It’s been two years to the day since Mirna passed away.
I was reminded of this painful reality by Facebook’s “On this Day” feature. A sad sign of the times, perhaps, to be reminded of the death of a dear friend by social media. But also an apt one, as I sometimes find myself visiting Mirna’s Facebook profile when I miss her dearly and scramble for memories of the last few times we interacted — both online and in real life.
I do, of course, have Whatsapps, text messages, emails and Instagram likes and comments to remember her by. I have viewed and re-read them countless times over the past 24 months. In each message, post and comment I find an additional sign of her determination to overcome brain cancer — a disease she never gave in to, even though it ultimately claimed her life.
At various points in our friendship, I wasn’t there for Mirna in the way that I should or could have been. The texts also remind me of my shortcomings in that respect. The guilt associated with those shortcomings is something I still struggle to contend with: I could have been more present, more communicative, more supportive. At the same time, Mirna was forgiving and loving and warm, without fail, whenever we communicated or saw each other.
I have vivid memories of when I last saw Mirna in person: cancer had taken strong hold of her physically, but had almost no effect on her demeanour or attitude. Until her final moments, Mirna had a zest for life that I could not fully fathom.
There’s something particularly poignant about Mirna’s final posts on Facebook. The last time she wrote on her timeline was March 7, 2015, 10 days before she passed away. The choice of quote was heartbreaking and heartwarming at once, and testament to the stubborn strength she radiated:
“It takes but one positive thought when given a chance to survive and thrive to overpower an entire army of negative thoughts — Robert H. Schuller”
(Schuller, a controversial televangelist, died of oesophageal cancer on April 2, 2015—just over two weeks after Mirna herself passed away).
A few days before that Schuller post, on March 2, 2015, Mirna shared the Facebook page, “Glioblastoma,” which contained a clinical definition of the cancer that would kill her. It was an anomaly of a post, with no explanation and no comment accompanying it.
Perhaps this was her last call to raise awareness, her final plea to her friends and to the world to recognise that no matter how hard she fought, her time on earth was finite.
Mirna’s last text to me was from a London café, where we were meeting for brunch. “I will order English breakfast for you,” she said. “Wanna switch the pork and bacon with something else?” It comforts me, somehow, to read this message, as it serves as a reminder that Mirna died with the utmost faith in her religion, a source of great comfort for her.
Below, I’m resharing a short tribute I wrote to Mirna, which I first posted on Facebook when I found out from her husband Tauqir that she passed away.
Today, I’m thinking of Tauqir, Mahmoud, Maya, Rami and all of Mirna’s loved ones. I know, that like me, they remember her strength and resilience with pain, but also admiration and awe.
March 17, 2015.
I’d been shopping with Mirna just once before that Friday afternoon in 2012 when I met up with her at a fancy bridal boutique in the Dubai Mall to help her pick a wedding dress.
There was close to no difference in her demeanour compared to the first time we browsed the mall together, when she was merely shopping for some casual t-shirts.
For someone who was about to be married, she was remarkably calm. She hadn’t factored in how long choosing a dress would take — she reasoned half an hour max — that is how easy-going she was about it all.
The first gown was frumpy. The second was far too glitzy. The third had a pretentious trail and the fourth was ridiculously overpriced. We had started to lose our patience before I spotted a simple, understated gown that I figured would suit her tall, slender figure perfectly. She tried it on in no time at all, and loved it. It wasn’t close to outlandish, yet it made a bold statement. It required next to no alterations.
She bought it then and there. When I asked her if she was sure, considering how long it had taken for us to settle on that particular piece, she didn’t flinch. I remember her repeating that it was “just right.” Her excitement was palpable. Though the experience was initially nerve-wrecking, we came away from it feeling like it was a breeze.
She wore the dress with utter poise when she married Tauqir in Sharjah four months later.
The expression on her face on that June afternoon as she tried the gown on — a delicate, understated combination of delight and thankfulness after mastering a challenge — was one that I would come to see many times during our friendship.
During her chemotherapy and its aftermath — in that same year that she got married — she styled her hair until it grew out again, quite beautifully. She wore it with confidence, as if it were exactly the type of look she was going for. At times, we forgot she was ever ill.
When the cancer came back aggressively this year and we got in touch again after many months of scant communication, I met up with her in a sleepy town in Surrey, nervous and not knowing what to expect.
And yet, there it was again — that piercing kindness and sheer grace. The sort of grace that makes you wonder how someone faced with such difficult realities can be so hopeful, so consistently.
During dinner, I geared the conversation back to her numerous times, but all she kept asking about was me. What was making me happy? What was making me sad? What TV shows had I been binge-watching these days? Wasn’t House of Cards getting boring, though? Why was I meeting up with people who had once hurt me? Why was I wasting my time? What will my next status be? She thanked me for posting the Oliver Sacks piece on terminal cancer (which I had shared with great trepidation, considering her situation), as if I had written it myself. Her selflessness hit me over and over and over again; it was impossible to ignore.
Days later, when she was on her hospital bed, she had that same look on her face. I was, perhaps naively this time, taken aback by it. She was still excited and thankful about little things, like Nutella and waffles and crisps and fig rolls and hand sanitizer and comfortable socks and the kind nurse who checked up on her. For her husband’s patience. For the wilted flowers I had brought her. For the fact that she felt little pain, mainly discomfort and the strong desire to go home. None of the details escaped her attention.
We laughed about Rami and his little/big crises over the years. How he most recently thought he lost his wallet (only to later find it in his flat).
She still insisted on eating halal food, even while at hospital, and when I told her “I was sure” it’d be okay if she didn’t just that once, she insisted that she couldn’t. Her only complaint at the time was that the NHS was simply no where near as good as the medical care she had received in Beirut when she was first diagnosed.
I last saw her nine days ago, at Cafe Rouge for brunch on a bright afternoon with her wonderful sister, Maya. Our waiter was terribly forgetful, and yet Mirna spoke to him patiently (I wasn’t as nice, myself). She later called me to tell me that she had complained to the restaurant and that they offered her an apology and a free dessert. We laughed about how easy it is to be compensated for terrible customer service in the UK.
That last time we met, we talked about our trip together to Istanbul in late 2010, where we listened to Ziad Rahbani from a mobile phone on the roof of the hotel after picking up burgers from Mcdonald’s, because we were just too tired/lazy to go out. So Lebanese, she said.
We were discussing past and upcoming trips as I was about to go on holiday to Portugal, and before I said goodbye to her for the last time, she said she wanted me to tell her if I enjoyed it so she could go with Tauqir some day — it was one of the European countries she most wanted to visit.
Mirna Ali Khazaal passed away today, just before 5 p.m., at the tender age of 31.
Rest in peace, you wonderful, delicate, fragile soul. You would have loved Portugal.