As the Shariff family sits in the living room of their Edmonton home, they speak frequently of time.
They don’t dwell on the time points that often mark a cancer story — things like the age of diagnosis or the time to recurrence. They focus on an immeasurable aspect of time: what we make of the time we have.
“For Faisel, it was important to live his life in the moment, and to appreciate life,” says Aliya Shariff, describing what initially drew her to Faisel Shariff, whom she later married.
“He taught all of us to live in the moment.”
Faisel died in March of this year from Ewing’s sarcoma. He was 37, father to an infant son, an ardent Edmonton Oilers fan, and a much-loved teacher in Edmonton’s Ismaili Muslim community.
As Aliya speaks, her father-in-law, Nash, cuddles his five-month-old grandson, Rumi, on his lap.
Immediately after Rumi was born, he received his first skin-to-skin contact from his father, who’d been wheeled down from the palliative care floor to an operating room of the Grey Nuns Community Hospital for his son’s birth. It’s a fortunate twist in the timeline of Rumi’s life that he met Faisel: the infant arrived urgently by Caesarean section five weeks earlier than expected. On the day Rumi was officially due, March 21, his father succumbed to cancer.
As his family tells it, Faisel, always an optimist, made the best out of life’s unlikely occurrences. As a kid, a bus driver stole his prized collection of autographed hockey cards, a treasured Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky among them. But he wouldn’t let his mom protest to the school.
After his family began fundraising for the Alberta Cancer Foundation in 2001 — a decision inspired by a family friend who lost a spouse to cancer — Faisel stepped into a role as one of the public faces of their efforts, befriending kids with cancer. Over the next decade and a half, the Shariff family, through their four Boston Pizza franchises and personal donations, would help raise more than $1 million for cancer care in Alberta.
In 2010, they were stunned when cancer struck home. Faisel was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma — a bone or soft-tissue cancer that usually occurs in children and young adults. It is a very rare cancer in adults.
After his diagnosis, Faisel’s commitment to do more grew. He found ways to become involved with the Alberta Cancer Foundation at every turn — from the Cross Cancer Institute Golf Classic tournament, to being part of the Cash & Cars Lottery, to sharing his inspirational story whenever he could.
“I honestly believe we were fortunate to have the time we had, that this was a god-given cancer because it was a childhood cancer that showed up in Faisel at 29,” says Samira, his mother.
When Faisel learned his leg would be amputated below the knee, he reminded his mother about the kids he knew who’d undergone amputations for cancer. He told her that his family wouldn’t need to buy a new house with fewer stairs. “I’ll just bump down the stairs,” he said.
In 2014, a mutual friend introduced Faisel and Aliya, both of Ismaili Muslim faith. Faisel, who’d just completed a round of gruelling chemotherapy, told Aliya about his diagnosis and his belief in serving others. She was impressed by the work he did with kids, and the way he’d help seniors to remove their shoes at the mosque entrance. “For me, I just thought this was meant to be — whatever time we could have together,” she says.
Within a few months, they were engaged. They married a year later, fulfilling Faisel’s wish to meet his soulmate and be married. They conceived a baby by IVF, both undeterred by Faisel’s worsening condition and dwindling treatment options. As their child grew inside Aliya, Faisel’s bones weakened and he was taken off therapy.
Admitted first to a hospital and then to hospice, Faisel organized his son’s bayat ceremony — the Ismaili baptismal ceremony — as well as a luncheon to celebrate. Over FaceTime, he helped pick items for a baby registry, with Aliya holding up her phone as she walked through the store. He recorded songs and messages for the baby, and chose Rumi’s name, inspired by his favourite poet.
“I never expected a lifetime, but it was all so quick,” says Aliya. “We still had hopes and dreams of a lifetime together.”
The Shariffs say they are taking their grief day by day. Some days are better than others — their sadness is still raw and unpredictable. It’s hard to look too far ahead, says Aliya.
The family credits their faith and their community for supporting them, and Faisel’s optimism for inspiring them. They’ve bonded tightly; Aliya lives 10 minutes away from her in-laws and sees them often. They are focused on adjusting to their new roles as parent and grandparents. (As they speak with Leap, they take turns holding Rumi, celebrating his little noises and his newfound ability to sit.)
They thrive on the memories that Faisel created for them, especially in his last months. He attended his son’s bayat and the luncheon, and died four days after the latter. A framed photo of Faisel and Rumi from that day sits on a desk in his parents’ living room.
To anyone who has lost someone close, Samira says it’s important to remember that people who have died want happiness for those who miss them. “That’s my first message: your loved ones want you to continue to live and love.”
“He taught us to make all the differences that we can in people’s lives,” says Samira, “so we continue with his mission.”