Husband shares his journey through grief
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She was sitting at a table in the cafeteria of Maumee Valley Hospital with fellow nursing students when he first noticed her, "a ravishing young woman with blond hair and blue eyes and a very attractive face."
S. Amjad Hussain, who was doing his residency in general surgery at the Medical College of Ohio following graduation from the Khyber Medical College in Peshawar, Pakistan, was smitten. It was the spring of 1964.
At first, Dorothy Brown was not. When Dr. Hussain asked her for a date, she refused because he was dating another girl in her nursing class.
"She thought it would be unfair," Dr. Hussain recalled. "Her ethics wouldn't permit that."
Her refusal "did nothing to dampen my interest," Dr. Hussain said. After he convinced Dottie he'd broken up with the other girl, she agreed to go out with him. They were married for 38 years until Dec. 3, 2006, when Dottie Hussain died of ovarian cancer. She was 62.
For Dr. Hussain, their love story didn't end then. "With Whom Shall I Talk in the Dead of Night" (University of Toledo Press, 2012) is the story of how Dr. Hussain coped with the loss of his beloved by writing letters to her after her death.
"For two years I wrote to her from likely and unlikely places -- parks, airplanes, mountain hikes and my favorite chair in the bedroom -- to share with her what was happening in my life after her passing, [and] also to reaffirm my love to her," Dr. Hussain said. "It was soothing and healing. Through these letters, I poured out my heart in ways I could not have done in any other way."
Dr. Hussain didn't write the letters for publication, but two friends convinced him the story he tells in them could help others cope with the loss of a beloved spouse.
Retired from the practice of medicine in 2004, Dr. Hussain, now 74, had been an internationally known cardiothoracic surgeon, the inventor of two medical devices. He'd been president of the Academy of Medicine of Toledo and Lucas County and of the Association of Pakistani Physicians of North America. He was a columnist for the Toledo Blade. It was ashes without his life partner.
"My life is in tatters," he wrote on his first Christmas without Dottie. "I try to keep an appearance of normalcy, but sometimes the facade gives way and I feel myself drifting all alone on this dark and scary ocean of grief."
Dealing with his grief was especially difficult for Dr. Hussain because he shuttles between two very different cultures, and straddles two often clashing world views. A devout Muslim, he faithfully attends services at the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo. But as a doctor, he is a man of science.
"Science is concerned with the knowable and provable," Dr. Hussain wrote. "Being a man of science and the arts/religion, you can appreciate my peaks and valleys, my ups and downs."
Dottie made the constant shifting between worlds and world views easier.
"Hashim [Khan, a world-famous squash player who lives in Denver] talked at length about you," Dr. Hussain wrote on April 10, 2007. "He said that you were one of a kind, and he had not seen such an American married to a Pakistani who played the role of wife so beautifully."
Hashim Khan was by no means Dottie Hussain's only admirer. She was twice chosen Nurse of the Year at the Medical College of Ohio. Hers was one of three names on the Emergency Medicine Wall of Honor when it was dedicated on the Health Science Campus of the University of Toledo in July 2011.
Dr. Hussain looks back now on their meeting as something of a miracle. He was planning to do his surgical residency in England, where in those days most Pakistani physicians were trained.
"A friend who had been accepted to another college in America had this application blank [for the Medical College of Ohio], he recalled. "I didn't know where Ohio was. Out of curiosity, I sent in my application."
To his surprise, he was accepted. "I was led toward the United States," Dr. Hussain said. "I've been the luckiest person in the world."
Their children -- daughter Natasha and sons Qarie and Osman -- were raised as Muslims, but Dottie, an Episcopalian, never converted. Christmas was observed in the Hussain household.
"I was determined to have a mixed religious service for you," Dr. Hussain wrote two weeks after her death. "You were more understanding of different faiths than most people I know."
At first, he was angry at God for not answering his prayers to heal his wife, angry at her for abandoning him.
"My whole world is upside down," he wrote on Jan. 18, 2007. "I am functioning at a bare minimum level. I get frustrated and angry at the disruption of our small routines, the morning coffee ... When I'm alone, I scream and cry."
The pain of loss gradually receded. Still the prospect of living alone horrified him. But "I'm scared to get married," he wrote in his last letter to Dottie, Dec. 5, 2008. "In old age, one needs someone with whom one has shared memories."
Dottie is as vivid to him today as when he wrote that last letter. He and his children remember more now the good times they had together.
"My family is very close," he said. "This is something that really sustains me."
He is no longer as confident as his wife was in an afterlife or as he had been as a child, Dr. Hussain said. His scientific training tells him "when a living being dies, it dies for good, and there is no coming back."
But he can't abandon belief in an afterlife altogether, because, Dr. Hussain wrote to Dottie in that last letter, "I am still hoping against all odds that we will meet again."
First Published December 17, 2012 12:00 am