Johanna

It would have been my friend Jo’s birthday today. She passed away too young, in 2007. This is more or less what I wrote after her funeral.

Bye Jo

My friend Johanna died recently. She wasn’t yet 40. Today, I attended her funeral service near Richmond.

i met Johanna at Dr. Valabhji’s (brilliant diabetologist, the man I credit with saving my life and extending it) clinic last year. I noticed her immediately, because she was having difficulty sitting down and she appeared to be unusually young for a person with absolutely zero eyesight.

I don’t usually start up conversations with people. You could say I go to some lengths to keep myself to myself. I keep a very small circle of friends, I prefer small groups and my favourite form of friendship is one-to-one.

For some reason, I felt drawn to talk to Jo. Sometimes I break all my own rules for no obvious reason and start conversations with people. It doesn’t happen often. It’s just this feeling. A voice (my voice, of course) telling me that this opportunity cannot be passed up. I struggled with the worry that I was going to start talking just because she was blind. Then I thought, “am I not talking to her just because she is?”

Somebody else was telling her about the electronic eye implant recently mentioned in the news. Such do-gooders make me feel uncomfortable. He was insensitive, perhaps tactless, and how was he to know that Jo didn’t have her own eyes in which to put such devices in anyway? No thanks to diabetes…

So I stopped the buffoon from talking any more crap by butting in at a convenient moment and letting her know where her stick was without touching her arm. People who have lost their sight don’t like to be led. Imagine being blindfolded and then kicked down the stairs, that’s how uncomfortable it is.

We talked about our diabetes. Hers had gone thanks to a combined kidney/pancreas transplant, but not before she had completely lost her eyes and a few toes to the ravages of this pernicious disease. Unfortunately, the kidney had failed and she was on dialysis.

We exchanged numbers. Her ‘phone spoke text messages and phone numbers to her. She hadn’t quite got used to it, but did her best and she never learned braille because she had very little sensation in her fingertips thanks again, to diabetes.

She was remarkably phlegmatic. I feel bad describing her as a list of ills. I do so only to point out that the person who was Johanna, the person that was my friend, was everything she was in spite of all of this and that is who I knew.

After we had spoken for a bit, I asked her what she missed and she mentioned not being able to read the papers. I offered to call her up from time to time to read to her. And so I did. Mostly the Daily Mail (which I despise, but that’s friendship. You are friends regardless of differences.) Rarely the Independent and on Sundays, the News of the World.

I didn’t call her as often as I would have liked, but it wasn’t just about reading her the paper, we talked about our lives and she always asked me if I’d managed to see my kids. She called me her favourite reader once and I can’t tell you how happy that made me. Then I had problems with the eye and my reading slowed down a great deal and I could not go on as long as before, but I read a few stories to her every few days or so, slowly. (Despite the damage to my eyesight, with full magnification on the monitor, my left eye could pick up words if I scanned many times before reading.)

I visited her in the hospital when she’d had some problems with autonomic neuropathy and read to her there. (It was the only time I’d met her mother, who ended up texting me this morning with the sad news.) Then more recently, I visited Jo during dialysis. Jo was asleep for most of it. I waited for almost a couple of hours, just watching her. Eventually, I had to leave. She apologised for sleeping and I felt terrible, on the verge of tears, that my friend who liked the Mail and who once asked me if I was one of those “vocal Muslims” should be worried about listening to me read the news to her while she was plugged into a machine that endlessly cleaned her blood before my working, witnessing eyes.

Every so often she’d tell me that she had fallen, or had suffered a setback with autonomic neuropathy (her blood pressure was very low too, sometimes causing her to pass out) and I would worry. Sometimes she would be too tired to listen and would say so.

I would get the odd text from her. It never ceased to amaze me that an unsighted person who didn’t do Braille could be so patient. She was always asking about my health. She was delighted when my eye recovered. She had been through operation after operation and yet she was so supportive of my (relatively) minor procedures. When reading got difficult for me, she would demand that I rest my eyes and her concern was always genuine and touching. Very few people are like that anymore.

Jo spoke slowly, deliberately, with pauses to allow meaning to sink in, to allow space, a living, breathing conversation where nobody trampled on the other. Nobody else quite does that anymore. We just rush into the wide open space if we hear it. Jo and I didn’t do that. I will miss that.

I got the text this morning. I cried for a few seconds. I said “I’m sorry Jo”. I wish I could have read more to my friend. I had hoped she would be around for a while. I called my boss in a daze, he was understanding – I do so love all of my colleagues, they are all wonderful people. For some reason, I recalled The Lord’s Prayer:

Our Father, who art in heaven

Hallowed be Thy Name

Thy Kingdom come

Thy Will be done on earth, as it is in Heaven

Give us this day our daily bread

And forgive us our trespasses

As we forgive those who trespass against us

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil

For thine is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory For ever and ever Amen

I wondered wistfully how many Christians know the Qur’an’s Surat al-Fatiha – the Oft Repeated Verses that Muslims recite at least 17 times every single day.

In the name of Allah, All-Merciful, Most Merciful

Praise be to Allah, the Lord of all the worlds

The All-Merciful, the Most Merciful

The King of the Day of Judgement

You alone we worship. You alone we ask for help

Guide us on the Straight Path

The Path of those You have blessed, not of those with anger on them, nor of the misguided.

I took the bus to Willesden Green, then a tube to West Hampstead and finally a Silverlink overground train to Kew Gardens. I can’t think of Kew Gardens without remembering the warden from the made-for-TV film “Scum” from the late 1970s that was so shocking at the time. For the benefit of younger readers, Scum heralded the start of illustrious careers for Ray Winstone and Phil Daniels.

The sun beat hard through my black trousers, the first time I have worn trousers in London all year. It was a longer walk than I expected. I arrived just after the service had started and though others were ushered in, I chose to wait inside so as not to disturb the proceedings.

They played “We Are The Champions” at her funeral service this (Tuesday) morning. Jo did go on fighting till the end. She did it in the manner that I think is the strongest, most noble quality the British ever cultivated…with stoicism. Jo’s mother, who had texted me this morning so kindly, met me and thanked me for coming. She too was the embodiment of stoicism. I felt like the 10-year old in the presence of my primary school teacher again.

I watched the water feature outside the chapel and I remembered our times together and her voice. Ever so slightly croaky (tracheotomy), but gentle.

I’m sorry I didn’t read more often to you Jo. And no Jo, I haven’t seen my kids for the whole of the summer holiday so far and have not spoken to them for over a week either, but don’t worry, there is still time.

And you and I will meet again. Insha’Allah.

For the last time, bye Jo. Take care.

3 thoughts on “Johanna”

  1. As-Salaamu ‘alaikum,

    The majority of visually impaired people these days do not use Braille (although a higher number of totally blind people do). Talking computers have reduced its popularity considerably, particularly as many tablets will now ‘talk’ and take voice input: Braille material is bulky, so it’s very inconvenient for anything bigger than a letter — a Braille book would be huge, and too many fingers will wear it down. There are also many others whose fingers are not sensitive enough to use Braille, and diabetics make up quite a large proportion of blind people.

    Also, what part of Scum does Kew Gardens remind you of? Kew Gardens (and Kew generally, apart from the Kew Road obviously) is a pretty peaceful place, not at all like a borstal.

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