Trish Glennon is a long term member of L’Arche Daybreak who had lived with Alia at the Corner House for several years. Trish gave this reflection at a memorial service for Alia held on Thursday afternoon, January 3rd, 2008 at the Dayspring Chapel.
On the morning of Alia’s death, we gathered here at the chapel to tell some stories and to pray. We heard a story taken from that morning, shortly before Alia died. A nurse entered Alia’s room, through the crowd of family and friends that surrounded her. The nurse asked, “What was Alia’s career?” Bilal, Alia’s brother, looked around the room and motioned with his hands at those who had gathered and replied,
This was Alia’s career.
Alia’s career, her vocation, was there, in her final gathering – family and friends together, drawn in by Alia’s presence. Alia’s presence. It was her vocation It was her gift for all of us and she offered it to us in so many ways. Her presence gathered us. She gathered us with her spirited presence. She gathered us in peaceful stillness. She gathered us in her darkest moments of suffering.
Alia lived with a condition that at a very early age took away her ability to see, to walk, and to speak. Alia would become completely dependent on others. She had not been expected to live long, but as her physical life narrowed, she did not succumb in spirit. She outlived all predictions and expectations by some 25 years.
Alia possessed a deep inner spirit and there were those special and significant things that would cause Alia’s spirit to stir. Alia had a particular attentiveness for sound: clicking, clucking, jingling, whistling, birds singing, leaves rustling, paper crackling, water running, bubble wrap popping, pop fizzing, clapping, tapping, fingers snapping, tambourines, rain sticks, bells, drums, morrocas – all instruments of sound.
Alia would catch hold of a sound and soon her whole being would erupt in her distinctive laugh. It would begin with her eyes widening, following the sound. Her head would begin to move from side to side, following the movement of her eyes. A small smile would begin in the corner of her mouth, then widen to a full smile. Then she would let out this kind of squeal, followed by her deep chuckle.
Her laughter and the spirit it expressed drew us close to her. You couldn’t help but be drawn to her in these moments. Alia’s delight in sound, her laughter, gathered us in her presence to bear witness to joy, to its sound, to its power.
Her spirit, her joy, was also present in her love of celebrations. Alia loved a good party. She liked her music loud, her food spicy, and her crowd noisy. Alia comes from a very large family. Between them and our own community celebrations, it seemed as though Alia was always going to parties.
In the evening, around bedtime, was often Alia’s most alert hour. She would often lay awake and laugh, sometimes into the early morning hours. We never knew for sure what Alia was laughing about, but our best guess was that Alia was thinking about all those late night parties with her family, re-living them, and laughing in hopeful anticipation of the next one.
Alia delighted in the love of her family and in particular in her father’s love. Alia had a special bond with her dad and it was beautiful to witness their relationship, their deep understanding of each other. Alia would become vibrant at just the sound of her father’s voice. And Alia’s father delighted in her presence. Alia’s presence, her spirit, was shaped, formed and nurtured throughout her life by her family. They formed her in the gifts of welcome, connectedness, and unity. They surrounded Alia and gave her a special place at the center of their family. Their presence in her life was one of true faithfulness.
One of my favourite memories of Alia was at the wedding of Alia’s sister, Qudsia. Alia was glowing before we even made it to the celebration. The dance finally started and I remember the dance floor being very crowded. Alia was beaming and soon the crowd had gathered, forming a circle around Alia. Alia was at the center, her family gathered around in celebration of Alia’s presence.
These gifts of celebration, of unity and connectedness, given to Alia from her family, shaped her vocation. And Alia extended her gifts, her presence, not only in our community, but into broader circles. Alia loved dance and movement and for many years she was part of the Spirit Movers. Her presence in the Spirit Movers allowed her gifts, her vocation, to move and to reach thousands. There was no greater stage than her presence at World Youth Day. There she was on stage, a Muslim woman, dancing in celebration with Christians in front of the Pope for hundreds of thousands of Christians. It was a prophetic gesture of unity— her presence, witnessed by thousands gathered from around the world.
While Alia revealed her vibrant spirit, it was her quiet, gentle presence that taught us how to be still, to be quiet. Her stillness was an invitation—an invitation to slow down, to listen, and to see more attentively. Alia’s presence, her stillness, drew something out of us that we often did not know was there. She taught the extroverts about solitude; she was a comforting companion for the introverted. Her stillness allowed us to hear in new ways, to hear the murmurings of our bodies, to listen to the sacred breath of another. For some of us, it was her presence that led us to a deeper listening—leading us to hear the voice of God whispering there in our presence with Alia.
Alia was truly home at the Corner House. It was her home for almost twenty years. She was there from the beginning, with Heather, Tracy and Hsi Fu. Her presence together with them defined and shaped this home’s creative and unique spirit. There was that one year where we all thought change would be good for Alia and she moved to the Green House. And while she was welcomed warmly to her new home and new friendships were created, after a little more than a year it became clear that Alia’s presence belonged to the Corner House. It was her place of belonging. I’ll never forget the day that she returned to the Corner House. The mood was celebratory. Alia didn’t stop laughing for three days straight. She had returned home to the familiar, home to her most faithful companions—Tracy and Heather—their bond unspoken, yet visible and felt.
And Alia had her faithful followers. For several years, Alia lived with Linda Slinger. Linda had a particular attentiveness for Alia. It was in the way she would talk to Alia, and in her gentle spirit of care and concern. Alia also lived for several years with Elizabeth. Elizabeth offered Alia daily gestures of care – like getting a clean bib for her. In recent years, Linda Martin and Helen Schlicter from Church Street would come for dinner on Tuesday nights. Linda would often sit next to Alia and offer her words of comfort through dinner. Helen always made a special point of saying goodbye to Alia after dinner. One night, Helen rushed back to the table before leaving the house and leaned in close to Alia. Touching Alia’s hand gently, Helen said, “Good bye, Alia. I love you.” And Alia held a special place for Ellen Weinstein. Ellen, Corner House’s faithful Thursday night dinner guest, would always insist on sitting next to Alia. She knew of things important for Alia, but, most importantly, Ellen gave Alia her tender presence every week. If ever you are saddened and depressed at the state of the world, you can think about this one image. It took place every Thursday faithfully for over ten years: Ellen, a Jewish woman, next to her special friend, Alia, a Muslim woman, sharing a meal with a few Christians and sometimes a non-believer or two. It happened daily and weekly, Alia’s presence – her vocation – mingling with and drawing out the vocation of those around her.
In her final years of life, Alia suffered much. She no longer delighted in the intricacies of sound. She stopped laughing. She no longer danced, and even celebrations could not stir her spirit. Alia lived these years very much hidden in our community. Alia no longer attended the Day Program and she rarely attended community events. Her life became smaller, her days spent in the quiet shelter of Corner House.
It was in these final years where Alia’s vocation took on it’s most profound and significant movement. She taught us that when we feel as though there is nothing we can offer to the one who is suffering, and we feel most powerless, there is one last thing we can offer—and that is our presence. It was Alia’s life-long truth. She taught us without words. It was spoken in the ways in which she gathered us – through her joy, in celebration, in dance, in stillness. But it was in her final years that presence, our presence, is what Alia needed the most.
The miracle of Alia’s life is that in those final years, new assistants arrived, most of them young, and they came not knowing Alia’s vibrant spirit. They never knew the sweetness of Alia’s laugh or the elegance of her dance. They know only Alia’s pain, and yet, Alia reached in and she took hold of their hearts. She summoned out their courage. She summoned their presence. And Alia’s presence changed them forever. There in Alia’s lasting presence, in the depths of her suffering, her beauty was there—still being discovered in new and unexpected ways.
Alia slowed us down, she gave us new ears with which to hear. She gave us eyes of compassion with which to hold another’s pain. She made our hands more gentle. She gave us hearts of courage and of peace. It was her presence in our lives that led us to discover the gifts of our lives, the ones often unknown, laying deep within us, waiting to be called forth.
Lastly, to Mr. Qureshi and the Quershi family, I cannot imagine the courage or the faith it took to entrust Alia’s life to our community. But I want to say thank you. Thank you for sharing your beloved Alia with us. I thank you on behalf of those gathered today, and I thank you on behalf of the hundreds of women around the world whose hearts and hands will never be the same because of Alia.
Alia, we love you. We give thanks to God for your beautiful life.