I remember the day my parents told me about my father’s diagnosis very clearly. He had fought cancer on and off for 11 years, and it had gotten to the point that there wasn’t much more the doctors could do. I’d always known that losing a parent would be tough, but I hadn’t expected it to become so much tougher once I was a parent myself.
Suddenly, all I could think about were a million what-ifs. “What if that were me dying a slow and painful death and my two daughters had to suffer through watching me? What if I die when they are this young and they forget about me? What if I get too sick to care for them?” Of course, it’s natural for our minds to wander to dark places when we’re grappling with the realities of life and death. But I never imagined that my children would be the ones to pull me into the light when I needed it the most.
My father died less than six months after his last diagnosis. I was making lunch for my two toddlers when I got the call. There on the phone was my mother telling me the worst news of all our lives, and here at the kitchen table were two cheerful ruffians, banging the table with their plastic spoons, waiting for their macaroni. The contrast was jolting. And I didn’t know it then, but it was exactly what I needed.
In Islam, it’s customary to bury the deceased as soon as possible after the time of death. As a result, funerals are often held the day of or the day after the loved one has died. There is little time to process what is happening until it is over. My father died on Thursday morning, and by Friday afternoon, he was in his final resting place.
Even though we knew it was inevitable, can you ever really prepare for the death of a parent? And the thing I feared the most was how to explain it to my 3-year-old, who was so fond of her Nanu.
She knew he was sick too; after all, he had lost the ability to move his legs and his left arm. Because Nanu was not able to walk, my daughter naturally assumed that he had gotten a boo-boo on his leg — and we didn’t correct her because she wasn’t really wrong. We visited my father a few times each week, and every time, she would ask, holding his hand tightly, “Nanu, is your boo-boo feeling better? Can I kiss it for you?” It broke my heart every time.
What I didn’t see then was how much positivity and light my daughter emanated. She didn’t understand the scope of what was happening; she didn’t know the concept of death even existed. And because of that, she was able to take care of me when I needed taking care of.
When I came home after my father’s funeral, the girls were already in bed. It was late. I wanted to hold them, but the best I could do was hold onto their video monitors. Looking at their innocent sleeping faces was the cure I needed that night.
In the days, weeks and now months that have passed since his death, my two toddlers gave me the strength to get out of bed every morning. It didn’t matter that I didn’t want to; I had to. Because runny noses still needed wiping, scraped knees still needed Band-Aids, and hungry bellies still needed pancakes with maple syrup.
When we face moments of such uncertainty, it’s easy to forget that life still goes on. And my biggest fear, of having to tell my 3-year-old that her Nanu had gone to heaven, didn’t turn out to be as bad as I thought it would. She accepted that he had been sick and so he had to go someplace else. She was upset when I told her she wouldn’t be able to visit him anymore, but with time, she accepted that too.
One spring afternoon, my mom was playing with the girls out in the front yard of our house. Out of nowhere, my 3-year-old asked, “How did Nanu get to heaven? Did he drive? Did he take a plane? How did he get there?” I couldn’t help but smile.
The positivity of children knows no bounds. They aren’t concerned with space or time — they don’t worry about death and the beyond. Instead, they focus on the here and now. They concentrate on what they can see, on what they can hold in their hands. The tangible is what matters to them, and it’s what keeps them smiling.
On the days when I miss my father too much, I try to focus on the tangible too. I look at my 3-year-old’s delight when she gets a new pack of stickers. I concentrate on my 1-year-old and how excited she gets when she sees me after I’ve been away for a few hours. I flip through old photographs of my father with my girls, hoping they will remember him when they are older.
I don’t spend too much time thinking about the what-ifs anymore. Without planning to or even knowing they’re doing it, my daughters have taken care of me more than I have taken care of them these past few months. I may be the one feeding them and bathing them and clothing them and wiping their noses, but their caretaking feat is greater. Every time my mind hides in a dark corner, they pull me out — without even knowing what’s wrong. They make it better simply by being there.