The Unknown Return
In first grade, I used red colour to enthusiastically paint a duck that looked like a goat. This neatly describes my artistic skills 12 years later: I still use stick figures to depict my parents, and the house I drew in my journal looks nothing like my childhood house in Kunduz, Afghanistan. When all of the windows in our house shattered because of a bomb blast nearby, and glass cut our feet even after a month of cleaning, I drew a stick figure of my mom standing next to a square-looking thing and used red colour, a sad face, and tears to show that she was injured. As much as I wanted to draw what I saw every day as an outlet of my pain, I just couldn’t. But stick figures and talking balloons at least somehow helped me to digest what was going on.
My mother, whom we kids call “Apim,” spent her childhood in a rural village of the mountainous country that is my home. While Afghan girls were normally married by age 15, Apim waited until 19 to marry my dad, “Atim.” At least Apim thinks that she was 19 at the time, because in Afghanistan, nobody paid a lot of attention to their date of birth. Apim moved a mile away from her father’s house to live with my dad and his mother. At age 20, she travelled for 45 minutes to visit the nearby “big city” on a donkey where she chose her dress material for the first time. Perhaps you can call that my mother’s honeymoon. Apim and Atim lived a simple life, working side by side in farm fields, until in 1982 they were forced to move to Iran because of the Russian invasion. Both Apim and Atim worked crazily long shifts to provide for their nine children, all eleven of us sharing two bedrooms at the back of our small home, sleeping on the floor. In her ‘free time,’ Apim made dolls for my sister and me from a stick, a piece of cloth and a penny used as the face. While neither of them knew how to read or write, my parents went above and beyond for their children to get an education. A short while after we had all moved back from our Iranian exile to Afghanistan, my sister Naz moved to the capital, seven hours away. After that, one after another, all of Apim’s children started to travel – I guess that happens with education. The empty spaces left by my departed siblings were glaring: the bedroom that had once been filled to the brim with mattresses suddenly felt spacious. Time flew by and before I knew it, it was my turn to be packing my suitcases. I was 15.
On the very last night before departing to America, I dragged my suitcases to the front of our living room. My mom’s eyes closely followed me around the house. With her hand placed underneath her chin, she was sitting on the stairs which led to the roof of our house. I folded all my clothes and threw my blue burqa on top.
“Bar padarash nalat, ee chi as ka ma bayad boposham.” I broke the silence in the room by cursing the dreaded piece of clothing, and added “what the hell is this Sh*t I have to wear!” “Kalan shodi, aga na zira chadarim potat mikadam: you are not little anymore, otherwise I would have hidden you underneath my burqa to take you [to the Kabul airport],” my mom replied, making light of the situation. I just looked at the wrinkles in my mother’s face. “To kho faqat 5 saat diga bayad bposhi, mara bogo, ta zinda hastim, hami hast: you only have to wear it for another five more hours. We are stuck with it till the end of our lives.”
I dragged my feet toward the mattress and lay there: lost in my thoughts and Apim’s words. The room had no beds or big windows. The fan hanging from the ceiling was not moving for lack of electricity, and barely any air was coming from the little window. The wall had many frames with Apim’s children’s multiple certificates: among them, there was a picture of me with a journalist from Aryana TV from the one and only running race in which I had ever participated.
Holding her rough hands, I was reminded that humans can be so rough yet so soft; so strong yet so weak. In the last few days, there had been many times when I had found myself just looking at Apim and wondering questions about her. The long sighs of my mother caught my attention. “Apa, khobi? Are you okay?” “Ha Bachim, peer shodam, nafas tangim bad tar misha. Yeah, I am old, so my asthma is getting worse,” my 57-year old mother said as she tried to hold a world of sadness all by herself.
I had absolutely no words to respond to her. Her eyelashes were wet with tears and were even longer now. In the midst of this heartbreaking moment, I noticed how beautiful my mother was. “Birim biron ka hawa eja dampuq shoda; I need to go outside, I can’t breathe here,” she said as she covered her grayish hair with her long, red scarf. She tripped over my brother’s body who was fast asleep near the door.
“Bismilah,” she mumbled as she made her way toward the backyard. This was the first time I consciously noted Apim hiding her sad emotions from me.
When the Morning Prayer started, Apim was still outside and I was still staring at the same immobile fan, my mind filled with thoughts and emotions and felt claustrophobic in a room filled with the sleeping figures of my siblings. I tiptoed and looked at my mother from the window of the living room.With her back against the wall, she cleared her tears and nose with the corner of her red scarf. She stretched her legs and covered her face as if she was even embarrassed of showing her tears to the darkness of the ending night. Another long sigh. My heart was way too weak to handle this.
The next morning, just like during so many mornings of my childhood, my mom prepared tea on the fire, warmed the milk, and put a tablecloth for ten on the ground. Her remaining five children filled the empty spaces by taking up double the space. We just sat there pretending no one had left, nobody was going to leave, as if the length of this tablecloth wouldn’t shrink in size or…. It was a simple breakfast.
It was time to leave; I dragged my suitcases to the taxi parked outside, wore my shoes and just stood on top of the stairs. Apim threw water on the ashes of the wood. With the blue burqa in my hand, I cleaned my eyes and said the phrase I still cannot do justice in English: “Sag nasho, diwana,” something like “Don’t be stupid, don’t cry, okey?” Ignoring my pleas, Apim held me in her arms, and let it all out. Apim, my mother, was sobbing like a baby, and her tears were all over my scarf. She held me again and her rough hands against my face were the only way she could express her feelings. I stomped my feet just like a kid who doesn’t want to leave.
“To ham ka biri, ma chi konam, you are also going to go, what am I going to do?”
“Ma pas Miyayam, Apa. Miyayam, ena o dafa ham raftam baz amadam. I will come back, Apa. I will come back.” I said with clear uncertainty in my voice. With the intuition of a mother, she knew it would be a long time until she would see me again. A very long, long, long time.
In the past five years, I have seen my mother once. As I sit on my bed across from piles of science books, my eyes catch sight of my journal from the summer before college, the summer of 2015. By that stage, I had been in the United States for three and half years. I flip through pages and laugh at my simple sentence structures, at stick figures, at my very early impressions of training for a half marathon. “Dear diary: I have discovered a new way to deal with homesickness. I run. Isn’t it crazy that just putting one step in front of another can help you to internalize and perhaps forget the pain for a little bit. I’m training for a half marathon, and I have a coach, legit right?”
As I flip to the last page, I find it filled with stick figures, speaking bubbles, and words. I exactly remember the place, time, and my state of mind during drawing the accompanying timeline, outlining my vision for the future. It makes no reference to what one might expect as usual aspirations for a college girl, such as my career, college, or major. Instead, my timeline is filled with stick figures of my parents and me and our imagined reunion. I wrote down the simplest yet the hardest and almost unachievable dreams, like wanting to sit in a swing with Apim.
My eyes follow one line, one year, one stick after another until they hit my predictions for 2017. As I write this, 2017 is in its last month and my dreams from then did not become reality. There have been no swings for Apim and me. I sit there crying on a Friday night, rewinding all the memories associated with my parents. And it hits me that my mom might have no escape route. She can’t read or write, she lives in one of the most conservative provinces in one of the most conservative countries. Because of her asthma she can’t really go outside wearing her burqa. Then, what does she do? Where does she go to take it off?
I walk from one end to another end of my room, of my dorm hall, to understand the distance she can walk without wearing the burqa, feeling safe, and comfortable. After two laps of the hall, I feel claustrophobic, and go for a long run down the street with crazy frat houses. I return to my room that night while wearing running tights and running shoes. The shortness of breath, the sweat, the cramps from running have left me with more room in my brain. Running has become my coping mechanism, my go-to-plan, and perhaps I run to just feel as if I am getting closer to Apim.
To my parents: I miss both of you wherever I am, all the time. This is the price I pay for insisting on getting an education despite having been born in a warzone country.