My mother, Elizabeth Anne George Hanson, died last night with her hand in mine, surrounded by her children. She was ninety-five years old; when she was born, there was an Ottoman Caliph ruling much of the Muslim world. She lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights Movement, which she was actively involved in long before many others joined. My mother spent her life serving others. She never complained and was the most ethical person I have ever known. She hated bigotry, prejudice, and any form of discrimination. She spent her life fighting against injustice. Some of my earliest memories involve civil rights marches, on which she always brought along her children. She marched with Dr. King and Cesar Chavez, and even in her late eighties, she marched in San Francisco against the war in Iraq. All her life, she volunteered in various organizations and served for years on the Homeless Committee in Marin County. Even into her eighties, she volunteered teaching Mexican immigrants and farm workers how to speak, read, and write English, a language she loved and spoke beautifully.
My mother gave birth to seven children and raised them as a single working mother in the Sixties and Seventies. She lived in constant wonder and noticed everything from the flow of tree leaves in a breeze to the colors of a flower she happened to pass. She was slow and deliberate in everything she did and sometimes chided me for eating too fast. She smiled constantly and, despite the pain of a raging cancer in her final months, never complained. She never spoke ill of people and accepted people as they were without judgment. Right before she died, my older sister, Patricia, who is a voice coach and music teacher, spontaneously sang the Prayer of Peace by St. Francis beautifully, which my mother loved:
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.
Upon my sister’s completion of the very last line of the prayer, “it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life,” my mother took her last breath. This was witnessed by the several people who were in the room at the time. I realized immediately that the poem summed up my mother’s life perfectly: she consoled, understood, loved, and gave like few others I have known. She did not boast about all she did; in fact, she never even spoke about her constant service to others: she just did it, and lived her truth.
My mother had extraordinary scruples and was never known to lie or disparage anyone. In our entire lives, I never remember my mother ever raising her voice to her children. She gave no cause to any of her children to ever be angry with her, even though the opposite, unfortunately, was not always true. She loved and respected all faiths and taught her children to do the same. While baptized a Greek Orthodox due to her father’s heritage, she was raised a devout Catholic. She had a long interest in Sufism and loved the poet Rumi long before he was popular in the West. She was a member of a Buddhist Songhai for much of her later years and practiced Tibetan Buddhism. In 2010, in Fez, Morocco, she took the Shahadah with Sidi Ismail Filali Baba. Yet many years ago, just after I had first embraced Islam, I was telling her about the faith when she said to me, “I knew the Prophet Muhammad was a prophet long before you were born, dear.” She had also taken me to a mosque when I was twelve to pray the Friday prayer in order to expose me to an important world religion. She lived in my home for the last two years of her life and always prayed with us, even going into prostration despite the difficulty. My wife, Liliana, took incredible care of her with utter selflessness, and said to me on more than one occasion, “I want to be like your mother when I grow up.” One story sums my mother up perfectly: Sharifa Uzma Husaini was with her in Fez, Morocco in the market. A shopkeeper they were buying something from in one of the souks in the Old Medina said to her, “You must hold your purse tight; we have a lot of thieves here.” To this, she replied, “I am a Sufi! If someone steals my purse, he must need it more than I do.” Those were not mere words to her but how she lived her life. Those who knew my mother will know I am not exaggerating. I hope to write a longer tribute to her amazing life and her many virtuous deeds, but for now, I request prayers for her soul.