Family Life

My mom survived breast cancer. Am I next?

On average, an estimated 15.2% of new cancer cases in the United States are women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. That means that 1 in 8 women in the United States will develop breast cancer at some point in their lifetime. 

These statistics are indicative of families, touched eternally by a cancer that is more than just a disease – it is linear. Breast cancer often weaves a thread, mangled in fate and fear, through mothers, daughters, and sisters alike. The survivors among them are the superheroes of nearly every generation of women, powering through all of the anxiety, body disfiguring surgeries or treatments, and impromptu decision-making associated with the onset of such an illness. They take this disease and nip it in the bud, almost passively, acknowledging the unforgiving weight that will forever be weighing down their bodies and minds. 

In some cases, before these women can even think about what comes next, they are sewed up, stripped, and shaved. Left without any sensation in their breast area after a mastectomy, and feeling less and less whole with every visit to the oncologist. It is hard for most women to even feel at home in their bodies anymore. 

In February of 2017, my mother sat in a bleak and claustrophobic doctor’s office for her regular mammogram visit and heard the dreadful words that every woman lives in fear of, “I think we’re going to need to take a second exam. There may be cancer.” 

There was. 

She has told me that she spent most of her life, 38 years to be exact, in terror of what was surely to come. When my mother was 17 years old, the same age that I had been when she was diagnosed, her mother passed away after a long and debilitating battle with breast cancer. Afterward, this disease became a constant threat. So, in some ways, her diagnosis was more of a relief than anything else.

For me, however, it was excruciating. I had a hard time fathoming the enormity of it. Often, I would find myself drenched in hot and burning tears, unable to put into words what I was feeling. I was incoherent and unable to be comforted. I really hated it when people tried to comfort me, too—it felt condescending. I didn’t want to need them.

But, at the same time, I wasn’t even close to being the strong person that I presented to the world. I was falling hard—and fast. Most days, I would go to school or hang out with my friends, but the entire time I felt as if there were a million knives stabbing my chest at any given moment, and I couldn’t help it. Sometimes, I even liked feeling the pain. If my mom had to suffer, then, I thought, so did I. 

Years later I’m able to articulate my thoughts a little more clearly. I was terrified, desperate, and I didn’t know where to turn. So much was happening all the time and I was grieving my old self. That is, the self that hadn’t yet felt such complete and sunken remorse. There was this urgency to do everything right. In a situation like that, there’s no room for mistakes and I was incredibly nervous that I would mess up. Or maybe I was nervous that something would mess me up. Either way, I changed a lot that year. 

Unfortunately, our story is not an uncommon one. 

A woman’s chance of developing breast cancer increases if her mother, sister, or daughter has been diagnosed. In addition, women who carry the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene are at an increased risk of breast cancer than women who do not carry the gene. 

My mom is thankfully, and gracefully, in remission today. Her fight seemed, on the outside, to be continuous and suffocating. But, she is a survivor, bold and vivacious, in all of her glory. She has the scars and the strength to prove it, too. 

I am well aware that my risk of this disease is high. But, I am also confident that this does not mean that it is a death sentence. Regardless of being only 21 years old, I am diligent in conducting breast exams on myself at least once a month in an attempt to detect any early warning signs of breast cancer. What I search for is any abnormal lumps or changes in the breast tissue/skin. 

The good news is that with advancing technologies the survival rate of people diagnosed with breast cancer is steadily increasing, even though the number of people getting sick remains stagnant. 

Any cancer diagnosis is terrifying, but breast cancer for me feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy. I won’t be able to stop being overwhelmed by this sharp and unrelenting nervousness until it is completely out of my system. And we all know that there is only one way for that to happen. 

For now, I am trying to focus on what I am able to control. Breast cancer is certainly not one of those things. But, I am in control of my mindset. While it is important for me not to let my guard down, at some point I have to just let go and let it be. I trust that fate will run its course. 

I come from a long legacy of confident and courageous women, all beautiful and bountiful in their own right. So, it would be a disservice if I did not take their wisdom and hold onto it tightly. I mean, I watched while my own mother boldly stared her fears directly in the face. She never skipped a beat, not even for a second. Her resilience against a disease that is otherwise overbearing is nothing short of inspiring and I am so proud of her. Because of her, I am starting to think that maybe I can handle it too, that maybe I can be as brave as her, when and if the day comes. 

I am not alone in my fear, although it may seem like it sometimes. I am one of millions living and feeling these same anxieties at full volume, so I must not let it overcome me. Instead, I have to remind myself to be introspective and to keep moving forward.

Coronavirus The Pandemic Inequality

I am staying at home even if it means not saying goodbye to my loved ones

It’s day 30 of national lockdown in Spain and I have only left my house once: to go to the pharmacy. I am social distancing and staying away from my loved ones who are sick, and I am asking you to do the same.

I have an uncle who has been receiving oxygen at the hospital for the past two weeks and two aunts self-isolating at home with COVID-19 symptoms. I am confident that all of them will recover but I will not dare visit them. My cousin is also a few weeks short of her labor date and will need to go to the hospital to give birth. An event that was meant to be filled with joy and family will happen in silence, and it is for the best. It is not allowed, and it will do more harm than good.

I want to hug my aunts and tell them my uncle will get well. But, even if I feel fine, the risk is too high.

For all of them, for your loved ones, and for the people that you don´t know that also have loved ones, I am asking you to stay at home and social distance.

I have the relief of knowing that my family members are not in a critical stage and hopefully all of them will recover soon. But not everyone has that. Right now, the person that I feel for the most right now is my best friend. Her grandmother passed away last week. Yes, it was because of COVID-19.

My friend’s grandmother started having a fever a few days after her chemotherapy session. She went straight to the hospital and was diagnosed with an infection and tested for COVID-19. The test came back positive. She stayed alone at the hospital for several days. She was soon sedated so my friend and her whole family stopped being able to talk to her over the phone. A few days later she passed away, and the family was notified of the death in a phone call by an employee of a funerary home. Only four members of the family were allowed to attend the incineration, all while maintaining the security distance between them.

Given the case, I can grieve alone, but I will not be the cause of another person’s grief.

My friend’s grandmother was an incredible person. She grew up with supportive parents that encouraged her and her six sisters to have the same ambitions as their brothers. She finished a university degree and became the youngest female university professor at a time when most Spanish women were housewives. She loved playing bridge and golf, two games that she learned to play passed the age of 50, and she was very competitive in both. She had cancer but was starting to recover. She lived a full life, that has been sadly been cut short by the virus.

My best friend said goodbye without hugs or the kiss on the cheek that is traditional of Spanish greetings. She is grieving at home, and online, where she received hundreds of virtual messages. Her family, longing for a way to connect, organized a video conference to comfort each other, tell stories and grieve together.

I am asking you to social distance, even if your government has not. I am asking you to listen to the authorities and do as they say, even if it means not going for your daily run or being stuck in a tiny apartment. I too miss the streets, and fresh air, and seeing my friends and family that I have not visited since I went back to the UK after the Christmas break. I want to check on my sick family members and make sure that they are okay. I want to hug my aunts and tell them my uncle will get well. I want to meet my cousin’s baby. But, even if I feel fine, the risk is too high.

My best friend is grieving at home, and online.

I know that social distancing can be hard and that people’s homes can sometimes be very difficult environments. I feel lucky to be in a position where I can social distance and keep studying without worrying about the next paycheck. Many people live in small houses or do not have a good relationship with the family they are quarantined with. My boyfriend spent a week inside his room to protect his father, who is considered high-risk. We are quarantined on different continents, and I don´t know when I will be able to see him again. Quarantine is hard, but it saves lives, and I am willing to do what it takes for a cause like that.

Because every day the death tolls are lower. Last week we were counting almost 1,000 deceased in a day, and today we ONLY had 510. That is around 500 people that have been able to keep their lives, 500 healthy people, 500 families not having to grieve.

For the first time in a long time, our individual actions matter. We may not be able to cure cancer or end discrimination, and most of us work in industries that are not life or death. But today we can make a difference. A real one.

Quarantine is hard, but it saves lives, and I am willing to do what it takes for a cause like that.

We need to remember that COVID-19 is treatable. However, it only is if you can access the necessary medical care should you need it. By limiting the spread of the virus we give space for hospitals to breathe and treat the current patients. The biggest challenge of COVID-19 is the length of time that it takes for a person to show symptoms and that many people never show them. Therefore, although you might feel fine, you might be the cause of someone else’s illness. So please stay at home. I know the sacrifice is great, but the alternative is appalling.

Instead of longing to go out, I have learned to find comfort in the small things that remind me of human compassion and solidarity. Every evening, at 8 pm, the whole of Spain comes out to their balconies and gives an applause to the healthcare workers and other people that are out in the trenches for us. The sound of the country coming together gives me enough strength to face the next day and hope that my loved ones are also hearing that applause. At the moment that is all that can give them. Because, given the case, I can grieve alone, but I will not be the cause of another person’s grief.

Gender & Identity Life Stories Life

I just lost a loved one. This is how I’m coping with my grief

My grandmother, Zuhuriya  Salahudeen, was the kind of person whom everyone loved.

She had this charisma that would shine through whenever she would talk to someone. She never had anything negative to say about anyone. During her battle with cancer over the past two years, she was not the type of person to complain about how much she was suffering due to the treatment.

When someone passes away, we all have regrets or wish we could have done something better or something more. I know I wish I could have attended her funeral in Sri Lanka but I couldn’t take time off from campus since I had been sick earlier in the semester and had to take some time off for that.

Unfortunately, I’m not fluent in Tamil, which is the native language that my grandmother spoke. But despite the language barrier, she meant so much to me.

As my grandmother dealt with the difficulties of chemotherapy, our family prayed for Allah (the Arabic word for God) to ease her suffering, hoping that she would get better. But sometimes He has other plans.

We now pray that she is now at peace.

With the permission of my father, I have compiled anecdotes from him as well as my cousins to show what an amazing woman she was, as my simple attempt to commemorate her. My dad recalled that when he was in school if he ever received a bad grade, the first person he would tell would be his mother and she never yelled at him for it.

My cousin would always ask my grandmother and my grandmother’s sister for stories when they were young. Everyone I talked to mentioned that she had this calm demeanor.

“I remember constantly teasing both of them for stories of their childhood while Yehiya uncle (my grandmother’s brother) would be forthcoming about his mischief as a kid but our grandmothers would be very tight-lipped – they would say that they never got scolded by their parents, never disobeyed them which, to be honest I highly doubt they must have been really good children but surely, they must’ve fought amongst themselves, right? Sometimes when I would press them with sheer disbelief, they would both laugh; you know the kind of laugh that makes it sound so ridiculous. Though I must say we would all have a kick out of listening to both of them chat.” My older cousin recalled. 

She discussed how despite how much work she would have to do she would always make time to spend with all of us by playing checkers or mancala (a game played by children in the Indian subcontinent). She would listen to all our stories with that twinkle in her eye and that sweet laugh of hers at the sheer ridiculousness of all our debates and banter. Additionally, my cousin stated: “When she was diagnosed with cancer, I thought she would lose that spark within her and she would fade away, consumed by pain- but she still had that same twinkle in her eye and the same sweet laugh. Even when things were difficult for her she would always focus on us and ask us what we were up to.”

Talking to my cousins about my grandmother helped me get an idea of what she was like to them and how much she meant to all of us. I grew up in the US, and though we would visit my grandmother every two years, hearing these stories about her makes me wish I had more time to spend with her. Sharing these small remembrances of her helps me to cope with the grief that she will no longer be there to embrace me on my next visit to Sri Lanka.

She was loved by all her children, grandchildren, and anyone who knew her.

Everyone deals with grief differently. There are five stages of grief that people typically go through: Denial, anger, sadness, depression, and acceptance. Depending on your relationship with your loved one all five might apply to you. But in my case, it was only a combination of some of the stages, which is alright because everyone grieves differently.

However,  when one is actually going through grief, it doesn’t necessarily mean that every single stage of grief will apply to you. Some people might not show any signs of grief and suffer by themselves when thinking about their loved one in silence.  It’s important to do what you need to do to help you cope with your loss in the healthiest way possible.

Some people hold memorials, some find comfort in talking with family and friends. While I have found some solace in talking with my loved ones, writing about my grandmother has been the main way that I have coped with the loss. I prefer to write about the situations I am in whether it is a happy or sad one. 

I find solace in knowing that while I may not have gotten to know my grandmother that well when she was with us physically, I feel that I have grown closer to her through the stories my family has told me. This has both helped me cope with my grief and, more importantly, begin to heal. 

Love Life Stories

Caring for my grandmother has made me stronger than I ever thought possible

“I don’t know what I’d do without you,” she whispers in a voice that always warbles.

I just smile and pat her skinny arm, reassuring her that I’m there. I’m not sure how to respond to her, but we’re comfortable sitting together in silence so that’s what we do. Sometimes she mesmerizes me with her haunting loveliness. I find myself studying every visible age spot as if they’re forgotten islands on an ancient map. Her dark eyes are magnified behind a pair of glasses that are too large for her angular face, and her hair resembles a puffy white cloud. She’s my ninety-five-year-old child and I love her more than I can say, but sometimes she frightens me.

She’s not really my child of course, but I’m more like a watchful parent than a doting granddaughter. I live in the apartment above hers and the house we share has been in our family for years. I assist her with her finances, I’m there if she falls in the middle of the night, and I check in on her almost every day. She scares me because I feel responsible for her well-being, and I’m not sure I’m fit enough to take care of her.   

I have a deep-seated fear of throwing up. I don’t like to see people vomit and I get anxious whenever someone tells me they’re recovering from the stomach flu. It’s a common phobia, but it’s not well-publicized like the fear of spiders or clowns. Though the rational side of me agrees it’s better to upchuck the poison than keep it in, when I’m in the midst of a panic attack, I will do anything it takes to will away the urge to vomit. Even smelling vomit or an off odor from a pungent meal can throw me off and send me into a full-fledged panic attack. It’s horrible because I want to have kids someday, but I don’t want to run and lock myself in a separate room when they need me to comfort them.

[bctt tweet=”I have a deep-seated fear of throwing up.” username=”wearethetempest”]

My grandmother is aware of my phobia, so sometimes she chooses to call another person for help. It pains me because I want to be there for her, but I know she’s just trying not to stress me out. Though sickness scares me, I’m terrified to wake up and find her unresponsive in her bed. She’s going to be 96 years old in August, and I’m not sure how much longer she’ll be in this world.

My grandmother’s such a tiny woman I’m afraid a strong gust of wind will carry her into the clouds. I’m scared death will take her in the night and I won’t be there to comfort her as she passes from one realm into the next. Whenever she looks at me from across the room, her eyes as big as tea cup saucers, I can tell what’s going on in her mind. The state of the world terrifies her, so she refuses to leave the comfort of her home unless it’s for a routine doctor’s visit. She’s never even been inside my apartment because it’s not easy for her to climb the stairs.

One time, she pressed the button on her Life Alert device in the middle of the night. The device was programmed to call my cell phone. I went running downstairs and found her on the floor wedged between her bed and portable toilet. Her nightgown was up around her waist and, as I was pulling it back down, I asked if she was in pain about three or four times. She was in a bit of pain, but I was afraid to lift her up because I didn’t want to hurt her. My fiancé, who lives upstairs with me, had to stand her up and hold her to keep her steady. I put her to bed like she was a small child and got her a glass of water. She asked me to stay with her until she was calm.

[bctt tweet=”I’m scared death will take her in the night and I won’t be there to comfort her.” username=”wearethetempest”]

The morning she lost control of her bowels was one of the hardest days of my life. I planned on having breakfast with her, as I often do on the weekends. I knew how she took her tea and how much butter she liked on her toast. When I opened the door that connected our apartments, I was hit by a powerful smell. My grandmother was ill and there was no one around but me.

I was scared out of my mind because I was afraid of catching whatever she had. My heart fluttered in my chest as I waffled back and forth on whether I should call for help or not. The rancid smell had permeated the whole apartment. I was terrified to see the mess on the floor. I was terrified to see what kind of state she was in. I’m not sure what happened, but I tapped into something deep inside myself. I was a hell of a lot stronger than I thought I was. Instead of succumbing to a panic attack, which wouldn’t have helped either one of us, I walked into her bedroom without fear.

I remember thinking she looked so small in her bed, a doll among pillows. She was unable to make it to the bathroom or the portable toilet, which she kept by her bed. I soothed her with consoling words as I stripped the stinking sheets from her bed. She wasn’t embarrassed around me. She told me that she was having digestive problems for a few hours. I walked her to the couch in the living room, got her a cold glass of water, and turned on her television. While she was occupied with some sensational story on the news, I filled a bucket with soap and hot water and went to work.

[bctt tweet=”I remember thinking she looked so small in her bed, a doll among pillows.” username=”wearethetempest”]

The smell was so strong I had to breathe through my mouth. As I scrubbed the shit from the carpet, my body rocking back and forth, my mind began to drift. I was not an affectionate kid, but my grandmother was a special person. She always had permission to rub my back and play with my hair. It was a sweet pleasure we shared, like a piece of chocolate hidden away in some nondescript tin. I’ve learned a lot about her since then.

When she opened up to me about her complicated relationship with her mother, who was a cold and eccentric person, I was astounded by her strength. Her mother refused to reveal her age to anyone and she never talked much about her past. My grandmother didn’t know her mother’s age until her birth date was engraved on her gravestone. Her mother also never talked to her about periods. It was her aunt who taught her about periods and how to use a sanitary belt. I’ve not only inherited her love of reading, I’ve inherited her strength and resilience as well.

[bctt tweet=” The future is scary, but there’s no way for me control it. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

These moments with my grandmother may not always be pleasant, but they’re still moments, and that means something. I got engaged two months ago and I’m not sure she’ll be at my wedding, but I’m so happy she got to see the pear shaped diamond on my finger. Sometimes she falls asleep on the couch late at night and I have to be the one to put her to bed, but at least I know she’s safe and warm. The future is scary, but there’s no way for me control it. I have no choice but to welcome whatever the future throws at me. My anxiety pulverizes me some days, obliterates me even, but I know I can power through. I’m much stronger than I realize.

Love Life Stories

Even after my grandparents’ passing, they didn’t stop speaking to me

I was walking down the street with my mom today, listening to her talk about tax write-offs, when I stopped to pick up a penny. “Oh look,” I said, “A penny from Grandmother. She must be saying ‘Good job for finally teaching Grace about taxes.’”

The idea of a penny from heaven is a pretty cliché one. But in my mom’s family it has a bit of special meaning. My grandmother would always collect pennies, and put them in a little wishing well that she had. After she passed away at an early age, my mom, aunts, and cousins kept finding pennies all over around the time of the funeral. They decided that the pennies must be from Grandmother, and eventually the tradition evolved, so now we try to guess what she’s “saying.” My family still has our grandmother’s wishing well, and I still put all the pennies I find in it (even a few of the European ones that I collected when I was abroad!).

I was three when my grandmother died, so I don’t remember her. But just because she’s gone doesn’t mean that she’s no longer a part of my family’s life. She still remains alive through songs that she loved (I’m told Amazing Grace was one of her favorites), and stories that my mother and aunts and cousins tell.

[bctt tweet=”I don’t remember my grandmother. But just because she’s gone doesn’t mean that she’s no longer a part of my family’s life.” username=”wearethetempest”]

There are also ways that her voice and thoughts have been recorded more directly, like her poetry, which served as an outlet for her thoughts and feelings. A few years ago my mom took all of her poems, typed them, edited them, and compiled them into a book. I still haven’t had a chance to read the book, because my mom knew that some of the poems dealt with heavy subjects and wanted me to wait until I was older to read them. So when she recently said to me, “I should let you read Grandmother’s poems when you get home,” it really meant a lot to me. Not only did I feel responsible and mature, but I also looked forward to getting to know more about this woman who was so important in my family’s life.

My father lost his father when I was just two years old, meaning that I also have no memory of my paternal grandfather. But, just like with my grandmother, there are things that get passed down from generation to generation. My dad has told me many times that his dad enjoyed butterflies, and that he thinks of his father whenever he sees a butterfly. Because I’ve heard this story so many times I associate butterflies both with my father and with my grandfather.

There are also small connections that I’ve stumbled across myself. A few years ago someone I knew posted Max Ehrmann’s poem Desiderata on Facebook. I read it, really liked it, and printed a copy for my room. My dad came in, read it, and said, “My dad used to have this poem hanging up in his office.”  In that moment I felt connected to my grandfather, bonded by some shared taste in poetry. Since Desiderata is also a poem of life advice, I also got a deeper idea of what my grandfather’s values were.

[bctt tweet=”In that moment I felt connected to my grandfather, bonded by some shared taste in poetry.” username=”wearethetempest”]

I will never know my grandmother or my grandfather as well as my parents, their siblings and the cousins who are old enough to remember them. But every year on Father’s Day or his birthday or the day he died my aunt will post on Facebook about her father, and every time I will scroll through the comments and learn something new. Although these people are gone, there is still so much to learn about them, and from them.

[bctt tweet=”I will never know my grandmother or my grandfather from their lives, but there is still so much to learn about them and from them. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a penny to go put in the wishing well.

Love Life Stories

To my grandmother on Mother’s Day

Typically when Desi people picture their grandparents, they imagine them lying down on their beds, or sitting on the couch making dessert for everyone, or taking care of their grandchildren, or even being scolding them.

But I’ve a different image of you, Dadda. The first memory that comes to my mind when I think about you is the conversations we have in the bathroom. I know it sounds weird, but those are the moments I cherish and miss the most.

From my infancy to my childhood, from my adolescence to my adulthood, you were the only grandparent present in all of these phases with me. After my family moved to Pakistan from the United Arab Emirates, my mother used to make frequent visits back to see my father while my siblings and I would stay with you. This was the period where I was spoiled by you, and somehow while I was being spoiled, you managed to teach me how to live.

Of course, like most of us, I didn’t realize at the moment that your schooling would stay with me forever, but now when I look back, I don’t think I’d be the person I’m today without your presence.

[bctt tweet=”I didn’t realize at the moment that your schooling would stay with me forever.” username=”wearethetempest”]

As a child whose only true love at the time was ice-cream, I’d strike deals to stay with you when you were alone only if you would give me some money for Checkers (a vanilla and chocolate ice-cream bar). Although you didn’t need me, you would strike that deal with me every time. I always thought I was doing you a favor, but what I didn’t realize back then was that you weren’t just handing me few bucks, but also your invisible-but-irresistible love along with them.

When I grew out of the ice cream phase, I saw you doing things which, as a teenager absorbed in her school life, I didn’t understand. Why was it so important for you to see your children happy even if that meant you had to stay away for them, even if that made you weep at night? I would get mad at you for sacrificing your needs, your happiness, and your life for your family.

And all you would do is give me your toothless smile.

But somehow the sacrifice made you content. I didn’t understand you as a child, but now that I can comprehend your actions a little better, I know how you must have felt. I now know how important it was for you to sacrifice to keep the family intact. I now understand that you’d have done anything for the people you loved even if that meant sacrificing to the point where your happiness didn’t exist anymore: their happiness was your happiness.

Looking back at you smiling, I know why you would just smile and wouldn’t say anything; you knew I’d understand you eventually.  

Let’s fast-forward a few years when it was our turn to give back to you. You were completely bedridden and wasn’t able to move at all without any help. We would feed you, bathe you, listen to your stories about the India-Pakistan partition, get scolded by you, but above all the things we would get to spend time with you.

[bctt tweet=”We would feed you, bathe you, listen to your stories about the India-Pakistan partition, get scolded by you, but above all the things we would get to spend time with you.” username=”wearethetempest”]

During this phase of your life, I’d take you to the bathroom. I still remember you would just give me your beautiful smile when I’d come back from school, indicating that you needed to use the bathroom. I don’t know why but those moments in the bathroom were the most intimate moments I’ve ever had with you. Maybe because it was just you and I, and you could be yourself without any fear.

One day you looked at yourself in the mirror, squeezed your cheeks in and said, “Bandarya Lag rahi hon puri” (I look like a monkey now).

You left us almost two years ago, but I can still feel your presence around: when I make a contribution, I  see you watching me; when I sacrifice something for someone I love, I can almost see you smiling at me; when I try to patch-up relationships, I see you being proud of me; when I work hard and leave it all to God, I see you praying for me from up there.

I hope you are watching me and are proud of me.

Happy Mother’s Day, Dadda!

Gender & Identity Life

The hilarious, awkward and sometimes outrageous stuff gran says

Growing up, I had the good fortune of knowing a few of my grandparents. I even lived with three of them at one time or another. This has given me a fuller knowledge of my culture and my family history, but it also means that I have become aware of how randomly hilarious elderly people can be.

Although not as bitingly vulgar as my great-gran was, my gran still manages to pour forth some expressions that are cringe worthy and amusing in equal measure.

Not too long ago, in response to my about-to-pop pregnant belly, she asked when I was going to “get sick.” This, apparently, is her euphemism for going into labor or giving birth. I gently told her that I was not sick, and that the baby really could come any day now.

Whenever I am truly sick in the medical sense, gran has the good nature to whip out the salt and read a prayer around my stuffy head to ward off the evil eye.

[bctt tweet=”Can someone explain why my gran call blue jeans ‘bogart’?”]

She still has the tendency to ask me to draw the curtains every evening at the time of sunset, even though I’ve been doing it for more than 10 years now without need for reminder, and to insist that I dry my hair properly after a shower and take a cardigan with when I leave the house. Then there’s the strange use of the word “bogart,” which for some reason is meant to refer to blue jeans.

Gran also sometimes refers to our domestic helper as “the girl.” She doesn’t mean it unkindly; it’s simply another remnant from her past. My granddad, too, tends to say the “servant girl.” These phrases grate on my brain, but I have come to accept them as relics of days gone by, making their uncomfortable, unbidden and inevitable appearance once in a while.

Gran sometimes surprises us with an impromptu rendition of a poem she learnt in the eighth grade, which seems to have imprinted itself onto her memory verbatim. And in those solemn (for her) but completely ridiculous (for me) moments, I remember that there really is such a thing as a generation gap. One of the things that’s so lovable about the oldies in my life is their complete incongruence with modern times, and their willingness to be themselves regardless.

It strikes me how culture hangs on against all odds in people like my gran, who was born in India but emigrated to South Africa with her parents when she was still a baby, and how well they are able to pass it on.

[bctt tweet=”I try not to cringe when my grandparents call our domestic helper ‘the servant girl.'”]

As a third generation South African, I may have assimilated into the diverse culture of South Africa, but I still wear the patina of Indian culture that has been passed down to me, a garment that will not be shed. While I cringe at some strange turns of phrase or old habits that will not die, I have been given the gift of the best parts of Indian culture that live on in the selfless love of an aging grandmother: masala tea, curries that curl your toes, and pointed questions that know nothing of subtlety (gran often comments on how fat people have gotten).

My layers of identity would be much poorer were it not for the idiosyncratic and peculiar bits and pieces that my grandparents have clung to, and now give to me so generously. And as my identity continues to mold and morph, I wonder what version of myself and my predecessors will live on in my children, and theirs.

Culture Family Gender & Identity Life

I am forever an outsider amidst my family’s ghosts

We walk into the sea.

Our black bodies moving against a lilac-blue sky, grey rainclouds sitting above the evening tide breaking in the distance, towards a disappearing point behind which the sun is already set. Here is a picture burned into the ancestral memory, as I—a girl whose blood runs with saltwater and yet doesn’t belong—remember it, of an island called Sapelo that my grandmother calls home, and that my father talks about as if it were the whole world. I look out—see a rowboat far offshore and think I hear a baby’s cry. But that must be myself, because I am lost.

The children play in the shallow pools behind a sandbar and watch as we pull the seine net into the water.

First, a personal history.

In the early nineties, in a small apartment in Toronto, I was born—no, let’s go back—in the early sixties, a young married couple moved from Jamaica with their small children to a beautiful saltmine town in rural Canada. They have since been committed to the earth; my mother is their eldest child.

Circa, an island off the coast of the state of Georgia, USA, where my paternal grandmother gives birth in the second year of John F. Kennedy’s presidency in the terrible heat of July.

Her son becomes my father, in downtown Toronto, in 1994. A plane lands in Savannah in early July on a Monday. It is coming in from John F. Kennedy airport.

And here I am, the child of distance and loss who talks with a soft, generalized English accent standing in the airport with a borrowed suitcase, in Timberland boots and a metallic sea-foam shift dress, waiting to be picked up. Across the back, a patch on my blue denim jacket reads CUTE GIRLS CLUB. This should set the scene.

All my childhood memories are haunted.

Not by the ghost of an absentee father—he did not “leave,” in the way black fathers are famous for leaving but statistically do not—no, the early years were haunted by stranger specters than a missing parent: ancestors’ ghosts, walking in chains through my bedroom, gaunt faces appearing in the blue walls; the ghost of a song, an old Negro spiritual; plat-eyes running wild in a maritime forest at dusk, Spanish moss blowing in the wind coming off the sea; my grandmothers, who were then both still alive, in Jamaica stirring a pot of curried goat, and on Sapelo Island, weaving a basket out of sweetgrass; and the first man to lay hands on me, not because he was my father and was absent, but because someone had told me that he wrestled alligators and this made him alive in my imagination.

And, sadly—in a way, for if it had turned out otherwise I would be another I and I am fond of this I—the background to all this wild imagining was the warm grey concrete and brown glass of North London in the summertime and, after the move, Wales’ green valleys.

This is all to say that there was a cultural history that I perceived and craved, and was denied access to informal education…where I was instead inundated with the minutiae of feudal law in England post-Norman conquest.

I grew up with little white girls telling me to come over to their house to scrub the kitchen floors with my hair, I was proud of the way I spoke—so well that I forgot, in 2006-8, that I was not-white.

This history—or the way I remembered, imagined and interacted with the black imaginary populating my own private diaspora—became bound in, set against, forced to compete with Whiteness. Interest in the ghost of a grandmother weaving sweetgrass waxed and waned as a strange blue moon. I admit, there were two years or maybe more, when I was a young teenager, that the island off the coast of Georgia crossed my mind infrequently and only in passing. We were not in contact until later when the Whiteness spat me out in 2009 and we learned to commune in spirit, this island and I.

Back to the airplane, slowing to an idle engine in a parking bay at Savannah Hilton Head airport, to the girl improperly dressed for a humid summer in Georgia, who waits in the shade of the multi-storey arrivals carpark and waves, seeing her brother’s partner, and rolls her suitcase toward the car slowly, because it weighs 49lbs. This is impractical, to carry a heavy suitcase full of sequin dresses and kitten heels halfway down the East Coast to an island in the middle of summer. And it is, also, a portrait of the way I talk to the island where my grandmother lives in the flesh, no longer reduced to a ghost.

My grandmother welcomes me with joy, as if I had been raised here and now I was come home, at last. We talk slowly to each other or, no, our conversations move slowly because the island talks fast and I have the slow ears of a girl who went to a Church of England boarding school and took, briefly, elocution lessons.

Like the moment Granddaddy says, “Do you like grits?”


“Do you like grits?”


“You eats grits?”


“You eat them?”

“…oh! Yes.”

In true English-girl form, for a while, I mistook this island fast-talk as being about me, hearing a cry without remorse, for my departure. Only, my grandmother would say that I was a Geechee girl because it was her running in my blood, wherever I fly in from disregarded. And would you slow down for someone you claimed as one of your own?

At first, I resented this inclusion into the familial dialect—and we are all family on Sapelo, nearly—forcing me as it did to talk slowly and gracelessly, fighting with weak syntax and an English-girl voice that can’t pronounce Geechee words right. I felt comfortable with the women asking, “Doesn’t it rain in England?” only to listen to me talk in soft Received Pronunciation, referred to as the Queen’s English by old cabbies in London’s East End, mockingly. Talking entered into the negative curriculum vitae of a girl who always knew herself to be black but once forgot that she was not-white. Drive, eat a crab, pull a fishing net—all talents found in the repertoire of Sapelo Jane that a girl who had once forgotten the ghost of her own living grandmother might have trouble with. How I felt, and feel now, was as when Salman Rushdie wrote of loss and home and the imaginary motherlands we carry with us, how “we feel we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools.”

[Image description: A woman wearing a turban works in the midst of a field.] Courtesy of the author.
[Image description: A woman wearing a turban works in the midst of a field.] Courtesy of the author.
A strange feeling of disbelonging rises when I walk barefoot on Sapelo Island, eat shrimp and grits and sit up under the tree in my grandmother’s yard and watch the children play. It is the emotional and spiritual recognition of a geographical location as a place where maybe you are Home, in another life—where your mother boards a flight bound for Brunswick, GA, in 1998, instead of London, UK. And it is not so much that I feel unwelcome—I feel welcomed with open arms, my father hyphenating all the places that I would call home, maybe, in those other lives: “English-Welsh-Jamaican-Canadian-Geechee girl.” You will understand me if you are a child like the girl I was, a baby for the diasporas’ diaspora—divorced from a motherland receding into abstraction after centuries of enslavement, and separated again by the circumstances which drive a person, with wife and young children in tow, to emigrate far north to a country where the winters are dead cold and the summers are dead hot. Then estranged again by love.

In Julie Dash’s 1991 film “Daughters of the Dust,” set on the neighboring St. Simon’s Island at the turn of the twentieth century, a story that my grandmother knows well is recounted. It is the story of Ibo Landing. Embellished, my grandmother will say, to fit the popular imagination. One can only assume it makes for better storytelling for the tourists if, upon arriving on the island shores in chains and seeing a ghost of what will come if they walk on, all the Ibo people turn and walk back into the sea and drown. As if they were going to walk back to Africa. It is the kind of story that aestheticizes the suffering of enslaved Africans, preferring fantasy to the facts, which are that only a few, no more than a couple dozen, tried escape and fewer died. The rest walked on in chains, to meet the ghost.

This story makes me feel more of an outsider than any cousin making fun of the slow and clumsy way I reel in a crab basket, encompassing a kind of suffering that I always knew about in the semantic sense yet did not, I felt, see evidence of in Britain. In Dash’s film, the old matriarch has blue hands from her days as a slave making indigo dye. Her hands would not have been permanently stained in reality, only maybe her eyes would always see her blue hands because some things we are unable to wash away.

Sometimes, I imagine myself with blue hands and it becomes a metaphor for being within and without—because I am imagining, actively creating a narrative in an aesthetic tradition that does not marry well an appreciation of one’s own culture. We can be guilty of Other-ing ourselves, making metaphors of what is ours to reclaim in the real, like this.

I know more stories, like the story of the historic Black island community driven to dissolution by socioeconomic forces with no interest in the preservation of a people whose labour built an economy and whose subjugation was the foundation for the social hierarchy.

I am the sorry outsider, apologetic with polite indignation, asking “what can be done? What do you need?” and I am the granddaughter who will have bad dreams about the soil that keeps my ancestors becoming saturated with salt from the high rising tide…that does not touch the holiday homes of WASP-y retirees, because their homes are built on stilts, as per the new zoning regulations, and their properties can afford the drainage maintenance that the state will not pitch in for.

I know the stories in my grandmother’s memoir “God, Dr. Buzzard and the Bolito Man,” which begins: “Let me tell you how it was.” Other stories, the oral histories that I love to hear my father and my grandmother tell, the anecdotes, the herbal recipes—The old people, my grandmother will say, would drink the tea of Life Everlasting, believing it will give you long life. She will name some of the old ones that I met as a new baby, who lived into remarkable old age before they passed.

We return to the scene at the beach where we are pulling in the seine net, slowly, and I can see the fish jumping as we bring them out. What’s caught in the net? a shark! and then there’s hollering until somebody lets it loose by accident and it swims away against the tide and disappears. I think about “this girl’s” disbelonging being the reason why I can hear an imaginary baby’s cry out to sea. We belong to the Georgia lowcountry and nowhere else, in another life.

And there is Bilali Muhammad, long dead ancestor except for when we remember him and then he comes alive for us. The remembering is imagining; I imagine the boy who would not give up his religion and prayed east, married and bore 12 sons and 7 daughters. A flower we named for the latter, the Seven Sisters’ Rose. Other herbs, like Life Everlasting. Bilali became overseer of the slaves on Sapelo, himself a slave. Did he drink Life Everlasting and live long, did he come to the beach to hear babies cry at night, did he dream of another life where he called his native Sierra Leone home still?

In this moment, in wet sand at eveningtide with the day’s humidity breaking to a cool sea wind, I can imagine being alive when Bilali took his prayer mat to the sunrise. I stop walking because someone tells me to, the net is in. There are a few crabs and some silver fish with black eyes rolling in fear. We come and gather to look, and I won’t say that I see a baby ghost or anything like that but imagine—I watch the fish in the net and seeing a lasting image of myself in a bedroom in London, lit by morning because the window faces east, drinking a tea believed to give long life and thinking of a kidnapped boy sold into slavery who would not give up his religion, the Ibo in iron and saltwater, blue hands and my grandmother’s stewed okra. I will marry my disbelonging; I come from brown concrete and sweetgrass.

To accept this feels like I am sitting on the floor between the two stools with the knowledge that I will make a nice home for myself here.