Happy International Women’s Day everyone! So how was it? What did you do this year?
I bet it was something good, right? Did you get your mother some flowers? Or a basket of muffins for your girlfriend? Maybe you shared a quote from a feminist icon. Gloria Steinem, Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, Amal Clooney, Kamala Harris, Lily Singh, Rupi Kaur, Amanda Gormon, Angelina Jolie- who did you pick this time for your #IWD social media post?
I spent the week leading up to Women’s Day sitting outside a bathroom, holding a fresh towel and a nightgown, listening to my mother throw up inside. She can experience a range of symptoms within a day of coming down with a stomach bug: from asthma, nausea and dizziness, to vomiting, diarrhoea and fatigue. She has GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease), a complication that came about as a result of heavy medication for her autoimmune disease.
My mother suffers from Rheumatoid Arthritis, a disease that causes joint pain, swelling, stiffening and even deformity. If not taken care of, it can lead to permanent damage.
We found out about it when she was in her early 40s, nearly a decade ago. I remember I was 18 or 19 at the point and the news landed like a hammer blow. We’d known something was wrong; she’d had dry eyes, severe Rhinitis and dental problems since her early 20s. The ophthalmologist would prescribe eye-drops and ask her to stay away from smokers, the ENT specialist would prescribe inhalers and the dentist would admonish her for poor dental hygiene. What every doctor had in common, apart from a lack of bedside manner, was total apathy towards her worsening condition. Not a single doctor suggested that she should get some tests done, maybe it wasn’t her fault, maybe she was doing her best.
Today, she has floaters in her eyes with one eye slightly smaller than the other, only nine teeth left and her throat can get so dry that she can’t even speak. The treatment is mainly steroids, painkillers, a strict diet, rest and physiotherapy. We can barely keep up with it.
For the last ten days, I’ve been talking to our gastroenterologist, buying antacids, antiemetics and antibiotics from our pharmacist, ordering tender coconut from our vegetable vendor, informing the neighbours, saving ambulance numbers, finding local hospitals, contacting the nearest general physicians and coming up with an emergency health plan, all in the middle of a global pandemic.
And yet, there is a sense of gratitude. My mother is nice, so I get along with her. I have money that I can spend on her medical care. Money sent by my father who works hard to pay the bills. I have a beautiful home where I can cook, clean and relax while generally keeping an eye on her and not letting her do anything stupid, like picking up a big bag of groceries and accidentally breaking her wrist or trying to hold the dog when the vet comes over and falling down.
I can get everything home-delivered, even if it means standing at the front door for half an hour waiting for the delivery man, wearing a mask, sanitising my hands before collecting the package, disinfecting the package after receiving it, washing my hands until my fingertips are pruney and then napping on the couch because opening the package is going to be another workout with a lot of locking wire, bubble wrap and cardboard. Yes, I’m grateful.
When I massage my mother’s gnarly but delicate hands with lotion to relieve her pain, I think about what I went through when I found out my mother was sick. For 10 years I struggled with depression and chronic illness, unable to get up from bed in the morning, going in and out of hospitals, clinics and therapists’ offices, staying up all night watching movies on my laptop, sleeping late into the afternoon, eating junk to try and deal with my grief, getting admission into different colleges and then dropping out because I simply couldn’t see the point of going on anymore.
2019 was a wake-up call. I had finally graduated with a double degree from college after 8 years and even managed to complete a post-graduate diploma. I even got into a master’s programme in gender studies. My father had to be away all the time for work and I would go months without seeing him. I had no friends, no boyfriends, no mentors. There was no one I could call if something happened to my mother. The World Health Organisation had just declared a pandemic and according to medical experts, my mother’s illness put her right there in the high-risk category. If she got COVID, she would die, there was no doubt about that.
Something just clicked then. It was like a voice inside my head said enough. You’ve had your time. Get up. Get up. Get up.
I started a consultancy business to try and support myself. I reached out to friends. I connected with peers. I created a network. I started learning how to take care of myself because I knew, that as the primary caregiver of an immunocompromised parent without any adult supervision, I would have to grow up.
I began to manage my health first which had been destroyed by stress, trauma and to a degree, shock, and I realised the key to it was to love myself more deeply so I could love my mother better. Because I’ll be honest with you, I don’t love her every day. I get mad that she’s ill and I just want her to be OK. I feel horrible saying this out loud but I don’t want to live with the fear of sickness, old age and death. I don’t want to a good, responsible, caring human being anymore. In fact, I’m eagerly waiting for the chance to start acting like an asshole. Everyone else my age does it, so why can’t I?
There is a Japanese art called Kintsugi in which broken pots, jars and vases are repaired with the help of lacquer and gold. So, you take the broken pieces and instead of throwing them away, you put them back together.
It’s exactly what I do with myself every day. I’ve come out of depression now; I eat right, sleep enough, meditate, see my therapist, read, feed the dog, talk to clients and most of all, I pray.
See, this is probably something I should have mentioned in the beginning. When my grandmother found out that my mother was getting sick, she abandoned us. Nobody from my family ever got in touch, asked how my mother was doing, or offered to take care of her. It was like she was dead. I have never seen such cruelty in my life. I’m thinking about that as I write this. I’m thinking of my family and how they’re no longer family.
I’ve been a women’s rights activist for 8 years now, and what I’ve figured out is, feminism goes beyond a random shout out to Chrissy Teigen on Twitter. It means, sometimes, you’re broken by the very people you love and you have to let yourself fall apart so you can build yourself up again.
So, I’m not celebrating International Women’s Day this year. I’m just learning to love myself as a woman and support all the wonderful women in my life.
Can you say the same?