When I was twenty-one, I spent a few summer months with one of my mother’s younger sisters – or khallahs as I know my maternal aunts – in New Jersey. She was bravely battling with a renewed onslaught of cancer, a battle she would ultimately and tragically lose, but at that time there was still hope. I decided to go and stay with her to offer support, an extra pair of hands and legs to help out, and some company as she was (largely) home and (occasionally) out. There was some cosmic symmetry to this: when I was born, she came to London for a few months to help my mum with me (I was a handful from the outset, I suppose), and we formed an attachment. I grew up visiting my relatives in the US, and through my child’s eyes saw her go from young, beautiful, single aunt to married and more responsible aunt, who won the respect and admiration of her somewhat snobby in-laws through her grace and gentle manner.
In that warm summer, I went to help her, but I believe that she helped me more than I did her. My heart was freshly broken from my first immersion into love, and I was bruised and confused. She kindly and patiently waited until I shared some of my pain with her, and offered some words of support, and also tough words that forced me to wake up.
I was fortunate enough to spend those days in her company, and sometimes we would talk for hours. There was a beautiful park she loved, and sometimes we would go there and share thoughts. I often think of what she said to me: some were words of profound wisdom, the full import of which I would not get until later in my life. She was connected to nature, and to God, and as the scarcity of life became an increasingly looming threat, she also reflected on what it was to live, and shared some of that with me. What has stayed with me is:
- Forgive, and don’t hold on to anger towards anybody. It can cause you physical illness and mental pain, so just be good to yourself and let it go.
- That guy is not the right guy for you, let it go (she was right, and I did – after years of self-inflicted repression. That was advice that became a prophetic warning).
- Enjoy small pleasures, and include them in your life – be it going out for coffee by yourself, a walk in the park, reading a book. Delight in these things, they are daily, simple blessings.
- Don’t over-romanticise things and get attached to them, making them out to mean more than they do. I remember how she used admiring a full moon as an example, or any aspect of nature – admire it, be thankful for seeing it, and then let it go. Otherwise you get yourself tangled in a meaning that doesn’t really exist.
- If you have to change him or adjust too much, don’t marry him. (This advice is my guiding light).
- Maybe this was a lesson we learned together, but I learned it in her presence…don’t mix up faith in God with expectation of Him. It is common to turn to Him in prayer and make requests of Him, and then think that He’s ‘got’ to answer our prayer because we believe in Him; we expect Him to do as we’ve asked. But that’s not belief in God for His own sake, but for our own. It’s conditional, and if our prayer doesn’t get answered (in the way we were expecting), then we get disappointed, even angry. However, we’re missing the Omnipotence and Greatness of God, who acts with omniscience that far dwarfs what we think we know. It diminishes Him to be subject to our expectation. He acts as He wills; He hears all prayers and responds to them as He knows how to. Faith and trust in Him supersedes expectation.
This last lesson was a really profound one for me, and changed the way I related to God from then on.
There is a tradition in Pakistani culture where a newborn is given a tiny taste of honey by a relative or close friend of the family; it is said that with that gesture, they pass on some of their characteristics to the baby. My aunt – or khallah (mother’s sister) – gave me this taste of honey, and I like to think I have some of her in me. I think those words planted the seeds of her wisdom in me, that would come to blossom and bear fruit in time.