During my junior year of college – only six years ago – I wrote about the abuse that rained on me daily until I was 17. While I was reading it to my class, I couldn’t continue. I had burst into tears in the very beginning. As one of my classmates offered to read it, she found out that she herself couldn’t finish reading it out loud for me as she was too choked up.
Eventually, my professor had to take over.
I remember distinctly what I wrote about then. Most of it illustrated examples of the types of abuse I endured as a child. But today, that’s not what I want to focus on – nor want to look back on.
Put simply, despite being a good kid that never got into any trouble inside and outside of school, I was a favorite target of my mother’s anger growing up. My siblings also experienced some of this abuse, but much of it was saved for me.
To this day, I’m not sure why it was, but at the same time, I am glad, because I feel as if I was the one who could’ve dealt with it better than any of the other Khan siblings.
I resented my mother for a long time because of it.
I hurt for years afterward because of it. And sometimes, even today, a vile worm of a thought slithers into my mind, reminding me of the words that cut through me like knives… of the slaps that burned against my skin…
Reminding me of the world of bullying that I put up with in school, only to return home and see it in a different way – through a different person.
At the end of 2011, a few months after graduation, I started looking into master’s programs that would give me an excuse to get the hell out of Northern Virginia – and as far away from my mother as possible. Being a very traditional Pakistani Muslim mother, she wasn’t accepting of my moving away without being married (at the time this happened, no female in our Pakistani community left her parents’ household without being married).
When I sent various graduate school applications in and told her I had done so with 100% of the intention of going, she warned me that if I walked out of that house, I would never be allowed back.
This wasn’t unique of her at the time. Every auntie in our community was giving her daughters the same speech.
I was the only one stubborn enough to push back.
I didn’t care.
I resented her so much that I didn’t want to be under her control anymore. Any respect that I should’ve had for my mother had flown out the window as I sat on the mountain of hurt and tears she had caused me over the years. I knew that somehow, someway, my siblings and father would keep in touch with me.
As for her, she could do as she damn well pleased – I was no longer going to play this game.
The first Ivy League school I heard from was Yale University. My middle sister, Ruhma, was the first person I told, and as I called my best friend and cousin, Sumbal, on the phone, I overheard Ruhma telling my mother. I quickly shushed Sumbal on the phone as I sat at the top of the stairs, listening very intently as Ruhma excitedly told her the good news.
The reply made me feel as if I had been punched in the stomach and had all the wind knocked out of me.
“It doesn’t matter where she got in, or why. I don’t care because if she goes without being married, I am done with her.”
So imagine my surprise when, a month later, upon learning I got into Harvard, she came home and woke me up from a nap excitedly while exclaiming how proud she was of me. She had been at a family get-together that day, and according to her, it was there it had dawned on her just how wrong she had been in the way she treated me.
As more and more people congratulated her for her daughter’s feat, the more she came to realize that while she had thought I was going to embarrass her and the Khan family, I was actually doing something that she should be proud of.
That was where the switch in our relationship began.
But being the stubborn early 20’s adult that I was, I didn’t notice until much later. I didn’t want to notice because I wanted to keep hating her. I was still hurt, and I needed to hate her for that.
In mid-August of 2012, my cousins, sister, mother, and I packed ourselves in between all my things in my mother’s mini-van and made the nine-hour hike to Cambridge, MA to set up my apartment, a couple of weeks before school started. Seeing as I never lived on my own before, I realized just how much I had grossly underestimated the cost of furnishing an apartment and living on my own would be.
But it didn’t matter because my mother took it upon herself to make sure I had everything that I needed.
And even when all the apartment moving, decorating, and furnishing was all said and done, she drove me to the mall and told me to pick out a new wardrobe.
“I want my daughter to look as amazing as she is on the inside when she walks into those classes next week,” she told me as I asked her why she was insisting on revamping my style.
On the way back from shopping, I quietly grabbed her hand in gratefulness and looked over at her. As she entangled her long, beautiful fingers in mine, I thanked her for everything she had done for me that week.
“See?” She said quietly to me in our native language in Urdu. “And you’ve always said I don’t love you. I’ve loved you in many ways and have shown you in many ways that you haven’t seen.”
It wasn’t in that moment that I realized the depth of her words.
Instead, I realized it in the moments that I hiccup-cried myself to sleep in Boston because homesickness gripped at my insides every second of every day.
It was in the moments that I came home to a disgustingly messy apartment and cleaned up after my roommates, similar to how my mother had cleaned up after the Khan family for years.
It was in the moments that I cooked and realized how much I missed her Pakistani home cooking and how she had always, always made sure our stomachs were full no matter how early she had to get up to cook for us or how late she had to make us a plate.
It was in the moments that I was sick and longing for the way she tucked me in and laid next to me, her body curving to curl up next to mine as I moaned and groaned my pain away.
It was in the moments that she knew something was wrong just by the sound of my voice when I called home.
It was in the moments that she vigilantly drove to Boston to visit me and keep my homesick heart company – despite the toll it constantly took on her frail, diabetic body.
It was in the moments that she cried with me on the phone when I had a painful ear infection because she felt helpless that she couldn’t do anything to make me feel better.
It was in the moments, despite struggling financially, she frequently sent me money despite my protests so I could buy a new coat to keep warm in the New England winters, a new mattress for my ailing back, the books I needed for class – exactly as she had done when I was living with her.
And even after I graduated, it was in the moment when, during my engagement announcement that could’ve torn our family apart, she, despite not agreeing with what I did, fought for me and protected me as she dared anybody and everybody to attempt to hurt me for falling in love with a man they didn’t approve of.
It was during all of these moments that I finally realized what she had meant. That despite the abuse, she had shown her love for me in different ways.
That she had tried to make up for it.
It was in those moments when my mother went from being my mother to being my Mama Khan.
But what about the abuse? Does it let her off the hook?
As my relationship with my mother grew closer while I was in Boston, another thing started growing within me: empathy.
Instead of questioning her about why she abused me when I was younger, I started to look at Mama Khan as a person – a human being – with all of her flaws. It was there I a human being quite different than the one that I had thought I’d known all along…
In 1986, Mama Khan gave birth to my twin brother and I at the age of 18 – less than a year after she had immigrated to the United States with my father, who was only 20 at the time.
Pregnant and living with my father and two other uncles, my mother knew absolutely nobody else.
Not only did she not have the resources to branch out and find friends or a larger Pakistani community, she was barely an adult living in America without a hint of knowledge regarding the English language. She always cried to her mother over the phone, but due to the technology of the 80’s, she didn’t have many chances to do so.
(And I thought I felt alone in Boston… only 500 miles away with a ton of new friends – and Facetime for the days I wanted to see the faces of my loved ones back home…)
As Mama Khan’s family in America grew from four to six and time went on, other challenges arose. The divide between her Pakistani-born generation of people and first-generation-American-born children was also becoming extremely apparent.
While she still lived with the cultural norms of Pakistan running through her veins, her children, and especially me, were violently pushing against them.
I was a royal pain in the ass.
And while that doesn’t do away with the years of abuse, it does put things in perspective. Mama (and Papa) Khan had both given up their dreams to come to America for my siblings and me. To give us a better chance at life.
Mama Khan, a woman who once had aspirations of becoming a nurse or a doctor, opted to let go of those very dreams in order to live in a country of which she did not know the language or the people of – all for us.
And while they did that, I was rejecting them on so many levels through my hatred of my Pakistani ethnicity, rebellious attitude, and refusal to do anything they asked me to do.
She was young, lonely, depressed, frustrated, confused, and so, so much more. She let her anger get the best of her, and unfortunately, it manifested into abuse. But, at the same time, she had done so much to make up for her mistakes.
We are all human, we all make mistakes. We hurt the ones we love the most.
And this is a mistake I am willing to forgive.
Not because I am delusional or crazy.
Or because today, she has become my best friend.
It’s because forgiveness is, in comparison, very little in return for all of her sacrifices.
And also because the most right thing my mother did was love me – and my siblings – unconditionally in many, many different ways.
I see that now.
The abuse stopped.
But her love for me never did.
And I know it never will.