Aaj TV

Family Matters

21 Dec, 2021
The writer has relocated to the United States. Photo: Visit Grand Junction
The writer has relocated to the United States. Photo: Visit Grand Junction

I felt arrogantly certain that my arrival to Pakistan was permanent. Now I am sure that my displacement is permanent.

The earth has barely completed its revolution around the sun and I’m already in a brand new future. My neck hurts everyday from the sudden change. My stomach clenches from drinking coffee again in the morning. I’m in America and I don’t want to resist it anymore.

Here in this language imposed upon me by a legacy of colonialism, my capacity for full expression is stunted. For what I know is still shifting shapes. In these young years of mothering there has been a focus on the physical labor of raising children. I’ve spent more hours up at night than sleeping and feeding from my breasts for five of the last six years. Last year I left America so my children wouldn’t experience Islamophobia and racism. This year I’ve left Pakistan for America, again for my children.

If I could have found a way to remain I would have.

We moved from Patagonia to Karachi, Karachi to Islamabad. We took road trips from Islamabad to Chitral, Chitral to Hunza, Hunza to Islamabad, Islamabad to Kashmir, Islamabad to Chitral. Finally we left Islamabad on Nov. 8 for Karachi, with a plan to move back to America. We had become very good at labeling the things that occupied our living spaces as important. We had become very adept at packing and communicating about which clothes and toys we could leave packed and which we wanted on hand. We had become very good at being a family, despite all the turbulence of our rapidly changing circumstances.

It was just the end of the monsoon in Islamabad when I felt a brief solid spell of hope in making that city a home. More often though I felt like I was wearing a blanket of thin cactus spikes, my discomfort revealing that my displacement within Pakistan was larger than I had conceived. I was no longer that Karachi girl who left for America with a new husband and a new baby in 2016. I was no longer even the mother of three with postpartum depression who catapulted back to Pakistan in December 2020.

I had little in common with people who lived in these big urban landscapes. I didn’t expect this cultural challenge. I didn’t expect that my eyes had lost their capacity to be dull to the class apartheid that my life existed upon. I didn’t know that the education system would disappoint me so thoroughly, not just in its practice, but in its intentions. Even elite private schools espousing their commitment to curiosity, inquisitiveness, and play-based education were still teaching an intense academic core of writing at the tender age of four.

I always knew F. is different.

His diamond eyes, his mind, his world, his capacity to see differently, and his ability to know himself. I always knew his love and loyalty towards us is fierce. He is so easy to love, for both of us, that we never imagine a future in which he won’t thrive. My husband and I both knew instinctively that this schooling of indoctrination would break his tender and sweet soul. We would need to advocate for his uniqueness, even if that meant to keep him at home. But back then we didn’t understand what was driving his difference. Though F. knew how to talk about it. . “Mama, my brain is different. It’s an X-bot brain.” “Mama, the other kids in school are hypnotized by the teachers.” “Mama, the teachers repeat things and scramble up my brain.” “Mama, the teachers don’t even do one thing that I like.”

For now it seems that the name for this strange kind of belonging is called autism. There is a spectrum. There is a rainbow of people who have gifted this world with their abilities because of this spectrum. Writers, artists, musicians, mathematicians, and then the countless unnamed lives which we don’t know about.

I remember in 2019 when F. insisted I read him a long book on the Mars rovers. I remember because now I know what I have. I have a son whose brain prunes his synapses differently. And more importantly, I have a mirror, to understand my own crooked and difficult life. For what if he and I are the same?

The summer of 2020, after months of isolation, F. turned to me and said, “Mama, you know I like the lockdown because I only want to be around you guys…”

The summer of 2019, F. said to me, “Mama, you know I want to go to a school with no kids and no teachers.”

Once a grandparent in our small community who we saw twice a week asked me, “Does F. talk?”

I had not particularly noticed that F. didn’t talk to other people. His outrageously expansive vocabulary was reserved for our talks. Yesterday F. was sitting next to me, in a friend’s guesthouse, absorbed in looking at the ceiling, and he asked, “Mama, what happens when everything in the universe goes back to being as small as a dust speck?”

I remember being five and playing at my school playground alone. I remember being fascinated by bugs. I remember not understanding other kids and how to be around them. I remember being shy and uncomfortable with new people. I don’t remember the ways in which I learned how to mask. I don’t remember all the times I repressed feeling so different and so anxious that I eventually could drink 20 shots of hard liquor and not be satisfied.

When we were leaving for America again I said, “We’re going to start a new life…”

F. replied, “Mama, that’s not true, we aren’t starting a new life.”

“Well, we will be in a new place with new people, but yes we will still be around other humans, that won’t change,” I explained.

“And Mama, everyone will still have hearts.”

F. is not an ordinary boy. For all the people who have heard my news in private and some who have talked of “deficits” and ‘behaviors we can correct,’ I’m not sure they understand that there is nothing to change or modify in those who are born different. In the depth and width of a human life few of us fit any model perfectly. If someone does ‘fit in’ that person tends to have a certain dullness. Likely to ‘fit in’ an unconscious burden of generations of restrictions are living within them. Then there are people like me and F., even when we want to fit in, we never will.

I remember my father adoring me and my strong voice in the family. I learned. I learned how to walk this world pretty well. I did have this privilege. A small school, music, drama, sports, teachers who cared and saw me as a whole person and not just a brain, and friends who understood that I was averse to hugs and touch.

I’ve heard sorrys. I’ve heard he can have a normal life.

How can I want my children to have a “normal” or “normative” life?

It is no accident that my children chose me. Their bodies grew and their hearts beat in my body for nine months and I felt every single labor pain through which they arrived on this land. My boys chose a heart that has been tested with a family history of mental illness, alcoholism, suicide, poverty, loss of a traditional life, and so much more.

I wonder if you are out there, another mother or father like me, in love so deeply with your different child. I want to know that worry is not a place for us to visit often. For his difference is F’s strength. He doesn’t need to please anyone. He knows what he likes. He doesn’t need any approval. Like all of us he wants unconditional love. He wants to be unencumbered to pursue his passionate interests. He wants to play, run, fight, laugh, joke, and cry with his brothers. He wants friends, but he won’t chase after anyone.

You may go into an interview at one of the private elite schools and your child doesn’t perform. You may be told to go do this and that. You may have never heard that there is another way. But I assure you there is, and your child is challenging you to consider it. A child doesn’t need to be neurotypical to thrive and be successful. A child whose strange edges can’t be contoured to a capitalist education system is an opportunity to question the assumptions we have about the way we are doing things.

F. is my easiest kid. He listens and adapts. He is able to say, “Mama, I want to rest.” I know for many parents their autistic kid can’t communicate verbally as easily. I cannot walk in your day or imagine the challenges you face. But I can appreciate you for loving your child and remind you that you are their advocate. Your love and confidence can demonstrate that your child is whole and worthy of being treated in such a way.

For what a country I belong to. For those who know my love for my land. For its contradictions, for its humility, for its weather, for its food, for its people, for its broken reality showing us everyday how bad things are. It is almost impossibly hard for me to arrive again in rural America, where I don’t have the comfort of the migrant diasporas, lifelong friends or Pakistani dhaba food. But I’m here doing it again, because I can. That is a privilege I am not cynical about or too obtuse to understand. I can leave Pakistan to find public education that will support me and my family, but most parents in my shoes, cannot.