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.
Since writing my short story for the anthology Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, & Intimacy – I have been asked many times what my story has become and how things have developed. It has been a hard road, but also one laden with lessons, hardships, and, finally, beauty.
It is bemusing to my family and friends how confused I get about how old I am. This may seem like a simple thing, but honestly I have lost the number. Why? When my wife Joan went into the hospital for the last time it was on my birthday. Obviously there was no celebration or acknowledgement of it. She passed away a week and a half later.
The year after her death I was numb. I do not remember anything from that year. I have pictures of my son during 8th grade, as well as of some other things we did that year – but it is a lot like looking at someone else’s life. Sure, I am in the photographs, but I don’t remember being there.
Just before they take her away for her MRI, my mother removes her rings and asks me to wear them. They won’t allow metal in the room, and she gets four of her rings off easily, but there’s a set of three that are stuck. She frets with them as the orderly situates her in her stretcher.
“The tech will figure it out when you get downstairs,” he says soothingly.
She sits back on the pillows, looking tiny and forlorn in her hospital gown, and asks for her dupatta so she can cover her head. She hasn’t been out in public without her hijab for almost seven years now, ever since my brother was admitted into the hospital he never left. I know she thinks of this as they wheel her away. I know the beeps of the machine bring back memories we’ve all tried to bury. I watch her til the end of the hallway and try to quell all the fears a hospital brings while I wait an hour a half for her return.
I stare at my hands. I’m wearing my mother’s rings and they feel too big for me – not because of their size, but due to the weight of their history. Here are the two rings my father gave her all those years ago: the tiny diamond engagement and wedding rings that he could afford as a Naval officer in Pakistan. They commemorate struggle, sacrifice, the strangeness of a new life in a foreign country. The two other rings are bigger – the diamond circlet he gave her just before my brother got sick, the year we moved into a new house and were happy, the year things came together before blowing spectacularly apart. The princess-cut diamond he gave her this year, to celebrate their 35th year together and all they have endured. I know the permanence of these rings on her fingers is linked to what they commemorate: survival coupled with faith, faith coupled with love.
Wearing her rings still makes me feel like a little girl playing dress up in her mother’s closet. This, despite the fact that I am already ten years older than she was when my father first put the engagement and wedding rings on her finger, already older than when she had her first child and older than when, many years later, her twin boys were born. Younger, though, than the other two rings. Younger than when she lost her child.
Eds. Note: Key is taking July off to get married, mA! We pray for deep blessings, contentment & joy in her union, and are re-posting her very first column with us from April 2014.
36 Flavours of Self Loathing
1. In 2nd grade a boy called me fat, there hasn’t been a day since then, when I loved my body
2. At 18 I found myself locked in a restaurant freezer with a boss who was trying to use his
hands to convince me that sex with him was part of the job.
3. There were nights after you left, when I filled my bed with everything that you touched,
hoping to fill it with something familiar.
4. The moon warned me not to come see you that night, it hung low trying to touch me. When I
left you, it asked me how could I hate myself so much.
5. When you didn’t call I had to delete every memory of you I had, but you still
lingered in the cracks of my walls.
6. Someone once told me that my body was a war zone. The day that I finally
understood what that meant, I was bleeding from my forearms trying to recreate the crucifixion.
7. West Indian women are known for having children but being too strong to have men.
I’ve never understood the fear some people have of women who expect as opposed to women who hope.
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