Epiphanies are born in emergency rooms. It's a strange and depressing place where your mind replays scenarios, or creates hypothetical ones, as you wait for someone you almost lost- or are about to lose. On the evening of Saturday, September 12, 2015, I found myself in the lobby of an E.R., texting my two sisters on my blood crusted phone, reeking of B.O. and mildew from marinating in my bathing suit all day. My mom's blood splatters were painted on my shins, but I wore them like armor to remind myself of her strength and suffrage.
This sounds like I'm about to describe a scene from Gone Girl. I'm slightly morbid, but when it comes to my family, I am extremely sentimental. Thankfully no one died. My mother, Neda, is alive, well, and at almost 60 she's still kickboxing.
Earlier that day, we were swimming with my mom, who was visiting her daughters in Los Angeles and escaping Chicago. On the way home, my mom and I were in the backseat fantasizing about the epic dinner we were about to cook, completely entranced in our conversation and oblivious to the traffic-congested streets of L.A. I replayed sweet memories of how I used to crawl on the kitchen floor in my nightgown as a kid, pretending I was a cat, while tugging at my mom's apron as she hovered over the stove. Nostalgia coated my brain like warm blanket as she described her secret recipe for garlicky red sauce. I admired her dewy, sun-kissed face in the car as she spoke so confidently about her ingredients..
And then it happened. "Fuck!!!," my boyfriend yelled from the driver seat in a way I've never heard him say the word. I was awoken from my reminiscing in a panic and the second I looked at the road, a reckless driver was making an illegal U-turn toward us. Before I could even process the collision, the air bags exploded, filling the air with smoke and debris, followed with screams of agony from my mom. The shock from the impact left me feeling powerless and paralyzed for several seconds. It took me a minute for my senses to reawaken so I could look to my left in the backseat to see if she was even alive.
The grim reaper dangled my mom's life in front me. The Angel of Death gave her back to me.
The result of the car crash was my boyfriend's totaled Prius, my mom's mutilated fingers, and a new pair of eyes for how I see her.
As a child, the garlic red sauce Neda was describing seemed like it magically appeared on the stove. It magically appeared the same way the bills were paid, the house was clean, vacations were made, and our wardrobes were full. What was expected and taken for granted as a child, was a daily struggle for my mother.
Neda could have been the poster child for the Supermom movement.
To make our world comfortable, she worked 14 hour days including weekends, slaved away in the kitchen to feed a family of 5, drove us and the neighbor to school, dusted every corner of the house, consoled three hormonal teenage girls, converted to Islam and raised us Muslim, took us on her business trips, and still managed to come out of the daily circus of life appearing fully capable, tough, and immortal.
It wasn't until my late teens, during the crumbling marriage of my mom and dad, where I observed her fragility. But my priorities didn't concern my parents, and maintaining a social life was paramount to everything. With a family reduced in size, dinners were shorter and ended with us teens headed straight to the computer to continue our Myspace chat conversations, or getting dressed up to go out. My mom was left in the kitchen alone, slowly picking at the remains of her home-cooked meal. While tears fell into her plate over the broken family, her only company was a super size bottle of red wine from Costco.
"I think my finger is off," my pale-faced mother said as I held her hand in a bundle of pool towels outside the scene of the car crash. Her blood was pouring into a stream of gasoline that was dripping from the totaled car. I had to pretend it was red wine to prevent myself from getting squeamish.
When the ambulance arrived, I begged the EMTs to let me ride with to be near her. In the back of the truck I was really shaken up, but I tried to act unaffected and emotionally stable around my mom who was losing more blood and color in her lips. Still not knowing if her finger was on or off, she managed to be so calm. Barely complaining about the pain, she just said "I feel like throwing up."
With three kids in the house, my parents dealt with a lot of puke. The stomach flu made me miserable, but I secretly loved the attention my mom gave me when I was sick. She would set up a sleeping bag outside her home office, nurse me with tea and toast every couple hours, and brought home rented VHS movies for me to binge watch.
She cared for me that same way even as a 19 year old, except that time I was in a full-size bed and nauseous from drinking too much on Halloween the night before.
Most of my teenage years, my mom enforced rules of Islam that forbade drinking, but at that time she was amidst a divorce and loosening her grip on us. Maybe feeling like a single mother left her with no choice but to let go and allow us to make our own mistakes. When I fucked up, she was disappointed and stern, but was always by my side giving me a lesson, whether that was in the the courtroom after I got caught stealing from Macy's, or while watching me get breathalyzed at a busted high school party.
I have to pry stories out of my mom to hear about her self-admitted mistakes, from an unwanted high school pregnancy, to unfaithful boyfriends, to mescaline and cocaine. I remind her not to be ashamed or embarrassed, and that I can vicariously learn through her life.
"I cheated death," my mom profoundly said as her hand got wrapped with gauze in the ER. In other words, we got lucky.
I will never forget the site of the artery dangling from her finger, dripping blood slowly like a leaking hose. She still wore a smile, even before the pain killers trickled into her bloodstream through an IV. I kept begging my mom to power through the discomfort and resist getting a morphine drip. I'm scarred from the horror stories I've heard about medical drugs leading to addiction, especially the one about my mom's father.
I never met my Lithuanian grandfather. He was addicted to heroin during the aftermath of WWII. My mom's immigrant family was on the edge, living paycheck to paycheck in a blue collar neighborhood of New Haven, Connecticut, during the civil rights movement. One night after curfew, as my grandfather was walking home from work as a cook, he was brutally mugged. He was killed when she was 10 years old.
Neda has gone her entire life without the closure of knowing who took her father's life. But bitterness and vengeance never surface when she talks about her murdered father, which is not often. She never victimizes herself or blames her struggles on the traumatic loss.
My mom just admits that the reason she always had a man in her life, is because she didn't have a father. I admire her accountability and honesty.
"I was a lost child, lost teenager, now a lost adult," she recently told me. What I see is a misguided girl who made mistakes and was forced to grow up fast, thrusting herself into adulthood, into a woman who learned to embody the characteristics of culturally constructed male roles...
Work ethic. Strength. Bravery. Physical endurance. Self-discipline.
Sometimes I imagine her father frozen in time, still wearing mid-century fashion, watching over her from Heaven. I imagine him watching his daughter's life like a movie throughout the decades.
I wonder if he was proud of Neda when she risked dropping out of college to move across the country alone, to build a career for herself as an independent graphic designer. I wonder if he was proud seeing his daughter of the civil rights movement challenging the stereotypical image of the white American couple, by marrying a Pakistani man and converting to Islam. I wonder if my grandfather is mind-blown watching my mom's biceps flex as she lifts weights and does kickboxing, well into her late 50s. I can't imagine how helpless he must have felt from Heaven, watching my mom get held up at gunpoint at a laundry mat in L.A in the 80s.
When the time came for surgery to get her artery repaired and fingers readjusted, my mom forced a smile as she got wheeled into operating room. Jokes filled the air about how her eyelash extensions were still in perfect condition, despite the car wreck. She insisted that her daughters go home during the operation, and reassured us that she was in good hands with professionals.
My entire life Neda has proven to be strong and independent. But I know that when she says she's fine alone, those words secretly mean she would love the company of her children. Behind the smile is a woman who suffered most of her life.
I often hear the assumption that women are needy and attention-seeking, usually attributed to having "daddy issues." I also have observed how a women is devalued in our society once she gives birth, as if arriving at motherhood strips a women of her sexuality, youth, and relevance. Let us be reminded that not only giving birth, but raising a child as a working women in the modern world while navigating prevailing gender inequalities, is a job that requires an immense amount of labor, responsibility, and strength. Overlooked and often discarded, these women are walking female heroes.
Neda's aura of independence and heroism left me forgetting that despite possessing the superpower to juggle everything in life with grace, she is human. Several months after the car crash, I still replay the scene in my head to make sense of the incident. It look a life-threatening event to gain perspective and view a fragile and delicate side of my mother. It was a sign from whatever higher power is up there, to be awakened to the mortality, history, and experience of the person who raised me.