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September 9, 2017

Facing old age and death

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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As I write this, my seventy-fourth birthday is only a few short months away and I have become increasingly conscious of growing old.

But I have been largely content with what old age brings, even the inevitability of death.

Looking back, I realize how fortunate I have been among those of my own generation in having reached my eighth decade without, so far, losing too much of my physical, mental or spiritual health.

I also realize how profoundly I am a product of my genes, my upbringing, and my life experiences. All three factors have influenced and shaped what I believe and disbelieve.

The first third of my life, until age 24, was spent in my birth-country of Egypt, where I was born on Christmas Eve 1943 to a middle-class practicing Muslim family in the Cairo suburb of Shoubra. In Shoubra, the population was half Coptic Christian and half Muslim.

After I was born, it was suggested to my father that I should be registered as a January 1st baby, in case the government was giving bonuses to families with New Year children, but he rejected the idea.

When my parents were trying to decide on the different names they’d each chosen for me, they came to agreement on Mohamed (meaning “the praised one”) for the official birth certificate; but I was called Samir (meaning “the friendly one”) around the house.

My maternal grandfather was a retired Sheikh and an experienced teacher of Arabic, who was committed to home-schooling his first grandson in reading, writing, and reciting some short chapters of the Qur’an.

By age four I was fluent in all three skills and when I went to public school I received straight A’s during that first year.

I enjoyed the attention of being top in my class. Because of my grandfather’s dedication to educating me early and well, I maintained an A average for the rest of my schooling. Thanks grandpa!

I was just 14, the oldest of our family’s six siblings, when my father died. My mother was pregnant with a seventh child (my youngest brother) at the time. I had to quickly make sense of my father’s early death and at the same time learn the responsibilities of being the man of the house.

My father was a technical draftsman who worked closely with engineers and his greatest wish for me was that I would also become an engineer. At that time, my heart was set on being a doctor, but two years after his death, I had changed my mind. I decided to become an engineer after all, finally fulfilling his wish. I have never regretted the decision to change my career from medicine to engineering.

So, our mother was left with seven children – four boys and three girls, ranging from mid-teens to infancy – with very little income from my late father’s pension.

I knew we were in dire financial straits, but with the brash optimism of youth I hatched an idea: we should appeal directly to no less a figure than Kamal Refat, Egypt’s Vice-President, and ask for a government family income supplement. My mother and all my siblings thought I was crazy; appealing to the second most-powerful man in Egypt could never work.

But I was determined to try and I prayed hard for success.

I wrote my appeal in a five-page letter and asked my mother to submit it in person at Refat’s villa, and to take my youngest brother along for emotional effect. And I especially urged her not to give the letter to any of his assistants but only to the Vice-President himself.

Mother tried three days in a row, without success, but on the fourth day her patience was rewarded and Refat met her. To my pleasure and relief, he approved the monthly payment; it was the first “adult” blessing I had received in my life.

When I moved to Canada to continue post-graduate work, I became fascinated by microchip design and gladly chose it as the research field for my PhD.

At the age of 30, I was blessed to be among the ranks of the youngest world-class academics in this area.

A decade later, I was internationally known, with an impressive research publication record, Canadian and world-wide awards, a large university research budget, and a dozen published books.

My faith went up and down over the years, as happens with so many busy people. Ever since my high school years, I have loved reading, both fiction and non-fiction – first in Arabic, then in both Arabic and English.

I have always loved the arts as well and tried lessons in piano, singing and painting, but found them all too difficult.

As a result, I believe I developed an even greater admiration for singers, composers and artists – in fact, for all human creativity outside my area of expertise.

I did learn the sport of squash and became good at it; I had to be in good shape to play with my grad students!

Both my life experience and my career as a microchip designer have affirmed for me that this Universe, a complex system of systems, must have an original Designer. How it could be otherwise?

That Designer must have pre-existed from eternity and be the source of infinite and absolute perfection in everything, in order to bring about such a complex and beautiful creation, which includes us humans and our amazing brains.

In fact, I spent 10 years studying the human brain in efforts to mimic a few of its myriad functions in the programming of microchips.

I was, and still am, overwhelmed by the brain’s incredible design; how it can absorb, process and store vast amounts of information related to sounds, pictures, events, smells, tastes, touches, memories, sensations… and how it goes on creating dreams when our senses are at rest.

As an active microchip engineer, I had to stand by my designs, write manuals on how to use them, warn against misuse, and provide 24/7 service on them.

I feel the same way about this Universe, everything and every being in it, including humans. Our Designer must stand by the design, must love it and guide its users. To me, it makes perfect sense.

To bring our Universe to such an extraordinary scale – which enlarges with every new human scientific discovery – our Designer must be an ever-living, ever-present being. All of creation would die one day.

Here, in this realization, is where I am at peace with death.

While my body was designed for me to dwell on planet Earth for a limited time, my soul and my life-prints in thoughts, deeds (good and bad), and prayers are all preserved for the final day of divine love and justice.

I hope and pray that I can also do well then.

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