ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (BP)–The scene is heart-wrenching as she leans against her husband’s grave. She wails at length; her sobs seem uncontrollable.
But her outward grieving ceases when her 13-year-old son approaches, puts his hand firmly on her shoulder and gives her a handkerchief as if to say, “That’s enough.”
Najat* dries her eyes and looks up into the face of her son. She straightens her body and rises to her feet. She looks longingly at the grave, but follows her son out of the cemetery.
This was how one Pakistani widow mourned the absence of her husband Oct. 8, 2006, on the first anniversary of the earthquake that shook her country, tumbled her home and changed her life forever. Now her eldest son, Faraj*, is head of the household, man of the house -– if only there were a house.
On the second anniversary of the tragedy, Najat intended to return to her husband’s gravesite to remember, tearfully, life before the quake. And at some point, Faraj, now 14, likely would step forward again and gently let her know when she has shed enough tears.
Women across northern Pakistan did the same this year -– Gujjar women, Hindko women, Kashmiri women. Wives, mothers, sisters and daughters -– streaming to cemeteries, both formal and makeshift, to mourn the loss of their family leaders, their providers, their security.
And each followed a substitute home -– a son, a father, a brother or a brother-in-law. They may be men -– or boys -– that they admire or love, but still they are substitutes.
Faraj is intelligent and charming -– and he knows it. His mother is incredibly proud of him and his younger siblings look up to him. Like any teenager, he loves electronic gadgets. He misses the computer his family had before the earthquake. Like most males in Pakistan, his thoughts have been on cricket as his team faced an Oct. 9 match with South Africa. He has never been outside Pakistan, but he has an extensive coin collection from many countries.
Tanvir*, Faraj’s youngest brother at age 4, playfully dons the extravagant hat his father wore during his marriage ceremony. Images of his father surely are fading from Tanvir’s memory, while their baby sister, 2-year-old Lubana*, will have no memories of him.
Faraj remembers him well though. He stands even taller when he tells about the integrity and sincerity with which his father carried out his assignment as a government employee -– and his role as husband and father. Faraj may be only a boy, but he knows his responsibilities now are greater than that of most teenage sons in Pakistan.
“I am an example,” he says.
Najat is not a weak woman. She is college-educated and savvy. She worked in a rewarding job before her husband’s death and continues to make the 45-minute trip to work to help support her family. She wants to see her children succeed.
Najat is wholly capable of making decisions herself, but she heeds to the wishes of Faraj. Najat had opportunity to relocate hours away from the earthquake-damaged zone. Donors had purchased a house for her there, in the city of her choice, near her sister. Brothers-in-law and other family members contributed to the discussion.
But ultimately Faraj made the decision for the family to remain in the community where he always has lived, where he and his brothers attend good schools that they like.
To stay means to continue living in temporary housing, which since the earthquake has progressed from tents to metal sheds with cement floors, but it is nevertheless temporary. There is no attached toilet, no washroom, no amenities; yet, for Faraj, this is home.
The family rents out the multi-level house they were given in the city; the money earned covers most of the boys’ school fees. Najat refers to the house and the money it provides as “God’s gift,” echoing the message of the Christians who helped make the purchase.
As the family gathers in a pre-fabricated shed that lacks ventilation, the air is stifling. Najat is happy to see her visitors but apologetic that she cannot prepare a meal; it is, after all, Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. Nevertheless, she sends Madih*, her second son who is two years Faraj’s junior, to buy cookies for her guests to have with a cup of Pakistani tea. She insists they eat and drink, even though she will not.
Normally, Faraj would have gone to the store for his mother, but he would not even touch the fruit that the guests brought for the family to share as they break the fast after sundown that evening of Ramadan. The year before, Faraj was just a boy and keeping the fast was less important, but now he is “an example.”
As Najat recounts the many ways God has provided for her family, one of her guests shares about how God feeds the birds and clothes the lilies. Not everyone in the family is listening. They are fussing over their guests’ hesitancy to drink their tea and eat their cookies, busy wrangling Lubana as she pesters her brothers, and discussing plans for their graveyard visit later that day. Madih, however, is intrigued. One of the guests shows him where the story is in the Bible, and he gladly reads it aloud.
Madih has his heart firmly set on becoming a doctor, so he can help people.
Faraj wants to join the Pakistani army when he is of age. This son -– the family’s leader -– holds the key to salvation for the whole family. If his heart were to soften toward the Lord, his family would follow. If his heart remains skeptical and hardened, his mother Najat, his brother Madih and his other siblings will be greatly hindered from trusting in Jesus.
“I want to join the army, because I like it, so I can kill people,” he says, grinning as he awaits a reaction.
*Name changed for security reasons. Goldie Frances is a writer serving in southern Asia.