The author with her sisters and Kadijah.
I can’t remember much from when I was very little. Most people don’t, just a few flashes and sequences of events blurrily appearing before my eyes, like a movie. I blame my inability to remember much on not having clear vision before age six, when I got my first pink Hello Kitty glasses. After that, I do have clearer and longer memories I can hold on to. There is one, though, that I can distinctly recall before my glasses, and it stands out in a beautiful, picturesque way: an outing to the park with Aunty Khadija.
It was the middle of summer. The sun shone down from the perfect baby-blue sky with tiny wisps of white that looked more like ghosts of clouds. I was three or four. It wasn’t too hot or cold, just an ideal warm. I remember feeling the sun peer down at me, warming my bare arms as my sister, Sadiqah, pushed my stroller. We were at a park in the Denver area where the grass was a vibrant green with trees of darker tones sparsely placed. I remember passing by gardens of colorful roses. My mom walked near me as she pushed Aunty Khadija in her purple wheelchair down the concrete sidewalk. I remember I looked at Aunty feeling excited for the fun to follow, as the sun made her dark skin shine. She would occasionally look back at me, as she talked to my mom, and give me a smile, which made me feel special inside.
It wasn’t long until we reached our destination, under a collection of shady trees in the vast plains of grass. My mom lifted me out of my stroller and put me down on the blanket covered in a strawberry print, which she had just spread out. As everyone settled in, a bag of Subway sandwiches was passed around. Back then, Subway sandwiches were a staple in our family and we would have them at least once a week. I loved them. Although I shared a sandwich with my sister, it still tasted great. After the food, my sisters pulled out a kite to fly. They failed to get it up into the sky over the ocean of green, so my mom went to help, leaving me and Aunty alone. I can’t remember what was said between us, but I remember looking down at my colorful dress and thinking I was pretty. We shared many giggles and the last bits of sandwiches left. In the sun, happy, and chuckling with someone I loved and looked up to, is the one memory that has been with me forever.
Since that memory, every Eid we would visit Kadijah at her small, cramped shared room at the nursing home. My sisters and I would all be wearing pretty dresses, specially done hair or hijabs, and lots of jewelry. When my younger brother came into the picture, he would wear an adorable suit. On our way to her, we would buy food and flowers to surprise her with. We would speak for hours; chatting about our days, school, our plans, and anything that crossed our minds.
Aunty Khadija had known my siblings and me since we were born, and she is constantly placed throughout our memories. We never really had grandparents like most other kids had. They were mostly absent, existing in complicated universes outside of ours. I never had an older adult that I knew to look up to besides my parents and Aunty Khadija. She was like a grandmother to me, one that actually cared about me. Although we never called her that, Aunty knew how much she meant to us.
Khadija was sick with a combination of diseases that I don’t know. When we visited, there would often be a nurse with a small clear plastic cup full of medications for her to take. It would always make me incredibly nervous and anxious to see her slowly swallow them all from her thin hands. I was never good around sickness or the idea of it. Even when she coughed, no matter how small, I could feel my heart beat throughout my body, especially in my head. I would feel lightheaded and cold. Only when she stopped could I calm down.
Around when COVID-19 started to appear, Aunty got sicker. She barely ate or moved. The nursing home said that she had started to talk about her past, as if it was happening now. I can’t remember if it was because of Covid or her weakening state, but I slowly stopped going to see her. Instead, my mom and older sister would go to visit her. After their visits, the rest of my siblings and I would surround them to hear stories of what was said and what happened. Aunty Khadija was a lot smaller than she used to be because she refused to eat. Even if my mom brought her favorite food, she would only take a bite. Although Khadija was always suspicious of people, especially white people, her suspicions had reached a ludicrous level. They said she was reliving her past in her mind.
Years ago, when I had just started middle school, I had an assignment to interview an older person in my life. So, on a Saturday afternoon in early 2017, my dad dropped off both my mom and me at the nursing home. The nursing home always had a feeling about it that put me on edge, especially since it wasn’t one of the good ones. As we sat down on Kadijah’s small bed, we talked about what we usually did. However, before we could go deep on anything, my mom initiated the start of the interview.
In a rural, deeply segregated 1936 Arkansas, Khadija was born. Growing up, she mostly spent her time in her family’s house. Her parents tried to shield her from racism, but ultimately when she was five she started to notice it everywhere. Her mother would make her stay outside the store whenever she went with her. She didn’t want her to see the large rusty signs that read “for colored only” in the segregated corner store near their house. Going out with her father to get clothes and being careful to only enter “colored” stores, instilled this fear of how differently she would be treated.
It wasn’t until she started attending a Catholic School that she felt the truly brutal nature of racism. The school was far from where they lived, she had to walk a great distance just to get to the bus. Once she would get to the bus, her mother told her to only say “yes sir, yes ma’am” and be on her best behavior. “I remember being scared,” she told us, as she explained that the white people on the bus expected her to be humble to them. Another instruction Khadija’s mother gave her was to never look anyone on the bus in the eye, as that might be “disrespectful.” Aunty, then an innocent little black girl in her school uniform, would board her bus with her eyes carefully glaring at the ground as she passed through the bus to the back. She was told that if she was good and stayed in her place, everything would be okay.
Before long, Khadija’s mother got sick, forcing her mother and Aunty’s two siblings to leave Arkansas for Utah to live with her grandma. As they all sat in the back of the bus over to Utah, fear stirred in them, never knowing when or if anyone would hurt them. Once they arrived, Khadija started to attend a mixed-race elementary school. Every school day, on the way there and back, gangs of Mexican boys would chase her, attempting to attack her. As she ran through the streets, they would follow, hurling rocks, sticks, and other weapons at her as they shouted the n-word. There were times Khadija couldn’t run fast enough or dodge the objects they flung at her, causing her to get beaten by the group of boys. After a couple of fights with the boys, she eventually learned how to fight back and protect herself.
Utah wasn’t that different from Arkansas. Everything was still segregated, the movies, stores, and even the church. On the days she could afford to go to the movies, she was forced to stand in different lines and sit on the balcony, away from the white people. As she stood in her line and sat in her seat, there would be white people across from her with their eyebrows knit together, grimacing at her. Similar to most black children her age, she dropped out of school in ninth grade. Going to school was not an option for her, as it got increasingly unsafe. Khadija knew that in school, black people weren’t wanted. Even if she had continued her schooling, educated jobs were not available to black women in Utah and in most of the country.
Khadija, left with few options, decided to work in cotton fields, learning how to irrigate by hand. She was happy in the fields, wanting to know what it was like to work in a cotton field like her enslaved ancestors. The Mexican workers there took her under their wing and taught her how to chop and weed cotton.
Peering out the window from her cramped shared room in the nursing home, Aunty Khadija paused. I looked at her, seeing the clear winter-blue sky reflected in her eyes. She sighed, refusing to look away from the window, and quietly whispered, “You could look up at God’s sky and feel free from people. It made you feel like a human being.”
Although she enjoyed her job, others, especially her family, didn’t feel the same way. When they learned she was working in the field, they were angry. As the word spread, black people would come up to Khadija as she worked and mock her. “Look at you,” they accused, “you are living the life of a slave.” As more and more people harassed her, she complained to her bosses. They tried to help, but the harassment wouldn’t stop. As it reached her breaking point, she realized that the fields were not for her.
Instead, Khadija started to work as a maid, like her grandmother. As she cleaned houses and eventually airplanes at the Denver International Airport, Aunty remembers being treated with respect. There, she felt valued and didn’t feel racism towards her. People were happy to see her every day, showing their gratitude for the work she had done. At some point, she joined the Nation of Islam, a black nationalist Islam group. For her, things ultimately fell off after a couple bad experiences. Eventually, Khadija decided to leave the organization to follow a more mainstream Islam. Looking directly into my eyes, with a smile, she proclaimed, “Islam saved my life.”
The sun started to retreat from the sky as it got darker outside. As time went on, she started shuffling in her wheelchair, holding her hands tightly, and shifting her eyes around the room, begging for the conversation to be over. We eventually ended the interview, despite not being quite done yet. Hoping to leave on a better note, we stayed a little longer to have some light-hearted chit chat before we left.
In early 2020, we heard that Aunty Khadija was feeling better and starting to eat more. Cautiously excited, we all decided to visit her again. On the way there, we picked up southern chicken from her favorite restaurant in the area. I was scared to see her again, as were many of my siblings. Each of us took a deep breath before we entered her room, and then we piled in and surrounded her with nervous smiles. We climbed on her bed, all five of us squeezing into the small frame, and sat down to talk with her. My smile froze as I looked at her across the old room and saw how different she looked. Her previously soft skin was rough and paler than ever before, as it sagged heavily on her eerily visible bones. It appeared as though her face had shrunk, her cheeks hollow.
The most apparent, and heartbreaking, change was in her eyes. In contrast to her usually bright, animated brown eyes, a blurry film covered them now. There was no spark of joy in how she looked at us or the world.
As we spoke to her, coming up with different but not triggering topics to speak about, Aunty Khadija kept quiet, appearing reserved or distant, barely contributing to the conversation. When it came time to eat lunch together, she tenderly picked up her spoon and played with the food in her container, refusing to eat more than a few bites of her chicken. Lost in her thoughts, Khadija often stared into the distance, as if she weren’t really there. Long and melancholy silences came upon the room, where nothing was said or even thought. This was a rarity, silence. She would just stare blankly at the old off-white walls surrounding us, as though they were speaking to her.
Nearing the end of our seemingly short and empty visit, as we tried to make conversation, Aunty would wearily speak on traumatizing dark nights, like it was happening right then. Not sure how to respond, we just nodded and listened, trying to make her feel heard. After we packed up and began to leave, my mom insisted that we all hug as she took pictures of us together. It felt like an unsatisfactory goodbye as we stood around her smiling into the camera.
That was the last time I saw Aunty Khadija. As her condition worsened, my mom and sister visited a few more times before the lockdown. Her health quickly declined, causing her to become even more skinny and distant. No longer being able to visit, we tried to help by sending books and flowers. After a few more weeks, she was sent to a hospice center. At that point, even though she wasn’t gone yet, I was already mourning her. Combined with the isolation of the pandemic, it was hard to eat anything, find joy, or do much else but school, which was a welcome distraction from the upside-down world. Her looming death helped fuel a depression. It hurt to know she was in, what I imagined, a cold and dark hospital all alone.
In the middle of April 2022, during a terrifying period with the pandemic encroaching on all aspects of our lives, every minute of the day was spent in our house. I tried to cope by lying in my backyard watching gaming or crash course YouTube videos. On this particular day, it was near sundown, so everyone was in the house rushing to make dinner except me. My attempt to find joy in funny gaming videos was disrupted as my younger brother opened the door, letting sounds of a busy house escape, and joined me. With a book in hand, he walked over, sat down, and started to read without even saying hello. After a couple of minutes, he stopped and asked me to pause my video. His eyes looked sad, causing him to get my attention right away. He took a deep breath, seemingly building courage, and quietly told me that he heard that Aunty Khadija had died.
I stopped breathing. Shocked and confused, I refused to accept it. I told him he was lying and that I didn’t believe him. Minutes later, the truth quickly set in as my chest painfully compressed and the bottom of my abdomen clenched in sharp pains. He wasn’t lying.
We quickly went back to our distractions, begging them to take this off our minds. As I watched blocky figures dance across the screen, I couldn’t hear the men laughing or cracking jokes. My thoughts were louder than ever. She was gone, I told myself. Sometimes it had felt like she died a few months ago, but now she was gone for real. I was confused; how could she be gone now, if I hadn’t seen her in so long? It was hard to imagine her soul escaping her body while I still breathed. It was hard to comprehend her not existing as I did. I felt a weight that had lain heavily on my shoulders lifted. However, an even more sober mood came into my already sad mind.
It was hard to no longer imagine her in her gloomy nursing-home room, but instead lying peacefully under the earth. As time passed, it became easier to remember her without feeling her loss and the isolation I felt during that time. It might have been easier for me to lose her then when I already hadn’t seen her for months. Making it easier to live a life without her in it.
I miss Khadija and I don’t think that will ever change. She loved us and was willing to be there for us when no one else wanted to be. She wasn’t perfect, she had her own set of challenges. When I think of her, I think of that time in the park, us alone in the sun, enjoying life despite not knowing the challenges ahead. I hope that made her happy. Every day since she died, before I sleep, as I lie under my blankets, I ask God to forgive her and my paternal grandparents for all their mistakes. I ask for God to grant them a beautiful place in heaven near me.
Ayah Al-Masyabi is a 17-year-old junior living in Colorado. She tackles her creative endeavors through writing, visual art, and, more recently, audio. Human stories and the narratives around soccer often influence the pieces she crafts. Ayah is an avid Liverpool FC, US Soccer, and Colorado Rapids supporter who can be found curating her bookshelf, having fun with family and friends, or at @ayahalmart on Instagram and at ayahalmart.weebly.com.