In today’s article I shall write about this life and the hereafter as I have come to reflect on it because a dear friend became ill, was treated but didn’t become better, and then in the early autumn, it all turned into serious and terminal illness, ending with the last weeks spent in the intensive care unit in Islamabad’s best hospital. I shall write about the passing of a particularly close friend, Dr. Barbara Ayisha Mustafa (77). To write about her helps me grieve, show respect, honour a unique life, and make us all think about this life and the hereafter.

Much in Ayisha’s life was unpredictable and seemingly unplanned. A close friend suggested that as we drove back to town from the burial last Wednesday; how little she and we all know about life’s journey at the outset. We spoke about how rewarding it was for Ayisha and those she met on her way, and when all work was done, she won the life crown and passed on into God’s hands. The only thing, though, should be that she could have stayed with us much longer, as she indeed had wanted.

Ayisha was an American by birth, but she became more and more a Pakistani at heart after over thirty years in her late husband’s land. She became one of Major Mustafa’s wives, and a member of his beautiful family, with children and grandchildren. Of course, she was also very American in many ways, and certainly untraditional in most ways. That she took the name Ayisha, was a symbol of independence. She didn’t follow an A4 blueprint for life. Maybe it wasn’t as much deliberate, but a lot was also done with specific goals and objectives in mind; first, she had a career in teaching in USA, and later, she completed her Ph.D. degree in education at a mature age, in the midst of her parents’ and husband’s illnesses. She carried out research on the history and development of Allama Iqbal Open University, the second oldest such university in the world, after Britain’s OU, and it resulted in a dissertation of close to five hundred pages, submitted at an America university, where she had studied earlier.

One unusual thing about Ayisha, being an American, was that she was a Muslim before she met her Pakistani husband-to-be; as a matter of fact, that was why they had met in the Mid-West of USA, in a city north of Chicago in the state of Wisconsin. Although having grown up in a culturally Christian and largely German/Scandinavian/European community, religion was never spoken about in her home, she told me. She said that when she formally became a Muslim, that was actually her first religion. She said that she was always a Muslim, not a convert.

Ayisha’s daughter, Patricia, from her first marriage in USA, now a Swiss national by marriage, came to Islamabad to be with her mother during her last days, and she could attend the burial in E-11, the Qul prayers a few days later, and many gatherings when friends and relatives came to offer condolences and show respect. Her son Rick could not come from USA since he did not have travel documents in hand. But he communicated with his sister using modern technology, and as a deeply religious man, a Christian, he may have felt that geographical distance did not separate him from his mother’s dearest friends, her late husband’s family and his sister, although we missed him in person in Islamabad. Perhaps he can come at an upcoming wedding in the family, at the peak season for such events before this year ends?

Dr. Barbara Ayisha Mustafa passed away a week ago yesterday. Everything related to the passing was done fast and efficiently according to Muslim traditions; well, the speed was indeed American, I thought! Ayisha was given a beautiful send-off; friends and relatives were given time and opportunity to meet, grieve together, and share memories, also lighter ones, from Ayisha’s life. Even a memorial service was held, organized by Ayisha’s ‘adopted son’, if not de jure at least de facto. Shahbaz was the manager of her house, she used to say, without whom it would have been difficult to sort out all practical and financial issues, and handle things while in Pakistan and when she made longer trips to USA. Ayisha had taken special pleasure in supporting Shahbaz from he was a skinny teenager till he now is in his 40s, and has become a more ‘rounded man’, with both a BA degree, and an MA in peace and conflict studies. Ayisha and Shahbaz’ mother, living in one of Islamabad’s Christian colonies, would be proud of him, and now also of his children, who continue to receive education support from the ‘rich American’; she wasn’t that rich anyway, she used to underline, but her pension and husband’s provisions kept her going at a fair standard. She wasn’t overspending, and her daughter reminded me the other day that they had a ‘family thing’ to be quite frugal stewards of what they had. But Ayisha had a big heart and a controlling eye on her flock, yes, as a good mother and grandmother, and a former successful teacher. Besides, she wanted to be independent and self-sufficient staying in her own house, not in any relative’s home in Pakistan or USA, yet, being close to them all.

We grieved Ayisha’s passing at several events last week, but we also realized that since she was so ill towards the end, it was best for her to be allowed to cross the bridge to the land of eternity, to the land where roses never fade, where the ‘first things’ are gone, where there is no more suffering or illness, sadness or despair, where there is only joy and happiness - as the holy books say. The artificial life support was actually used longer than she had said she wanted. Reflecting on that, we also realize that when a dear friend or relative passes on, or a anyone for that matter, we miss the one who has left us, yes, the one who has gone before us, as we will all go one day cross the bridge. We are sorry for ourselves more than the one who has indeed fought the ‘last enemy’, as death is sometimes called, and has reached the ‘land where roses never fade’. We have the right to grieve and feel sad, and also feel that the one who has gone could have stayed longer. If we are believers, we know that it is all in God’s hands, and we know so little about when it will happen to any of us.

There is a religious hymn describing heaven as the ‘land where we’ll never grow old’. You may remember it; it is both a religious and a popular tune. It is beautiful, yet, it isn’t bad to grow old either. We say we don’t want to grow old. But do we really mean that? I also think that the ‘golden years’ can be a good time of life, as long as we are fairly healthy, and have peace with God and people. I am on my way towards that time in life myself, and I reflect more on it than before, also perhaps because I talk more to people my own age, people who have lived for a while. Some of them are also foreigners who have come to live in Pakistan, and have stayed on after they have become widows or widowers. They have made Pakistan the land where they found love, where they love to live till they are called to the eternal home. And let me add, as we grow older, we also notice and cherish the presence of young people around us, with all their energy, restlessness, creativity, and sometimes lack of wisdom, which we old ones think we can offer. It was only after I had lived for a while that I realized the importance of people around us different ages, which we all pass through, if we are given the opportunity to live to grow old.

Let me end my article today – which was not meant to be a eulogy, but it has some resemblance of that – by quoting a poem by one of Norway’s most distinguished poets of the twentieth century, namely Olav H. Hauge. I came to know of him because Ayisha discovered him; yes, he wrote in Norwegian, but then he was translated into English by fellow American poets. It was perhaps only when he had been recognised in USA that also the Norwegians realized opened their eyes to his greatness; sometimes it helps if someone from a little land is given prominence in a big land and a world language!

The poem I will use today is called ‘Din veg’, ‘Your Path’, and I found it in one of Ayisha’s books with a flower sticker marking the page.

“No one has marked the path you must walk,

Into the unknown, into the distance

This is your path; only you shall walk it.

And there is no turning back.

Nor shall you mark the path.

And the wind will erase your tracks

Through the mountain wilderness”

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.