Chapter One: The Run-In at the Hospital
I’m an idiot. I should’ve noticed the signs immediately! Now that I think about it it makes sense how tired Ammi has been recently. Before she was hospitalized, Ammi wanted me to learn how to make her famous samosas saying that the family recipe shouldn’t end with her. That was an obvious sign. Yet I still went back to med school that semester.
“Why didn’t you tell me about this sooner, Ammi?” I asked, as I held her hand. I had rushed home the minute Abbu (Dad) told me the news. Apparently, Ammi didn’t want to worry us, but Abbu thought I deserved to know. I’d rather know later than never. I finished my last final at med school just before winter break officially started. Once I informed my professors about what was happening at home, I was able to rush back home to be there for Ammi during her chemotherapy.
“You should be in med school, jaanu.” Ammi told me. Ammi was lying in the hospital bed in one of those hospital gowns.She looked so pale and it terrified me. I didn’t know what to do or what to say to make it better. It was hard to see Ammi like this. The hospital room had the usual bare-white walls. There was a plant in the corner to spruce up the room, but this wasn’t like the children’s hospital – that place was like colors exploded on the walls. But, here it was like they wanted the patients to be as miserable as they felt.
“I came back early to be with you, Ammi. Aren’t you happy to see me?” I teased Ammi. Ammi held my hand and gave me a weak smile.
“I’m glad you’re home, beta. But, you should be studying for your finals, no?” Ammi inquired.
“I was able to take them early. I want to be here with you on the days Abbu has work, Ammi.”
“Come sit, beta. I am going to be fine. At Thanksgiving, we’ll have a chicken masala and guests will be over. You’ll see, jaanu.”
“Ammi, you don’t know if that’ll happen. We don’t.” I wished Ammi would just admit that everything wasn’t fine and that things will never be the same again no matter how badly I wanted it to be.
“Rashid, you can’t live your life in fear. Whatever Allah (S.W.T.) has planned will happen, insha’ Allah!” Ammi said, as she emphasized the last two words. All I could do in response was hold her hand. When Ammi fell asleep, I sighed and looked out at the night sky. Abbu would be here soon and then he will know exactly how severe the situation was. I needed to know even if Ammi didn’t want me to. Ammi wanted me to pretend everything was okay and that she will get better but it just didn’t feel right.
I remembered the first time Ammi told me she had cancer. She had ordered Halal pepperoni pizza and even ordered garlic knots …one of my favorites. She waited until I had finished my share before breaking the news. I was in so much shock that I had run out and went for a bike ride with Ammi calling after me.When I got home, Abbu explained that he had wanted to tell me sooner but Ammi was still in denial about how severe the situation was. “She doesn’t want to miss out on your life, son.” Abbu told me gently. When that sunk in, I realized I should’ve thought about it the other way around: I didn’t want to miss out on being in Ammi’s life. I didn’t know how much longer I had with her or what would happen if… I shuddered thinking of that what if moment. I didn’t want to think about that. Instead, I focused on counting my blessings that I even had this time with Ammi. Not everyone is lucky enough to have these moments with their parents. I texted my friends telling them that I couldn’t make it tonight. We initially had plans to see a football game. I wouldn’t be an asshole again and miss this. There would be other games in the future.
“Assalamu Alaikum, Abbu!” I stepped out of the hospital room as quietly as I could.I didn’t want to wake Ammi up now that she was asleep.
“Yes… I will. Right. Yes I prayed Isha, Abbu. I went to the masjid before driving over. Will you be here tonight? Okay… I will wait until you come. You have to tell her, Abbu.“ I told Abbu before hanging up. I sighed before walking back in.
“Rashid? What is it, beta?” Ammi said as she sat up in bed.
“Abbu is coming, but he is going to be a little late, Ammi.”
“You shouldn’t be here… you should be with your friends, Rashid. You have friends, right?” Ammi teased, as I rolled my eyes.
“Yes, Ammi. I have friends – but I’d rather be here with you. Besides, Abbu will be here soon and then I’ll head home.”
“Go home, Rashid. I’m just going to go back to sleep. I will tell Abbu you were here all day.” Ammi patted my hand and motions to the door with a small smile. “Thank you for coming, beta, but I don’t want you watching me sleep.” I kissed Ammi on the cheek, gathered my things, and rushed out the door. I looked back in the direction of Ammi’s hospital room and shook my head. It had been a long night, but it was time to head home. I was on my way out when someone crashed into me.
“Watch where you’re going!” I snapped as the girl looked up in surprise. She took out her headphones from her ears and quickly fixed her hijab.
“Sorry – I was on my way to the west wing and I got lost. I didn’t even realize you were there.” Realization dawned on me as I realized I had been an asshole.
“Sorry for being an asshole. I know it’s no excuse, but it’s been a rough week.”
“The west wing is just around the corner after you go straight and take a left.”
“How do I know you’re not leading me to some weird part of this building?”
“Take my advice or not … I really don’t care. But, if you don’t it’ll be awhile before an assistant can help you out.” I pointed to the line of people waiting to talk to the desk assistant. She gave me the middle finger and walked off in the direction I had given her. I laughed at how bold she was and she was so defiant that I had to admit I was enamoured by her. What a weird girl. I had forgotten to say salaams but figured I’d never see her again. She had left quite an impression on me but I knew the chances of seeing her again were slim to none. I didn’t even know anything else about this girl.
I don’t have time for love anyway, I thought to myself. I was going to meet up with Hashim – the Imam’s son and hang out before heading home that night. Hashim had insisted that he stopped by. I realized maybe Ammi was right – maybe I did need the distraction.
The Imam opened the door with a smile. “Assalamu Alaikum, Rashid! Come in, come in!” The Imam was this tall, Arab guy originally from Palestine. The Imam was gentle but firm. He was the kind of man anyone would be willing to approach due to how understanding he was. Unless you asked his son, Hashim.
“Hashim is in his room, Rashid. How is your mother doing?” The Imam inquired.
“She is good, still recovering, Uncle AbdulRahman. Please continue to keep her in your du’aas.” I replied, with a smile as I headed upstairs before the Imam could ask him anything else. Inside his house, the Imam had insisted that Rashid called him Uncle saying it was good to separate work from home.
“Salams, so did my dad hold you up?” Hashim asked.
“Nah – he just asked about Ammi.”
“How are you holding up?”
“Not great – I could use a distraction to be honest.”
“I know a good one – let’s watch Star Wars: A New Hope!”
“Alright!” I took off my jacket and sat on the bean bag. Hashim came back with two bags of popcorn and handed one to him.
“Kettle for you and butter for me,” Hashim said,as he pressed play. Getting to see Laia escape with Luke’s help helped me momentarily forget about what Abbu had told me. More like sprung on me.
“Are you okay, man?” Hashim shot me a look of concern.
“Huh? Oh yeah… I’m alright. Why?”
“You kinda zoned out a little. I tried calling your name and wasn’t sure if you were okay.”
“I’m fine… it’s just …it’s been a weird night, man.” Hashim put the movie on pause and turned on the fan. “If you don’t want my parents to overhear it’s better to turn on the fan. Anyway, so what happened?”
I sighed as I hought about brushing off what I was thinking. When Hashim gave me a look I cracked and told him about meeting the girl at the hospital.
“You were an asshole, moron.” Hashim replied, with a grin as I shook my head. I gave Hashim what I had hoped was an annoyed look before I started laughing.
“Damn it – I kind of was. Wasn’t I?”
“Here’s the good news – you’re probably never going to run into her again. So, don’t worry about it.”
“And if I do?”
“You’re smart. I’m sure you’ll figure it out. If not … maybe you’re not as smart as I think you are.” I rolled my eyes and grabbed the remote.
“Do you want to finish this?”
“Yeah,” With that, the two of us went back to watching the movie; almost as if nothing happened in the first place. We were so engrossed in our movie that we didn’t notice when Hashim’s mom knocked on the door.
“HASHIM! RASHID! Dinner is ready!” Hashim’s Mom was the kind of woman who will insist on feeding you no matter how many times you tell her you already ate. “I’m sorry it’s not much – Hashim told me you were staying a little while ago.” I looked in amazement at the macaroni bechamel, the pastries, and the kebabs.
“This looks incredible, Aunty!” I said, meaning every word he said. It really was an incredible sight to behold. Arab food was amazing but it could use some hot sauce. Some pepper flakes couldn’t hurt either. I thankfully didn’t say any of that out loud and by the way Hashim’s Mom beamed at me I knew I had made the right decision. They sat down at the table and the Imam began serving me dish by dish and then served his wife. After he served Hashim and then himself. “BismillAllah Rahman Ar-Raheem!” The Imam declared before eating. Everyone else followed suit and dug in. By the end of the night, I was in a happy food coma. The bachamel had been his favorite and Hashim’s Mom insisted that he take some home with him when she heard that he liked it. I tried to say it was okay (brown culture customs or maybe it was a Muslim thing) but I was secretly ecstatic that I’d get to drive home with it. Hashim walked me to the car and the two of us talked for a bit before I drove off. By the time I entered the house, it was still quiet. Abbu had stayed the night by Ammi’s hospital bed so I had the whole house to myself.
Abbu had texted earlier in the day to tell me to attend some masjid event. Apparently, it was a D’awah booth. The D’awah booth is usually a table that is handled by local Muslim students and supervised by the Imam or other elders in the community. It was for an interfaith session. I had to attend a workshop training tonight to make sure I was prepared for whatever happened. Abbu thought this would be a good distraction for me. When I had attempted to protest, Abbu rebutted my rebuttals saying that whatever I wanted to do probably isn’t a one way ticket to Jannah (Paradise). So here I was about to go to my first D’awah workshop.
“Asaalamu Alaikum, everyone!” The Imam greeted us with a smile as we walked in and removed our shoes. The women sat behind us and I sat with the other male teens in the front. “We will take a break for Asr salah but feel free to pray dhur before we commence.” The Imam paused and watched as many of the students got up to pray. Once we were done, I sat back down and did my best to listen attentively to the Imam.
“Remember that we always ask if they would like a flyer. Never get angry regardless of what the other person says. Remember not to take it too personal if the other person is rude to you. If you’re talking to a Christian, be empathetic. Acknowledge that you also believe in Prophet Isa (A.S.) or as they say Jesus. We just don’t believe in the trinity. Focus on the common ground with whomever you’re talking to. If you don’t have patience, this will be a tedious task for you and I suggest that you think about whether or not you’re cut out for it. You will have a supervisor with you at the booth should you have any questions or if things get out of hand. We have never had any dire situations.” The Imam handed out booklets with information on topics that could be of interest to others. He droned on for a bit and I zoned out.
“We will have a container of candy for kids to walk by and take. When that happens, this is your time to hand out a booklet. One woman and man will be manning the table every hour. If you are unable to make it, please come and see me before you leave tonight. This is my number if you need to reach me at any time.” The Imam wrote down his number on the white board and everyone took a picture or wrote it down. “I am going to pass this sheet around and I want each of you to sign up for the time slot.” I looked around to see if I recognized any of the guys.
There was one kid he recognized from school – they had the same Art class but other than that he didn’t recognize anyone. He was always making Tik Tok videos when he thought the teacher wasn’t looking. The kid was never as smooth as he thought he was. Hashim avoided these workshops as often as he could and usually only attended them if his Dad guilt tripped him into attending one. The Imam droned on for a few more minutes and then it was finally time to head out.
“Rashid!” I spun around to face the kid from his Art class.
“It’s me… Samad!” Samad replied.
“Oh… right. Hey, so what did you want to talk about?”
“You have no idea who I am … right?” Samad asked.
“Sorry… no. “
“That’s alright. Anyway… what time did you sign up for?”
“Five pm.” I said silently hoping that Samad didn’t sign up for the same time. I just wanted to head out but this kid was persistent.
“Damn … I have the last shift.”
“That’s a shame… well, I have to head out.” With that, I smiled at him and got inside my car. I was finally able to drive away. I turned on some music and listened to Eminem as I drove home.I was more introverted than most and preferred solitude to large gatherings which is why it was a miracle that I had even agreed to volunteer for that Da’wah booth. The only reason I went through with it was because Ammi had been so ecstatic when she heard that I didn’t want to disappoint her.
When I finally arrived at home, it was already eight pm and Abbu was asleep on the couch. CNN played in the background and I have no idea why he insisted on watching it whenever he was home when he could read about it or do anything else. I quietly walked in, locked the door, and lowered the volume of the TV. I knew if I turned off the TV it would startle Abbu awake and Abbu didn’t get a lot of sleep recently so that was the last thing I wanted to do. Instead, I put away my things and started to make dinner.
A family friend had dropped off food so I just had to heat it up. I wasn’t sure if Abbu ate so I made two plates filled with Nihari, biriyani, and naan. The broth smelled of turmeric and other traditional spices. There were slow-cooked beef chunks in the stew and even though I had already eaten it was an overwhelming day and I tend to stress eat. I wasn’t planning on sleeping yet, so I made some chai on the stove and added some cinnamon and spice.
Although I’m not an expert cook, I knew my way around a kitchen.Ammi believed that both men and women should learn how to cook. It had been drilled into my head that you needed food for survival and cooking isn’t just something for girls. Still, I appreciated it when I didn’t have to worry about cooking even though the reason Aunties would send food is because they thought Abbu and I didn’t know how to cook. A common misconception. The aunties’ food was scrumptious, so we never corrected them when they made their assumptions.
I sat at the dining table and it was only when I was washing the dishes that Abbu woke up. “Ah, beta, you’re home!” Abbu exclaimed, as he rubbed his eyes and got up from the couch. “What did Aunty Samreena bring today?”
“Nihari, biriyani, and some naan. She also left a tray of pakoras and some samosas.” I replied, as I handed Abbu his plate.
Abbu smiled and microwaved his food. “Thanks for the chai, beta. How was the workshop? You did go, right, Rashid?”
“Yes, Abbu. I went and it was alright. I probably won’t do it again but I’ll go for the D’awah workshop over the weekend, Insha’ Allah!” Abbu patted my shoulder. “Good, good, beta. Your Ammi will be pleased. Are you stopping by the hospital this weekend after the D’awah booth?”
“Yes, Abbu. I’m going to go upstairs. I’m meeting with Hashim and some others tomorrow evening. Do you want me to do anything before then?”
“That’s okay. I’ll be at the hospital in the evening after work, beta. I know Ammi didn’t want you to be there during the week but I’m sure she’ll want to see you over the weekend.” Abbu informed me as he started eating. I sipped my chai as I nodded along. I didn’t get the logic, but I knew better than to pressure Abbu into answering his questions about Ammi and the chemotherapy.
When Abbu was done, I washed the dishes and we talked for a little while. Abbu got a call from a relative and I rushed upstairs before Abbu could ask me to come and talk to whoever was on the phone.
I turned on his TV and began to watch Hassan Minhaj’s Homecoming King. Hassan got what it was like being a kid from an immigrant family with all this pressure to be perfect. Hassan wasn’t perfect and he shared his struggles of being Brown in America. I also thought it was hilarious how people used to view Hassan’s mom as a model. “She was like the iPhone 8 of Aligarh. Everyone was like, ‘Oh, my God, have you heard of Seema? She’s very slim and slender. Her family owns a camera,” Hassan said in Homecoming King and I shook my head. I looked at the TV in amusement.
When the show was over, we prayed Isha at the masjid and then headed back home. The masjid has a big dome shape in the center and two minaret. By the end of the night, I scrolled through Instagram before drifting off. I’ve never been to a D’awah booth before and I never would’ve guessed that I’d meet my future wife at a booth.