It was the first rain of the year, the end of winter. I hadn’t noticed the weather till then. The previous week had been one of turmoil and discovery. I had spent hours watching my father’s face, looking at the lines in his hands, the fingernails. The shape of his toes. Never before had I noticed the little cleft at the tip of his nose, which I too had. His eyebrows were thick, bush and soft. The doctors had told us it would need a miracle but we clung on. Abba had been very clear about how he wanted to leave. There were to be no heroics. No expensive treatments, no trips abroad, above all, he had not wanted to live a life where he could not be fully active. On the second day in the hospital, the doctor suggested that I ask my sister who was a doctor in the UK, to come over. The implications were obvious. She might never see him again. There was a national strike in the country, in protest against a one-sided election. Rahnuma’s brother Saif, arranged for an ambulance to get my sister from the airport to the hospital. She wept and he smiled as they met.

Those few hours were lovely, despite his condition. We talked of politics, his flowers, of his grandkids. He was furious with the government for staging a mock election and wanted to know what was going on in the streets. Then the breathing got heavy and they put on the oxygen mask. Late at night, the doctor asked if we agreed with putting him on the ventilator machine. There was a risk attached, but she felt it was our only realistic chance. It needed a move to another building. He was for the first time unsure of what was going to happen. I held him tight in the ambulance. Making sure he knew I was constantly there. In the surgical ward, they were going to pump him with morphine so he wouldn’t resist as they pushed the tubes down his throat. Between gasps I saw his eyes scanning the room, looking for a familiar face. I called out gently, and the eyes rested as they met mine.

Abba and Amma before they left for London, leaving my sister Najma and my brother Khaled with my grandparents. Abba was 33, Amma was 28. I was a ‘mistake’ and came later.

He was in pain, as he had been in since childhood. He was going to bear up. The hard part would be ours. As the ventilator pumped, I strained to find meaning in every little blip on the screen. The oxygen saturation was low. The blood pressure was erratic. The kidneys were not producing enough urine. At three in the morning, I asked the doctor if I should call the rest of the family, she didn’t look up, but simply nodded. Abba had been a legend in his lifetime, and the doctor, though too junior to have studied under him, knew who they were losing. My mother, sister her daughter who had earlier come over for a visit and stayed on, and Rahnuma, all came. They had been lucky. The streets were bare except for the military. No one ventured out unless they had to. They stumbled on to a baby taxi, and all five squeezed themselves in. It had been difficult for my mother to discuss my father’s wishes regarding treatment. We called the doctors, and my uncle Mannan, another doctor. He and Abba had been the closest of friends since they met some sixty years ago. My mother was amazingly strong. She reminded us that he hadn’t wanted heroics, that above all we must ensure that he died with dignity.

She never wanted the man she had been married to for fifty two years, to live a life other than he had wanted for himself. My mother knew what this would make her look like, and the assumptions people would draw, but she was clear about what she wanted and stuck to it. My sister and I supported her, the rest opposed, and many were appalled. That was when things slowly began to change. Though my dad continued to be on a life support machine, his blood pressure stabilised, the blood saturation went up. Twice when I called, he briefly opened his eyes. That was the last time he opened them. Later, when I called again, the eyes remained closed. I will never know if he really saw me when he opened his eyes. The doctors felt he could sustain it and began peritoneal dialysis. It was risky, as there would be great pressure on the heart but there was little else the doctors could do.

For one and a half days, the blood pressure remained steady. In the early hours of the morning, I sat by his bedside. I noticed that he would suck if water touched his lips. The eyes no longer opened when I called, but occasionally, when the morphine would wear out, the blood pressure reading on the monitor would go up when I called. It was as it deep inside he knew we were out there calling. The doctors said that he was ‘light’, almost ready to wake up. When I pushed against his feet, he pushed back. I began to dream again, and plan the many things that we would do that had been missed, the many things that had not been said, the questions that hadn’t been asked. I felt buoyant again. There was only one concern, his kidneys were not functioning.

As I left in the morning, thoughts were swirling around in my head. I almost didn’t notice the people who had stopped my rickshaw. The came and started attacking me with a knife. I tried warding off some of the blows and they ran off with my computers and my camera. As I returned from the hospital nursing the stitches in my hands and legs, my cousin came and told me that urine had collected in the bag. His kidneys were working! The hopes and the dreams came surging back.

The next day we kept monitoring the machines. I spoke again with my sister and mother. Surely we were not considering ‘pulling the plug’ as my uncle had once said with hurt on his face. No we were not. He was going to come round. We were going to get our father back. It was the day before my sister was to go back to London. Abba had an epileptic fit. I had felt that the doctors had been a bit rough while trying to get a catheter through, and that the stress may have caused it, it was one of  many thoughts that ran through my mind. At any rate, we felt it was a minor setback. But other complications set in. The blood pressure became erratic again, and at the end of the dialysis, the kidneys were no longer producing urine. Abba’s blood saturation dropped. The doctors pointed out a missed ventricular beat that was showing up on the oscillator. Up to six a minute was OK he said. I counted eleven, then eight, then twelve. Except for one doctor, a kindly man, who kept on giving us hope, the others wanted us to know what the situation was, and we were bitterly disappointed.

My sister delayed her trip to the airport as long as she could, but as she kissed my sleeping father goodbye, she too must have known that she would never see him again. The next day was a downhill slide. In the late hours of the afternoon, I stroked his hair, so soft and silvery, the skin so smooth. I saw his chest moving up and down with every pumping motion of the ventilator, and even though we all knew it was the machines that were keeping him alive he didn’t look ill or sickly, even with all the tubes stuck to him, and the ghastly pipe inserted in his throat. I noticed the silvery stubble that had grown in his normally clean-shaven face, and as I held his hands in mine, it did feel as if he knew I was holding them. Then I noticed the bluing of the fingertips. I took each fingertip and rubbed it to make the blood flow again. For the first time, I felt that he was cold, and in pain. I looked at the lines in his palm. In all these years I had never studied his features closely. The wrinkles in his skin, the folds of his hands, the shape of his feet. The soft skin of his belly. How often we had played on it as children. Towards evening, the blood pressure had gone way down.

Always in the past, he had responded to drugs and it had picked up again. This time it refused. The oxygen saturation was steadily dropping. Once or twice he momentarily stopped breathing, and  I held mine, but then he started breathing again. I borrowed the stethoscope, and heard a faint beat, and then a soft watery thud, and then another beat, so faint. And then the breathing stopped, but the heartbeat was still there, just a little blip. And then that too faded away. There was still a wave in the monitor. ‘Residual electrical impulse’ the doctor explained to me. It was eight O’clock. My uncle explained it to my mother. She quietly drew the sheet over his face.

My colleagues used to tease me about my bellowing laughter that I shared with my dad. Through my tears I remembered that easy laughter, that slow gait, the wistful look in his eyes. The needs of the moment brought me back. We needed an ambulance, his body (how heavy and limp that word sounded) needed to be taken home. He had to be bathed, funeral arrangements had to be made. I remember bathing him. The warm water we used to remove the small bits of clotted blood that had formed where so many syringes had penetrated. I remember lifting him so we could wash his back. I remember the firm flesh underneath the soft skin. How he would strain to lift himself in bed, willing those ageing muscles on. I remembered how we used to climb on his shoulders and slide down his belly. We washed him and then sprinkled rose water. The mollah put crystals of alum on his skin. They sparkled in the light of the bare bulb in the garage where we were bathing him. The dark shurma that he painted his eyelids with made them even more beautiful, and the beard was glistening white. We covered him with a clean white shroud, and lightly fastened the knot at the top of his head. I kissed his wet hair before tying the knot. Then we lifted him on to the blue khatia that had been brought in from the mosque, and carried him to the sitting room.

We would sit here in this room every night. Watching the news as we had dinner. He himself had built this house thirty years ago. The incense wafted through the air. People were filing past to see him for the last time.  My mother prayed. That night, when all the guests had gone, Rahnuma and I spread a blanket close to the khatia, and we lay on the floor next to him, as I had done on all the previous nights in the hospital. This night, I could sleep. There was nothing I had to watch out for. No doctor to call, no medicines to feed. Tonight he wouldn’t be restless. When we woke in the morning, there was a soft light in the garden. The garden was his pride. He would slowly stroll through, checking each plant, measuring the fruits to make sure they were growing…


Letter I’d written earlier to Pedro Meyer

The Last Goodbye

Author: Shahidul Alam

Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.”

9 thoughts on “Abba”

  1. I lost my parents long time back, did not even see them when they left this world, I was abroad still I’m… It’s really hard to see them go away. All I can wish say may Allah grant him janna, give you all patiences.

  2. Shahidul you words inspired me to write about my time when my dad left. Just today I was thinking how early he left. How happy he would be now looking at me, my son and my sister’s his blued eyed daughter’s children! I wouldnt have understand these things even one year ago but now its different.thank you.

    1. It was the 20th February 1996, and I remember it to the hour. I am sure you do too. We’ve been going through a difficult time, so writing has taken a back seat. Knowing it makes a difference to someone will help me get back into the groove. Thank you.

  3. Well said! Couldn’t have done any better. Pictured the whole story live in my mind as I read, it touched my heart & I bet it touched many others. You inspired me & reminded me of the recent father that DRIK lost, dear Irfan.

  4. If I didn’t say this I would’ve felt guilty…
    Assalamualaikum wr wb,
    Dear Alam Bhai,
    I pray you & DRIK family are in best of health & Imaan.
    It’s been over 2 months we still have no answers for death of our dear Irfanul Islam. We really need to think about it, does it really make sense of his death? He went to bank as always withdrawing money for DRIK & disappeared in the bright day light. I understand it’s not unusual someone to disappear in day light from place like Bangladesh. But Dear Irfan’s death is not like any other.
    We all know dear Irfan were a man of honor, patience and humility. He took so much pride in being at Drik. It was his life
    Above of all Irfan had no enemy. He left us with his everlasting smile & amiable personality. He sacrificed his family and personal time to protect everything at Drik. What a high price to pay for loyalty and commitment?
    His super humility & dedication no words & no money can buy or compensate.
    It’s really upsetting to know how within 2-3 hours his life was taken away.
    I have been thinking about his death for some time. Today it stirred me by remembering Fathers Day that was celebrated by all through out the nation. I wish I had a comforting word for Umam but couldn’t find any. Instead my thoughts turned toward Irfan’s death thinking how it really happened.
    I have a feeling his death was planned & he wasn’t killed for this little amount of money. There is something bigger than the money. Those who disappeared Irfan from in front of the bank definitely were well prepared to take Irfan’s life. I have a feeling the killers killed him right after they took Irfan inside the micro. Their job was nothing but kill him and they were compensated with the 3 hundred thousand taka Irfan withdrew from the bank.
    Only DRIK employees knew Irfan went to withdraw money from the bank.
    Is there something that Irfan knew inside the DRIK that is supposed to be hidden?
    DRIK was Irfan’s first home rather second. Irfan would do anything to protect DRIK. Maybe he heard or saw something that happened within DRIK in the Account department as he worked in the department. Was his life was taken for that?
    I think someone in DRIK made it all happen, but God knows who.
    When Irfan disappeared from in front of the bank I sent messages on that day & the following days to DRIK. I received reply from DRIK of my first message & rest of my messages were deleted from DRIK site & I was blocked by DRIK. It was really sad.
    I was really upset of what had happened but I stayed patient. On April 4th I have learned why DRIK deleted my messages & they have done it in the past with others as well.
    I think one should investigate inside DRIK to find out how did this all happen. From whom the outsiders knew Irfan was going to withdraw money? Who is giving out personal information of DRIK?
    It’s been a while, I was hoping something will come out, killers will be brought to justice & those who let it happen.
    Dear Umam is fatherless. It’s really sad to know how Umam & his mother passing their days. May Allah protect them & guides all of us to do our responsibility. If we really have sincere love for Irfan we can bring the killers to justice.
    Take care.
    All the best!

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