by Noushin Hamid
I’ve always been, by every definition of the word, “squeamish.”
But on December 13th, 2013, something happened early that Friday morning that would soon prove that my sensitive gag reflex was something minuscule when it mattered.
I woke up groggy, it was cold and grey out and I laid in bed wondering how long I could stay in it until I absolutely had to get up and get ready for work at Niketown. I had just had my very last final exam as an undergraduate the night before. It was for a drama class and the exam was a performance. I remember writing my lines on my hand and taking a photo of it for instagram and captioning it, “makin’ momma proud”.
When I finally got up and started to hobble over to the bathroom, my mother limped into the living room, holding onto the dining table. She usually likes to wake up when I do and see me off to class or work, even though I always wished I could have a few mins of solitude when I woke up every morning. She always wakes up almost half asleep, since she goes to bed after everyone else. Sometimes her bewildered morning face annoyed me, and I’d ask why she didn’t just stay in bed. This morning her face was different. She tried to ask me something, but she couldn’t quite get the words out. the left side of her face was drooped, and I looked down and saw her right hand struggling to hold her entire body up. I asked her to have a seat and that I was going to call 911. She was having a stroke.
After I called 911, I calmly brushed my teeth. About two brush strokes in, I began to weep. I turned the water up to drown out the sound. I finished up and went to my room, while my mother sat on the living room couch. I picked up a pillow and screamed into it. My entire world was imploding on the living room couch. I called a manager at Niketown, trying to keep my sobs quiet while telling them I wouldn’t be at work that day. I got my moms shoes and jacket.
The next few weeks that she spent recovering at an inpatient hospital taught me many things about my mother and about myself. On her first day of being fully conscious, she asked me how my final exam went, and whether or not I was graduating. I told her that yes, I was graduating. Being Bengali, I was brought up in a culture where parents don’t say they love you. Mothers don’t talk to their daughters about their periods or puberty. At one point when I was a teenager my mother even suggested keeping my underwear on in the shower. It was, by all accounts, a conservative atmosphere in my household. I was twenty three years old and I had never so much as seen more than my mothers midriff when she wore a saree. I was now changing my mothers clothes and underwear. I was taking her to the bathroom and monitoring her bowel movements and letting her nurse know what they were like. I showered her and made sure her feet were massaged with a combination of vaseline and lotion that she had been using every winter night for decades but could not do herself now. I started using it myself when I got home those nights. Though she told me she had very helpful nurses, (and they were) I wanted to be the one who did her night time routine for her, because I felt like only I could do it “right”. Most mornings if I wasn’t working, I’d go right back to brush out any tangles in her hair.
It was no secret that the dynamic between my mother and I was, tumultuous. Her being a devout Bengali Muslim who had only moved to New York City from Bangladesh four years before I was born caused a few grey areas in our interests and in our general understanding of each others. I stressed her out with with everything from my gym leggings that showed too much calf to the non Bengali that I dated. Somewhere in the pit of my stomach was the rendering of some guilt. Had I caused this stroke? It was a feeling I tried to muffle as much as I could by being at the hospital. For the most part I didn’t think I did, but maybe I wondered if anyone else was thinking it, was she thinking it?
One night I had just finished up her routine at the hospital with her and the night shift nurse came in to introduce herself. She was new to the floor and hadn’t met any of the patients yet. When she looked over my mother’s chart to see her history and saw that she was a stroke patient she “jokingly” asked, “What’s wrong, are you stressing Mommy out?” My throat burned. Was this stranger confirming my worst fear? I looked at the floor so that I wouldn’t have to answer. My mother answered instead. “No no, she’s a very good girl.” she said. I swallowed with relief. The nurse and I tucked my mom into bed and she noticed how soft her feet were. She commented on them and my mother told her, “Yes, I put vaseline and lotion every night.”