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.