You have influential friends whose presence changes your life and you have taken-for-granted friends whose absence changes your life. And sometimes, they are the same person, the same friend, in-and-out of your life as you drift in-and-out of their presence.
You try to make sure that the last thing you remember is not a scene in a hospital bed. Of a bloated body, of a bed with tubes, and IV feeders, and pots and pans and machines that substitute the lung, the heart and every other vital organ. Of blood and bruises. You try to make sure that you hold on to your memory. You play back scenes, you visualize faces and places and common hobbies: movies, books, beauty.
He calls, you call but not as frequent as he should, not as frequent as you should because time is infinite, or so you think. There is always tomorrow, always next month, always next year. You plot, you plan, you chart a life of CD, IRAs, mutual funds, timetables, five-year plans, but the Architect of the Universe has His own plans, and He is not sharing. He giveth; He taketh and He owes no one an explanation.
Plans get in the way, distance gets in the way, families get in the way, geography gets in the way, ambition gets in the way and politics get in the way. Separate people, separate lives and the conversations get less frequent and their contents…polite, like a conversation among strangers.
But there was a time, when the conversation was unguarded, and from the heart…
You are an Eritrean; he is an Eritrean. You say you are a patriot; he says he is a patriot. What is a patriot, anyway? It has to do with feelings and passions and caring for THE COUNTRY. Your people, your land. And how does one express patriotism? Work for peace, first. Work for stability, work for justice. Work for progress, work for the betterment of the life of your people.
But how? That is where you differ. You have ideas; he has ideas. You argue, you clash, but you are friends. Maybe there is a way to get through to him; maybe there is a way to get through to you. You are friends, after all. So you are saying, he says, so you are saying that the role of a patriot is to push for war? Who is pushing for war? You say. It is not war; it is a defensive war, a justified war. A war to save annihilation from someone hell-bent on destroying you. Name me one war which was not a “defensive war”, he says. You mention books; he quarrels, he dismisses your examples. Then you seek the refuge of something more neutral: questions of family, friends, articles, movies.
But the movie takes you back to politics because, well, because you are an Eritrean afflicted with the “eritrean syndrome” of all politics all the time. So, in the middle of the conversation he does a (bad) impersonation of a British woman and asks, “Do You Think It Is All For The Good Of The Country?” Of course you’d laugh, because you are a friend and you know what he is talking about.
It is a scene from a movie, a British movie. It is a movie you have seen together no fewer than a dozen times. The move is called “The Meaning of Life.” Actually, the full name of the movie is “Monty Python’s: The Meaning of Life”, a movie version of their comedy skits. In one scene, government officials knock on the door of a residence, the head of the household opens the door, and the conversation goes something like this:
Government Officials: We are here for your liver.
Man: But I am using it!
Government officials pin the man against the open door, pull out his wallet, and from the wallet, a card and then:
Government officials (flashing a card): What is this?
Man: It is a liver-donor card that I signed.
Government officials: Need we say more?
Then the government officials drag the man to his kitchen, pin him down on the kitchen table, and take out his liver with a butcher knife. While the man is bleeding, the government officials approach his wife to explain what they are doing. “It is all for the good of the country, then?” she asks. “We wouldn’t know, ma’am, we are just doing our job,” one of the officials responds. This is followed by a song routine where they give her a tour of the universe to convince her how insignificant her life is, which is then followed by a pitch:
Government official (to the woman): Can we have your liver, then?
Woman: Alright, then.
Your friend says that the war of defense is as ridiculous as killing someone to take his liver so you can “save” others who need liver. You disagree, you argue, and then you seek refuge in some other conversation, like jobs and careers. You nag him about his choices; he reassures you about this thing or the other. Insha Allah. But you know it is temporary.
So you talk about writers and Eritrean intellectuals and politics and articles and websites and his theories about who is the masked man behind that pen name. And then you start conversations that begin with “Remember when….” because you know you share the past, but none of the present. You talk about Keren and Asmara and Kessela and Bringi cigarettes and the precise exile of former friends and acquaintances. He was about to write an article, respond to this writer, but you know how it is, no time. You understand how it is. He likes this article; he doesn’t like that one; he is not sure he understands the other. Another fan of languages: he wants to know the origin of a word you used in a radio interview. You hazard guesses, he rejects them. He offers Arabic proverbs, Tigre sayings for your next use. You laugh, insha Allah, you move on.
You talk about rungs and ladders but you sense him drifting and then when he has his fill of your propaganda about the corporate world and what it takes to “get ahead”, he quotes a devastating line from Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”:
“Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.”
Ilyich had gone to all the right schools, behaved in all the right ways and kept all the right company but, in the end, he succumbed to illness and, in his death bed, reviewing his life, came to the conclusion that his programmed life was false and his only happy moments were of his childhood, but he cannot recall them because “the enthusiasms of childhood and youth passed without leaving much trace on him.” Successful by the standards of Russian society, he nonetheless dies unhappy and lonely, misunderstood by his family, abandoned by the upper class he tried so hard to please.
Not for the friend, the life of corporations and 8-5 jobs and mid-level managers and bosses and the office politics. He goes to a job interview for a corporate job and the interviewer struggles with his name: Abdulhay Mohammed Geta Abdulhay. What do you go by, can I call you Abdul, asks the interviewer, harmlessly. Harmless, by Anglo-Saxon standards, that is. Every immigrant society had to Anglicize their name in America. There is Mike for Michael, Gabe for Gebre, Sal for Saleh, Tes for Tesfamariam. And so on. But the friend is defiant. No, you may not call me Abdul, he says. If you have no problem saying “Arnold Schwarzenegger” why would you have a problem with Abdulhay Abdulhay.
And so he drove a cab. And he was driving a cab on August 31, Sunday morning at 2:00 AM on Pacific Coast Highway, in Huntington Beach, California. He was stopped, unloading passengers when a driver rear-ended him. In critical condition, he was admitted to UCI Medical Center where his body put up a fight…
And so you fly home. Everybody survives accidents; you did. Doctors are always exaggerating the odds, probably terrified of malpractice suits. He will survive, you just hope it is not a life of pain. Then you will visit back and say, “Asenbidkana!” But thank God, you will say. It was a warning from God, you will try to convince him, and then peddle whatever formula for change you are peddling…Now that you have survived this, it is time to get married, it is time to change, it is time to settle down, it is time…
But it was time, and the doctors were not exaggerating. When the machine that was breathing for him, and the machine that was pumping blood for him wanted to return the functions to their rightful owners, the lung and the heart and the other organs failed. And so exactly a week later, on Sunday morning, September 7, 2003 at 2:00 AM, Abdulhay Mohammed Geta Abdulhay, died due to cardiorespiratory failure.
He was only 38.
A man who loved to laugh, to talk, to argue, to debate to the point of contrariness; a man allergic to any dogma, would talk no more.
And you seek solace, for the answer of the faithless to death is mechanical. Death visited randomly. Or, as the heavy metal band Motorhead–he never understood why you listen to that “trash”–used to sing it: “Killed By Death.” And you go to the faith of your fathers and mothers: We are of Him; and to Him we shall return. This gives death purpose and you must cling to purpose for randomness is too frightening. You find yourself mouthing words like ajel and fate and praising God for taking the life of a friend for reasons you are too fragile to understand. And you receive reassurance from the pious and exchange condolences with family and friends and, in hushed tones, you say had you known that the last time you talked to him, you saw him was the last one, for sure you would have done things differently, you would have lingered a bit more; you would have been kinder, you would have, you could have, you should have…
At least you would have saved his last message on your voice mail.
Because you don’t want your last memory of him to be in a hospital bed. You replay your memories. Of an adventurous drive
You will remember him for obsessively playing one song (Dylan’s “Man gave names to all the animals”) from a collection of CDs and two movies (Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” and “Meaning of Life”) from a collection of VCRs. in 1988 to Yosemite Park in an ‘82 Camaro. Why are we doing this, he says, when the ’82 Camaro’s gas tank whistles ominously and threatens imminent doom. But then once at your destination, you climb atop a cliff, surrounded by majestic Yosemite and all is forgiven. And he philosophizes that this proves that a goal can never be explained by the journey towards the goal. More reason to argue.
You will remember the Jebha-Shabia debates of the late 70s and the reversal of roles of the 1990s. Of youthful indiscretions and attempted salvations. Of life in the Sudan, then and now. Of spirituality and literature; of Egypt and the Sudan; of women and songs; of marriages and almost-marriages; of the absurdity of compensating for a balding head by growing a pony tail and a full beard; of greying hair, aching muscles and symptoms of “old age,” while nowhere near old age.
He dies, you live, it is all random. With a purpose, of course, you hasten to add. You live and you are more alert. More alert to traffic, more alert to life. You witness an accident in the freeway; it is now heartbreaking, not just a nuisance delaying you. Did more people die that week or you are just more alert to them? There was Johnny Cash who once sang about “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” now offering us his “kingdom of dirt.” Abdulhay would have gleaned some lesson from it. There was John Ritter from a popular show that nobody admits to watching, about the life of a wild swinger, more recently a father dictating rules about how to date his daughters. And there was Warren Zevon joining the victims of his “Werewolf in London.” All dead. And had it happened to someone else, Abdulhay certainly would have found some creative way to connect them all because we are all connected.
Dead as well are the nameless by the hundreds and thousands in far-flung places, all, no doubt, in “wars of defense” that their political leaders dispatched them to.
War will one day be seen the way slavery is seen now, he’d say, the way infanticide is seen now. What a dreamer, what an idealist, you would say.
And after the burial ceremonies, you fight back breakdown, and you are driving around and a song comes on the radio… “Please, Mr. Gravedigger.”
It is no use fighting back.
And after that, the search for meaning. So time is finite, and it should be spent in the company of family and friends…And any power, and any temptation that denies you that, is a force you should fight against.
And cometh September 18. And the rage is renewed.