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Love, Muslim Style

Where Love Leads Us

 

I met my husband when I had already given up on love.  Our first date was the day after Christmas in 2008 at a small Greek restaurant in San Francisco.  It was a blind date.  We’d been set up by a mutual friend who thought we would be perfect together: he was Indian, I was Indian; he was divorced (had been for ten years), I was divorced (had been for seven years); and we both had sons from our previous marriages whose names, coincidentally, rhymed: Isham, Atham.  The similarities were enough to convince my friend that Ruvi and I were not only a perfect match but meant for each other: two people who had struggled through a decade of single parenthood waiting for the moment when we at last found each other.  I can’t say I bought into any of my friend’s romanticism.  But she persisted, assuring me that this was the man I was waiting for, this was the one.  And when that didn’t convince me, she accused me of being out of my mind for not taking two hours out of my schedule to have a meal with the man who would end fathering my second born child.  It was the kind of relentless, over-the-top pressure I was used to facing from friends and family who were intent on seeing me settle down again.  So I did what I had routinely done over the years when the nagging got to be too much: I agreed to go out on a date in order to shut them up.

 

*****

 

For many years after my divorce, I kept a Derek Walcott poem on my bedside table.  I read it frequently before turning off the lights and going to sleep, peacefully alone in my king-sized bed.  The poem comforted me because it encapsulated how I was feeling after the divorce.  And it made me realize I wasn’t alone in what I was feeling -- the poet himself, dear Mr. Walcott, was a kindred spirit.  He knew what I knew.  When no one else would accept why I wanted to be alone, I turned to his poem.

 

Love After Love

 

The time will come

When, with elation,

You will greet yourself arriving

At your own door, in your own mirror,

And each will smile at the other’s welcome,

 

And say, sit here, Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine.  Give bread.  Give back your heart

To itself, to the stranger who has loved you

 

All your life, whom you ignored

For another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

 

The photographs, the desperate notes,

Peel your image from the mirror.

Sit.  Feast on your life.

 

(excerpted from 110 Poems of Love and Revelation, edited by Roger Housden)

 

*****

 

I was 31 years old when I walked out on my husband.  Tim and I had been unhappy together even before our son, Isham, was born.  We didn’t conceive him with the misguided belief that a child would somehow bring us together.  We planned a family during a time when we still had hope in our marriage and in love.  But in the four years between conceiving Isham and his third birthday, that hope -- for me, at least -- had died.  I spent many months trying to convince Tim that the only way he and I would find happiness again is through divorce.  We weren’t getting along.  We spent much of our time together fighting, often in front of our son.  By three, Isham was beginning to show physical signs of his distress: he stopped eating and, when he did manage to take a few bites, he quickly threw it up.  His pediatrician told me that children his age often express their emotions through food because it’s the one thing they can control.  On the doctor’s growth chart, my son’s weight had dropped from the 80th percentile to the 10th percentile.  It’s not enough to say my son wasn’t flourishing.   He was nearly starving to death.  

But even that wasn’t enough to convince Tim to agree to a divorce.  He came up with a response to every argument I made.  He insisted our son was too young to internalize our strife.  He believed Isham was going through a picky stage of eating and would soon grow out of it -- just as, he said, Tim and I would grow out of our struggles.  In his view, our arguments had nothing to do with our marriage so he saw no reason to divide the family.  In his defense, I will say that he wasn’t completely out of line.  In many ways, our marital conflicts really didn’t have to do with each other.  We didn’t just grow apart as a couple.  We weren’t fighting over toilet seats or toothpaste tubes or even larger issues like how our different faiths and backgrounds would come together to shape our son.  Most of what weighed on us were pressures from outside that we couldn’t control.  Within months of our getting married, his mother had died of lung cancer, ending a two-year battle.  Tim had been so close to her that he was the one who held his mom as she passed away.  We spent our first anniversary at her funeral.  The grief and loss shut him down.  There was nothing his father nor I could do to reach him.  For months, he drifted alone, unmoored to everyone, including me.  In the end, my pregnancy is what brought him back.  It wasn’t that our child was replacing his mother.  It was that Tim could now shift his focus from death to new life.  He was graduating to being a parent himself.  He had something to look forward to.  He had hope.  At times he overflowed with such joy that he became giddy and did a little dance.  Some of the best memories I have of our marriage are from these months. 

Unfortunately, my son’s delivery turned out to be unexpectedly complicated.  I had developed a life-threatening syndrome during pregnancy called HELLP, which afflicts the liver and blood cells and platelets.  The symptoms that most commonly give it away are high blood pressure and headaches.  But I didn’t have any of the common (or uncommon) symptoms so the disease was left undetected.  Twenty minutes after I delivered, I had a seizure and fell into a coma.  MRI scans of the head revealed that I had two brain hemorrhages, one at the back and one at the front of the brain.  I also had a minor heart attack and severe pulmonary edema.  Within twenty-four hours of my son’s delivery, my organs began shutting down one by one, small lights in my body turning off: my liver, my kidneys.  My blood stopped clotting.  My brain wouldn’t stop swelling and pressed up against my skull.  There was talk that a surgeon would need to drill a hole in my skull to relieve the excess pressure: meaning, to give my brain more room to inflate.  The doctors told Tim and my parents that if I was lucky I would die.  If not, they would have to decide who would be my ward.  The only kind of life I was expected to lead was that of a vegetable.  

Somewhere during this time, my newborn son also landed in the intensive care unit of the nursery.  He had stopped breathing and had to be resuscitated.  The doctors were now monitoring him around the clock just as they were monitoring me.  Tim found himself racing from one floor to another, visiting his son and then his wife.  When he was beside me, the nurses would take the opportunity to wake me up so I wouldn’t fall into deeper states of coma.  When I came to, they quickly presented Tim in hopes of dragging me back to this reality, as you might hook a fish and reel it in.  But I never recognized who he was.  I only called out for my son.

 

*****

 

Three months later, when Tim was driving from our home in San Francisco to Stanford, where he taught expository writing to incoming freshman, the pressure of my illness finally got to him.  By then, my son and I had been released from the hospital.  Although Isham was fully healthy, breathing on his own, gaining weight, I was still recovering, would continue to recover over the next 2 1/2 years.  My mother had moved in to help with my son because I couldn’t watch over him.  I was disabled from the brain damage: I had difficulty walking, couldn’t properly speak (aspasia), had no short-term memory, no peripheral vision, and I occasionally went blind.  My brain was still inflated like a balloon, all its healthy wrinkles entirely wiped smooth.  Based on the latest MRI report, the neurologist estimated it would take more than a year for my brain to return to its normal size.  Only then, he said, would I know which of my faculties would return and which would not.  He seemed fairly confident, however, that I would never write again.  My head hurt so much I lay in bed most days, my arms wrapped around it, whimpering.  When it got too much, my mom would massage my skull while saying prayers under her breath.  Over and over she told me that doctors had tried to prepare her for my death but she knew they were wrong.  Her heart had told her otherwise.  She said this as a way of assuring me that I would overcome all my health complications, that no side effects would linger to haunt me.  I had gotten through the toughest part, she said, now it was only a matter of time before she handed over Isham to me and went home.  What she wanted most for me was what I desperately wanted for myself: a return to an ordinary family life.

Tim called as soon as he arrived in his office.  It was early December, just days before he went on vacation for the winter holidays.  For weeks, he’d been complaining of the pressures he’d been under at both work and home and was looking forward to the time off.  He was chuckling now as he told me that he’d experienced a “sympathy headache” on the drive to work that morning.

“Some men gain weight with their pregnant wives,” he joked.  “I experience the same intense headaches.”  Then he became quiet before adding, “The double vision hasn’t gone away.  I’m holding two fingers up in front of me and I see four.  I had to keep one eye closed on the drive down just to make out the road.”  Almost as an afterthought, he said, “Do you think I should see a doctor?”

I didn’t know what to tell him.  The ability for complicated, higher thought processes had left me.  Every sentence was like a different piece of a puzzle and no matter how hard I tried to put together all the bits of information to make sense of what he was saying, I simply couldn’t.  Nor could I use the tone of his voice to help guide me.  He was being intentionally light, likely to keep me from worrying, but it only left me more confused, unable to help him.  Flustered, I asked him to call my brother, who at the time happened to be a neuro-surgery resident.  Tim must have heard something in my voice for he apologized for bothering me and quickly got off the phone.

The next time I heard from Tim he had been checked into the San Francisco hospital where I had delivered Isham, in the same neurology ward I’d recently left.  When I visited him there, the neurologist -- who was initially my neurologist -- told me that he recognized Tim’s name on the patient list and thought it was me who was returning.  It was natural for him to think so since I did return every so often for a follow-up and overnight stay.  The neurologist joked that we should ask our medical insurance if we could get a two-for-one deal.  

 

*****

 

Tim was eventually diagnosed with a brain lesion.  To this day, doctors are split on whether it’s cancer or TB in the brain.  A biopsy would determine its exact nature.  But the location of the lesion made the neurosurgeon we consulted hesitant to perform even a small procedure like a needle biopsy.  The lesion sits at the very center of the brain, right where the spinal cord enters the skull.  The surgeon said he didn’t know if he would enter the brain from the top of the head or the bottom, near the throat.  No matter what he chose, he explained, so much brain tissue would be disturbed that the small procedure could leave Tim blind or paralyzed while full-on surgery to remove the lesion could end up killing him.  The best route was to bypass invasive procedures altogether and instead keep the lesion under control through medication.

The neurologist put Tim on high doses of steroids to reduce the swelling around the lesion.  The MRI scans indicated that the lesion didn’t recently appear but had been sitting dormant for some time.  The duress Tim was under seemed to have activated the lesion somehow, making it grow.  Because of its location, the swelling of tissue in that area was partially blocking the aqueduct of Sylvius, which circulates life-giving fluids in the brain.  The headache and double vision he was experiencing were signs that his brain was already being damaged.  He was lucky my brother urged him to skip his classes and immediately check into the hospital  Otherwise, the increasing swelling would have completely blocked the aqueduct and the cerebrospinal fluids would have stopped flowing and he would have died.  As it was, the minor damage had left the entire right side of his body, from his face to his toes, slacken and weak.  

He went on disability from Stanford and stayed home with me to recover.  The neurologist advised me to do whatever I could to keep him from becoming stressed.

 

*****

 

So part of what Tim was referring to when he asked me not to push for divorce, to be patient until things settled again, was all this.

 

*****

 

Our months recovering together weren’t peaceful.  Tim was on high doses of steroids, which made him aggressive and irrational and angry.  He was always looking to pick a fight.  One day, he went to rent a movie and fought with the owner of the store and was thrown out, barred from ever coming back.  He fought with a neighbor because a tree on her yard was blocking our city view and Tim wanted the neighbor to chop it down.  When the neighbor refused, Tim returned home fuming and began searching for a chemical he could use to poison the tree.  My mother stopped him with the warning that he would be arrested.  He exploded, taking all his frustration and anger onto her.  He told her she’d overstayed her welcome and he wanted her out of the house that very night.  He said that her constant praying hadn’t helped me and Isham but had somehow spread my brain damage to him, like a virus.  He yelled so crudely that I could see spit flying out of his mouth.  While she backed away from him, he edged toward her until he had her cornered against a wall.  Isham began crying.  I thought he was going to hit my mother.  In my hurry to get to her, I couldn’t get my legs to move correctly and I tripped and fell.  Somehow my mother managed to get away from Tim and ran into her room.  Later she begged me to let her return home.  It must have been early February by then, five months since the delivery, and I was slowly walking by using the furniture for support.  Much as my mother had promised, I was steadily taking on more and more care of Isham.  I saw that no good would come from her sticking around.  

After she left, I hired a nanny to help out.  When she took Isham on his daily outings to the park, the house was empty but for Tim and me.  It was the first time in months that we were alone together.  Slowly over the days, I could sense his aggression narrowing and then fixating on me.

 

*****

 

I met Tim when we were both graduate students at the University of Oregon.  He had already received his M.A. in English from UC Berkeley and was now getting an M.F.A. in poetry writing.  I was in the fiction writing side of the same program.  We met at orientation on the first day of school.  He was so intensely good looking that I couldn’t imagine that he would notice me so I didn’t dare flirt with him and make a fool of myself.  For the most part, I stayed out of his way.  Occasionally we ran into each other at the campus coffee house, where he liked to sit in the back garden and write his poetry and I liked to sit and grade student papers.  After our work was done, he would ask me to join him for coffee.  He would order us both a fresh latte and we would sit and talk.  We never flirted.  Nor did our conversations ever veer close to any romantic subjects.  We mostly gossiped about our fellow classmates or talked about our own struggles with writing or complained about the constant rain in Oregon.  He told me that his friends in Berkeley couldn’t understand why he up and left to come to Oregon of all places and would frequently call to tease him: they were eating burritos and throwing frisbees on the beach while he huddled against the rain among aging fans of The Grateful Dead.  But there was more about Eugene he didn’t like: it was too small for him.  For eight years, he had traveled the world, had been to places I’d never heard of, spoke three languages fluently.  He didn’t need me to tell him anything about India because he’d already been there himself, had even written several poems about his experience, which became part of the portfolio that got him accepted into the Oregon writing program.  He had come here because his parents were friends with the director, who had talked it up to Tim.  Now he saw that he’d already learned everything he needed to at Berkeley, where he’d studied with writers like Bharati Mukherjee, Poet Laureate Robert Hass, and Noble Laureate Czeslaw Milosz.  He promised that if I ever came down to the Bay Area, he would introduce me to them.  When he asked what had led me to Oregon, I explained that the director had heard me give a reading in Minneapolis, where my family lived.  Afterward, he recruited me, even paying my way.  It was only because of his offer that my parents had allowed me to move out of the house and live in Eugene by myself.  

The place where Tim’s world had become flattened and restricted was exactly where mine had opened up.

 

*****

 

I skipped our graduation ceremony to fly down to San Francisco and marry Tim.  I married him against my father’s wishes.  I married him in a small mosque in south San Francisco that I’d never been to nor have been to since.  His mother and father were present at the nik’kah as was my mother.  Tim said the shahadah.  The imam renamed him Ibrahim.  My mother didn’t think it necessary to give Tim a Muslim name but the imam thought it an important symbol of our new life together.  Tim and I had decided to raise our children Muslim.  We had also decided to travel the world together.  I wanted to visit the places that he’d described, the unforgettable landscapes I’d read about in his poetry.  We applied for the Peace Corps.  We applied to teach English abroad.  After the wedding, we were planning on staying with his parents for the few short weeks it would take for an assignment to come through.  Korea, Singapore, Tajikastan, Viet Nam.  This is why I had fallen so helplessly in love with Tim.  No longer trapped in my parents’ home, under their overly protective gaze, I could spread my wings -- was even expected to; Tim didn’t want anything less.  We were going to be explorers together.  

The same week we were assigned to teach in Korea we were told that his mother had less than three months to live.  Wanting to be near her, we signed a lease on an apartment in San Francisco and moved in.  Then she died.  Then I got pregnant and nearly died.  Then Tim got sick and nearly died.  

The world we ended up seeing was very different from the one we had planned to.  

 

*****

 

Three years after his diagnosis and my delivery, Tim and I made a joint visit to the neurologist.  

The doctor was stunned by my recovery.  I had regained all the faculties I’d lost and was walking and talking and thinking as though I’d never suffered from brain damage.  He told me that in his twenty years of medicine he’d only seen five patients endure the extensive brain damage I had and survive.  Of those five, only I showed no sign of the trauma.  He called me a “miracle girl” and gave the credit for my recovery to god.  Then he told me to use my gift with words to go write about my experience.

The news he gave Tim was equally miraculous.  The MRI scan showed that his lesion had finally calcified.  Meaning, the heavy drugs he’d been on for three years had successfully contained it.  His headaches and double vision had ceased.  He had full mobility of his body.  The doctor now gave Tim permission to return to teaching, to progress forward with his life.

For so long Tim and I had been on the same journey to recovery.  And because we’d both experienced brain damage, parts of that healing landscape were similar.  But we had each traveled on that journey alone and arrived at the end almost strangers to each other.  Since the night we conceived Isham, we hadn’t had sex.  Even when I thought about the couple in that bed together, kissing and holding each other, whispering about the future, they seemed separate from us, innocent and young.  There was no going back.

That weekend, I signed a lease on an apartment and moved out.  I didn’t take anything from the house with me except what I needed: my writing desk, my computer, two bookshelves, a few changes of clothes, toys.  And of course our son, who was three at the time.  And my exhaustion.

 

*****

 

Within months of my divorce, friends and family began introducing me to eligible men.  I went out with every person they suggested.  I was far from ready to be married again so I wasn’t looking for a potential husband in these men.  Rather, I was looking to them to bring me some levity, a chance to do ordinary things: get dressed up, feel giddy about the possibility of flirting, have a dinner conversation that had nothing to do with doctor visits and the latest test results and the slow progress of recovery.  Outside the world of disease for the first time in years, I felt lucky to have nothing better to complain about than politics and the astronomically rising housing market in San Francisco due to the dot com era.  At the end of dinner, I always went home alone then ignored any calls or e-mails that came from my date over the following few days.  I made a point of not going out with any man twice.  Once was sufficient.  Once would give me the high I needed.  Once would also keep him from expecting anything from me that I couldn’t give.

My healing didn’t stop with my physical recovery.  It merely meant I could now heal in other ways.  There were no doctors, however, guiding me on how best to recover emotionally, no tests I could take that would show how far I’d come.  I had to make it up as I went along.  For the most part, after the initial excitment of dating, I stopped wanting to go out and simply retreated.  I bought a house and because the date on which escrow closed happened to land on my son’s fourth birthday I told myself that our home was God’s blessing, a sanctuary.  Here, I devoted myself to raising my son, who gained weight and confidence, flourished under my constant care.  When he was at school, I read books on spirituality, meditated and prayed.  My spirit was broken.  I didn’t know how to open up and trust again.  What if God sent another misfortune my way?  What if my next husband also got sick and became a stranger to me, someone I had reason to fear?  I was already so tired, what if I didn’t have the strength to survive what came at me next?

Plagued by fears, I stepped out of life, hid myself away.  I thought it was the best way to protect myself.

 

*****

 

The day after Christmas in 2008, I was sitting across the table from a man I’d written off even before I’d met him, someone I’d agreed to go on a date with only to please a friend.  After listening politely to him describe his own divorce, which had happened a decade earlier, I couldn’t help but tease him. 

“My friend told me you’re hoping to get married again,” I said, “but is that really true?  It’s been ten years -- don’t tell me you’re just selective about women.”

“You’re right,” he said, picking up on what I was suggesting.  “I had shut down for a long time.”

“So what happened to open you up again?”  I couldn’t help but be skeptical.

He wasn’t ruffled by my tone.  “I realized,” he said, “that shutting myself down carries as many risks as opening myself up.  The disappointments and sorrows are different but they’re still there.  It’s just that now I’m dealing with everything alone.”  He paused before leaning toward me and adding, “I’d rather fall in love and take the chance that my heart will be broken again than be shut off because there’s also a fifty-fifty chance that it won’t be.  ”

That evening, I went home alone as I usually did.  For a week, I ignored his phone calls.  In my mind, I made light of his words even as I found myself wanting to talk to him some more.  For a month, he persisted.  Finally in the new year, I agreed to go out on a second date.