I am sad, especially because like my mother-in-law, he had dementia, which made it impossible for him to respond to me when I emptied out my heart of gratitude as he lay on his deathbed. I did it anyway. I believe that the heart remembers even when disease commits such a grave theft.
I leaned in closer than I had ever been to him before, after I’d held his hand for a few minutes, something else I had never done. Up until those few moments, and for all but a short time before he died, he was surrounded by loved ones who prayed around the clock. I prayed too, then, and a few days after he died at the mosque where he worshipped.
I think I have also been unable to write because I don’t like sharing feelings that are intensely personal via these electronic mediums of communication. Also, it is difficult to put into words that which is beautiful.
But I want to write about him because there is so much focus these days on what divides us.
Along with his wife, he showed me great love. They may not have held me as a baby in a church as water was poured on my head and prayers of initiation were said, but they have held me in their hearts for years so much so that they might as well have carried me into that Brooklyn church. They loved me and took care of me. Actually, they couldn’t have brought me to church and held me over the baptismal font because the rules of organized religion would not, and do not permit it. I am a Catholic and they are Muslim. Well, in many ways he was one of the most Christian men I have known because he believed the same thing that my Bible says – that God is love. Perhaps he thought that in some ways I was like a good Muslim.
He helped guide my steps and reinforced what my Mami and Papi have taught me – that loving and serving others are the measure of a life well lived – and so I believe that he was my godfather for the almost 40 years that I knew him.
He was a humble man, one of the things I so liked about him. A man of faith, he never judged, nor did he focus on what divided us, only on what made us human and how he could help men, women, entire families. He believed that we are put on this earth to take care of one another, to nurture one another, and to literally make a home for one another, a spiritual and physical one. He and my godmother helped hundreds, by among other things, welcoming them into their Queens home in the neighborhood where his daughter and I grew to become the best of friends.
On this day which would have been his 80th birthday, I pay tribute to him and to all men and women who believe that what the world really needs is what he embodied – love, mercy and peace.