As the only daughter of Iranian immigrants to the United States, I felt fortunate to grow up in a warm community. In the 1970’s and 1980’s my family from both sides had sacrificed a lot to flee to the U.S., in order to escape persecution from the tight grip of the Iranian regime. My mom told me about the trials and tribulations her family had endured after the Revolution, as well as her fond memories of growing up in Iran. Yet, I didn’t truly appreciate the scope of my mother’s strength of character and optimism until she was ill.
It was in the summer after 9th grade – I was 15 – when my mom starting coughing. Her coughs were not those of a smoker, gradually developing after a lifetime of abuse of one’s lungs. It was an unexpected, foreign sound. Each assault reverberated through our apartment and caused worry and suspicion.
Medical check-ups did not clarify the cause of the coughs. Pneumonia was the first guess, but that was wrong. A CT-scan showed that a liquid had formed around my mother’s lungs. The doctors didn’t know why. The months we waited for a diagnosis was one of the most stressful periods in my life. It was as if our mother’s health and the doctors were gripping us in the air, leaving us ignorant about whether we would drop to a catastrophic end, or whether we’d have a smooth fall and my mother would heal.
The winter of my tenth grade year, my mom was hospitalized two times and underwent surgery to remove the liquid around her lungs. Each time she was hospitalized one or two weeks.
The winter days were short, and nighttime fell early. I attended a rigorous college prep school and I tried hard to focus on my studies while taking care of my siblings and trying not to worry for my mom. As the oldest girl of four, I was the responsible one. My youngest brother was one year old. After taking care of my youngest brother, I tried to use the remaining time at night to study. I sat in my brightly lit room, as if under a doctor’s lamp, staring out into the dark night from the window across my desk. Like the pitch black of the winter night, the future was uncertain, and I felt too nervous to complete my studies. The evenings were the only chance I had to speak to my mom, if I did, as I sat alone in the artificial brightness.
After a few months, my mom was diagnosed with lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes. My first reaction was one of relief. In a strange way, hearing the news was mildly comforting. A bittersweet escape from uncertainty. But soon the pain returned, and with it the months of my mother’s suffering as she underwent chemotherapy. When I came home, she was always asleep. Women in the community would cook us meals. Household chores were left to when we had time, which was rare. In my mother’s condition, I stopped worrying about the petty things. I came to appreciate all the little things, all the moments my mom was awake. My little brother. The moments we had together.
It was as if our life was on hold until my mom got better. My dad was at home taking care of my youngest brother while I was at school. His work came to a halt. Almost every evening, we would visit my mom in the hospital (at this point we were allowed). I still remember the strong smell of antiseptic that permeated the hospital. We spent our evenings in the hospital lobby. I brought my heavy textbooks, and tried to study. I wasn’t always successful.
Her treatment continued into the summer. My youngest brother was nearing two now and required constant supervision. My brothers and I spent our days at my grandmother’s house until our mom picked us up after her chemotherapy treatments. I tried to study for college entrance exams while watching my active, curious brother. I wasn’t so successful. He was at the age where he had started to crawl and wanted to explore everything in the apartment. My eyes were glued to his every movement.
After spending the day in my grandmother’s immaculate, dimly lit, quiet apartment filled with antique furniture, our great happiness came from when my mom came to pick us up in her sick state. Somehow, the memory of my mother’s weak face pales in comparison to the great joy I felt after seeing her each afternoon. Her struggle continued into the next academic year, and it was only then that my school was notified and offered support.
The period of my mother’s illness was one of the most stressful times in our family. If my experience as a family member was this stressful, I can’t imagine how scary it must have been on my mother. Only later did I find out that her cancer had reached a serious stage when she was diagnosed, that she had been on the precipice of life. My mom suffered in composure, never complaining, always retaining hope. Her endless optimism and hope for the future, along with the community’s countless prayers contributed to her illness’s remission.
My mother has always been the strength of the family with her optimism, support and comfort in the times of pain, but when she was ill, I learned to apply her optimism without her prompting it. After she recovered, she told us that she had been more ill than she had revealed to us, her children. She said that what gave her the hope to carry on, was a hope of raising her children in the future. During her illness, although she was very weak and nauseous from her treatments, she never complained about her situation to us.
In the period of her illness, there were some family conflicts that happened behind the scenes. A lot of piled up feelings between both sides of my extended families came into fruition. Although my family is in peace, my father says we could learn about who actually cared about the family by their willingness to help in this time of need in which we had no choice but to rely on help.
My mother was too sick to care about the family arguments, and does not hold grudges. She says her illness has taught her not to suppress her feelings, but to discuss them. She believes that living with negative emotions for long time can influence one’s health. Although she believes in maintaining peace in the home, by not continuing an argument, she believes that it is important to be open with one’s feelings. She also learned to ask for help.
I think overall, the difficult period made some family members closer to each other. My mom has become close to her sisters who were supportive of the family when we needed help. Although there were some tensions, my dad has also become much closer to his family.
To me, being in the middle of a crisis where no one was to blame, I learned that people are forced to work together with people they are not close with, and I saw that happen. I saw people swallow their pride and come together. I learned that humans are vulnerable creatures; that however much we want to be completely autonomous individuals, there are points in our lives we must ask for help, and there is no need to be ashamed of that.