Gratitude In The Shadow Of A Momentous Loss

Cancer took my wife, Uzma this year. Many dreams died with her. Her solo aspirations and our shared ones. All went, poof! Come to think of it, these dreams died in 2017. By then, it was clear she was not going to be one of the lucky ones who get to live many years with stage 4 breast cancer. But this year, those dreams were finally laid to rest.

When some dreams die, years later, one looks back and says, “I am grateful that didn’t work out. Because of that not working out this more amazing thing, that was better for me, in the long run, worked out.” I don’t believe such a retrospective reappraisal of a loss of a loved one and shared dreams is possible. Even if it were possible, I don’t think anyone would fault me for not experiencing this form of gratitude quite yet.

I am not mad at the fates for taking Uzma away. Uzma never once asked, at least aloud, that I can recall, “Why me?” She once said, “About 150,000 people die every day around the world; what not me?” Of those 150,000, about one third die young. Just because I am not mad at destiny doesn’t mean I have to be grateful for it.

Yet, Thanksgiving is here. It is an annual reminder to exercise gratitude, one of the key acts that can help one live a better life.  So, this Thanksgiving, what do I feel grateful for?

First of all, destiny, luck, fate, I take it back. I am indeed grateful to you for having brought us — Uzma and me — together. Without you, there is no way that a person belonging to the Kashmiri Pandit community, a community ethnically cleansed out of their homeland by Pakistan-sponsored and trained terrorists, would ever have met an actual person from Pakistan. Without you, we would not have been in love. Our marriage wouldn’t be a thing. Our kids, us in the house we are in, none of this would exist. Yes, like the gods in some greek myth, you extracted a heavy price for giving us all that. But it allowed for Uzma to become part of me. For that, I am grateful.

Second, I am grateful to Uzma. I know you can no longer hear me. You loved me back. You loved me even for my quirks, not despite them. All the times we spent in each other’s arms, in moments of joy and sorrow, and moments of just being, those are all memories I am thankful for. I am grateful for the two amazing kids we have together. I am grateful for your voice in my head that will forever be there telling me things.

You used to help me appear as having a better sense of style and fashion than comes naturally to me. And how to improve a particular presentation. To take care of myself emotionally and physically. And about the importance of social niceties  — they are not there to make life difficult; they are there to help strangers become friends. Your love and voice will always be with me. For that, I am grateful.

Third, I am grateful for my amazing parents and extended family. In the 1990s, when Uzma and I met, we were still reeling from the ethnic cleansing of our community from our homeland in that same decade. Naturally, all of you had reservations about Uzma and me. Yet, not one of you rejected me. And you welcomed Uzma into the family with love. Uzma used to say, “Your family is too filmy!”

This was a reference to those idolized families depicted in many feel-good Bollywood movies. Of course, over the years, she would learn that we have our own dysfunctions and flaws like all ordinary families. However, her initial impression speaks to how welcome she felt. You were by our side when she joined us, and you with us when she left. And both times and many times in between with so much love. For that, I am grateful.

Fourth, I am grateful for those in Uzma’s extended family who accepted us together without judgment. This was as hard, if not harder, for them as it was for my family. Their religion explicitly forbade a union like ours, where each half of the couple kept their own faith. And of course, they are as affected by the geopolitics of South Asia as my family is. Yet, there were those among you who accept us and love us without judgment. When her closest family members shunned her, you are the ones who sustained her more than you can imagine. For that, I am grateful.

Fifth, I am grateful for all those friends Uzma brought into our life together. Uzma had a knack for turning strangers into friends. Recently I saw a book for sale called “Superattractor.” I don’t know what that book is about, but that title reminded me of Uzma. She was a superattactor. Students from college, coworkers, neighbors, people she met in classes she took to develop her hobbies, folks she connected with on facebook and in all other walks of life, became her friends. She was also a “superkeeper”. She kept friends for life. Many of those friends are in our lives even after Uzma is gone. If friends are family you choose, thank you for choosing us. It can’t be easy without the superattractor around. For that, I am grateful.

Sixth, I am grateful for my employer and my colleagues at work. My work-family is incredibly supportive. I never had to think twice about taking time off to be with Uzma for her planned appointments or unplanned procedures. Work is where we spend at least one-third of our life. My colleagues, work-friends and my bosses who were just there for me. There’s just no other way to describe it. For that, I am grateful.

Seventh, I am grateful for all the readers of Uzma’s blog and book who write to tell me how her book helps them cope with their own cancer journey or loss journey. It shows me why she really wanted to get the book out there. That you all take time to let me know of its impact is amazing. For that, I am grateful.

Finally, I am grateful for the United States of America. Despite all its flaws, America remains one of the best places to live in the world. It has some of the most big-hearted and open-minded people. Yes, I don’t like the current dispensation and what it stands for. But it is our political representative. But it does not represent everything that the majority of Americans are. I am thankful to those Americans. You gave me a chance to live and build a life here. Without you, Uzma and I would never have met. Without you, we would not have this best among all family celebrations — Thanksgiving, the only holiday that celebrates gratitude without any obligated religious rituals.

And while we should all be practicing gratitude year-round, Thanksgiving is this — an annual reminder to focus the mind on this essential activity.

For all of it, I am grateful.

(Featured image by j_lloa at Pixabay)

Lucky

It is impossible to avoid reflecting on my life with Uzma as I work on the book proposal for Left Boob Gone Rogue: My Life With Breast Cancer. Many years ago, my first and only proposal — not a book proposal — was when I asked Uzma to if she would marry me.

I was nervous. I couldn’t believe I was doing it. Not just popping the big question. But taking the risk to propose to a woman who was not just beautiful, smart and a go-getter, but whose national and faith background would make it an interesting journey should she say yes. Well, you’ all know what happened.

I am a complete novice about the book business and have never written a book proposal before. This should be an easier done than that long-ago proposal. Because Uzma is by my side. I am not writing this alone. The book is already done. In print. Writing the proposal is hard because it needs to include a sort of a competitive analysis of other cancer memoirs. I have avoided reading cancer memoirs since Uzma got diagnosed in 2013. I felt no emotional need to read them while bearing witness to Uzma’s cancer journey.

So I finally read a couple. I was right to not read them before. Yet, strange as it feels to say this while steeped in sorrow and in a puddle of tears — I feel lucky!

Artists and poets are better at expressing emotions because they are better at listening to the emotions that we hide behind our words, faces and body language. Uzma, an artist and a poet, from whom none of my emotions, whether good, bad, or ugly, were hidden, loved me for the rest of her life. I feel lucky!

Social media is intuitively blamed for many ills. It is blamed for increasing isolation. It takes keeping up with the Joneses to quite another level. Uzma showed me, from up close, how social media can be for a force for good, helping us build new relationships and strengthen old ones. I feel lucky!

It’s not easy to be a Pakistani woman marrying an Indian man. It’s even harder to be a Muslim woman and choose an interfaith marriage. Uzma ignored the imagined boundaries of nations and faiths and loved me for the rest of her life. I feel lucky!

Living with stage 4 cancer is a nerve-wracking experience. Yet Uzma showed us how to do with humor, grace, and gratitude. And I had a front-row seat to her show. I feel lucky!

At this moment in time, I don’t see how I will ever overcome the grief of her loss. She showed me how to love deeply even if it hurts. Such an incredibly smart, beautiful and loving woman accepted my proposal and chose me as the love of her life many years ago. Even in the depths of my sorrow, I feel lucky!

There are many challenges ahead. Raising resilient kids alone after such an ominous loss is the biggest one. But today, as I complete our — Uzma and mine — joint proposal and prepare to click ‘send,’ I feel lucky! And grateful. And hopeful. 


Uzma Yunus, MD, the creator of this blog died on Jan 30, 2019. About three months before her death, she published her book Left Boob Gone Rogue: My Life With Breast Cancer, which as of this writing has 181 reviews on Amazon, each one of them a 5-star review. Her husband, Dheeraj Raina, MD, now maintains this blog