There are moments in our lives when the unexpected happens. There are moments when our security blankets are torn away and our rug of comfort ripped from beneath us. We seldom pause the steady pace of our busy lives to contemplate such occasions or how we would react in them. Perhaps that is why we are so unprepared and vulnerable when they do occur.
A week before the devastating events of September the 11th, my family received some devastating news of its own, and needless to say we were shocked. My mother held her face with one hand and the phone with the other, as the news of her brother's accident came through the line from Iran. My brother and I sat frozen in our seats staring at her. The room became silent; the kind of silence that comes with bad news. The feeling that all of your senses have been vacuumed out along with the air in the room, leaving you with only anxiety and a loud pounding inside your chest.
“What happened?… when?… where?… how?… how is he?… where is he?… what is going to happen?…” The answers were blurry, much like the long distance that separated us. I slowly started to gather the pieces. “He was hit by a motorcycle… he was on his way to the university to teach his class… he was crossing on a pedestrian crosswalk… the driver was drunk… there were four of them… young kids… it was bad… he's in a coma… we don't know… we're doing everything….” My mother bit her lip but it was too late. The tears were already blinding her. “I have to go,” she said. One week after September 11th, when they re-opened the airports, my mother got on the first available flight to Iran to be with her brother.
Three months have passed since that day and my uncle is still in a coma. He is the younger of my two uncles and the one I have spent the least amount of time with. His accident is devastating not only because of the uncertainty of his current state but also because there is nothing that anyone can do but wait. During these past months of waiting, praying and feeling helpless, I have also been reflecting on many things about my life and the role that distance has played in shaping it.
Last time I saw my uncle was in late June, when my two-month stay in Iran was coming to an end. It's hard to explain how close I feel to him and how much I love him considering how little time I have spent with him. My uncle would always tease me and try to stir me up. In this last trip he told me why he did that. “I pick on you so that you won't forget me,” he said. At the time, I just laughed and gave him one of my looks. If I could go back in time, I would do things differently.
I would tell him I remember everything. I remember when I used to be seated next to him at the dinner table when I was little and he would steal my tadig when I was not looking. I would tell him about my memories of lazy afternoons in Mashad. Those hot summer days when my cousin Leila (his daughter) and I would drive him crazy running around and laughing like lunatics while he was trying to take a nap. I would tell him I remember the first time I made kotlet for him and it was too salty, but he ate it anyway. Most of all I would remind him how much I love him and that the distance between us has only been geographic.
I have strong hope that my uncle will open his eyes one of these days and give us all another chance to tell him how much he means to us. It is unfortunate that sometimes it takes a tragedy to wake us from our robotic lives and draw the focus back to what is truly important. These past few months, with my mother gone and our house empty without her, I have had the opportunity to do just that.
When I was little, I thought I was so unlucky. Every time I would start in a new school and make friends and learn the local language, it was time to move again. Now, I can appreciate how those experiences have strengthened me, and shape who I am. At the time, however, I saw things very differently. It just seemed unfair to me. All the other kids got to grow up in the same town; grow up with the same friends. Me, on the other hand, I was shuffled between three continents and expected to understand beyond my years. This moving around obviously affected my family structure.
From an early age, I became accustomed to separation and developed mechanisms to sort my emotions and numb the pain. Father, sister, brother, aunt, uncles, cousins; all of them were spread out across borders. While I didn't get to grow up in one neighborhood surrounded with all my family and life-long friends, I always knew they were just a plane ride away.
Now that I am older, I see things differently. The distances seem to have grown longer and time is more precious. There are so many people that I love that live far away and I panic to think of a world without them in it. Yet, I don't know how to include them in my daily life when the distance is so great. I think this has been my dilemma since before I could ever put it into words.
My whole life I have been jealous of those who celebrate family reunions. The kinds of families that can just all get together in one place and take a big picture. I search my memory in vain for such a picture. For my family, there is always someone missing and having a family reunion is just a distant dream.
On occasions when we do get to see one another we are ecstatic to be together and aware of the passing of time. The little ones are no longer so little. The teenagers have become adults, and the adults have a few more gray hairs. On these occasions, I take as many pictures as I can, knowing that it can't make up for lost time. At least it will preserve those few moments, and I know that sometimes that is all we get.
I realize this story is not exclusively mine. It is not just an Iranian story either. It is in essence, the story of any immigrant group. Some are rich, some are poor. Some have escaped; some have planned their departure. Some can return and many are forced to live in exile. All of us have left family behind. Family; that one unit, bound by blood, soil, and unconditional love but separated by circumstance.
How do we preserve our traditions and our strong emotional ties when we cannot even look into each other's eyes? How do we continue to love each other and share our lives, when our lives have pulled us apart? I don't have a formula yet, but my uncle's accident has taught me one of the ingredients.
I am learning to set aside my pride and express myself more. Maybe that means a letter or a phone call. Maybe that means sharing a forgotten memory. Maybe it means to tell someone that you love him or her when you get the chance, instead of assuming they already know. I am learning to make the best of a situation I cannot control. I am learning I will not always get a second chance to say I love you and the price I would have to pay for that mistake is more than I am willing to risk.