He stood there, in a black trench coat, a black kufi, a black dress shirt, and a black tie. Whiter than me, it seemed, maybe because he was wearing black on black, or perhaps because, as I would find out later, he didn’t like being out in the sun because it hurt his eyes. An unexpected encounter, to say the least. Little did I know then that 9 years later I would be reliving it so vividly.
It was 1999, and his name was Seth Carney, but he introduced himself as ‘Abd al-Hakeem (“The Servant of the Wise”). I was really excited to meet him, another white convert to Islam. After that initial encounter, we would often spend long nights together, talking about Islam, politics, comparative religions, philosophy, and so much more. He used to show up outside my window at midnight, and we’d drive to Dunkin Donuts for a late night snack: sometimes donuts, sometimes an egg and cheese, and he usually drank apple juice. We’d go back to his apartment in East Providence. Books everywhere. Heidegger, al-Ghazali, and everything in between.
One night, he said I had to watch this movie called the Big Lebowski. He explained to me how there were all these references to his alma mater, Simon’s Rock (a sort of high school/college in the Berkshires), in the movie. I loved it, and have probably watched it 20 times since then. Every time it makes me think of him. Tonight I watched it again, for the first time since I learned about his death in 2007.
By the end of the movie, I had tears streaming down my face. The hardest part about loving people is the pain that we feel at their absence. The more we care, and the more open we are, the more it hurts. I wish I could see Seth again. If I had known that time I visited Chicago when he was in Wisconsin was the last time we could have met in this life, I would have driven out in the middle of the night to see him one last time. But I thought I had time. We always do.
As much as I have faith that God is real and that the life after death is real, death is a test. To know with absolute certainty that you will never see someone again in this life forces us to be honest with ourselves. Do we really think we could see them again? Do we really think we could see their face shining back at us, and throw our arms around them in an embrace that fills the void in our hearts? It is my hope, and it is my faith, but right now, loss is real.
This weekend began with so much happiness and fun I could hardly handle it, and it was the people that made it special. Such wonderful people. As the weekend progressed, I kept feeling a creeping sense of loneliness, as I palpably experienced the truism that all good things must come to an end. And now it ends with the remembrance of Seth.
It would have been easier to be cold. It would have been easier to not develop a friendship with him. It would have been easier not to share myself, and my dreams, and my fears. It would have been easier to say, “No thanks, I don’t want to go out with you in the middle of the night and eat donuts and discuss contemporary Islamic thought and stay up til fajr and then go to the masjid and then have you drive me home.” It would have been so much easier. But I would have missed so much. I wouldn’t trade those days for anything.
So, despite tonight’s outpouring of emotion, I’ll wake up tomorrow in that familiar way. With that feeling that I am strong, and that I have absorbed the pain into my being, and that it’s time to move forward. The bond that Seth and I shared was based on the fact that we both worshipped the Living One who does not die, and He has decreed that my story is not yet over. There is still something for me here.
But we own nothing, not even our selves. We can no more hold onto those we love than we can hold onto our own lives. On Fridays, we can be open to what the world may hold in store for us, and drink it in. But on Sundays, on nights like tonight, we have to be willing to let it go. But we can at the very least, on nights like tonight, take the time to say to those who are in our hearts: “I love you. If I knew tonight was the last chance we had to see each other in this life, I’d drop everything and drive all night to get to you before sunrise.” May an angel of mercy carry my message to you as a gift from across the distance that separates us.
Hasbuna Allahu wa ni’ma al-wakeel (“God is sufficient for us and the best Disposer of Affairs”)