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Thank You MAG
My mother was running back and forth through the kitchen trying to beat the clock and be ready before the guests arrived. As usual, my grandparents were first, right on time. They took their customary seats: my grandfather on the armchair facing my grandmother, who took the end of the three-person leather couch, always inviting us to sit next to her for a warm hug. The glittery black suit she wore was of beautiful silk, giving her an almost majestic glow.
“Do you need my help, Lubna?” my grandmother – my Apa Ji – called to my mom in the kitchen.
“Yes, Apa,” she said. “Please get my stubborn daughter in the shower and dressed before the guests arrive!”
I was only six years old, but I can still remember how my mother had been asking me for two hours to get ready. It was not the shower that made me put it off; it was the lavender shalwaar kameez with silver zigzags I would have to wear that made me procrastinate. That Pakistani suit was so itchy!
My grandmother found me hiding in the basement. She took a firm hold of my arm, but her grasp was gentle.
“Let’s go, Raabia. Come on … the guests will be here any minute.”
With a grouchy look, I crawled from beneath a table and followed her to the bathroom.
“You know,” she began rinsing the soap suds off my shoulders. “You need to start learning how to cooperate with your family. Your mom has been cooking and cleaning since morning, and all she asked of you was to be ready before the guests came. You really ought to stop being so stubborn and start helping your family out.”
She dried my skin with the towel with such familiarity you could tell she’d done it many times for her five children. Then Apa Ji pulled the dreaded purple suit over my head, combed my hair and had me ready in four minutes.
“Thank you, Apa Ji,” I grumbled, strictly out of respect, of course.
“You’re most welcome. You are looking very smart,” Apa Ji replied with a smile of motherly satisfaction.
After the party, I ran upstairs to my pink-wallpapered bedroom and changed into my cotton pajamas. The suit had irritated me all evening.
Recently my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. Returning home from the hospital, Apa Ji was weak from her first chemotherapy and needed assistance with nearly everything. I stayed with my grandparents for the weekend, helping whenever I could.
With my head resting on Apa Ji’s lap, I flipped through a catalog and helped her pick out a wig. I opened all the curtains to let in the warm sunlight that had been hiding in the shadows during the long weeks my grandmother stayed in the hospital.
I was in the kitchen unloading the dishwasher when Apa Ji called for help in the shower. She grabbed my arm for support with the same gentleness she’d dragged me into the shower nearly eleven years before. I squeezed the loofah sponge over her feeble shoulders, then gently patted the towel over her and helped her out. I dressed her in the loose shalwaar kameez she had waiting on the towel rack. She looked at my face with sad eyes and asked me to comb what was left of her thinning hair.
“Thank you for all of your help, Raabia,” she said when I finished.
“You’re most welcome,” I replied with a melancholy smile.
Of all the people I have had the honor of knowing and, better yet, being related to, Apa Ji with her determination to live her life has taught me the most about human integrity. Faced with what has been the most intense challenge presented to my family, Apa Ji’s courageous spirit is the reason we are learning to cope.
“Your grandmother is an extremely strong-willed person,” people used to say after telling me long stories about the work she did to support her family, who immigrated to London in the ’60s. Without fully understanding, I always nodded and went on with my own work. Now when people tell me of Apa Ji’s strong will, I smile with sincere pride because I have witnessed firsthand her energetic devotion to her family and life. Apa Ji taught me not to pity others but to sympathize with their needs and help in a way that does not violate their dignity. I have learned a great deal from my grandmother, but she did not teach these lessons with pencil and paper. I learned merely by observing the strength of her smile. She will always be my hero.