This week's story is in honor of Mother's Day.
The war had raged around them for so long that they were unaware that there had ever been any other kind of life. Despite the destruction and hatred that filled the country as a whole, Homaira knew the joys and fears common to teenagers. She stressed out over schoolwork, struggled with crushes, and argued against parental authority. She gossiped with her friends and fought with her older brother, Bashir. She railed against the injustices of life, complaining over the little dramas that plagued her.
That was all before.
The sun had been shining in an especially blue sky. It was just a little too hot and Homaira was relieved to step into the shade of the house. Her eyes took some time to adjust and she heard her mother before she saw her. Delaram’s breathing was even, measured; it sounded as though she were deliberately trying to keep herself calm. It was unusual and Homaira picked up on it immediately.
“Mama? What’s wrong?”
Delaram’s face came into focus as Homaira’s pupils dilated. There were tears unshed in Delaram’s brown eyes and dried tracks upon her cheeks. Her brows were slightly drawn together in concentration as she stared at her daughter and one hand clenched spastically at her side.
“Mama?” Homaira repeated. Delaram took a deep, breath and despite her attempt at control, it sounded ragged to Homaira’s ears. The sound made her stomach freeze with terror. “Mama,” she tried one more time, “what happened?”
“Your father. Bashir.” Her mother’s voice was barely more than a whisper, but it was still too loud for Homaira. “They’re…gone.”
The sentence itself was beyond her comprehension. “Gone?” she repeated.
The tears spilled from her mother’s eyes and a sob ripped from her throat. Delaram sank to the ground, her face in her hands, her body shaking with utter desolation and despair. She didn’t have to say it. That was confirmation enough.
Somewhere, deep down inside of her, Homaira knew there were tears; she could feel them slowly welling up from her gut. Later, there would be a flood and she would drown in sorrow, but now…right now, she was stone. She was an extension of the rock that surrounded her on all four sides. She couldn’t move. Her heart yearned to go to her mother, to hide her face in her mother’s stomach as she had as a child, taking comfort in her mother’s presence, but her body would not obey her. A scream of horror and loss choked her and she couldn’t breathe. The walls suddenly seemed confining and, as though someone had given her a rough shove from behind, she stumbled out into a world that was far too hot, far too bright, and far harsher than the one she had left upon entering the house. She flung herself down onto the hard, unforgiving earth and pounded out her anger and frustration, screaming her torment to the deaf skies. And still the tears would not come.
Delaram found her there. Homaira was quickly enveloped in her strong arms, her face pressed into the crease of her mother’s neck. She inhaled the scent of cardamom; her mother always smelled of it. Yet it was not the same as it was when she was a child; the old, familiar comfort was no longer there. Homaira feared that it would never be there ever again. She clung to her mother’s body, desperate to find some kind of solace, some peace in the madness, but there was only more pain. But there were no tears.
She didn’t know how long she was there. She didn’t know when she went back into the house, but when she came back to herself, she was surrounded by people. Neighbors, those whom Homaira had come to think of as extended family, filled the house, rubbing her back, holding Delaram’s hand, speaking sympathies. Homaira spoke in a dull voice, responding in rote fashion, accepting their condolences more out of politeness than sincerity. She knew it would be worse if she were to speak her mind, to be honest, for she would rail at them, shrieking, “My father and brother are dead! There is nothing that you can say or do that will change that. Don’t you understand that? Go away!” She just wanted to be alone. Still, she kept that all inside, not daring to speak anything but the simple gratitudes she could muster past her reluctant lips. As the day wore on, the less hearty well-wishers, their energies spent, drifted back toward their homes, their heads drawn together speaking quietly but buzzing with the vicarious morbid relief that always seems to follow in the wake of tragic news. This continued until only Zhalah was left.
Zhalah and Delaram had been best friends for over twenty-five years. They had attended each other’s weddings, watched their children grow up together. Zhalah’s husband had passed just ten years into their marriage, leaving Zhalah with two boys; one Bashir’s age and one five years older. The older one, Kochi, had been lost to the militia; he’d vanished into its depths three years prior. Zhalah had one seen him once since then. He’d come to the family to bring in his younger brother, Khales, but Zhalah had refused. Kochi never returned, but Zhalah, afraid for her child’s life, sent him away. She found a group that took children from war-torn countries and found them safe places with families to look after them. Khales had been set up with a foster home in Atlanta, Georgia in the States.
“Only one week more,” Delaram sobbed, broken. “One more week and Bashir would have been safe. He would have been away from here.”
“Delaram,” Zhalah’s throaty voice filled the quiet evening, “it’s too late for Bashir, but not too late for Homaira. She can go in his place.”
Homaira was only half listening, but she perked up at the sound of her name. “His place?” Delaram was saying. “She is a girl. The militia won’t come after a girl.”
“No one is safe from them anymore,” said Zhalah sadly. “She needs to be as far away from here as possible. It’s the best thing for her.”
Homaira found her voice. “You were going to – to send Bashir away?”
Delaram cringed from the accusation in her daughter’s voice. She turned slowly. “It was for the best,” she said.
“Best to send him away from us? From me?” Anger lent Homaira’s voice an edge.
“Away from this!” Delaram insisted, her gesture meant to include the whole country.
“To get him away from the fighting. Away from the militia,” Zhalah added.
“You can split up your family, but we don’t do that,” Homaira spat at her.
“Homaira!” Her mother was horrified.
Zhalah held up her hands. “No, let her speak her grief.”
Her easy acceptance took much of the fire from Homaira’s fury and left a hollow pit of aching in its place. Unable to vent, Homaira folded her arms across her chest and pursed her lips. Zhalah spoke in measured tones, making her case for Homaira to leave the only family she had ever known to live among strangers. Delaram listened, saying very little, but Homaira could see that her mother was warming very quickly to the idea. It made Homaira even more resistant. By the time Zhalah left, it was clear that Delaram’s mind had been made up.
The next few days were hell. Zhalah was with Delaram almost all the time and Homaira barely got a chance to speak with her alone. When she did find a moment alone with her mother, Delaram avoided the topic of leaving and would change the subject whenever her daughter brought it up. Homaira was completely unprepared, therefore, when Delaram broached the topic at breakfast. A woman would be coming by in two days to take Homaira to the United States where a family was waiting to offer her a home.
Nothing that Homaira said or did made any difference. The loss of her husband and son had scared Delaram more than she was willing to admit. Despite the fact that the militia hadn’t sought out girls, Delaram believed Zhalah’s statement that no one was safe and she wasn’t willing to take any chances. She explained all of this to Homaira with a catch in her voice.
“You don’t know how hard this is,” she said.
“Then don’t do it,” Homaira said.
They went around like this for an hour. Homaira suddenly took another tack. “What about you?” she asked.
“I’ll be okay,” said Delaram tearfully. “Don’t you worry about me.”
“Will I be able to come back?” Homaira asked.
Her mother’s lips tightened and she whispered, “Someday. Maybe someday.”
Homaira ran to her then, wrapped her arms around her, and the two women held each other. It seemed to Homaira that they held onto each other for the two days until Mrs. Windsor came to take Homaira away.
Then the tears came.
Through blurry eyes, Homaira got her first look at the United States of America. Mrs. Windsor tried to explain as much as she could, but her Farsi wasn’t very good and though Homaira knew a few words of English, they weren’t very useful. Mrs. Windsor attempted to teach the girl as much as she could and Homaira was a good student, but a fifteen-hour flight isn’t long enough to gain fluency, especially when high emotion is involved.
Homaira was brought into Philadelphia International Airport where Mrs. Windsor had left her car. She pressed a button on her steering wheel and began speaking quickly in English to someone on the phone. Their foreign voices chattered away, banging into Homaira’s brain and she did her best to tune them out. Her name crept up more than once and she glanced over at Mrs. Windsor, but the middle-aged woman merely smiled placidly at her in reassurance. They drove deep into the Philadelphia suburbs and into the driveway of a white house with forest green shutters. An older couple stood on the porch awaiting them.
Mrs. Windsor got out of the car and Homaira followed her. She stared at the older couple and they stared right back. Their expressions were stern, but not unkind. Mrs. Windsor made the introductions, calling them the “Kerners” and mentioning something about “foster.” The word left a strong distaste in Homaira’s mouth as she repeated it. She was made to understand that she would be staying with these people and they would be responsible for her. The man barked a bunch of words at her and the woman led a strong hand on her shoulder, but Homaira shrugged it off. Mrs. Windsor beamed. She hugged Homaira, waved, and drove off, leaving the girl with strangers.
That was Homaira’s first foster home. She spent ten months with them before they gave up on her, complaining to Mrs. Windsor that she was too “willful.” Homaira would later come to learn the word and consider it a mark of pride that she was described so.
All throughout, Homaira kept in contact with her mother through hand-written letters delivered through Mrs. Windsor. Delaram assured her that she and Zhalah were just fine. She suggested that Homaira look up Khales if she could find him. Homaira explained that Philadelphia was nowhere near Atlanta, but that she would try if she were ever down south.
The foster families flashed through her memory; a torturous series of pages in an ugly chapter that was better left finished. Four in the course of two years, save the last, she preferred not to think of them. Mrs. Windsor had all but given up. No matter where she placed Homaira, there was some problem. Either the parents complained or Homaira did. There never seemed to be the correct fit.
The last, however, was something different. It was an unusual situation; Mrs. Windsor did not find the family through her services. She had mentioned her frustrations to a friend of hers – a teacher named Bobbi Levine – asking if she knew of anyone who might be willing to take in a foreign girl. By chance, Bobbi happened to be a teacher for English as a Second Language and she was familiar with students from other countries. She considered the problem for over a week and came up with a most unusual solution; she and her husband would take the girl in themselves. They had had two children of their own, but they were grown and had left the house years before, leaving two empty rooms.
By this time, Homaira was eighteen years old and determined not to be a foster child again. She agreed to it but on the condition that she be a tenant and pay rent. The Levines agreed, but Mrs. Windsor was wary. She set it up as a probationary period for both the Levines and Homaira.
Homaira moved in and was as respectful as she could be. She bought and cooked her own food, sharing it with the Levines, and she helped clean the house, though the Levines made it clear that she was under no obligation to do so. She obtained a job at the local grocery store, working as a stock girl after school and on the weekends. She attended the local high school for her senior year, doing her best to work toward graduation. Some of the students made fun of her accent at first, but more quickly than expected, Homaira found herself a small group of friends and though the jeering never completely stopped, it grew much less frequent. Her friends were able to guide her through her tougher classes and Bobbi offered help if Homaira asked, but Homaira was hesitant to take advantage of the woman. She was even more nervous around Herman Levine for although he always acted kindly toward her, there was something untouchable about him. She made sure to treat both of them with utmost respect and she was pleasant surprised to find that she received the same in kind.
Within a month, the probationary period was lifted and Homaira began to feel more comfortable with the Levines. Although she would never call them by their first names, she began to feel the first fluttering of affection for them. They were not her parents, but they were good people who truly seemed to care about her. Homaira flourished under their hospitality and graduated from high school eight months later. She continued to live with them beyond her graduation, eventually earning enough money to get an apartment, but, at the Levine’s insistence, used the money toward college instead.
Motivated by what had happened to her family, Homaira chose international politics as her major, hoping to use her influence on behalf of those who had no voice. Through the years, she always came back to visit the Levines, who were as proud of her as they were of their own children. One particular visit brought her into contact with one of Bobbi Levine’s young colleagues. Ihsan was a newly tenured first-grade teacher and he was enchanted by Homaira. She noted him, but paid him no mind originally. However, encouraged by Bobbi, she entertained the notion of romance with Ihsan such that when he called, she agreed to a date.
He surprised her on that first date, proving her intellectual equal and waxing philosophical on topics ranging from Medieval art to social media, from vegetarianism to Norse mythology. He had a light-hearted attitude that was rooted in a deep sense of family and tradition. She loved his tender emotionality and he loved her “willful” nature. She quickly found herself falling for him and the feeling was mutual. Within a year, they were engaged and Homaira sent a letter to her mother asking her to come to the wedding. Delaram responded that she was overjoyed for her daughter but that she didn’t have the money to come to the States. Homaira was devastated. She didn’t have enough money to bring her mother over and she was too proud to ask anyone for help. She had spent too much time being in other people’s debts. It was the one great disappointment in a day of absolute happiness. She swore that, someday, she would see her mother again.
It had taken almost fifteen years, but here she stood at the threshold to the home she had grown up in. There were little differences, but in so many ways, it was exactly the same. The aromas of the cooking wafting out through the windows. The sight of children playing together. The feel of the dirt beneath her feet. She felt a tug on her shirt and she looked down at the little girl at her side.
“Mommy? I’m hungry.”
“I know, sweetie. Be patient. You’re about to meet your grandmother.” Her daughter sighed dramatically but sincerely, as only the very young can and Homaira had to smile. The smile grew strained and her breath caught in her throat as a shuffling sound came from inside the house and Delaram appeared in the doorway.
Her face was more lined than Homaira remembered, but her smile was just as bright as ever and she still smelled of cardamom. She blinked in delighted astonishment and her eyes filled with tears. “You’ve come home.” She held out her arms and Homaira rushed into them.
“Yes, Mama. I’ve come home.”