Sydney, Australia, June 13, 2015.
I’ve been promising for years I’ll visit them in Sydney but as things happen, one ends up keeping a promise only when disaster strikes. A couple of weeks ago, doctors said that that Khala Ammi’s discomfort was due not to reflux (a digestive disorder) as diagnosed earlier but advanced stage lung cancer.
“I’m 84,” she said. “Everyone has to go, but I had always hoped that when my time came it would be quick.” That’s not something cancer is known for but we don’t always get to make these choices.
They gave her a dose of radiotherapy to shrink the tumour and she seemed to be coping better. But then she developed an upper respiratory infection and had to be re-hospitalised. On Monday morning my cousin, her son Neil, called to say that the doctors thought she would not last the night.
“I don’t want to alarm anyone,” he added. “Mum might surprise us. She’s done that before.”
I was on the next flight out to Sydney, barely making the connection in Dallas thanks to a nearly two-hour flight delay in Boston. But the prolonged wait in Boston meant being able to receive news from Oz before embarking, and it was an encouraging update about Khala Ammi. She did surprise everyone. She had made it through the night, and by afternoon was sitting up and even managing to eat some lunch — rice congee.
Neil was at the airport to receive me when I landed in Sydney early Wednesday morning, as he’d promised “come hell or high water”. The hell was the traffic headed back into the city, and the high water was the incessant rain, we joked. Welcome to Sydney, said Neil. My first visit ever, and it has to be in these circumstances.
Since Monday night when my aunt’s condition became precarious, her husband Michael Halliday, now a sprightly 90, and only son Neil, have ensured that someone is constantly with her. The morning I arrived, Khala Ammi’s colleague and former student Dr Annabelle Lukin of Macquarie University was with her, having relieved her partner David Butt, who in turn relieved another friend Geoff Williams. It’s wonderful to finally meet all these people one has been hearing of, and to see how much they care for her.
Annabelle says Khala Ammi had woken up asking if she dreamt I was coming. I’m delighted to see her looking much better than I’d expected. When I comment on the rattle in her breath, she says, “You’ve heard it before” — an oblique reference to my late father Dr Sarwar’s last illness (read her essay about him here).
“Yes, but that was different. He had been ill and bedridden for a month. You’re in much better shape,” I tell her.
She’s weak but all there, eyes mostly closed, occasionally participating in the conversation.
As we talk, I tell her, “You know you can tell us to shut up.” I add cheekily: “That won’t be difficult for you.”
“No,” she replies in her precise way. “That won’t be difficult for me.”
The words emerge clearly, punctuated with pauses as she struggles to breathe. “But it will be difficult for you.”
We laugh. The illness has done nothing to dull her acerbic wit.
I write this three days later from the hospital room as she lies curled on her side, her pretty lilac tinted dressing gown spread over the stark white blankets providing a relief of colour. Her cough occasionally breaks through the background hum of hospital noise. It sounds far better than when I arrived and she was labouring to breathe. It’s hard to see her so frail, though she’s not in pain. We know she hates being helpless, but is bearing all this with immense courage, dignity and grace, uncomplainingly.
They’re conducting various scans to see the extent of the damage caused by Monday night’s scare. They still haven’t figured out what caused it. As they take her off for a brain scan, Uncle Mike mutters under his breath, “Nothing wrong with that brain.”
“I’m so sorry you’re going through this,” I say after she has a coughing bout, stroking her back gently.
“It’s not so bad,” she responds slowly, her voice stronger and steadier than before. “It’s not so bad.”
She wants to know when my mother, her 75-year old ‘baby sister’ in Pakistan, is coming. Ammi applied for an Australian visa on June 8, appealing to the Australian Embassy in Islamabad to expedite the process that normally takes at least four weeks to process. We don’t know if we have that much time.
“She is my only sister and has been like a mother for me, my mentor and guide. Could my application for visa be expedited on humanitarian grounds, and be processed on a priority basis so that I could be by her side in her hour of need?” pleaded my mother Zakia Sarwar in her letter to the Australian embassy.
Annabelle Lukin is proactively trying all avenues to get Ammi’s Australian visa expedited. She even contacted the federal Member of Parliament for her electorate Warringah Tony Abbott, who happens to be the Prime Minister of Australia. Appealing to him as his constituent – as is Ruqaiya Hasan, my aunt — urging him to help fast track my mother’s visa.
“Emeritus Professor Ruqaiya Hasan is an internationally renowned scholar. Many of her colleagues around the world are very concerned about this current situation, and so I am cc’ing some of them here. They are Professors from Hong Kong, China, the UK, the US, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy and Sydney. Many are asking me what they can do – rather than have them email you separately on this matter, could I ask you to ‘reply all’ if you are sending any follow up to my request from earlier today. We fervently hope that Professor Hasan’s sister will be able to be with her at this critical hour. We would be grateful for any help you can give us.”
Dr Lukin has also written to Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, and Shadow Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Hon Richard Marles: “There is no doubt that Immigration officials in Australia’s High Commission in Islamabad will grant Professor Sarwar a visa. But every day counts at the moment. I have cc’ed many of Professor Hasan’s colleagues from around the world who are all extremely anxious about this situation, and who are asking me what can be done to move this situation along.”
The professors she copied in both emails are from my aunt Ruqaiya Hasan’s field, linguistics – specifically, systemic functional linguistics (SFL), an approach to the field that considers language as a social semiotic system. I am embarrassed how little I actually know about my aunt’s pioneering role in this field along with her husband Michael Halliday who founded Sydney University’s Department of Linguistics and developed SFL.
I am now made aware of how many people look up to her and have benefited from her work. The list of people Dr Lukin includes in her correspondence reads like a Who’s Who of Linguistics scholars. It includes those who are contributing to a festschrift soon to be published (by Palgrave MacMillan edited by Wendy Bowcher and Yameng Liang). The volume in Dr Ruqaiya Hasan’s honour features their essays on how her work has influenced their own.
Many of these scholars are among those supporting Dr Lukin’s efforts to expedite my mother Zakia Sarwar’s visa so she can come to Sydney to be with my aunt. They include academics who count her and Michael Halliday among their friends and mentors: Christian Matthiessen (Hong Kong Polytechnic), Geoff Thompson (Liverpool University), Geoff Williams, Frances Christie (both from Sydney University), Mary J. Schleppegrell (University of Michigan), Alex Peng (Beijing Normal University), Chang Chenguang and Huang Guowen (both from Sun Yat Sen University, Guangzhou), David Butt (Macquarie University) and Jonathan Webster (City University Hong Kong), to name some.
Dr Webster is also the editor of Ruqaiya Hasan’s collected works being published (by Equinox) in seven volumes. Three have already been published, while the fourth is in the works.
We don’t yet know whether Khala Ammi will be with us to see the published festschrift or the fourth or later volumes of her collected works. Or whether my mother will get the visa in time to be with her. We can only hope. Meanwhile, my amazing aunt may surprise us all yet again.
Filed under: Personal | Tagged: Alex Peng, Annabelle Lukin, Australia, Chang Chenguang, Christian Matthiessen, David Butt, Frances Christie, Geoff Thompson, Geoff Williams, Huang Guowen, Jonathan Webster, Linguistics, Mary J. Schleppegrell, michael Halliday, Peter Dutton, Richard Marles, ruqaiya hasan, Systemic functional linguistics, Tony Abbott |