Last week, preparing for a routine colonoscopy (one of those uncomfortable things one has to experience after turning 50), in the early haze of mild anesthesia, my mind wanders. For a change, there is only a light angst, making me think, what will happen to my children, if something happens to my physical self.
The curse of a single parent, with no “back-up” parents, is that you worry incessantly, in your hypothetical absence, what will happen to your minor children. You understand that one is constantly vulnerable to changes in health or external circumstances, but that doesn’t mean you stop worrying. You buy extra life-insurance, you draw up a detailed estate plan, you have conversations with your loved ones, asking them if they will look after your children, and provide them with guidance. But there is always this lingering concern, at the back of your mind.
Moments before my last such hallucinogenic state, I remember wondering exactly what an 8 year old Shania may have done, if I somehow managed to escape during a routine check-up.
But today, Shania is a teenager, and Daiyaan is over 22 and working, paying bills and making her way through this world.
When I observe them together, fighting, arguing, doing sisterly things together – but at night, leaning on each other, when watching their favorite TV show, somehow I accept that, they will be ok, if something happens to me. It’s not going to be easy; but it’s also not impossible. I have also collected enough “together” memories, to leave them Facebook reminders, and digital moments that will spark joy, love, excitement and other emotions, that we commingle to build a life.
With this sense of relative “relief” comes a sort of satisfaction; a deep breath.
As the fog settles, the mind explores. I start imagining, what if something unexpected does happen during routine procedure. At this point, I am looking for bright spots. I think about my smiling mother.
This is the first time, since her passing a couple of years ago, I am in this state of mild cognitive disrepair and I get into an imaginary conversation with her; joking, cajoling, asking me how I have been and how the girls are doing. She asks me what I had for breakfast and if I had brought her back some “Baklava” from the US. We play cards, she makes those facial gestures or little noises, that only she could do. My father, joins us, quietly, smiling – not saying much – thirty years of silence has made him even quieter in my sub-conscious.
This entire haze-filled imaginary interaction, somehow makes me relaxed and fills my heart with an unanticipated calm and joy. To believe that, one has loved ones, on many dimensions, and that escaping from one dimension to the other, may not be as ominous as most organized religions want you to believe.
I want to live forever in my current dimension, no question. But I am also neither concerned, nor sad, about going to the other dimension(s), when that inevitability arrives. A sense of relief, and calm settles in and I float along.
The nurse asks me how I am feeling and if I am ready to put my clothes back on. Outside, in the waiting room, my guardian, Daiyaan awaits to take me home. She flew from Florida to Boston last night to accompany me back from the hospital to home. We discuss lunch, what I want to eat, and the rest of the day. For this day, our roles have reversed and she has become my parent.
On a cold, wintry day, I roll down the car window and let the happy fog of anesthesia slip out, as I take a fresh breath of air. For now, I will remain in this dimension and continue collecting memories with all these amazing, loving people around me.
I am looking for a third word. That word, that descriptor, that simple verb, that will encapsulate and finalize my life when I am gone. It’s as if, at my life celebration, there will be three words that may emblazon cocktail napkins; will be part of the vocabulary that people will use that late afternoon. I know the first two words:
Lived, Loved, ……
What’s the third word? Adventured… Dreamt… Climbed?
None of these truly captures the essence of everything I believe in, or want to be remembered by.
My goal is to not leave any debris behind, when I leave. But, if I were to have an epitaph somewhere, or a brick that had my name on it at a school park, what three words would I like to be remembered by? Drank wine (too many words)? Boated? Maybe it’s Devoured?
At the beautiful ripe age of fifty, why am I thinking of an epitaph. It’s not that I have a death wish, or have recently diagnosed a debilitating disease.
I am at a good place where, whether its one day or another seven seven thousand days (~20 years), I want to look back and say I did these three things well and those are the best descriptors of my short time on earth.
I believe that what we say, think or write down, ultimately has a higher likelihood of happening. Hence, I must choose carefully and select that third word that will determine my destiny for the rest of my days.
I believe that words are everything.
Words are powerful. What you say, is critical and important.
Words can start or break relationships or wars; words can also soothe your soul and change a persons life. I have been told that words of affirmation have helped people think of their careers; in one instance, a young project manager at a place I worked, came in and resigned because he had read Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, which I had given to him as a holiday gift, where Coelho talks about being a Shepard or a Baker. At his exit interview, he told me he didn’t want to be the baker, or in his case, a project manager – he wanted to be the Shepard, and fly jets around the world. He went on to become a pilot.
Hence, one of the first thing I teach my children, and at work, that we must choose our words carefully. Be selective. When it comes to verbalizing our thoughts, almost always… Less is More.
In today’s environment, where blustering twitter feeds, insults and promulgations, some of our ephemeral leaders are bombastic and freely throwing words around, that mean nothing; they command attention for thirty seconds, and somehow take up empty space, like that extra sweater in your closet that you haven’t worn for years.
In this verbose environment, words are even more important and require even more careful introspection. Words cannot be just thrown out and expected to be forgotten. In the world of ether, whether it’s a hurtful text, or a drunken insult, it’s out there, forever.
I would love to have the word Inspired. But that sounds self-promoting; I wouldn’t mind, Laughed. I could live (or in this case, die with that!). Friends have suggested Cared ! I love it.
As a young boy in Joypahar, I had two very special dreams; ride a yellow bus to school, and own a “Noddy” car.
I am certain, both dreams were connected with seeking some form of independence of being my own person and being on my own.
In the early 70s Bangladesh, yellow school bus service was not available; once, in the United States, I did ride a school bus and found it to be a jarring experience; uncomfortable seats and bullying kids were much more than any form of independence than I had bargained.
(The Classic Noddy Car: Enid Blyton Series)
The Noddy Car dream is more obvious. He was my favorite childhood character idol, who did good deeds and saved the world. Just after turning 40, I did buy a convertible, that looked very much like an adult version of the Noddy open hood car. And I loved every moment of owning and driving my Noddy Car around.
Consciously or not, we are shaped by our dreams, going new places, accomplishing things, and eventually, becoming who we are.
Dreams don’t have to be spectacular, world-changing or expensive, they just have to be dreams; something you desire, or think is worthy of pursuit.
I watch friends climb the K2 or run marathons, start businesses or bands, buy island properties, give all their best to a cause they believe in; all of this, pursuing a passion, changing the world or not.
Not all dreams are perfect, nor do they need to come true.
At a very young age, I dreamed of being like my Dad; wanted to wear a tie, and a suit to go to work – and to cocktail parties in the evenings. I did accomplish that dream – but soon thereafter, found ties and dress shirts to be “choking”, and prefer to go to work in jeans and a polo.
After traveling the world, having three “dream jobs”, living in “dream homes”, and owning “dream cars”, I ask someone recently, if I have the right to dream more. One may wonder, whether one has used up their dream quotient. But if one doesn’t have dreams, how do we move forward, if you have nothing that you crave for or look forward to?
Since my mother’s passing last year, I feel like I have become unanchored from my by birth land. I speak the language and look like them – but I don’t relate to the aspirations of my contemporaries. Except for a handful of childhood friends, and a few close family members, I don’t have the urge to assimilate to Dhaka. When I land back in the US and the immigration official says, “Welcome home, Mr. Mahmood” – I get chills.
Stepping into my fifties, I have started dreaming of anchoring again. Earlier, I have written about Anchoring in An Uncertain Sea. This Anchoring has a different feel to it.
Interesting, that the young boy, who once craved independence in a school bus or a convertible, now seeks his own tether.
Today, I crave that opportunity to launch a kayak for lunch towards that café down river, and to live close to loved ones, who accept me as family, and are there when dark clouds of difficulty surround me.
Being part of a bigger whole, seems to make more sense now.
Recently, I have also been gifted the opportunity to write, what I want my Chapter Three to be. The children are grown up, and I am still healthy, and in an emotionally open place to carve out what I want to do for the third quarter of my life.
Some say, start your own business, or do something truly philanthropic, or get into CEO coaching (because your’e so good at it!)
I know whatever I step into, the most important thing is that, I will have fun along the way.
I thrive in collaboration, versus confrontation. I am most present, when there is creativity and “puzzle-problem-solving” involved. I have twenty-five years of experience in a variety of environments that are worth sharing to do something meaningful. I know, that new opportunity/dream will emerge when the time is right. Dreams are neither pushed, nor pulled.
I don’t want to ride a school bus, I want to get my (mental) convertible back.
In the meantime, the kayak awaits, the water beckons; let me feel the gentle breeze on my face, the sun on my back, the sound of the water slurping all around me.
This is not the typical dinner conversation a father has with his twenty-one year old daughter on a Saturday evening.
Usually, when together, we talk about her friends, her classes, and her work. Within a few hours, we learn about each other’s worlds, and participate in our growth as a parent and a child. As my first born, she has taught me how to be a father. I experiment with her – bounce off politics, religion and familiar topics. Sometimes we roleplay in adversity and joy.
She knows that my optimism about America, borders on grandstanding; I have always been vocal about my aspirations about this nation. She knows, if one works hard and is willing to give our best, we can achieve everything possible, in this country. I don’t compromise on this particular strain of feelings, and it’s been a consistent thread of our dialog, for life.
On this pleasant February evening, as the sun is setting, we walk west on the pretty bridge on Atlantic Avenue in Delray, and approach downtown, in search of a nice place for dinner.
We go on to discuss that if she is stopped by the police, or any security personnel, how should she react. With a last name like Mahmood, this is more likely to happen now, than not. Most important is not to be surprised by the event – but rather to expect it.
If you expect the worst in life, and prepare for it, there are only two possible outcomes – either you’re prepared and deal with the calamity – or you’re pleasantly surprised (that the calamity never took place)!
I want her to be prepared; I don’t want her to be sad, confused or dismayed. We discuss that if a cop stops and asks her whether she is legally in this country, she needs to be respectful and not get mad or respond angrily that she was born in Toledo, Ohio. We acknowledge that due process and the law-of -the land will ultimately protect her, but it could be nerve-wrecking and a complete waste of time.
The word, immigrant, has become such a flash point of discussion, in the land built by, with and for immigrants.
It’s unfortunate, but it’s true.
When Daiyaan’s grandfather came to this country, back in the late 1950s, foreign scholars often carried a “temporary white” card, so that, they could ride the front of the bus, or drink from a “whites only” water fountain. That was only sixty some odd years ago. Things may not be perfect today, but they are a lot better than those times.
In my thirty plus years, I have seen tremendous progress in this nation, the attitude of it’s people and habits.
I saw Barack Obama get elected twice – never thought, a minority with a strange sounding middle name, would be elected as the leader (anywhere in the world).
However, now we know, even after all that, it’s not possible to let our guards down. We need to still teach our children to be aware, that there are people here (and many other modern industrialized places) where people judge you by the color of your skin, or what you wear, or how you speak, or what your last name is.
On this beautiful evening, it’s just sad that, instead sharing our joy and colorful experiences, I am scaring her into reality.
In her twenty-one years, I have never had to inject fear in our conversation to have her submit; it feels like one of those movie characters of the sixties, who taught their children, not to look into the eyes of the policemen, and to address them as “sir”.
I find my behavior and teaching method deplorable, shameful and very “un-American.”
But as a father, my first responsibility to her, is to teach her to survive, which requires moderation and modulation.
I am not proud of myself; just being pragmatic. I thought I was too liberal, too progressive for all this.
I never thought that I would need to speak to my children about the fear of being different.
I know this will come to an end one day. It doesn’t matter if its four years, or eight years. As a parent, however, you are often driven by a singular motive – wanting to see that your children are safe, happy and taken care of.
She calms me down gently, “Daddy, I know; don’t worry, I will be fine”.
I know you will be fine, Daiyaan. But I can’t be.
I am still mad, upset and just simply pissed. I want my America back where fear is not what I teach my children, but I teach them courage – to be the grand person they deserve to be.
Five years ago, I came back from an overseas work trip and found empty card-board boxes in the lobby of our beautiful South Florida home; family pictures were off the wall, things were strewn all around the place, there was disarray in my carefully manicured paradise.
In the weeks following, my life changed forever. Unbeknownst to me, I became a FAMY (Father Mummy) that week.
Shania recently taught me this new term she learned on TV: FAMY (pronounced FAH-MEE).
Fifteen birthdays, five New Year Eves, one learning to read, and one high-school graduation, one learning to drive and one learning to ride a bike, one buying a first car, first loss of front teeth and one getting her first job, and many other “firsts” later, here we are; undeterred, unapologetic and, each of us, in our new trajectory. There is no looking back; no retrieving time with a “back” button.
Five years ago, if someone had told me that Daiyaan, at almost twenty-one, is going to school in Florida, while building her career in insurance – or that Shania, at almost eleven, is growing up to be a sparkling, amazing, foodie-movie critic-worldly-loving and compassionate child, I would have been surprised; not because, I don’t want them to be this way, but more so, because I had no idea –how to be a FAMY, what it meant and what it entails.
I also had no idea that I would be in another global business leadership role, in a major publicly traded corporation, or living a new life, in the heart of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
We started swimming in a stormy dark night with no destination in mind; I could taste the saltiness of three streams of tears, while the rain beat down on us. Fear, loss, anger and pain, commingled, all tears taste the same.
At that time, a wise friend advised me, “Remember, YOU are the pole that holds up the tent, if you fall, the whole tent collapses.” I keep thinking about that phrase, and shudder.
As a FAMY, there is really no looking back, or falling sick, or for that matter, being out of commission. The tent could fall apart. It’s a lot to digest in one sitting.
Some thirty plus years ago, on a May morning, my mother also took up a similar role. In a lot of ways, I am following in her footsteps.
When my father died, there was a discrete reason for the change, it was clean-cut. Death happens and you learn to live with that. There’s defined mourning periods for death in most world religions.
In our case, the world of mental illness is undefined, taboo, and spooky as hell. You can’t really talk about it in public. There’s shame, there’s misunderstanding and guilt. Death is explainable and you know it’s inevitable; who does one blame for mental illness?
Even in movies, they photograph mental illness with a grayish hue, a cloudy or hazy lens. They usually end the movie with someone sitting on a chair and the lens moves far away. Worldly religious books don’t provide you with guidelines on how to behave when your world is struck by mental illness.
In situations of ambiguity, you create your own rules, define that path that brings the best possible outcome you can imagine.
So we started our journey, one-step-at-a-time. Didn’t pre-plan, didn’t have time to strategize a grand outcome. One school-lunch, one parent-teacher meeting, one birthday party and one doctor’s visit at a time. Just had to get it all done.
Once I was dating someone, who asked me who was “first” in my life; my answer was simple, I am not even first in my life!
Today, looking back, so many changes and heart breaks later, I look at these two beautiful gifts in my life, and feel blessed.
We didn’t choose this life, in many ways, this life chose us.
Our lives are not perfect, neither are they festered with disaster. All we know is to make the best decision we can, with the information we have, in hand.
You do your best, every day.
If life has taught us anything over the five years, there is no single path or stream of happiness. It comes in bursts, sparkles and shows up without notice.
We have to be ready to accept happiness, embrace it.
Recently, the three of us are vacationing in Amsterdam, just after Daiyaan’s close call with a terrorist attack on the Brussels airport; Shania turns around and tells me that she wishes that she could time-travel back to my childhood and be my friend. That’s when I realize the gifts of a FAMY.
Tomorrow may not be as happy as yesterday; it may be a lot better!
Today is no different for the Mahmood family from the standpoint of daily activities; wake up to my morning alarm, jump into the shower, start preparation for another day of work adventure and Shania gets ready for her school: gloves, headband, cap, Kumon envelope and her backpack with her collection of button pins.
My emotions, however, are all jumbled up today; partly sad, partly confused, partly worried and tense. It’s my 49th Birthday. It should be a special day to celebrate life.
Three reasons, this is a special birthday for me:
Last year of my rockin’ forties started today
Last time I saw my #1 role model, my dad, was exactly 49; my age as of today
For the first time in my 49 years, the first person I met on the first day of my life, my mom, isn’t going to call me; I won’t hear that “happy birthday baba” message or song to celebrate our mutual, life-exclamation kinda event!
Text, FaceBook and Linkedin messages started pouring in, the night before, wishing me a warm and wonderful birthday.
I am grateful that hundreds of people, from five continents, thought about me on this day. Reminded by their app or not, I think it’s a nice gesture. This is the symbolic recognition, affirmation and celebration of another milestone that I woke up on the right side of grass.
I turn my phone off and start the day.
Morning meetings later, I still don’t feel celebratory. A friend invites me to lunch and we get a chance to catch up. The sun and warmth (helped by a glass of wine) brightens up the day.
In the evening, Shania and I enjoy a nice Bangladeshi dinner (from our favorite corner restaurant in Cambridge) accompanied by a nice Malbec, and some artisan crafted salted-caramel gelato (coconut based!)
As one of my routine evening events, I sit back and watch Anderson Cooper on CNN; as I am chatting with a friend, I learn of some very sad news. A friend’s daughter, in her early twenties, is in the hospital with a very difficult illness.
Electricity jars my brain; I have been so worried about myself and all the “things” that were happening or NOT happening today. I was concerned that my 49th birthday was not super celebratory!
Drowning in my self-pity, I was completely losing sight of all the things I am celebrating and mile-posting today.
First, I won grand lottery of life on this day; born to one of the most distinguished and educated couples (of their time) in Bangladesh which set in motion, for an amazing and relatively privileged life of great education, friends, travel, love and kinship that less than 1% of the world can enjoy;
Second, two amazingly loving daughters, whose world revolves around me; yes we had a tragedy in our lives five years ago – but we have all come through – healthy, happy and most importantly, together. They are my North Star and keep me focused on what’s important;
Third, a super-smart, loving sister and her family, who support me, no-questions-asked; takes care of me every day and lets me know in her gentle way that at the end of the day, we are family;
Fourth, an awesome, ‘exclamatory’ career stretching five continents, working with super-smart people, solving awesome puzzles every day, beating the competition, kicking ass, celebrating and making life-long friends along the way;
Finally, understanding and having the ability of enjoying my sources of happiness; a boat ride on water, a good glass of wine, some culinary discovery in a town square, a good cup of gelato, a delicious book, searching for lighthouses in Cape Cod, endlessly lying on a hammock (of course with a drink and a book), singing in the shower, a gentle hug from a close friend….. sipping life, one sip at a time.
Another 49 years? Why not?
What if that’s only 1 more day? It is, what it is. I have no control over that.
I am grateful.
I am grateful for the 211 Facebook messages, 43 texts and a few dozen Linkedin greetings today. Life’s not made with numbers, it’s made with moments. And I have great moments, and great memories.
I am grateful for my 49 years and can’t wait to enjoy what’s in store next.
I missed your call today, Mummy; I know wherever you are, that smile is always with me. Papa, I haven’t seen you for 30 years; but I remember the dream xylophone you brought me on my 3rd birthday, and I know you have magical presents stashed away somewhere, like you always did! At some point, somewhere, I will see you both again and celebrate the gift of my life.
In the meantime, for a few more years, I will celebrate it with Daiyaan, Shania, Atiya and all those that have extended their hands or their love, on this beautiful earth.
We wonder about all our habits, so much, that we learn and emulate from our parents; it’s tough to put a number on the gifts that we received.
Sometimes, it’s the way they protect us with unquestioned certainty, sometimes it’s the way they cook a certain dish, or, it’s their voice as they sing or read, and often, it is their view of the world. It’s rarely discernible from one another; often a combination of values, virtues and habits, that make us, who we are.
You have given so much, and with such certainty and conviction, that to untangle this into a handful of things would be nearly impossible.
Some twenty-five days after your passing, I look back at our forty-eight amazing years together, and am filled with gratitude.
Not only am I glad that I met you, I am who I am, because of you.
Resolute Conviction of Execution
You took a five or six year old boy, stood him in front of a tall building and told him to be as tall and hold his head always straight; It was confusing and intimidating.
You built 2 institutions in front of my eyes, brick-by-brick. You raised funds, and interviewed teachers, built a curriculum, and made sure that the restrooms of the schools were clean. You once told me, if you want to see how an organization is run, first go visit their restrooms!
When you walked by a classroom, there was pin-drop silence except for the teacher’s monotone. They knew, that the Principal was walking by; there was fear, and respect, commingled with the knowledge that you set a standard of excellence that others wanted to achieve.
Today, my sense of conviction, of getting things done, of “moving the needle”, of “execution” must be something I have learned (inherited) from you.
Joy, Friendship and Loyalty
It was always fun to be around you; always a sense of newness, adventure, food, debate, a sense of crisp modernity; we discussed politics, and new topics. As if the world couldn’t go stale around you.
When you walked into a room, people noticed; they wanted to be with you, seen with you. We claimed a connection to you.
You were always doing things, running things; during the Independence War, you established a school in our home; we learned with carrots, and potatoes; did art with charcoal and crayons. You turned adversity into something meaningful.
Friendship, Joy and Loyalty
You taught me how to be a good friend; your friends are loyal to you for over 70 years. I remember, once, traveling 5100 miles, over two weeks, to see your best friend. We felt, that these friends of yours, were family.
My friends often came to you for romantic advice, they wanted to hear from you; sometimes, they wanted you to speak to their parents, on their behalf. Everyone felt safe, and protected by you.
Sometimes, at 11 pm, you would say, let’s go for ice cream; no social boundaries; pajamas, and cramped cars.
There has always been, ice-cream and smiles in our lives.
Food and Wrapping Paper
A friend called recently and reminded me that he had his first home-made pizza and the Burmese dish “Khaok-Swe” at our home in the 1970s. My friends loved our home, because we had free flowing crispy samosas, hot tea and dalpuri ready to go!
You were always making these amazing, eclectic dishes – blending the North-South-Asian-Western influences in a big crock-pot. I love your tangy orange aloor dom with crispy loochi, and that mixed vegetable you made with a white sauce. Ghee flowed easily and so did cardamom and all those “exotic” spices. My college friends would send orders for your amazing Dimer Halwa, whenever I went home for the Summer.
You poured your heart and soul into food.
Your creativity and ability to blend flavors with imagination is what we admired. I see your creativity passed on to Apu (Atiya), when she pours herself into her gourmet. I know for certain, we are both foodies, because we never had a boring dish at home!
Food was a symbol of affection, love and caring. You would not visit anyone without some flower or food!
Food was always, also served with a flair.
I remember a winter garden-party at our home in Joypahar. As those beautiful people, adorned in chiffon and pearls, emerged from their cars, I remember Kababs being grilled on one side, while the servers in white uniform were carrying out appetizers. Atiya and I, in single digits, sat in our pajamas dangling our feet from the balcony above, as if watching a movie unfold. There were pigeons released to celebrate a birthday, along with live fireworks.
You told me once, that the wrapping on a gift was just important as the gift itself; it signifies the care and thought you put into everything.
Ford Foundation scholar from the early 1960s, you questioned norms and pushed boundaries, specially for women’s rights, even before I was born. You left your own home at seventeen, to go abroad and study. In those days, from a conservative, Muslim family, that was rare.
You came home from the US, after completing your second Master’s and wanted to change the world. You were in love, and declared it publicly – again, another first in those days.
I have heard stories of bullies and how you pushed them back, in personal and professional life. At least two Presidents of Bangladesh visited your schools and told you that they had heard of stories of your courage and standing up to your conviction.
I remember how you stood hours out in the sun to get an audience with the Holy Cross nuns to get your daughter admitted to the best known girl’s school in Dhaka.
On the fourth day of my father’s passing, you came to me and asked me to remain resolute on heading out to the US for college, even as this adversity faced us.
As I talk to my daughters, today, I speak of your dealing with men in an oppressive country; we have learned about persistence from you and how you never took no for an answer.
Smile and the World Smiles With You
As I look through your photos, they are filled with smiles.
You keep reminding us that life is all about smiles. Even through disasters, and wars, you kept smiling and moving us forward.
Often, people tell me that they like me smile; I know that my ability to smile is a reflection of your ever-present smile, and acceptance of adversity with courage.
I teach my children that, with a big smile, they can also make their dreams come true.
Last week, as I am describing you to a friend who never met you, my friend states that you sound more like a “rock-star”; in many ways, you are a rock-star to many.
We rarely realized this; you’re our mother, care-giver, protector – first line of defense. Today, when we hear about thousands of people, whom you influenced in one way or another, mourning you around the world, I realize, I lived in the shadows of a rock-star mom.
Rock-Stars are not just musicians; rock-stars often change the world, for good.
You shared your kindness, warmth, knowledge and goodwill, freely. You provided food, and comfort to many, during the times of war and peace. Individually, you changed the world, for good.
When we met last, I said, Mummy, I am going back now and will see you in three weeks, when I am back for the holidays. You said, very crisply, Not sure if I will see you here or at another place.
Go bring your happiness, smile, joy, food, resolute assuredness to the heavens above. Can’t wait to hear, how you have re-arranged that place to meet your standards!