The first day of school, when I was five years old, was inevitable. I had managed to skip preschool altogether by insisting that I wanted to stay home with my mom. My mother had indulged me, much to the criticism of relatives who thought my mother and I clung to each other too much. They were right. I was always sitting on my mother's lap, holding on to her hand, or clinging to the hem of her skirt. My mother had never discouraged my attachment to her, but she had made it clear to me that I would have to let go of her long enough to attend kindergarten. In the course of the next couple of decades, and with the benefit of perspective, I would realize that my mother always had a good parent's instinct for knowing when to hold on to a child, and when to let go.
My mother walked me to school on my first day, holding on to my left hand. She took such firm, resolute steps that I knew there was no changing the course of our walk. So I trotted along, hearing my own heartbeat over the noise of Tehran traffic, nursing a lump in my throat so big I thought I would choke any minute. I was determined not to cry, so that when the doubting relatives asked, my mother would be able to boast that I walked into kindergarten without a fuss.
We arrived at school and entered a large, rectangular yard with hundreds of little boys and girls in similar light blue uniforms. We proceeded toward a section designated for kindergartners, most of whom were crying and clinging to their mothers. I was not crying, and neither was a little girl my height, with short brown hair, who stood all by herself just inside the gate to the yard. My mother noticed her too and walked right over. She bent down and smiled into the little girl's eyes and got a shy, dimpled smile in return.
“What's your name?” My mother asked.
“Shahdi”, the little girl replied.
“Is your mother here?”
“No,” said the little girl. “She left already.”
“This is my daughter Golnar,” my mother told her. “The two of you should hold hands and go where the teacher tells you to go.” She then extracted my hand out of her own, and placed in Shahdi's hand. Having found me a friend who would last me many years, my mother then stepped aside and waited for the teacher to call us.
The rest of that day was a confusing, blurry dream. Nothing made much sense, and time passed as if in the blink of an eye. I remember only three more things about the day. I remember walking up to the second story classroom holding on to Shahdi's hand. I remember looking out the window of the second story landing, and seeing my mother in the same spot I had left her. And I remember walking out of the building at the end of the day, and seeing my mother standing just inside the gate. You would have thought she had never left.
There were many other First Days in the years that followed – my first day of 5th grade in Paris, just after the Revolution, and my first day of 8th grade in Tennessee. These two first days were much more traumatic than the first day of kindergarten, when I had enjoyed merciful anonymity as one of several dozen kindergartners in similar uniforms. In Paris and Tennessee, I was the only Persian girl in the school, appearing mid-year, sporting a funny name and a panicked expression, barely speaking the language of my new classmates. The only comfort was my mother's presence by my side when I entered these new territories, and when I left them at the end of the first harrowing days.
While my mother never left my side during the first 18 years of my life, she encouraged me to move away from her after I graduated high school. I considered a number of different universities, and finally chose one in Chicago. In the fall of 1986, she helped me pack, loaded up the car, and drove me to the university some 12 hours away. She settled me in my dorm room, put the keys to a new life all my own in my hands, and left with instructions to call her every Sunday and anytime I needed anything. Four years later, she helped me get settled in a law school far away from her, and three years after that, she waved goodbye as I packed up my belongings and drove off to start a new life in California. I keep thinking how it must have broken her heart to see me leave the nest and get farther and farther away, and never once try to keep me with her . Of all the gifts my mother gave me over the years, the greatest was the freedom to fly away and make my own life when it was time to do so. Invariably, the lives that I made for myself always included her at their very core, without her ever having to ask for inclusion.
Three years ago, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. I moved her to California a year and a half ago, just before my father, who had been taking care of her, passed away. Deep in the advanced stages of a fast-moving disease, my mother rarely talks and cannot even recognize me. I have traveled the well-worn path toward adjustment, and have reconciled myself to the fact that she will never get well. Yet there are rare episodes when she suddenly turns to me, focuses on my face, and says something so coherent and so reminiscent of who she used to be, that I feel renewed pain at the loss of her. Just last week, when I took her some pastry I had baked at home, she suddenly said: “Everything you do is always perfect.” There she was again, my own personal cheerleader, looking at me with that old mixture of love and approval that had been mine for thirty years. Instantly she was gone, retreating behind a nearly catatonic creature I had to spoon feed.
Her neurologist, who lost his own mother to Alzheimer's Disease, explained it best. He said it is as if Alzheimer's Disease patients live in a parallel universe where time is meaningless and nothing makes such sense. Periodically, they stop at a window that gives into our world, and look through it. If we happen to be standing there at that same instant, then we establish a momentary contact before they walk away. The best those of us who love them can possibly hope for is that we are standing there when they look through the window. For a few seconds they see us there and know that we never left them.
This past year, I have spent so many hours by my mother's side talking to her, standing vigil at that precious window she sometimes looks through. Her visits to the window are becoming so rare I have all but given up hope of hearing her talk to me again in this world. You would think she is deliberately avoiding that window, hoping that I walk away and move on to more pressing matters in other parts. Maybe she wants me to spend more time across town with my own five year old boy, who is due to start kindergarten in a few days. Perhaps she thinks that I should be standing in his school yard, so that when he looks through his classroom window, and when he emerges from his school building, he'll find me standing in the same spot, as if I never left him.
I know it makes no sense to attribute such sophisticated thoughts to someone who cannot even remember her own name. But deep in the creases of love, where reason fears to dwell, I feel that my mother is trying to tell me to spend more time in my own life. After all, my mother always had a good parent's instinct for knowing when to let go.
This essay was the first prize winner selected by the Iranian Federated Women's Club and Payvand Cultural School in northern California during their 5th annual cultural event on March 17, 2002.