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.
When I was a child, Ramadan – like the life that stretched before me – seemed magical. Forbidden for the very young, fasting was a mark of adulthood, a rite of passage for which we were all too eager. You woke for the early morning meal with a sense of pride, keen to know what mysterious things adults got up to at this delicious hour.
As I grew older, Ramadan became a time to pause life, a time for reflection as well as a time for community. Growing up outside of our respective ethnic identities and cultures, this month provided the chance to regroup and reconnect with friends and family.
We became used to a melding of cultures where we’d reach for spices in two languages during iftar, knowing only our ethnic name for certain spices and only the English one for others (I will never call “saunf” aniseed or “dhaniya” cilantro, but “namaak” will always be just plain old salt to me). We indulge in kibbeh and kunafeh at our Arab friends’ houses, in pakoras and dahi bade at our South Asian friends’ houses. During Ramadan, we seem to make up for the things we never realized we were missing – the sound of adhan from all corners, mosques on every block, altered work hours to make the fast easy: all things available in the Muslim-majority countries from whence most of us came.
After my brother’s passing, Ramadan became a month of refuge from the chaos of my grief. It allowed me space to breathe, mourn, to build up strength for the remainder of the year. The past few years, I have been able to recharge and re-center during this holy month by finding solace in the strength of the spiritual.
But this year? This year is different.
“I never shall be an old maid, because I have elected to be a Girl Bachelor. And as to regretting this choice, you know the saying of the philosopher, ‘whether you marry or not, you will regret it.’” – Neith Boyce
My friend Adam is a genius.
We’re very different, Adam and I: he is a critical and analytical thinker, I am an intuitive and emotive one. Science, reason, and skepticism trump all for him, whereas for me, all three lie under a dome of spirituality. He is more realist painting, I am more impressionist imprint. Though we often have spirited debates, we respect each other’s brains enough to maintain this friendship of nine years.
My first New Orleans story is about death.
“N’awlins is below sea level,” my taxi driver tells me on the drive from the airport. “You dig three feet down, you hit water. There’s no way folk can bury bodies six feet under. So we have these cemeteries where we bury our dead above ground. And this,” he gestures out the window as we turn a corner and emerge to a view of tall mausoleums on either side, “this is called ‘the City of the Dead.’”
I collect stories the way some women collect shoes, and this is a city with its own mythology, with legends tattooed all over its pulsing heart. There is a little bit of everything – from ghosts, voodoo, the history of slavery and the French-then-Spanish-then-French occupation, to stories of survival and rebirth post-Katrina.
Read the rest of this entry »
Tiny Love Story
“And what do you do?” so many have asked.
“I tell stories,” the girl said.
One by one they’ve walked away, not understanding the language she speaks.
Until one day…
“I tell stories,” said she.
“Then you are brave,” said he, “and you should keep telling them. I want to hear them all.”
Like a conjurer, I have dozens of stories like this up my sleeve. They come to me at inopportune moments, waking me up at three in the morning or badgering me in the middle of a work meeting. Stories need telling, need escape, as do the characters within them, hurtling towards existence.
Over time, I’ve curated characters. They live in various journals and scraps of paper, in closets (both literally and figuratively), under my bed. So many of them are men: caricatures cross-bred between memories of men I’ve known, the imaginings of men who do not exist, and the potential of men who could not love me.
For five years now, I’ve challenged friends and family on the idea that I need a life partner in order to be truly happy. Among my arguments: that it is unnecessary; that I’ve always been comfortable with solitude, that I have never feared loneliness; that marriage – to me – has always been a bonus rather than a given. I am equal parts too practical to marry only for love, too passionate to marry only for practicality – both sides of my heart exist in a stalemate in this tug of war, and I have not yet found anyone to tip the scales in either direction.
Read the rest of this entry »
On the surface, Mark Twain and I have nothing in common. Twain was a cranky Southern gentleman (with occasional bursts of quite ungentlemanly language), the quintessential Mississippian with that very American cockiness that most of our fellow travelers have. In Innocents Abroad and the subsequent A Tramp Abroad, Twain turns an unforgiving and merrily satirical eye on all things foreign, and writes about Europe at the end of the 19th century. He makes fun of customs and linguistic hangups, teasing and exploring, and at times, outright insulting those he comes across in his travels. Twain the satirist is in full form.
I am a sarcastic, slightly less cranky Pakistani-American girl from New Jersey, which makes me what Twain would have called “a damn Yankee.” I’m forgiving of my fellow humans and appreciate all things foreign. My sensibilities are global, and while I indulge in satire myself, my tongue is not nearly as sharp as Twain’s. I traveled to Europe at the beginning of the new millennium, nearly 125 years after Twain. Yet we share a common affinity: for a tiny German college town we both loved.
“One thinks Heidelberg by day—with its surroundings—is the last possibility of the beautiful; but when he sees Heidelberg by night, a fallen Milky Way, with that glittering railway constellation pinned to the border, he requires time to consider upon the verdict,” said Twain.
Every now and then, we come to a stage in our lives where everything is a fork in the road. It’s upheaval in our careers, in our families, and in our love lives, all at once, in that precarious position suspended in the air right before the pieces fall into place. The suspension, the intake of breath, the moment right before you follow a white rabbit down a rabbit hole or choose to drink a potion that says “Drink Me” – that is the most exquisitely agonizing moment of all. Will the path you take be the right one, or one plagued with regret?
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by…and now I’m hopelessly lost. Screw you Robert Frost.