s something that happened, not something that happened to her.”

What happened is heartbreaking enough, either way. But there is a sense of relief, of sorts, in knowing what happened. There is even some relief in knowing that what happened wasn’t as horrible as what could have happened. But, at the end of the day, Dr. Attari is still dead, her loss is devastating to her family, and there is pain in never knowing for certain that she did not suffer in those last moments.

The day of Dr. Attari’s funeral in San Jose on December 22nd, it seemed to me that there was more rain than Northern California had seen this winter.

Rain and mud everywhere; the hell had I been thinking, wearing my shoes with holes? But my feet were the least of my concerns: there was my sister, teary-eyed and worried about her best friend; there were Dr. Attari’s daughters, struggling to maintain their strength and composure; there was Mr. Attari, tousle-haired and heartbreakingly lost-looking.

And in between, well-intentioned on everyone’s part, was an orchestration of umbrellas: how to best keep people dry without poking their eyes out. I remembered the previous day, at the Attari home, as the family planned the funeral. “But what if it rains?” someone blurted out.

Dr. Attari’s older daughter raised her eyebrows. “So bring an umbrella,” she answered quite directly. I wondered if she were thinking, My mother has been lying in dozens of feet of water at the bottom of an estuary for forty-three days. You damn well better be able to handle a few drops of rain. But, no, that’s just what I was thinking; she was probably much more gracious and preoccupied than that.

What I liked most about Dr. Attari’s funeral – if it isn’t in poor taste to confess to liking something about a funeral – was the respect accorded to women. Women were specifically encouraged to attend the funeral, not only the prayer but also the burial. Even after Dr. Attari’s body was placed into the grave, we women were silently allowed to remain standing where we were, just a few feet away – in front, ahead of the men – as the tractor (bulldozer?) lowered the concrete slab into the gaping hole of the grave, swept the dirt back into the grave, and repeatedly slammed a rectangular piece of wood over it to flatten the dirt at the top. It was an extremely painful vantage point, but I was glad for that wholehearted respect for the women and their right to honor and pray for the dead – the likes of which I had never before experienced.

At the end of the funeral, I saw one woman, a close family friend, hug the Attari daughters and heard her – though still tearfully – defiantly say, “I will not cry for a shaheed.”

A young woman, whom I vaguely remember from Zaytuna classes years ago, hugged me and whispered, “Thank you for taking care of them.” I stared after her retreating figure, bewildered. I had done nothing. If anyone had done anything, it was my sister, who had compiled and organized and distributed the flyers and photos, who had been (and still is) available every second of every one of those forty-three days as a source of support for her friend.

After the funeral, we made our way to the Attari home. In the evening, the rest of the friends and guests were gently shooed away so that the family could get ready for the dua and prayer at the SABA Center. My sister and I moved idly around the house, trying to be useful. I found Mr. Attari at the kitchen sink, rinsing the plates and glasses.

“Here, I can do that,” I said. “Let me help with those.”

He smiled and waved me off. “No, no, I can do it.”

His younger daughter whispered to me, “My dad likes washing dishes.”

I smiled slightly. “I know.”

As we prepared to leave their home in our separate cars, Mr. Attari asked if we knew how to get to the SABA Center. “Yes, I printed out directions,” I said. “Could you please take a look at these and see if they seem okay?”

Standing next to Mr. Attari as he glanced through the sheet of paper I held out to him, I had a horrible feeling – was he remembering all the times he had helped his wife with directions? Was he remembering that the one evening he had not been there to guide her was the same evening she never returned home? It was so intensely sad to think in those terms.

At one point during the evening at the SABA Center, the congregation began reciting Dua-i-Kumayl together. I didn’t have a book to recite from as everyone else seemed to, so I kept stealthily glancing at the sheaf of papers belonging to the lady next to me. She soon noticed me peeking over, silently moved her papers over so that the pages were resting in front of both of us, and placed a finger at the line the congregation was reciting, so that I could follow along.

I still don’t know much about Dua-i-Kumayl, other than that it is regularly recited by Shia Muslims, but I quickly read the English translation while reciting the Arabic along with everyone else, and I can definitely say that it must be one of the most beautiful supplications for forgiveness that I’ve ever come across.

At the end of the Dua, I thanked the sister next to me. “Would you like this copy?” she asked, “I have another one at home.”

“Are you sure?” I asked, delighted. She was indeed. So now I have my own copy, and it’s lovely.

Over the past couple of weeks, it’s been heartwarming to read of strangers who were touched by Dr. Attari, to know that her spirit of giving and caring, her compassionate work, inspired even those who did not know her in person. My father, recently discussing her death with our relatives, said, “It’s not just that she was a wife and mother, you know. She was a respected person in her community. She was a doctor who helped poor people who had nowhere else to go. We need people like her.”

Driving to the Attari home after the funeral, listening to her family friends relate stories of Dr. Attari, made me realize what a loss her death is to those who knew and loved her well. The children Dr. Attari treated in her capacity as a pediatrician, the patients she left behind, are suffering her loss as well. To think that she is gone for sure, just a few days after I was thinking about her while in Oakland, is a difficult reconciliation.

My Lord, have mercy upon
the weakness of my body,
the thinness of my skin and
the frailty of my bones.
.
.
.
Thou knowest my weakness before a little of
this world’s tribulations and punishments,
and before those ordeals which befall its inhabitants…

– from Dua-i-Kumayl

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