My Dadi, a force of nature: A personal essay

Photo of mother and baby
Rafique Khan/Staff

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Her voice cackled and her face flickered as the FaceTime dropped. Anxiety bloomed in my chest, spreading through my limbs and onto my twitching fingers as I tapped the “call back” button, but she didn’t pick up. I tried three more times, only to be met with a flatly typed out, “Don’t worry, I’m much better.” 

My grandmother — my Dadi — was all alone and had now been in the hospital for almost two weeks, amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

Sometimes my friends debate over the first things they’re going to do once the pandemic is all over — packed nightclubs, far-flung trips abroad and sweaty SoulCycle classes. But I already know my answer. I’m going to go see my grandmothers and hug them. A real embrace of intertwined limbs, hands slapping backs, heads on shoulders and patted-down hair.

Each of my grandmothers has a distinct way they hug. My Nani is gentle. She’s so small that I have to bend my body down to even reach her. Her hands like to softly stroke my hair, hair she once used to condition with olive oil. My Dadi, on the other hand, is forceful. To be enveloped into one of her embraces is to feel the full weight of her love. I usually gasp for breath whenever she puts her arms around me because they crush my bones. The only word I have to describe her love is thick. Even as a child, I understood how it had the power to drown me at any possible moment. 

Dadi, as her hugs may suggest, is larger than life, and unlike anyone I’ve ever met; keep in mind, I attend UC Berkeley, where I’ve met my fair share of unique individuals. When I asked her about the time she and my grandfather attended school in Srinagar together, she responded with, and I quote this from my childhood journal, “We played field hockey together. One time I took my stick and hit him in the shins because he was annoying me.” 

When, much to my chagrin, my chest started growing, she bought me custom-ordered bras, making me try them on in front of my aunt and cousin, because she wanted my boobs to “look as nice as possible.” After I arrived in Italy for my semester abroad, she called me to let me know that this was the time in my life to “shop around for a fun boyfriend.” All this coming from a Muslim immigrant from Kashmir in her late 70s. 

Her life may read as a series of happy accidents, but I know it comes from her uncanny ability to bend reality at will. When she first arrived in Baltimore, she somehow managed to get featured on TV and interviewed by none other than Oprah for a cooking segment. After my father left for college, she began selling life insurance, outearning my grandfather and winning a trip to Europe as one of the world’s most successful agents. She even managed to convince my uncle, a former fraternity brother at UCLA, to travel to Kashmir and come back engaged after just one week.  

The only word I have to describe her love is thick. Even as a child, I understood how it had the power to drown me at any possible moment. 

But as she’s gotten older, her sharp mind has fallen mercy to her aging body. Two years ago, my family and I went to play volleyball at the beach. My grandmother insisted she be allowed to play, so we acquiesced, not thinking she would ever jump up to try and hit the ball only to fall backward and fracture her lumbar spine. As she lay on the ground, writhing in pain, I asked her why she ever thought to do that. “Inside, I’m still just a 16-year-old Tasneem,” she said.

She ended up needing cement injections in her back, and this injury was the start of a long, arduous journey in and out of hospitals. I’d always known her to have a precarious health situation; she was constantly being trucked to some doctor’s appointment, and at breakfast, she’d take 10 pills and inject insulin, but right after, she’d smear large clumps of jam onto a buttery croissant and spend six hours cooking in the kitchen. This time was different. Dadi was diagnosed with idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, or ITP, which is a blood disease that causes the immune system to mistakenly attack platelets. She had to stay in the hospital for close to six weeks, during which she received countless transfusions and had to have her spleen removed. 

While all this was going on during the end of my sophomore year, my dad attempted to mask the gravity of the situation by sharing only good news with me. But I was optimistic; I knew this would only be a small bump in my grandmother’s life, because I’ve literally never seen anything stop her.

After finals week of that year, my housemates and I decided to take a road trip down the coast. I’d been planning to spend a few days with my grandmother in California at the end before flying back home to Chicago. But the minute we left Berkeley, I began having vivid nightmares about Dadi, causing me to wake up with tear-stained cheeks in the middle of the night. I cut the trip short, with my new destination being Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. 

When I first saw her, a fraction of the size she was since I’d last seen her and with dried blood from countless IV injections running up and down her arms, I didn’t recognize my Dadi. I delicately hugged her, Nani-style, as if she was made out of glass that could break at the slightest touch. She returned my embrace with a rush of tears. Defeated and angry at being in the hospital for more than a month, she cried about how she just wanted to go home and leave this place. 

One day, my grandpa left the hospital room to run some errands, leaving Dadi and me alone. 

She had been getting steroids for treatment, and while she hadn’t had any that day, their effects seemed to be lingering because she seemed extra loopy. She divulged decades-old family gossip, gave me her drug-induced thoughts on our closest relatives and spoke to me as intimately as a teenage girl confiding to her diary. Though I had been suspecting it for years, it was then that I realized how similar we actually are. 

Though I had been suspecting it for years, it was then that I realized how similar we actually are. 

When I was younger, family figures took on a mythic quality in my eyes: heroes or villains, no in-between. But in Dadi, I saw a complex woman, not just with the strength and love I aspire to one day emulate but someone with the same vices and contradictions I have, finally understanding where they hail from. I, too, could be brash, stubborn, aggressive, impulsive and overly emotional. But I realized that these attributes, which I used to try and mitigate, are nothing to be ashamed of because they are what make Dadi such a force of nature. 

New insights confirm that grandmothers’ experiences leave a mark on their grandchildren’s genes. According to behavioral epigenetics, our ancestors’ excellent adventures or lousy childhoods might change our personalities, handing down anxiety or resilience by altering the epigenetic expressions of genes in our brains.

“You’re so much like me,” she confirmed to me that day, “but with one important difference: You have the freedom to make your own choices. I had so many of mine made for me.”

After tucking her into her twin-size hospital bed, I called one of my friends in the lobby. 

“It’s just so hard to see,” I said, my voice beginning to shake, threatening to release the myriad of emotions I had been keeping at bay. Through the line, connecting us across the country, I heard her evenly spaced breaths, signifying her careful listening, and I felt comforted by the silence. 

“I know,” she consoled, “but remember what you told me when my grandma was sick? Our grief is inversely related to how much we love someone.” 

That week ended up being an inflection point in Dadi’s recovery. The day I flew home, she was finally discharged from the hospital. 

Marking the one-year anniversary of the ordeal, she rang me this past May, fondly recalling how I had fought with her to try and have a cot brought out so I could spend the night next to her. 

“Good thing you weren’t in the hospital this year. I wouldn’t have been able to visit you with the pandemic,” I said. 

Except a couple of months later, she was back. Her ITP is still an ongoing condition she has learned to manage, but this time it was something else — her heart. She wound up back in the intensive care unit at a hospital that barred all visitors. While the pandemic has ravaged American life, patients being forced to suffer alone, devoid of any loved ones, may be the cruelest joke it is playing on us. 

For such a social person as my grandmother, these weeks were an excruciating hell. 

I felt trapped behind my phone screen. My pixelated face couldn’t replace our bedside chats, hand-holdings through blood drawings or cuddles during “Jeopardy!” Even if I was in Los Angeles, I knew I’d still be unable to so much as shake my grandmother’s hand, petrified at the prospect of my virus particles jumping onto her. 

She’s been allowed to return home but is slated for open-heart surgery in the coming weeks. 

I don’t have nightmares anymore. I know my grandmother will manage to overcome this obstacle like she has shown me she can, time and time again. 

Contact Zara Khan at [email protected].