Soaring through the sky, from one tree to the next, that’s the closest I’ve ever felt to being Superman. What an incredible man who demonstrated his superhuman qualities in his on screen and off-screen life. That man, of course, is Christopher Reeve. One day, he can save us all and the next day, due to a very humane incident of falling off a horse, our superman can’t even save himself. Then, the super smooth, slick, and effortlessly cool Marty McFly goes from dancing at the high school prom to suddenly moving uncontrollably due to decreased dopamine flowing through his brain caused by Parkinson’s disease. Not long before, heavyweight boxing champion and “the greatest '' went from holding impeccably clear speech to a stutter due to the same degenerative diagnosis. That’s exactly what it is, sudden. One day you’re flying, unstoppable, and soaring from place to place and then, completely unexpectedly, your mind and body no longer want to collaborate. That’s Abbu’s story. When I came home from my afternoon of flying (ziplining) through the Costa Rican rainforest, that’s who I think of, my father—“Abbu”.
I returned from my fellowship in Germany exactly two weeks after it happened—the stroke. One day, Abbu was playing tennis and had recently returned from a spiritual trip to Trinidad and the next day he fell off the chair at a board meeting at the Chicago downtown masjid. Suddenly, he lost his ability to speak, walk and eat—everything functional adults need to do in order to survive. From that point forward, it was about surviving and amidst a global pandemic. Yes, Abbu has had Parkinson’s for more than ten years but everything in his life allowed him to mitigate the adverse effects of this disease. In fact, whenever I would accompany him to his appointments with the neurologist, she’d look at him and say, “well, whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.” I always felt a little out of place walking into the Disease and Movement Disorders Division at Rush Hospital. Abbu would walk in dressed in a suit and tie, holding his briefcase, while the other patients were usually walking in with a walker or were wheeled in on a wheelchair.
The routine check-up included Abbu doing a series of exercises for Dr. Hall to track his progress or, in some rare cases, lack thereof. He would touch his nose, balance on either foot, do some hand gestures, everything that would otherwise be considered occupational or physical therapy. Over the years, the medication that my dad took to help with Parkinson's started to manifest some adverse side effects. When I would accompany Abbu, I’d come prepared with a notebook and questions. “I’m starting to get nauseous every time I take the Sinemet,” my dad shared with Dr. Hall. “I suddenly feel like throwing up and no longer feel like eating, this is happening a little more frequently.” I usually had to nudge my dad to bring up these issues because he would otherwise prefer to keep things simple, do the regular check-up stuff, and go about his business, especially since his appointments were typically in the middle of a workday. “I’ll prescribe you medication for the nausea,” Dr. Hall responded nonchalantly. Looking back, it surprises me how she never reacted to anything that would come up for my father as the Parkison’s became more invasive, as if everything was expected and there was always a medication to prescribe for any new symptoms—it was like clockwork.
Shocked, I would typically interject, “Dr. Hall, my family prefers to observe natural ways to heal any symptoms or side effects that are coming up for my father, could you recommend something that does not involve introducing another strong medication?” Again, for context, Abbu was the kind of guy who was high on life. He was not addicted to any drug, not even coffee. Tennis, family, work, and travel were the main items that filled my father’s schedule, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, recently, I asked my dad what he would like for his 75th birthday and without letting a second pass he immediately responded, “family.”
Expressionless, Dr. Hall would recommend swimming or simply maintaining the routine he already had. Sadly, I did not feel heard as the family member of a patient and since my father was less of a rebel-rouser, he would simply comply with her orders. As for me, on the other hand, I couldn’t help but to feel a bit defeated as if every time my father was becoming more complicit with his medical condition. But I missed my superman—he needed to make his comeback.
Abbu excelled at his job, and he loved it. After he graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Civil Engineering, he married my mother and they moved to the north side of Chicago. At the time, the company was called Harza. The eldest son of seven children, by most definitions, he had made it—realized the American dream. My parents gave birth to my eldest brother in Arlington Heights and so they had started their little family. My mom was desperately homesick, considering she was the most beloved child of eleven and took a one-way ticket to the U.S.A. Of course, after Asad was born, my eldest brother, she had a healthy distraction. “Ammi”, the Urdu word for mom, was born to be a mother.
Shortly after Asad was born, my father got an opportunity to work abroad. At the time, Venezuela was considered the “Saudi Arabia of South America” and Harza had been contracted to build what would become Latin America’s largest hydroelectric dam in Guri, a small town about 700 kilometers away from the capital city of Caracas. Completely elated, my father was ready to accept the offer. The last and first time Ammi had heard of Venezuela was while she attended grade school in Pakistan where she scoffed at such a “strange sounding name.” Little did she know that she would call Venezuela home one day.
What started off as an 18-month project eventually became 25 years, my parents moved to Guri, the family grew and there was no real reason to move back to the U.S. Without a lick of Spanish, both my parents became fluent in a couple of years. “I never took one Spanish class,” my father usually brags. While working on the dam site, Abbu learned the most colloquial version of Spanish and he would not have had it any other way. Naturally, this level of work meant that we would hardly see my dad. He was often traveling from Guri to Caracas or Puerto Ordaz. He was responsible for a multi-million-dollar project and would not settle for anything less than excellence. Eventually, he would start traveling across Latin America and Asia as his responsibilities increased. As a result, Ammi would often play the role of mother and father depending on Abbu’s work schedule. Growing up, and even until now, I’d ask my dad something and, looking at my mom, he replies in Spanish: “dónde mande el capitán, no mande el marinero,” which roughly translates to where there is a captain, there is no need for a sailor. Ammi was evidently the captain and Abbu was okay with that.
For a while, my dad would not come back from one trip without having the next one booked. As the youngest of four, however, I remember Abbu being completely present when he was with us. Whether we were playing sports, visiting amusement parks, traveling to the beach, my father absolutely loved being a dad. In fact, he never let one moment go uncaptured. His two favorite subjects to photograph were his family and his work. During family reunions, Abbu was quick to take out his old school projector while we would be sipping on our post-dinner digestive tea. All of us exchanged laughs and stories as we looked through the pictures he projected onto the living room wall and sure enough suddenly photos of hydroelectric dams would appear. Bright eyed, my father would explain every technical aspect of the power plant, from the turbines to the generators.
On our most recent trip to Pakistan, my father took my mother, my older sister and I to Muzaffarabad, otherwise known as the main city in Free Kashmir. For more than a decade, my father has dedicated himself to the Neelum-Jehlum Hydropower Project based in Muzaffarabad and nothing gives him more joy than to share this work with his family. As we pulled up to the project site in a 4X4 jeep, somehow the folks on the worksite caught wind of my father’s visit and came flocking to him “Tauseef, can we get your opinion, or can you take a look at this?” they asked him in Urdu, the native tongue of Pakistan.
We all wore our hardhats and made our way underground. We were treated like royalty given that our father was one of the lead project managers on this plant. Puzzled, I did not really know what I was looking at and I did not understand all that my father was explaining. However, I did feel a deep sense of pride and joy to observe what has kept my father busy for all these years. Since he is now partially retired, his involvement in the project had been decreasing over the past couple years. Looking around, he was a little disappointed as the project is completely in the hands of foreign investors and, as a result, labor is almost entirely outsourced. Watching him, it was obvious to me that Abbu saw projects like these as his way of giving back to his birth country, the place that made him into the man who stands before us.
When I recently inquired about how 18 months turned into 25 years while my father was in Venezuela, he shared that he had not intended to stay that long initially, “In the beginning, every year, I would plan to go back to the U.S. with your mother and brothers but then we just kept on staying.” “Venezuelans treated me like one of them and their values were aligned with ours: family first and honor your religious tradition.” As I grew older, I was a little puzzled by how an observant Muslim could make it in a country where alcohol dominated, and women were not exactly known for covering up. Early on, Abbu acquainted himself with the local mosque in Caracas and got to know other Muslims who filled him in on where to butcher your own meat and where to buy groceries. In that way, our small community of Muslims grew—my mom taught all the other Muslim kids how to read the Quran and every year we would get together for Ramadan.
Life was mostly free of complications and smooth with the two boys, but things changed quite a bit once Ammi gave birth to my older sister. As conservative-leaning parents, they were slightly frightened by what could happen to their daughters if they become too Venezuelan and lose their Pakistani, or even worse, Muslim traditions. Some of my earliest memories as a little child are of me waking up at the crack of dawn and watching my father get ready to go to the mosque in the El Recreo district of Caracas, my birth city. One day, I picked up my blanket and pillow and longingly looked at Abbu asking if he would take me to the mosque. He obliged me and could not have been happier. Of course, I was way too young to pray, and it was far too early so my pillow and blanket came in handy. That morning, my dad’s friend turned to him and jokingly remarked, “she’s the youngest member of the mosque.”
Like most men, Abbu had to be strong. Under no circumstances could he show weakness. From a young age, I learned that the best way to earn my parents’ approval was by being a good girl. While my sister would challenge my parents, she was the quintessential tomboy, and no one could tell her what to do. Watching her, I knew that if I played nice and observed the rules, I would be just fine. The only times which I would see my dad show real emotion was when my sister would push back or when something stressful would be happening at work. Given that he is Punjabi after all, Punjabis generally have no issue showing anger. Abbu never got angry at me. My father named me when I was born, “Seemi” means silver or soft in Farsi, the native tongue of those who identify as Persian. I believe from the day my father first looked into my eyes at the hospital, he made an agreement with himself that he simply could not get mad at me—that has worked largely to my advantage.
When I was three years old, around the same time that I occasionally accompanied Abbu to the mosque, my father came to know of a story regarding Omar, a leader who lived during the time of the Prophet Muhammad. This time was considered the time of “jahiliyyah” or ignorance. This is the time which precedes the revelation of the Quran and the formation of Islam. The story goes that Omar had a daughter who was three years old and, at the time, men were burying their daughters alive. While Omar dug a hole for his little daughter, she was brushing off the dirt from his clothes. When my father heard this story, he could not hold his tears back. My mother later told me this story and, slowly, I was seeing how my father can show emotion.
As attractive as it is to be a child of the tropics and enjoy the expat life, it came with difficulties, especially for Abbu. He was a family man from childhood so leaving his family back home was one of the hardest things he had ever done. “When did you miss your family the most,” I would ask my dad. “At dinner time,” he said. During his time at Iowa State University, my dad would record his updates over a tape using a tape recorder. Then, he would mail off the tape to Pakistan. After a couple months, he would receive a tape back with news from Barri Ammi, my grandmother, and all his siblings. A few years later, my dad’s younger brother was having a hard time finding employment in Lahore so my dad made a case for him to get a job as an engineer in Guri. Shortly after that, he moved with his wife and eventually became a part of a small community of engineers and expats in Guri.
My father is the eldest of five boys, so he carried a lot of responsibility on his shoulders, there was no room for error. Nadeem, the youngest son, had an especially close relationship with Abbu. Lovingly, everyone called him “Kito”. My mom’s youngest sister told me that Kito Chachoo was extremely handsome, “when he would walk into a room, I would get goosebumps.” As problematic as this statement is, most of the women in my family described him as so attractive, “he looked like a foreigner.” Kito Chachoo was a pilot and he married young. Looking at photos of him, he and his wife did look like Pakistan’s royalty at their wedding—two peas in a pod. My dad used to keep a framed photo of Kito in his wardrobe. In the photo, he is formally dressed in his pilot gear. I’ll never forget when I found this photo as a child and asked my dad who it was. We were at the dinner table. My dad buried his face in his hands and started to tear up. That night, I learned that Kito Chachoo tragically died before I was born in a crash while he was piloting a plane in the notorious Lahore fog. He left behind his wife, a four-year-old son and his four-month-old daughter. After that day, I knew not to ask Abbu about Kito Chachoo.
My eldest brother wanted nothing else but to be a pilot. From a young age Asad Bhai (“bhai” means brother in Urdu) developed an obsession with planes. Recently, I texted him a photo of a tattoo of an airplane and he immediately responded, “737 spitfire.” As a kid, when my brother would draw planes, he would not miss a detail. Unfortunately, there was no world in which my dad would approve of my brother’s dream to be a pilot. After losing his beloved brother in a plane crash, he would not have it. Asad eventually settled for an airplane tattoo on his bicep.
Barri Ammi, my paternal grandmother, and Abbu were extremely close. They were so close that they had their own language, no one could understand this language except the two of them. Barri Ammi was the kind of grandmother who illuminated a room, her face was filled with peace and every grandchild felt like he/she was her favorite. My mom even had a special relationship with Barri Ammi which, of course, is unusual for a daughter-in-law and mother-in-law. One winter, a few of our families were all posted up in our vacation home on the outskirts of Islamabad in a hill station called Murree. There were probably about twenty of us cousins all together under one roof. One of us spotted a spider that looked like a tarantula in the bathroom and shrieked. No one wanted to go into the bathroom, which was a problem since there were only two in the whole house. Barri Ammi went into the bathroom with a little plastic bag, captured the spider and set it free into the wild all within a couple minutes. That was the type of woman she was—fearless.
We were one week away from my brother Kashif's wedding and we got news that Barri Ammi had passed away. No one saw it coming. She fell and sadly could not recover. “We can postpone the wedding,” Kashif suggested, looking at my father. “No, she would not want that,” Abbu responded. Usually, the weeks leading up to a wedding included a lot of music, dancing and drums but in our home, we were reading the Quran and making prayers considering the ultimate matriarch had passed. We were all devastated.
For a few years, I was the only child who lived in the same state as my parents. My sister was on either coast working or completing her graduate school studies and my brothers were rooted in Portland and Atlanta. One day, while I was working during a stressful time at the City of Chicago’s Mayor’s Office, I received a call from Ammi that Abbu had just fallen while walking down the stairs. During this time, my dad was on a partial schedule and was no longer going into the office as regularly as he used to. I was immediately reminded of a day a couple years prior when I was meeting my dad right after work to close on my apartment. I met up with my dad at his new office and I noticed some dry blood on his forehead. “What happened, Abbu Ji?” I immediately inquired. I usually add the “ji” at the end of his name as it signifies love directly translating to “dear”. “Oh, I fell on the sidewalk on my way to the mosque,” my dad replied. I could not believe that he took a fall, and nobody helped him or even mentioned to him that his forehead was bleeding.
Once again, Abbu took the it’s-no-big-deal approach. Over the last years, Harza had become Montgomery Watson Harza and was eventually acquired by a company called Stantec. As a result, Abbu would no longer have his own office, something that was extremely unusual for a vice president and someone with his level of expertise. Since he observes his five daily prayers, having an office was a huge convenience as he could simply close the door and pray in his office. With a modernized office, Stantec built offices designed around shared spaces which meant Abbu was relegated to a cubicle. For all intents and purposes, it was a downgrade. Therefore my father always liked living close to his worksite, so he did not have to spend too much time on a computer behind closed doors. Without his own office, my dad would walk to the local downtown Chicago Mosque but that walk became longer with the Stantec acquisition since the new office was twenty blocks further than his older office. On the day that Abbu’s forehead was bleeding, he was also observing a full day fast as it was during the month of Ramadan.
When that call came from my mom as I was walking into the office, my heart dropped. Of course, I remember what happened to Barri Ammi after she started to lose her balance and would fall. I immediately got in my car and drove to the suburbs. When I got to my parents’ home, my father was laying down on the sofa bed which my mother opened in the family room. I approached my dad and could not fight back the tears. “Don’t cry, beti (my daughter), otherwise I will cry also,” Abbu said as he looked at me hopelessly. Deep down, I knew that my father was much stronger than this disease but he needed to know that as well.
Determined, I relentlessly called Dr. Hall’s office so we could consult with her over the phone, and I knew that my father only took his marching orders from Dr. Hall—nobody else. I would either get an automated system or an indifferent nurse recommending I call 911. “No, we need guidance directly from Dr. Hall,” I insisted. Of course, after various attempts, we finally got on the phone with her and all she could do was recommend another cocktail of drugs and move my father up on her schedule. What happened was that my father stopped taking one of his drugs because it made him so nauseous. Little did he know that if he stopped taking it, there would be other side effects like dizziness or loss of balance.
Before I was born, my mom was a yogi and a total hippie for her context. Unlike my father, she grew up hardly having sweet treats and often eating food directly from the farm. Ammi comes from a lineage of farmers or landowners, otherwise known as “Jutt” in Punjabi, so she always had a very distinct appreciation for healthy eating. When she was pregnant with me, her German doctor recommended she have a water birth and she was all for it. During the birth, my father was there assisting my mother and I like to believe I came into this world swimming. Even with four children, my mother maintained her dedication to nutrition and natural healing. So, when Abbu was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, she was equally committed to caretaking and supporting him utilizing all her knowledge as a certified Naturopath/ holistic doctor.
For the past ten years, my mother has prepared a hot drink for dad which includes green tea and a host of herbs. Then, she puts a psyllium husk in this tea to help with digestion. In addition to the tea, she has my father take a spoonful of blackseed oil. When she has him on her preferred routine, Abbu starts his day off with yoga taught by Ammi and a morning walk. Since he was no longer going into the office, Ammi’s main goal was to keep him as active as possible while also managing her own busy schedule. The truth is, as much as my parents love each other, they got used to seeing each other only at specific times. When my dad was not traveling, mom only saw him in the early morning before he took the train into the city and in the late evening when he would return home from the office. Of course, when my dad would travel for work, my mom became very accustomed to running and managing her schedule independent of anyone else. Their schedules played out like this for most of their marriage because Abbu had a busy travel schedule in Venezuela as well—as they say, the better you are at your job, the more responsibility you are given. The one difference was that in Venezuela my dad used to come home for lunch and a siesta. After he took his nap, he would go back to work with a second wind.
At the precipice of a global pandemic and upon my return from Berlin, I looked at my father and he was completely handicapped. My body went into total shock. He could still look at me and smile, I knew that seeing me gave him immense joy. I was trying to hold back tears while I silently made a commitment to never leave his side. I had left Chicago before, when I moved to the Bay Area shortly after graduating from Loyola University and a few years later when I moved to Bogotá. For the most part, I felt comfortable saying goodbye to Abbu but when I moved to Germany I felt it almost immediately, as if I knew something dramatic would happen to him while I am abroad.
Sure enough, my premonition was accurate. As I was preparing to return to the U.S. in early February 2020, my father had a massive stroke. My mother was with me, helping me pack. Back in Chicago, my sister, Shafaq, just so happened to be in town from Washington D.C. She received a phone call from an uncle who serves on the Board of Directors of the Downtown Islamic Center (DIC) with Abbu and he notified her of what had happened. No one really knew exactly what had happened but what was clear was that he needed immediate medical attention. My dad was admitted into the Intensive Care Unit at Northwestern and Shafaq notified Kashif so he was on the first flight over from Atlanta.
Meanwhile, back in Germany, Ammi and I had no idea what had happened. Later on, my sister explained that she did not want to alarm us since we were so far away and she preferred that we focused on getting back home. As much as she tried to keep things under wraps, the word got out. I received a call followed by a text message from my best friend in California asking about my dad. I was totally confused. Then, there were the WhatsApp messages. My mom belongs to a few different groups, one of them is her prayer group which congregates every Thursday. A few aunties were reaching out to Ammi inquiring about the health of Abbu. My mom was able to put the pieces together and eventually figured out what had happened.
When I was ten years old, my maternal grandmother, Nani Ammi, had a stroke back in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. My mom asked her friends to look after Shafaq and I then she got on the first flight to be with her mother. Nani Ammi had become paralyzed on one side of her body and from that point forward, she was bedridden. My grandmother did not have sophisticated care available, but her children pulled their resources together to support her in her recovery. After four years, Nani Ammi passed away.
In some ways, Nani Ammi’s stroke prepared Ammi for what was waiting for us back home in Chicago. When we reached O’hare Airport, my sister was waiting for us along with Asad Bhai, his wife and my niece. We had a little welcome reception. From that point forward, everything would move super fast. My body and my mind had been separated. We drove straight to Shirley Ryan Ability Lab to see my father. When we got there, we took the escalators up to floor 23. “Remember, that’s Jordan's number,” Kashif remarked. My little niece and nephew came running to me once I got closer to Abbu’s suite. They had made a welcome home sign for my mom and me.
After I arrived in my father’s room, my siblings started to make arrangements to eat dinner at a local pizzeria. “You want to stay back, Seemi? Since you just got here,” Shafaq recommended. “Sure,” I responded with a little hesitance. Of course, I did not want to leave my father’s bedside, but I did not understand how my siblings were talking so matter-of-factly while I was still in shock. I guess they had more time to digest the information and act accordingly. To this day, my mom insists that she saw this coming. Ever since Abbu retired, his health was deteriorating and even though Ammi was doing everything to keep him and herself afloat, it was not enough to avoid a health emergency like a stroke.
While at Shirley Ryan, the news cycle was on almost all day. My dad had the TV locked on CNN. While we were at the airport in Berlin, we were asked whether we had traveled to China which I thought was a bit strange. Well, it all made sense while watching the news back in the U.S. and hearing more about what became known as the COVID-19 global pandemic. Jokingly, my family would tell Abbu that his life stopped and, subsequently, so did the lives of everyone else in the world. After Shirley Ryan, my father would eventually be in and out of five different hospitals and rehabilitation facilities.
After six weeks at Shirley Ryan, my father transitioned to a short-term rehabilitation center closer to my parents’ home. While he was there, we were not allowed to enter the facility due to COVID-19 restrictions. My mother’s primary love language is acts of service and, more specifically, she enjoys feeding others. While Abbu was at the short-term rehab center, one of us would drop off food at the front desk and then talk to my dad through his window on FaceTime. Everything around the whole situation was bizarre and being at home without any idea of when Abbu would be back made things even harder.
My dad is also the ultimate homebody. As much as he loved traveling, he also thoroughly enjoyed being at home. The idea of him floating from one medical facility to another was making life harder than it already was for him. He had his stroke in February and by June he was ready to come back home. My mom agreed and made arrangements with Medicare to accommodate him in the study room, this way he would not have to take stairs since he could no longer climb stairs. My brother, Kashif, contracted a caregiver who would spend time with my dad every day to ensure he would still get all his therapies.
The anticipation was building moments before my father got home but something was very unsettling about the whole situation. On one hand, I was eager to have him back at the house but, on the other hand, none of us knew what this would entail. Abbu was already distraught since he could not keep his fast this Ramadan, doctor’s orders. This was the first time in his adult life that he had not observed the annual thirty days of fasting. Additionally, he could not go to the mosque due to his physical condition. We were all masked up as the shuttle pulled up from Oakbrook Care.
Shortly afterwards, a physical therapist from Shirley Ryan arrived at the house to show me how to use this high-tech “Mercedes-Benz-of-wheelchairs” wheelchair. I was utterly confused, with no idea what I was doing, I had gotten comfortable being on autopilot—just following orders. Somewhere, in my subconscious, I knew I had to do whatever was humanly possible to get my dad to better health. At this point, my dad was in adult diapers and was eating through a feeding tube. While changing his position in bed, my sister would guide me, she had gotten some training during Abbu’s time at Shirley Ryan. I kept feeling like I was doing something wrong, and I would injure my dad’s fragile body. Most of all, the recurring question of why this was happening in the first place kept resurfacing.
A couple days after Abbu arrived home, we were having trouble feeding him through his feeding tube. My sister had predicted that complications would arise and, indeed, they did. We asked the certified nurse for assistance and he tried clearing up the feeding tube with Coca Cola but that was not helping. Everyone in the neighborhood knows my mom well, she is the unofficial neighborhood watch. Ammi really did not want to call the ambulance, but the circumstances required professional medical attention. Within a few minutes, the paramedics arrived and put Abbu on a stretcher. His expression was that of a baby in complete distress, he did not want to go back to the hospital. As he was wheeled away, my mother kept reassuring him in Urdu that he would be back home in no time.
My father is a very private person when it comes to his body, he did not like to be undressed unless he was at the beach or by a pool. In fact, on a family trip to Turkey, everyone planned a trip to a Turkish “hammam”, or bath, even the Shaikh on our tour, but my dad refused. So, the fact that there were strangers undressing him daily or cleaning his privates was utterly bizarre. Then, it was my turn. My dad had developed a bit of an overactive bladder and since he was not able to go to the bathroom, I had to help him with his portable urinal. Again, the fact that I was on autopilot helped me manage these particularly uncomfortable moments.
The end of Ramadan was approaching and Abbu had been home for a couple days, he was keen to be home to participate in all the Eid festivities. Our home, however, felt like a makeshift hospital. Baji, what I lovingly call my older sister, Shafaq, had created a comprehensive daily excel sheet which included all the times when my father would take his medication as well as all the responsibilities of the caretaker, Sanjay. On Eid day, Baji and I were driving around to three different pharmacies to ensure we had all the medications my dad needed. It was stressful. From the day my dad had arrived home, we had already called the ambulance two times within one week and that, of course, brought quite a bit of attention to our home, something my mom wanted to avoid as much as possible.
My dad’s favorite spot in the house was the family room. Given his current condition, he could not spend any time in the family room as he was relegated to the study room. Since none of us were strong enough or equipped to bring him to the family room, we kept him in the study room to stay on the safe side. One night, my dad called my mother to his room as we were all watching TV in the family room. Something felt off. He was reaching for an imaginary item with his left arm, the arm that was now dominant. Then, he called for my sister and I to come to his room. As we sat by his bedside, he brought up a topic we were all too familiar with—marriage. This was not anything new to us, my parents have wanted us to get married for more than fifteen years. My brother, Kashif, got married in 2005 and it was high time for the daughters to follow suit. “You have to get serious about getting married,” Abbu insisted. Baji patiently listened and reassured him with the talking points we are well versed in. “Abbu, we have to keep our faith strong and trust in Allah’s timing,” Baji reassured Abbu. I kind of understood where he was coming from because, from his vantage point and in his context, marriage is an insurance policy and he was no longer providing for us in the way he preferred to.
After a few encouraging words from Shafaq, Abbu seemed a little calmer so we left his room as it was his bedtime. The night got progressively stranger. My dad called my mom back to his room and his voice sounded a little louder than usual. A few moments later, my mom came back to the kitchen. “Your dad got really upset and said he wanted a divorce,” she shared with us. None of this behavior seemed within character for my father and the three of us were all a bit puzzled. My mom did not seem bothered by his remarks, a little hurt, but, deep down, she knew he did not really mean what he was saying. Something had overcome him.
Considering that Shafaq was with my dad from the beginning of the stroke, she took a leadership role in his recovery process. Every week, she was having conference calls with all the siblings, motivating us, updating us and delegating responsibilities. That night, she went on a Google quest to try to figure out what was happening to Abbu. She reached out to a couple close doctor friends and the best assessment was that my father was experiencing delirium. The delirium could be a side effect of the medication coupled with the new environment that he was in—the fact that he was at home but not really at home in the way he was used to. After an update call with my brothers, my sister made the executive decision to transfer Abbu back to the rehabilitation facility. “We could be doing more damage than good by keeping him at home,” she pointed out.
I became used to being agreeable, trusting my sister’s better judgement as it related to my father’s health and recovery. My mother was having episodes of vertigo and simply could not keep up with all that was required of caretaking at home, even with the assistance of a hired caretaker. Asad Bhai was eager to have my dad in Portland, closer to him. He wanted to help but knew the only way he could do that is if our dad was located closer to him. So, we devised a plan to get Abbu to an assisted living facility in Oregon before the end of 2020.
The thing about getting comfortable being on autopilot is that it eventually catches up to you and you start hating yourself. Sadly, this was becoming my reality. Once I was back in Chicago and I saw my dad in the state he was in, I started to become apathetic to just about everything in my own life. Technically, in a few months, I was scheduled to start a one-year Master’s in Public Administration at Harvard Kennedy School. They had accepted my deferral a year prior so I could complete my fellowship in Germany before starting graduate school. Now, with COVID in the mix, I was not interested in an online experience for my entire graduate program. Additionally, the idea of leaving Chicago again was unnerving.
At this point, I was so disconnected from what I wanted and started believing that my parents’ discernment was better than my own. This was all fertile ground for resentment and self-loathing. One night, shortly after I arrived back from Germany, my father advised me to go to the University of Chicago instead, since it would be a two-year program, and because it was close to home. At this point, I saw my father as some sort of saintly figure who knew what was better for me than I did. So, later that year, I would start a master’s program at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.
Our program started online due to COVID so, there I was, in my childhood bedroom, taking the most rigorous quantitative classes I have ever taken in my life. In high school, I was one of nine students who took Calculus I and Calculus II so I could avoid taking any math-related courses in college. While most of my family excels in mathematics as engineers and architects, I take after my mother’s affinity toward the arts and writing. My strategy worked and I was able to get out of Statistics in undergrad. Well, this all came back with vengeance in Fall 2020 when I was enrolled in Statistics for Data Analytics, Math Methods for Public Policy and Microeconomics. I was completely and utterly overwhelmed.
No matter how many notes I took and tutoring sessions I went to, I could not grasp the material. During study sessions, I was lost. Between Zoom classes, I either found myself having a breakdown or crying on the phone to my father. All Abbu wanted to do was help me, he loved helping me with my math homework. “Send me photos of your classwork,” he would suggest. I could not bear it—it felt like I was being punished for a brain that is not mathematically inclined.
Meanwhile, plans to transport my father to Portland before Christmas were coming together. Asad Bhai would fly to Chicago and accompany Abbu back to Oregon where he would admit Abbu into the Morning Star Assisted Living facility—located two blocks away from his home. This would be my dad’s first flight since he had his stroke so there was a lot of planning involved. While Ammi was knee deep in paperwork for Morning Star, she somehow managed to contract COVID. We were all panicking but she was unbothered, in some ways a bit grateful that she had a reason to slow down.
As both my parents were headed west, I did not see any reason why I should stay back in the suburbs of Chicago, especially considering school was online and we were still in somewhat of a lockdown. I decided to move to Portland as well where my brother’s family would put me up until I figured out my next move. As the new year came in, I had moved into my niece’s bedroom since she was in her final year of high school and had basically checked out. I would wake up to posters of Travis Scott, Stranger Things and photobooth photos of teenage girls wearing the latest fast fashion. “What am I doing here?” was usually the first question that came to my mind as soon as I woke up. The rainy grey weather did not help my pre-existing depressive state.
Considering how taxing the first quarter was, I was not in any rush to finsh part two of all the courses I had just completed at the Harris school. After talking to my academic advisor, I decided it was best for me to take a leave of absence. This way, I could rejoin when we would be back in-person and I could benefit from a true graduate school experience. There was not much for me to do to support my dad since Morning Star included wrap-around services. He was on a very strict routine, and we were all seeing significant improvement. After a year, he was no longer a feeding tube, he could walk with a walker and was able to communicate in all the languages he is fluent in.
I was not entirely sure how to keep myself busy since I was lacking motivation and had all this time to determine what I really wanted to do with my life. Starting yoga made the most sense to me, so I started to cold call the local studios to see if anyone was offering in-person classes. I was seeking a healthy routine and I remember my friend telling me how yoga saved her life so I figured now or never. When I called Body and Brain Yoga and Tai Chi, I left a voicemail on the machine for someone. “Have a magical day!” the machine voice said. Whoever was behind that voice sounded like she had the secret to life. I eventually got to meet Kazerri, the woman behind the voice, when I scheduled a visit to her studio, and she read my aura through a machine. “You can always go back to school, heal yourself,” she said in a very Mr. Miyagi kind of way.
After a couple weeks, I started working with Kazerri. I was Daniel Son and she was Mr. Miyagi, teaching me the patience and virtue behind “wax on, wax off.” I would go to the studio every day to work and take classes. Then, Kazerri introduced me to one of her lifetime members, Amy, who owns and runs a local coffee shop. Well, ever since I worked at Starbucks in high school, I always glamorized what it would be like to run my own little café so it seemed like the best time to earn some hands-on experience. Amy hired me as a Barista and, before I knew it, I was learning the recipes to mochas, smoothies and cappuccinos while trying to figure out how to get my latte art down. For the most part, it was fun but between emptying trash cans, cleaning toilets and having to deal with customers who vehemently refused to wear masks, the glamour quickly faded away.
Most of the other baristas were in college or in their final year of high school. Our store manager came to our coffee shop after nine years of working at Starbucks and was completely burned out by the corporate coffee scene. Whenever someone would ask me what I do or anything remotely related to my life plans, an overwhelming sense of anxiety would overcome me and I would choke. This was one of the few times in my adult life where I had no plan, nor did I have any idea of where to go. For me, this was unchartered territory. Sure, I was grateful for the time to reevaluate, but I was stuck in analysis paralysis and willpower was nowhere to be found.
The weather was getting better and so was my dad. My mom was ready to go back to Chicago, she was done being uprooted from her home and, more specifically, her kitchen. She was so eager to cook again and eat her own food. Working at the local coffee shop was only exacerbating my stress and anxiety so I decided to put in my notice. I was no longer working at the café nor at the yoga studio so I also began to get the feeling that my time in Portland was coming to an end, at least for the time being.
I still was not entirely sure whether I wanted to go back to complete the master’s degree I had started. All I could do was buy more time, and it was easier to do that at my parents’ home. No therapist, no parent nor any sibling could tell me what was best for me—I had to figure it out. As summer was ending, I went on a road trip with my sister, and it suddenly dawned on me that I have not had one break since my father had his stroke. I needed time to center myself so I could hear my inner voice. Moreover, I needed to believe in myself again.
“Have you ever considered a yoga retreat?” Baji asked me. “Not really,” I said as I was thinking aloud, “I mean, I’ve heard of the retreats in Costa Rica, but I never considered going by myself.” “Well, maybe it’s time you consider a solo trip there. Before school starts,” Baji advised. I went home, did some Googling and immediately booked a yoga retreat outside of San José, Costa Rica.
When I arrived in San José, a bright smile welcomed me. “I’m William, Juan sent me,” he reassured me. Upon booking the yoga retreat, I did not know what I was signing up for nor how far the retreat center would be from the airport. At that point, all I knew was that I would be taking a restorative trip and I’ll be able to talk Spanish—something that brings me joy. What I did not know is that William is a sage in his own right. During our almost four-hour drive, he shared timeless wisdom and advice with me. “Si lo podemos creer, lo podemos crear,” he imparted in Spanish. In English, this translates to: if we can think it, we can create it. My conversation with William ended up setting the tone for my week-long trip to El Castillo, Costa Rica.
When I arrived at the retreat center, it was pitch black. The only way to get around was with a flashlight. When I woke up in the morning, it was as though the whole world opened to me. I thought I was in heaven. With the background music of howling monkeys and birds chirping, I had a clear view of the Arenal Volcano. I was in the middle of the rain forest surrounded by lush greenery. I was starting to feel at peace.
A few days into my retreat, I had this sinking feeling that my close friend had passed away. Sure enough, my feeling was correct. My spiritual mentor, quasi older brother, my teacher, and, most of all, a dear friend had officially transitioned after a four-year battle against ALS. I was sad but I also knew he was in a lot of pain. Whitney, my friend, was an expert at being present—this was one of his many gifts. He always brought me back to the present moment, especially when my mind would race. In my heart, it felt as though Whiney had prayed that I would arrive in a place like Costa Rica to realize my dharma. Everything about El Castillo resonated with me, it felt like I was coming home.
Before heading back to Chicago, I made a commitment to myself that I would return to Costa Rica before the end of the month. My mind and my body were finally in sync, and that feeling of unease was slowly dissipating. I reckon the assurance I felt was the same kind of feeling Abbu had when he kept choosing Venezuela after the eighteen-month assignment in Venezuela had terminated, it just felt right.
Abbu at Inauguration of coffer dam to divert water. Guri, 1982
Abbu and Ammi's first selfie at Lake Shore Drive, Chicago
Abbu and Ammi on Eid-ul-Adha, 2022