When I returned to Atlanta from Japan in April, I was hoping to strengthen relationships with my family; I imagined a lazy river floating into rivulets of family affairs. The last month has been a flood of activities. In the past few weeks my Atlanta-based family has seen, in chronological order: (1) A baby announcement and gender reveal party from my cousin Amjad (aka John), (2) the DC wedding celebration of my cousin Abbas’s daughter Rozi, and (3) the hospitalization and subsequent death of aunt Mohabbat Hirani (and grandmother of Rozi). I find myself immersed in the fast-moving whitewater of my family. Though I intend to write a blog post here every week, the care for my folks has come first.
By being here, in Atlanta, and by being open and available, my red Prius and I have had the opportunity to assist the family in unique ways. Mohabbat lived just a 10-minute drive away. I drove her to the gender reveal party for Amjad’s child. On the drive over, she taught me a Gujarati expression. Her idiom hinted at her times; it suggests that you can neither guess the weather nor the gender of a child. In that saying, I see she held anticipation for the mystery of life. From our encounter there, I had a hint of her deteriorating health; I supported her weight on my back as we walked twenty feet from my parked car to the party door. During the lunch and events, I remember seeing exhaustion in her eyes. Still, she patiently watched the festivities and listened as I shared a poem I wrote for the occasion. Mohabbat, whose name means love, made the effort to come to this party, I believe for symbolic reasons. She came to pass the torch and bless with love the next generation.
Though Mohabbat was in a weakened state, we had hoped she would make it to DC for her granddaughter Rozi’s wedding. Desi weddings tend to involve many events. Fortunately, one event was held in Atlanta. There, she met and blessed the union of Travis and Rozi. She smiled as we introduced Travis to the pithi ceremony where he was hazed with flour, eggs, and ketchup. When it came time for us to head to DC, Mohabbat would be admitted to outpatient diabetic care at the hospital. Her daughter, Saeeda, stayed back to look after her along with two of my uncles.
Mohabbat is my mother’s oldest sibling. My mother called her Bhen, sister in Hindi. So I often called my aunt Mohabbat Bhen. It seemed fitting. Her presence always carried that calm, quiet love of the elderly and wise. No one expected the worsening of issues with Bhen’s hospitalization. On a sunny afternoon, in DC, the mehndi, at the first gorgeous DC ceremony we applied henna to our hands to celebrate the upcoming nuptials. There, we met Travis and his clan. On the following day, the day of the official Nikkah ceremony, Mohabbat was admitted to the ICU in Atlanta. Her daughter Munira left DC immediately and headed to her mom in Atlanta. That day, as I played with my niece Jenna, I was struck by the sense of impermanence. In my mind, I saw the contrast of Jenna’s young full cheeks against the soft, worn skin on my aunt’s arms. The remaining two days of socializing took on a somber tone. Rozi’s father Abbas left for Atlanta shortly after he walked his daughter down the aisle. The day after Rozi and Travis were officially hitched, the joint family brunch had a reduced crowd. As I met more of the Travis family, I realized the need for a family tree. His was much easier to pull together than ours. It is still on my to-do list…
The next day, I returned to Atlanta where my cousin Sunya picked me up and drove us directly to the ICU to see Ben. By that time, my aunt Shahar (Ben’s younger sister) and my uncle Salim had driven from Toronto to Atlanta to be next to Bhen. Initially though admitted for complications from kidney failure, my aunt in the hospital looked to be deteriorating. She had a heart attack and a stroke while in ICU. During her time in the hospital, Mohabbat always had someone next to her reciting prayers and watching over her. For some excruciating days, my aunt’s condition worsened. She was breathing, feeding, and expelling from tubes. From there, the family made a difficult and yet, gracious decision to take Bhen off of life support.
For the last few hours of her life, Mohabbat was transported to her home. Among the family members there, we took turns singing ginans, reading firmans, and reciting tasbih chants. This informal ceremony was also shared via Zoom with her family abroad. Her son and daughter in Australia recited her last prayers over WiFi. Mohabbat Bhen left this earth surrounded by the prayers and love of her huge family. In that gathering, I could see Mohabbat’s legacy and what had really mattered to her.
Our families are so interconnected. On the day after her passing, as is our tradition, we had a meal and prayers held at the home of the deceased. The gathering after Ben’s passing took me back to my high school days when we would meet with Mohabbat’s mother, and my grandma (Baa). We went to Baa’s house on Friday nights after prayers in khane. Our immediate family, my uncles, and cousins would hang out after we ate dinner. Then, we gathered around a big table and played cards, sometimes into the early AM. As we played, stories arose in conversation about the journey the family made from a dusty hamlet in Pakistan to our present plush surroundings in suburban Atlanta. Last week, then, as I saw my cousin, Munira’s kids gathered around the table mourning their grandmother, I thought of my grandma and her stories. I took that moment to teach Munira’s loving kids the same card game I learned from my grandma.
As the funeral approaches, we will have more guests. When I initially arrived in Atlanta, I did not want to stay at my mother’s home for too long. However, both my mother and stepdad have extended a longer invitation through warmth and mutual respect. Also thanks to their hospitality, we have had a steady flow of family visitors during this tumultuous time. The five bedrooms here have seen a steady flow of guests. In that way, I have had the chance to play host. My sister and adorable niece, my (favorite) aunt Shahar, and later Wazir and Parveen, have come to visit. Our kitchen it seems is a 24-hour cafeteria. My cousin Sunya, who is also extending her home in a housing crunch, jokes with me that we are running an unlisted Airbnb.
Despite my occasional introversion, for the first time in ages, I found myself energized by hosting the family that has been visiting. I found moments to provide comfort or a sensitive ear during difficulties. When my cousin Saeeda (Ben’s daughter) came over on the 1st day of summer, I plucked a gorgeous lily for her from our front yard. It glowed pride. I showed Saeeda the tiny little thorns on the lily’s upturned petals. This first blooming lily, I hoped, would give Saeeda a distraction to ease her soul for the parting of her mother.
Through this emotionally charged month, I am struck by how lucky we are that we can unite to honor my aunt Mohabbat Hirani. If this had happened during the last two years, we may not have been able to gather at all. Meanwhile, as we connect, the lessons and sagas of immigrant migration are ever-present. Three of Ben’s brothers live in Canada. Two of them lost their passports and have had to make emergency travel arrangements to arrive for the funeral. After some US visa pleading, two of Mohabbat’s children just arrived from Australia. As I head to the airport soon, I will pick up another uncle from Canada. The month of June included this as my birthday gift. I see that the universe allowed me to reconnect with my family. And that chance came in the shape of a tsunami. It is a blessing that I caught this wave.