Tuesday, January 17, 2017

My Friend, Yusoff Bin Ali

Yusoff and his lovely wife, ready for hajj. 

The first time we met was over breakfast. After a tedious overnight drive through the Malaysian countryside, I'd arrived on his doorstep just in time for the morning meal. His wife hustled me in to dining room and sat me down in front of a packet of nasi lemak. That's when the man of the house came into the room to join me, no doubt curious to see how this pale American would handle her spicy breakfast. 

"Eat, eat!" He sat down on a nearby couch to watch me. "You like?"

I'd been warned he couldn't speak English. 

Between ravenous handfuls of rice and sambal, I nodded and said, "Yes. I love it." He grinned from ear to ear, and with the motion of his hands, encouraged me to keep going. 

I'd been cautioned that he would be reserved around a strange woman. 

My new friend sat and watched me wolf down that fiery feast. I ate every bite with my right hand, Malay style, and smacked my lips with pleasure. 

He beamed his approval and I knew that Yusoff and I had just become friends.

At the wedding of his eldest daughter, Yusoff holds down the back row with his two sons.

Our last encounter took place a year later, at a housewarming party. Though the event was still in full swing, I needed to leave and so my grand exit was orchestrated. 

Family members came at me fast and furious - Yusoff's wife, four daughters, two sons, and too many in-laws and grandchildren to count - to say goodbye. Sweet salams from the children, hugs and kisses from the women, and even handshakes from the young men, who only on rare occasions greet a strange woman with a physical touch. Older men never do.

Entirely overwhelmed by this rapid-fire show of emotion, I could barely keep up with all the greetings. Whirling this way and that, trying to extend each person the courtesy they deserved, I quickly found myself operating out of my American instincts.

And so it was that when Yusoff stepped out from the nearby tent to say his goodbyes, I automatically offered him my hand. 

Uh oh. 

Our eyes met over my extended hand, and I knew I'd gone too far.

Yusoff's eyes softened with a smile, and he made a playful gesture of refusal, simple enough for me to understand and subtle enough to be our own private exchange. Gently, wordlessly, Yusoff reminded me once again that, handshakes or not, we were friends. 

A family portrait from several years ago, with four of his six offspring and ten of his twelve grandchildren represented. The man has been busy. 

But my all-time favorite moment with Yusoff happened on the night before that party. A year since my nasi lemak breakfast at his home, I flew back into town during a late evening thunderstorm. Caught up in an entourage led by Yusoff's eldest daughter and her family, I stopped by his second-born daughter's home to say hello. We tiptoed in the door and found the front room dark and heaped with sleeping children.

Before I could follow my group to the back of the house, I heard an excited whisper in the darkness from another direction. "Hello, Diane! Salam."

A small light came on, and there, sitting up on an improvised floor bed, was Yusoff's wife. I was delighted to see her again; I hugged her and sat down for a quiet chat. We talked for several minutes when something most unexpected occurred.

The shadows beyond my friend began to shift, and suddenly, a big, brown, entirely bare chest rose up from the darkness. The faint light fell on this person's face, and there was Yusoff, in all his half-naked glory, with a smile the size of the Pacific Ocean and a steady stream of cheerful English greetings for me.

We laughed together and somehow this incongruous reunion felt effortlessly friendly and entirely natural.

* * * * *

I'm sorry to say that my friend, Yusoff Bin Ali, passed away this week. His wife and family - including each one of his six beloved children - gathered at his bedside and so Yusoff spent his last days surrounded by those who loved him most. I'm so thankful for that.

Still, I wish I could have been there with him to share

one more smile,
one more flash of his sparkling eyes,
one more exchange of hand gestures and simple English,
one more sweet moment of friendship.

I might have even held his hand.

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