Fifteen years ago today, our world was changed forever. Though I had no personal connection to the victims or the perpetrators of that tragedy, as a Muslim woman living in America, I did not come out of the ordeal unscathed.
Thankfully, this country has made some progress – Muslim Americans finally feel empowered and safe enough to share their stories – but we have not come far enough.
The 9/11 story that I will be sharing with you today, however, won’t be adding to this narrative, at least not in the way you might think. Because despite everything that has happened – Muslim men facing surveillance simply because their beards don’t look like the one displayed on a box of “Just for Men,” or women’s headscarves being pulled off because some outsider feels the need to “liberate” them, and countless other horror stories – 9/11 doesn’t bring to my mind any of those injustices.
To me, September 11, 2001 is the day my grandmother died.
My grandmother, my mother’s mother, or Naanaami as I used to call her, was the only grandparent I had the privilege of meeting. Sadly, I only came to know that this was a privilege after she died.
I’ve thought about writing this story for a few years now, but I never had the heart to do it because I knew how painful it would be. Not just personally, but also for those who knew my grandmother. I do not wish to bring them any more pain than they have already suffered. But I need to write this. For myself mostly, but also for my grandmother, whom, even though she’s been gone for 15 years, I hope can forgive me.
I don’t have many vivid childhood memories of my grandmother. Growing up I didn’t understand why, but I spent a great deal of my adolescence being angry about it. I now attribute it largely to the fact that my grandmother belonged to a generation that believed sons are the ones who will take care of their parents in old age. After getting married, a daughter’s loyalty is expected to first be toward her in-laws. I don’t know if my grandmother fully accepted this sentiment, but cultural myths are hard to shake off when everyone around you tells you that’s just the way it is. Though my grandmother stayed with us at least once in my lifetime that I can remember, ours was never her permanent home.
After my family and I moved to Chicago in the late 90s, my grandmother’s health deteriorated and she was eventually put in a nursing home. My mom regularly visited her when she could – but her own bout with cancer made it difficult for her to do as much as she would have liked. I remember feeling forced to accompany my mom on some of those visits. As an irritable 13-year-old, it didn’t even cross my mind that my grandmother was nearing the end of her days. I could have used this chance to create a relationship I did not have when I was younger. Actually get to know her, talk to her.
But I didn’t. I used our language barrier as an excuse – my grandmother couldn’t speak English, and I could barely speak Urdu. All I could think of was the noxious smell of urine that pervaded the nursing home. I sat quietly during those visits, nodding when appropriate, while my mom did most of the talking. I couldn’t wait to get out of that place.
Now, I wish I could go back and tell my grandmother that I am sorry.
Naanami, I am sorry for not taking the time to understand how difficult your life was. You were widowed at an extremely young age. You had three little children to take care of. All of this in post-partition India where it was impossible for any woman to dream of being financially independent. You had to rely on the generosity of a few of your deceased husband’s family (God bless them) to take you and your children in. You later immigrated to a country whose primary language you could not understand. You inevitably faced that “clash of cultures” television pundits now make a mockery of. Did you have anyone you could vent to? You were deathly afraid of hospitals, because that is where you last saw your husband alive. Yet, you spent your final years in a nursing home. And I’m sure not all the nursing home staff were culturally sensitive to your needs and beliefs. I sincerely hope that they did not take advantage of you because you could not communicate to them in a language they understood.
But mostly, I want to go back and tell you Naanaami how sorry I am for being complicit. I know I was still a child when you died and probably wouldn’t have been able to do much to ease your suffering, but I also didn’t take the opportunity I did have when you were alive to show you how much you mean to me. Despite what your own society believed, you made it a priority that all your children – including your daughter, my mother – received an education. Vicariously, I’ve learned that despite not being able to go to school, you were probably the smartest and wisest woman I’ll ever know. Your reputation for being a generous, loving, and prudent woman, a woman of integrity and principle lives on.
You died on September 11, 2001, in a hospital in Naperville, Illinois, after suffering your second stroke, hundreds of miles away from the carnage that had been unleashed just a few hours earlier. And despite all that the world has witnessed since that fateful day, you’re still the only person I think of when I hear the date 9/11.
Each year, when the rest of the world mourns those who lost their lives at the hands of a few men who hijacked my religion way before they hijacked any plane, I mourn a tragedy much closer to home.
I can still see you Naanami, sitting there all alone in that nursing home cafeteria, wearing that teal blue jogging suit of yours, with your off-white headscarf tightly knotted at the base of your neck. You always sat there quietly with your head bowed down. What were you thinking? I wish I could go back and ask you.
Maybe, if I am fortunate enough to meet you in Heaven, I’ll get my second chance.