There are no words that can express how I feel.
when i was low you was there for me, never left me alone because you cared for me
and i could see you coming home after work late, in the kitchen trying to fix us a hot plate
just working with the scraps you was given, and mama made miracles every thanksgiving
but now the road got rough, you’re alone, trying to raise two bad kids on your own
and there’s no way i can pay you back, but my plan is to show you that i understand; you are appreciated
…and when it seems that i’m hopeless, you say the words that can get me back in focus
when i was sick as a little kid, to keep me happy there’s no limit to the things you did
and all my childhood memories are full of all the sweet things you did for me
and even though i act crazy, i gotta thank the lord that you made me
there are no words that can express how i feel, you never kept a secret, always stayed real
and i appreciate how you raised me and all the extra love that you gave me
- from “Dear Mama” by Tupac Shakur
Apologies in advance for the novel-length publication and meandering writing style! This is dedicated first and foremost to my mother, Marti, who returned to our Creator on November 8, 2005, and also to my older sister and nieces who keep her alive in my heart and who are living reminders of what she’s taught me. This is a picture of my mother and me the night before my high school graduation, at my last public piano recital (it’s been cropped and blurred intentionally to hijabify it since this was before I converted to Islam).
When I was sixteen years old and getting ready to apply to university, even though I was pretty sure I’d end up going to the college in the same city where I lived (with my mom and stepdad), I was gunning to go to this really amazing university in Colorado. I’ve never been to Colorado, and I hate cold weather (which is becoming more and more evident now that I live somewhere where it actually snows), but I was dead set on going to college there. One of the biggest perks (aside from the fact that the college offered an awesome Tibetan language program AND tea serving AND archery classes) was the fact that going to college over a thousand miles away meant I’d definitely have to move out.
College application time was war in my household. We were poor and usually made ends meet however we had to but unless I magically got accepted to Harvard or something (I actually did apply and got as far as the interview process), my mother was convinced FSU was the perfect choice and the thought of paying other college application fees was just pointless. (Also because most people we know barely made it through community college and the idea of skipping community college to go straight into university was downright freaking weird, let alone going to college out of state.) My mother’s second favorite thing about FSU was the fact that I’d get great scholarships. Her first was that it would further her plan to keep me in the nest for the rest of my life (or at least the immediate forseeable future), and as much as we loved each other immensely, we both loved too hard to be able to live in the same space and not drive each other absolutely batty.
It’s probably some law of physics that, in divorced households, the non-custodial parent gets to be the good guy in all such situations (which meant that until I became an adult, I never understood how much my mother really sacrificed for me and how much I took her for granted), so my rather financially well off father saved the day by agreeing to pay the fees and help me move and find an apartment. (This was after I decided a good academic standing in my field – I already knew what I wanted to do with my life – and lots of funding were a better choice than archery classes, but I still miss the idea of moving to Colorado.) I’ve seen my mother angry before, but as I avoid conflict at all costs and could never stand to have anyone – especially my parents – be mad at me or disappointed in me, it was a rare experience and even more rarely directed at me.
So anyway, when I was torn between defying my mother – who was my sun and moon – and going against what I knew was probably best for my mental health, I was on the phone with my dad one day when he asked what, exactly, I was afraid of. The rest of the conversation went something like this.
“Um, she’ll kill me.”
“You’re really that scared of her?”
“You don’t know her.”
I’m sure at this point the thought of calling in Child Protective Services may have crossed my father’s mind, so I should probably elaborate a bit here: I loved my mother more than anyone or anything else in the entire world. I also feared her more than anyone or anything else in the entire world. Growing up, her favorite phrase was, “I brought you into this world and I can take you out of it.” It didn’t matter that she’d only physically disciplined me once in my entire life (I was four, I refused to go to bed, and I’ve gotten worse spankings from jerks on the street trying to grope me), she could wither me and make me fear for my very existence with a look. The thought of bringing home any grade less than an A had me quaking in fear, and Cs or lower were positively hide in my room, have panic attacks, and not-seriously-because-I-am-a-total-pansy consider running for the hills to save my life sort of experiences (I made one C in high school, God help me, never again).
The most important lesson my mother ever taught me was how to both fear and love at the same time. Given the option, I’m inclined to love. I avoid conflict, I have almost never held a grudge in my life, and up until the fallout that occurred in my family after my parents died (my father passed away five months to the day after my mother, inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un) I can’t say I’d ever been truly angry at anyone. I prefer to expect love from people; I’m usually turned away from someone when they inspire fear in me. I like to think of God primarily in His merciful aspect, and I’m more motivated by a desire to be compassionate than by thoughts of the hellfire.
My mother was the first person for whom I ever learned to hold both love and fear in my heart. Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala was the second. She was also the first person who taught me that just because she had a wrath to be reckoned with didn’t mean she couldn’t love me unconditionally. Without my mother’s lessons, finding the siratul mustaqeem, the straight path, the path to God, would have been a much more unbearable struggle. For me, Paradise is literally under the feet of my mother; without her, I would have never been able to develop the strength of faith in a both loving and wrathful God to have the hope of reaching Paradise.
This story also brings to bear the other most important lesson my mother ever taught me, which is actually a few lessons combined into one – mainly, that the sky is the limit. I was the first person in my close family to get a bachelor’s degree and go onto graduate school. Most of the people I know were lucky to graduate high school and few of them were ever taught that they were worth enough or capable enough to go beyond that – that it was even an option for them. My mother’s main source of inspiring fear was in pushing me through my education. Her mantra from the time I was small was, “You’re going to college and I’m not paying for it. You don’t have the option of not graduating from college, because I brought you into this world and I can take you out of it, and you don’t have the option of me paying for it, because we don’t have the money. So you better make good grades and get good scholarships.”
She moved heaven and earth to get me into a Catholic K-8 school so that I wouldn’t be subjected to our failing public school system. At the time I found it stifling to attend a school with people whose parents made more in a year than my mom did in a lifetime, and who I felt I couldn’t connect with, but to this day I am so grateful that she made it possible for me to have that early foundation of education, because it has opened up so many things for me. The high school I attended had a depressing graduation rate (like twenty people dropped out in the month leading up to graduation, even), and the majority of ninth graders came in reading at a fourth grade level. In high school and in the area where much of my mom’s family lives, I saw up close and personal what it meant to not have opportunities, and to not have parents who were or who could be so committed to pushing their children to go farther than they ever had the opportunity to. My sister and nieces live there now, and if there is any legacy that I hope we can pass on to my nieces (who are like my babies) from my mother it would be that dreams are not illegal in the ghetto.
Through this, she taught me never to accept no for an answer and never to back down. My mother is the strongest woman I’ve ever known. I think sometimes that my big sister inherited that from her and I didn’t – I was always a timid child, much more likely to turn my passion and anger inward towards myself and to blame myself for things than to actually stand up for myself or be strong enough to struggle against outward injustice and oppression. I remember the first time I ever contested a grade my first semester of college (my mom passed away a month before finals my first semester), and I called her to tell her, and she was so enormously proud of me it took my breath away. She’d spent seventeen years teaching me not to take crap from anyone. I’m a notoriously slow learner sometimes. This lesson made me the unrelenting human being that I am today when it comes to activism; I refuse to take no for an answer in every aspect of my life. I don’t accept my own or others’ limitations, because I was taught that the only limitations we have are the ones we put there.
I did end up moving out, by the way. I think in the few months between when I moved out and when she passed away, my mother finally saw the other side of things and it improved our relationship a lot to have that three whole miles of space. At the same time, had she not been so adamant about me going to college in the same city, I would never have had those last few blessed months with her. My mother never got to see me graduate from college; were it not for the fact that I graduated high school a year early (in large part due to how she believed in me), she would have not lived to see me graduate from high school. I think Allah waited to take her from me just long enough for her to know I could stand on my own and be okay first.
Even in her death, she was still teaching me. I’ve been through a lot of very painful things in my life, but there is no pain that even compares to losing her. In some ways I think she was teaching me with her death that I have the strength to survive any trial; maybe she somehow understood the tests that I would have to go through in my life after she was gone. For this, more than anything else my mother gave me, I am the most grateful.
Crossposted at my blog.