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     Volume 6 Issue 19 | May 18, 2007 |

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My Father's
Sunrise to Sunset

Kashfia Billah

Kashfia N. Billah, P.E. is a Structural Engineer at Michael Baker Corporation in Princeton, New Jersey, USA.

When President Reagan walked through the sunset of his life into the dawn of eternity, I could only think of my father, Mohammed Abdul Mannan who was diagnosed with Alzheimer in 1999. The only specifics I knew about Alzheimer was that Reagan was afflicted with it. Since then, I have learned a lot about this appalling affliction. I am also witnessing the stark reality of my knowledge as I watch helplessly the terrible disintegration of a person as he loses his memory, his mind and eventually himself.

My father was dedicated towards innovation to benefit the deprived. He had a simple beginning. The second son of the only college graduate at that time in the family, he pursued his engineering studies after completing his BA. He was an avid athlete in college, mastering pole-vault, biking and boxing to be the college champion. He was well known for his 6' tall athletic built and extreme good looks fondly known among his friends as the “handsome Mannan”. A young engineer in the 1950s, he spent a year in Paris to learn the emerging technology of Prestressed Concrete. Struggling with bare minimum finances, he hitch hiked his way home through Europe. It not only helped his budget but also satisfied his ardent love of traveling. He arrived home to face even stiffer challenges. It was a daunting task to change the engineering world in a poor and technologically ill-advanced country. He left his secure government job when he discovered that was the most difficult place to change. But, starting your own company with the dream of implementing an unknown technology was not a piece of cake either. He worked for large engineering companies but his heart was in his small firm dedicated to Prestressed Concrete. In our back yard, there was a pre-tensioning bed to build small pre-stressed beams. Our house was the guinea pig of experiments in-spite of my mother's complain. The bed frames in our rooms were built of prestressed concrete beams in our back yard. Our dining table was famous for its two stumpy legs made from trunks of coconut trees. Our living room had bright multi-coloured walls and the sofa chair designed by my father could be dismantled from the frame and transported anywhere to make a seat. Abba's ideas were always ahead of his time. After a decade of constant persuasion and perseverance, the country started to turn towards prestressed concrete. The first major prestressed concrete bridges were built in several locations in Chittagong. My father was a constant presence design, construction, post design he had to deal with it all. Ever since, prestressed construction in the upcoming years would have my father's signature. Major bridges all over the country were being built using the technology. I shared my father with the country as he was called the “father of prestressed concrete in Bangladesh” while being honoured with the prestigious gold medal from the Institute of Engineers.

My father continued to travel to different parts of the world. He went to China, Japan, several countries in Europe and was always bringing back tons of information in the hope of implementation at home. He visited us in the USA frequently and would love to go to the library with my teacher husband to gather latest information. Amazingly, he did all this without any personal stress. He never worried, complained or got aggravated. We never heard him raise his voice. His ready wit and sense of humour attracted everybody. He was a great story teller and could go on with his funny bed time stories in our early years. His love for music led him to play the flute in Paris even though he had no formal training. His prelude to his music was the story of this emotional woman in the audience who told him that his flute playing reminded her of her referee boy friend. He loved Indian Classical music and at first request would sing popular songs in family gatherings. My father had strong religious convictions. Aside from regular prayers, performing the Hajj and memorising the Suras Rahman and Yaseen, he taught us that charity and doing good was the foremost duty towards God. He was a constant inspiration to countless people including myself. I was going to be an engineer for no other reason but because my father was one and so did my brother. Years before us, my aunt had become the first woman engineer in the country strongly influenced by my father. Beyond retirement age, new ideas were still popping in Abba's head. Among them was to promote low cost precast housing. At age 81, when he was first told he had Alzheimer, he refused to talk about his health but would discuss the prospects of precast rural housing till he no longer was able to. As the disease progressed, it was a struggle first to be up in the morning. Once he was up, he would stand erect and want to function independently. He would feed himself, taking double the time and walk around a bit. He would attempt conversation but struggle to finish sentences. His ever present smile would still illuminate his warm eyes occasionally replaced with apprehension. He loved to be surrounded by people but would get momentarily emotional. He forgot names but would say “I know you”. He eventually remembered nothing. Now into the eighth year of the disease, his body is barely surviving. He has to be turned around, changed and cleaned in bed, fed through nasal tubes and barely responding. He has gone through major crises with frequent hospital visits but still hanging on. In my eyes, he is the example of a complete human being born to serve humanity and God, inspiring others, bearing struggles with humour, continuing into the last phase of life following the Quran - “ I give you knowledge and you know everything and then you become a child again, helpless and not knowing anything.”


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