I went to my 20th high school reunion on the same day I went to a high school open house for my oldest child.
At the reunion, our name tags had our pictures from our freshman year in high school. There I was with my bangs nearly flopping over my eyes, my entire future unscripted and unknown. I pressed my name tag onto my blouse and thought about my oldest son, with his hair flopping down across his forehead, how he’d be turning the same age as I was in that picture in just a matter of months. In some odd way, I felt as if he was becoming a peer.
I don’t feel all that different from the girl I was in that picture. I remember everything she liked and wanted for herself. I remember all her hopes and dreams and fears. I’ve certainly changed, my priorities and values have shifted, but that young girl is still with me. All I have done for that last twenty years is sleep and wake up, and life has happened around me. I got married, earned degrees, moved, had children, moved some more, and then finally returned to my hometown. Through it all, the years just passed without any sort of fanfare. I wish we had to crank the gears on some giant clock or push time forward in any sort of physical way, because this sunrise-sunset business crept up on me. Wrinkles just showed up on my face; grey hair appeared out of nowhere; and my waistline decided it had enough. After three children, it was done shrinking back to its pre-pregnancy size.
They met on a cruise of the South Pacific and immediately hit it off. Back at home in the U.S., they dated and found themselves all the more drawn to each other. In an era when most people their age married right out of high school or college, they were both in their 30s and still single. But they came to realize that this was what they had each been waiting for.
It culminated one evening in a perfect setting: a candlelit dinner at a fancy restaurant. After the meal, he took the diamond ring from his pocket and held it out to her.
“Well?” he said.
Whenever I accompany my husband to a work dinner, someone invariably asks me, “And what do you do? Are you also a physician?”
Like many writers, I struggle with claiming that title, so I rarely mention it. I almost always quip that I’m employed by our three kids, or simply state that I’m a stay-at-home mom.
The reply is often, “That’s the most important job in the world,” or “Sounds like you have your hands full,” as if I’ve just confessed something that begs for affirmation. I’ve often wondered what it is about mothering that calls out the inner cheerleader in people. I’ve never once regarded one of my husband’s colleagues with wide eyes and said, “I bet that keeps you busy!”
My parents were visiting. My mother and I had previously discussed love and relationships while traveling together to a conference because surprisingly (not really) Indigenous activist/academic women in their late 20s and early 30s are very likely to be single. In fact, there were presentations on decolonizing love and dating while Indigenous. The conference, which featured hundreds of Indigenous academics, activists and students, made it obvious to my mother that I would have a very hard time finding a partner.
Why? Because being an Indigenous woman who has an education, a job and anti-colonial feminist views is not popular these days, even among Indigenous men with the same qualifications and opinions. Then, throw Islam and the immigrant experience into the mix.
As we finished dinner my stepfather asked me if I was seeing someone. Well, yes, I had been seeing a few people. Serious? No. Potential? Who knows. Both my parents cringed a little as I described some of my dating experiences. Sometimes my stepfather was incredulous. Sometimes my mom showed hints of pain.
“I just want you to be with someone who is good enough for you,” my mother said.
I groggily grab my phone. It’s 3 am, and I’m on a business trip to Chicago. I have a missed call from my little sister. I call her back immediately. I can hear that she is scared to tell me, to be the messenger of bad news. She tells me that my Nana has died. She knows how I hate to be told about deaths over the phone; I was told of both Mom and Nani’s death in similar late night calls. She says that he died in the ambulance going to the hospital from his home in Dhaka.
“Okay,” I respond, unemotionally. I check myself: no feelings. Just empty.
On some level, we had been expecting it. He was 87 years old and his health had been deteriorating for the past few years, ever since my Nani died. They were married when he was 21 and she was 16. He had lived for her. Without her, his mind unraveled.
When I went to Kathmandu to care for him in the summer of 2013, he was in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. Of course, my family had not told me this at the time – they had just said he was a cantankerous old man. Overwhelmed and alone, I pieced it together after reading the labels on the boxes of pills I was administering to him daily. Those two weeks alone with him in that dark cold house were easily one of the most traumatic, mind-spinning periods of my adult life.
Eds. Note: Guest columnist Na’aisha Austin returns with a beautiful follow up on finding love again after loss. Read her first piece, Memoirs of the Beautiful Widow, here.
Surely on that Day, the residents of paradise will be busy with their joy; they and their spouses will be in shady groves reclining on soft couches. They will have all kinds of fruit and they will get whatever they call for, they will be greeted with the word salaam from the Lord of Mercy. – Sura Ya Seen (Qur’an 36:55-58)
I awake in a sea of confusion, body quivering, chest heaving. I glance over to my left. There he is, sleeping, lightly snoring. Apparently, we succumbed to exhaustion and fell asleep mid-conversation last night.
Neither one of us is under the covers, but I’m sweating profusely.
“My phone, my phone. Where’s my phone?” I whisper in the obsidian darkness.
One press of the button on my smudged iPhone reveals that it is 12:37 a.m. As I stare at the regal and romantic wedding photograph of us set as my wallpaper, it hits me that today is September 8th.
Qaadir, my first husband, died seven years ago today.
I’m not a big Hurricane Katrina remembrance person. Like a lot of people from the places affected by the storm, I usually unplug from social media on the days leading up to August 29th. It’s not that I want to forget or pretend it never happened. That’s impossible considering ten years later I can drive through New Orleans and find many houses still marked with the “X” codes left by search and rescue teams signifying the number of people, dead and living, found inside; some because people refused to paint over it – Katrina war scars – others because they have been abandoned and never reclaimed. It’s because the damages, the wounds, are still so present, so fresh, that when the stories start pouring in it becomes overwhelming.
I’ve never seen Spike Lee’s much lauded documentary, When The Levees Broke, because just the thought of Katrina news footage – houses under water, people on roofs waiting, hoping, praying to be rescued, people wading through waist deep water trying to find food and clean water – makes me involuntarily clench my teeth and have difficulty swallowing. It’s sadness for the many people who died during and after the storm, but, more so, it’s anger for how poorly government officials handled the crisis, and how people, mostly poor and black, literally had to scream for help to the news cameras that dispassionately documented their struggles as my city descended into lawlessness.
When I think about Hurricane Katrina, two words come to mind: loss and erasure. I didn’t lose any family members or friends thankfully, but so many did that the loss feels communal. Once at the doctor’s office where I was being treated for rheumatoid arthritis, a disease that took over my body only months after the storm hit, another patient, an older man, was telling me about how his wife died after the storm and he just wished to die too but he held on because he had to take care of the dog his wife loved. His story is so different from mine, but I understood his loss and felt it like it was my own.