When she took my dying son from my arms, I let her. I held my breath until I felt myself leave my body, only coming back because my baby needed me. I ignored the chemical smell of the hospital and instead focused on how much my son’s hair curled like his father’s. I watched my mother whisper prayers to him and adjust his newborn hospital hat making him look presentable, as if he were getting ready for a special meeting. She took a tissue from her purse, wet it with her spit and wiped the blood from the punctures in his little hands and arms. When she was done, she swaddled him and told him that she loved him. She kissed him on the forehead before placing him back in my lap. She tucked my too long bangs out of my face and leaned over me. I kissed my child goodbye and prayed over him until he took his last breath. My mom held me as I held my son, and as I felt his energy leave me, I felt hers heal me.
In the small social group my parents were a part of, my mother’s independence and self-reliance were the butt of many jokes. But she didn’t care. She just did what she had to do. She came from a village where she was the only girl who left to pursue higher education. She married at the ripe, old age of 23 instead of marrying the most eligible bachelor in the area when she was 17. She ignored the whispers when she left the home of her in-laws to live with her husband. She worked while my father went to school for his Masters. She drove to run errands while the rest of my aunts waited for their husbands to come home, or if my mom was available, for her to take them. She took care of the finances and it was her we turned to when making major life decisions. Mama’s practical ways and strong presence kept our family together.
I was constantly embarrassed for having the only mother in the family who spoke up when things were unfair. Some uncles frowned in dismay but my mom held her head high and stuck to her beliefs. She also didn’t let anyone tell her that she shouldn’t be taking care of the household finances. It was a running joke, amongst the very same uncles, that my mother had my father controlled by a leash. But Baba smiled and squeezed Mama’s hand in front of everyone, only offending the conservative uncles further.
Once, as she cleaned the dried, caked blood out of my hair she told me to stand up for myself and hit Junior, our neighbor, back, for striking me with the rock. I cringed and said, “No.” The next morning, when I asked her to walk me to school so that she could protect me, she gave me my lunch and kissed me good bye before shutting the door. I walked with my sister to school, terrified. I made a silent promise that if he hit me again, I would kick him in his knee, just like I learned from my second grade teacher Mrs. White, a karate black belt who taught us self-defense.
Another time, while shopping, Mama told me to ask where the ice cream cones were located in Lucky’s. I shook my head and shrank behind the shopping cart. She shrugged and told me she liked her ice cream in a bowl, anyway. She walked away looking for the next item on her list. In a panic, I hunted down an employee and found the cones. Mama was in the detergent aisle by then. I proudly showed the cones to Mama, who placed it in the cart and asked me to help her look in her purse for coupons to use on Tide.
In the sixth grade, she decided that she would make shalwar kameez for my sister Saira and me to wear to school, instead of buying us clothes from Mervyn’s like we usually did. I cried in protest. She told me to be proud of my roots, that being different was beautiful, but I dreaded facing the kids at school. I ended up getting in a fight on the first day of school because James called me a Camel Jockey. The Principal was sympathetic; he told my mom that I was only defending myself. I expected a lecture when I got home, but instead Mama asked me to change my clothes, pray Zuhr, and do my homework.
I married young the first time and became the servant my husband’s family wanted. Spending most of time in solitude, I only came out to do housework. I cleaned, cooked, and ironed myself away to a shadow of what I used to be. It was my mother who recognized me and my pain by looking into the dimmed light of my eyes. Like when I was seven years old, she held my chin, and once more told me to stand up for myself. Terrified of my unknown, dark future, I left my life of hell, the only life I thought I knew.
When my son died in my arms, I didn’t scream or wail. I urged him to go peacefully and not fight. I couldn’t bear his pain anymore, I knew his little body was tired and couldn’t take anymore. It hurt to say good-bye, but I was ready to accept the pain so my son wouldn’t have to. When he finally left, I cried until the tears dried and I succumbed to exhaustion, my shirt soaked and mouth dry. Mama watched me. She walked over to me, held me and told me that God would fill my barren lap once more and that I would meet my son in heaven where he waited for me at the gates. But new, hot tears fell from my eyes into my open palms. I wished he were in my arms, alive instead of in a cold morgue preparing to go to his tiny, dark grave.
I knew I needed to be strong, like Mama. She squeezed me against her bosom, where I felt at home – where so many times I went when I was lost or hurt. When she let me go, she looked at me and said no more. I looked at my hospital wristband, the only physical proof on me that I was a mother to a child. My husband walked me out of the waiting room. As I turned the corner to leave, I looked back into the room and saw my mother with her shoulders slumped, face towards the sky, and tears streaming down her face, into her hair.
Sabina Khan-Ibarra is a freelance writer and editor. She regularly contributes to her blog, Ibrahim’s Tree, which she created after the loss of her infant son in 2011, and I Am the Poppy Flower, where she writes about little things that go on in her life. She created Muslimah Montage as a platform for women to share their stories and inspire others.