I can’t prove that my mother’s brain tumors were directly caused by 9/11, nor that they were exacerbated by the bombs that fell on Iraq eighteen months later. However, she did call me in tears to report that, riding the bus in the aftermath of the Twin Towers’ crashes, she’d intervened in a diatribe about Middle Easterners, been called “Terrorist!” fled through the rear door and come down with a flu that lasted for weeks: “Me, who would not kill an ant, always catching them to put them out of doors, a terrorist?” We took refuge in one another’s voices, joking that while air travel might never again be possible, we would always have the phone. Due to the time difference between California and Puerto Rico, I did not have my mother on the line in the pre-dawn hours as I watched the perverse countdown to war in my San Juan apartment, but we maintained a steady dialogue thereafter, lamenting the wounded and the dead, villages demolished, children orphaned, Mosques and Museums littered with beer bottles then laid to rubble. I abhorred the onslaught, but could not fully embody her despair when they razed Najaf and Karbalah, holy cities where her father and uncle had been buried among countless other ancestors, their graves desecrated by American soldiers high on meth, blasting “Slayer” in their tanks. A secret wound was reopened: my mother had been traumatized there but still she ached for the Arvand Rud waterway whose shallow depths meagerly separated her from her cousins in Basra and Bagdad, the border zone beyond which she had stepped but whose grip on her had never abated. Now, with “Shock and Awe,” and only her overseas daughter for solace, she grieved in isolation, taking day-long bus treks in tattered clothing, each garment encapsulating a precious memory, doing her rounds in the terrible, swimming pool blue of the South Bay.

My mother did not belong to the gilded, Post-Revolution “Tehrangeles” milieu, with its towering real estate along the Wilshire Corridor. She hailed from an earlier generation, working since girlhood as a comptometer operator at Abadan’s Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, itself the catalyst for the nation’s swift industrialization and, later, the epicenter for mobilization for the nationalization of oil that would spread throughout Iran, championed by Mohammad Mosaddegh. My mother came of age in the incipient phase of this transformation, declaiming Persian innovations in poetry, philosophy, astronomy and math, yet determined to escape her parents’ relentless quarreling and the prospect of an early marriage to her overbearing cousin Hussein. It was thus that she departed a bellicose yet perplexingly tender household in Abadan for London in 1946, a sixteen-year-old with a midwifery scholarship and a forged passport, an Anglophile with fierce anti-colonial principles who would become Queen’s Royal Nurse and Midwife, eating ketchup sandwiches in a Redding dormitory. Years later, she emigrated to Pittsburgh, where she obtained degrees in nurse anesthesia and Comparative Literature, commenced medical school and took aviation lessons, her achievements chronicled in a series of Orientalist articles in the Pittsburgh Gazette, profiles of a stunning, inquisitive brown girl replete with references to snake charmers and flying carpets.

My mother had been single-minded about her scholarly pursuits, so it is odd that a marriage proposal would compel her to withdraw from medical school and follow my father to Washington, D.C., where he became Adjunct Anthropology Professor and consultant to a series of Federal agencies endeavoring to justify their interests in the Developing World. With the exception of lengthy jags in Upper Volta and Niger, my father worked principally from home, an attentive caregiver with a sad undercurrent, concealed in our minimalist townhouse appointed with African art and stark, Herman Miller lines, submitting to soul-deadening conversion therapy so as to more seamlessly endure the contrivance of his façade. He tread a precipice of conflicted sexual orientation and racial identity, camouflaging his Nordic looks to don skillfully assembled costumes, posing now as an Arab, an African, a Russian spy, now as the straight husband to his Persian bride, whereas my mother plunged eagerly into Washington. Her nostalgia for Mosaddegh’s resistance against foreign domination — cut short by a CIA-backed coup — found an outlet in the campaign for D.C. Statehood, as she rallied for the People’s Party, capturing Julius Hobson’s 1972 Vice-Presidential candidacy in sharp black and white photographs, while she transposed the poetry of Omar Khayyam onto enormous canvases at the Corcoran School of Art. Placating her melancholia for a lost family and culture, she put her aspirations of distinguished medical accomplishment behind her and worked marathon shifts supervising the Corcoran’s photo laboratory as though it were her Empire, replacing the faculty’s humdrum locker IDs with  labels in decorative Farsi, gleefully submerging herself in the heyday of the 1970s art scene, experimenting with polaroids and pastels, beaming at openings and the annual costume ball.

Meanwhile, my father’s federal gigs had dwindled when he was suddenly recruited for a dream post at Unclear U. Spellbound by the prospect of coming out, eager to forsake the black and white townhouse to bask in the glow of California’s gay enclave, he was nonetheless anxious for an alibi, pleading with my mother to uproot herself yet again to accompany him. His words of tangled yearning — “Please come, khanoum. I can’t survive in Los Angeles without you” — ultimately produced their desired effect. Though she dragged out the house sale for three years, all the while refining her appeal for a bicoastal marriage, warily, but with faltering confidence, she ultimately misstepped, trading Chocolate City for the South Bay’s colorless sprawl. Having quit the Corcoran and relocated to the insipid beach town where my father had purchased a dilapidated, peach-colored bungalow, the proposed demolition and rebuilding of which were as tenuous as their incongruous partnership, my father felt instantly released. Seemingly emboldened by the undoing of her transnational adventure, galvanized by her dependence upon him, he was now the protagonist of their narrative, and promptly left her to her own devices, celebrating coming out with rainbow flags, Saturday night bailes at Club Papi, sex tourism in Cuba and Morocco, the Men’s Movement. Stranded on the corner of two alleys adjacent to a flat and unwelcoming sea, far from Abadan but an ironic stone’s throw from Chevron’s El Segundo Oil Refinery, my mother was abruptly recast as the solitary, brown-skinned ex of an Unclear U. anthropology professor. She languished in this southland suburbia, hanging on tenuously by the thread of Persian Literature courses, Sanskrit, Spanish, Pre-Law, Keyboarding and Qi Gong at points north and east, requiring lengthy expeditions by bus.

Walking the boardwalk together on my visits, my mother fantasized that she would start over in her 60s, then 70s, return to medical school or purchase a magnificent home with spacious rooms in which to finally unpack, her sardonic boasting a trait I later discovered was typically Abadani. She recited Omar Khayyam and released mirthful tears regaling me with anecdotes about her ultra-Muslim mother, draped in black and waving cucumbers in the air, chortling at their imagined phallic connotations.  The same woman who had been ruthlessly punishing had also adored her, airmailing her hand-sewn underpants in the U.K., too scratchy for use but too lovingly crafted to discard. With her spirited wit and myriad scholarly interests, my mother labored to persevere, but was razed by the simultaneous losses of home, work, friends and marriage, becoming paralyzed when she ought to have fled the shabby duplex whose cramped spaces, lined with rust-colored carpeting and cottage cheese ceilings, were soon overrun with scraps of broken furniture, discarded house plants, voluminous cartons of Christmas, Easter and Passover greeting cards, three decades of broken reading glasses, dumb bells to stock a gym, straws and plastic eating utensils for a thousand picnics.

The neurologist who diagnosed my mother’s brain tumors concluded that they had likely resulted from her acute flu in the weeks following 9/11. To that immediate cause should be added a series of pre-existing conditions: her jolting dislocation to California and, prior to that, the Hostage Crisis, Islamophobia, and before even these, the international flight severing young Fati from the banks of the Shatt Al’Arab, like a dislocated digit floating into the stratosphere, triumphantly gaining the world but in subterranean mourning for her father, whose last words at the Bagdad airport — “I will never see you again” — were prescient. When, intoxicated and overexposed, he died suddenly a few months after her arrival in Pittsburgh, my mother drained her medical school savings for flying lessons. Exploring her motives in a letter to me as a first-year college student, she detailed the appeal of the interstitial space flying afforded her, echoing my homesickness with the tale of her own first year without parents: “I loved solo flying and had never forgotten the first time I was up in the air just above Bagdad, imagining my father weeping down below and the clouds suspended in mid-air. Piloting through the clouds,” she wrote, “I felt that I could once again be with my father.”

Still shell-shocked by the bland environs in which she had ultimately landed, in the final decade of my mother’s California dénoument, one medical twist eventually led to another. Exceeding her brain tumors, outstripping even the dramatic fall through the bus’s back door which culminated with a massive, personality-altering concussion, a new onslaught ultimately took center stage: a cancer whose immediate origin may have been bombs dropping, decimated graves and “Terrorist!,” but whose root was undoubtedly the cumulative stress of isolation, an ongoing, closure-defying intimacy with my father, confinement in the suffocating bungalow surrounded by still-packed boxes from her final move, thirty years prior, sealed evidence of vibrant years in Abadan, London, Pittsburgh and D.C. A pyramid of darkroom equipment into which stacks of wrapping paper and padded mailing envelopes were neatly tucked occupied the guest bedroom, while cherished letters from her parents and childhood friends were layered atop her queen-sized bed alongside carefully ordered bank statements from around the world, a time-capsule of diverse currencies, scripts and computer-generated fonts spanning three quarters of a century.

The psychic dissonance of exile in the Home of the Beach Boys was ultimately mirrored by the mind-boggling transformation of my mother’s body thanks to the cancer cells themselves, chemo, radiation, and Dr. Kate Cudgel, the thoracic surgeon who carved open her chest to examine but not remove the offending growth, a precious teaching opportunity for a room full of inquisitive interns which left my mother with six permanently broken ribs, an s-shaped torso and an intact, thriving tumor. “Why didn’t you remove her lung? “ I stood alongside my mother’s gurney, the potential for excising the growth now annulled thanks to the colossal strike of incisions and jostling of organs exacted upon the fragile terrain of her body. The surgeon coldly retorted: “We didn’t do so because she indicated that she did not want to be left with only one lung.” My mother’s outrage later coalesced into a tornado of invectives, but in that instant, barely roused from anesthesia, stunned by Cudgel’s betrayal though not yet fully grasping the calamity that had just occurred, she merely whispered: “What I said was that I didn’t want to be on a ventilator for the rest of my life, not that I did not want the cancerous lung removed.” She looked up at me, raising her eyebrows for emphasis in a gesture that only I would see. Too critical a decision to have been based on a perfunctory dialogue with no other family member present, no document delineating her wishes, no mention of survival rates, surgeries successfully performed, contingent plans of action, pros and cons. This went beyond mere negligence due to faulty communication; it was a crime of institutional racism wherein an elderly brown woman, carrying Trader Joe’s bags filled with yoghurt containers and stacks of napkins to her medical appointments, simply did not show up on Unclear’s radar.

It could have been her name — Azar, unfamiliar and gender indeterminate in the U.S. — but I feared it was her physique that made her unrecognizable: deracinated, stripped of the identities of prodigal daughter, feted solo pilot, the first girl in her family to achieve a B.A. much less pursue a tri-continental odyssey punctuated by gallery exhibits and a certificate in tropical diseases, the intrepid beauty who later became queen of the L.A. Rapid Transit, bus routes conscripted to memory, counseling the drivers on their struggles, interpreting their observations like oracles. Whereas she had already shriveled to skin and bones — finding a vein without inducing agony required an anesthesiologist’s intervention — with this third hospitalization, and two additional, unpardonable, eleventh-hour surgeries, my mother’s arms had become elephantine. No longer olive-skinned, she appeared to have been infused with a milky substance. I feared that it was not so much “Azar” as the startling presentation of the ravaged body before her that led to the attending nurse’s confusion: “Good evening! My name is Rosario and I’m the nurse tonight for Mr.….or Mrs.…?” “Ms. Hammond,” I quickly interjected, relieved that my mother’s altered state prevented her from grasping this newest evidence of her undoing.

As she languished in the ICU, I enlarged three black and white photos, mounted them on pink, green and orange backings, and scotch-taped them to the wall in a bold row facing her gurney, each with an imperative caption in fat, black magic marker. The first was of mother and daughter nuzzled temple to temple, she with jet-black locks and kohl-rimmed eyes, I in the soft coral scarf she had knitted for my Christmas visit, with the message, “I LOVE YOU, MODARAM.”  The second depicted me as a toddler, cross-legged in the grass, eagerly offering up a flower, with the same words in Persian, “KHALEY, KHALEY DOOSTAT DARAM.” The third captured my sensual, braless mother in her early 40s, a light drizzle falling as she posed playfully for me in our Washington, D.C. courtyard in 1971: “A HAPPY DAY.” These images followed her from the ICU to an enclosure in the “medicine wing,” where I’m told that the startling absence of care — nobody to moisten her cracked lips or feed her while her meals were still hot — was due to the sophistication of the monitoring devices, which enabled staff to keep an eye on patients from a surveillance room. The line of photographs then tracked her back to the ICU and finally to a room in the light-filled orthopedic wing, where human contact was suddenly on offer, gentle nurses struggling to offset the doctors’ mixed messages, botched prescriptions ordering .05 instead of 5 mg of pain medication, the incapacity of the specialists to speak to one another and arrive at a coherent plan of action. The images were intended to comfort my mother and to satisfy me that I’d achieved some small, dignifying action in the face of a mountain of pain and disgrace, but they were also a message to the M.D.s: “The subject in this gurney is sacred and beloved, in spite of her irrational demeanor and shrunken form, covered in tubes and incisions, agonizing from your experiments.” Given what I’d learned of my absolute powerlessness to affect outcomes in the microcosm of Unclear’s teaching hospital, it was with more bravado than genuine confidence that the photographs announced: “There is a daughter who will wreak havoc if you fuck with her one more time!”

Unclear U. is top-notch where research is concerned — they perform extensive animal testing to that end — but weak on care. As I accompanied my mother on her trajectory through its lavish maze, gazed upon her pushing elevator buttons, reading prescription labels, deciphering the side effects of experimental drugs, still on her feet, then laying in pain, conscious or unconscious, calling out “Mama jaan” to her own mother, I often thought of the monkeys who suffered even worse fates within those very same walls. Like ghosts transcending the occluded chambers where the slick institution’s shadow science is performed, their images appeared to me, breathing the same air, staring up at the same institutional lighting, startled by the same noises and incisions, subjected to the same unknown, but strapped rather consenting to lay still, hands and feet bound, without anesthesia or pain medication when the procedures were concluded. What separated her from them was only a thin veil of legal and moral protection, one that could be effortlessly dissolved by oil interests, pseudoscientific fictions of barbaric brown people in chadors and turbans, religious fanatics on funeral processions to Najaf and Karbala, the threat of terrorism.

Outspoken in her abhorrence of animal testing and vivisection, and yet the latent medical student in her still thrived, yearning for inclusion among the ranks of surgeons, chemists, to become the next Marie Curie, to invent, discover and heal. One young intern apologized for the machinations of an industry designed above all to test, operate and administer drugs, contemptuous of the non-lucrative potential of mortality. Gently, he sought to empower her with a choice: “What would you like to do, Mrs. Hammond?” Though the options to which he alluded were hospice or still more invasive treatment, her priorities were of an altogether different order: “To do? Something important. I would like to develop a powerful new vaccine.” Even after three appalling surgeries and an impressive repertoire of duplicitous misconduct, my mother revered the institution, her rage directed at specific enemies within the system and, increasingly, at me. Memories of her unscrupulous cousin Hussein were transposed onto my bedside ministrations, and her fierce love was combined with the irrepressible conviction that I was her cunning archenemy on the battlefield of warped time, twisted spaces and misshapen silhouettes.

A lab animal of significantly higher status, shielded by contingent laws and a dubious code of ethics, once she was no longer useful, they maneuvered to release her: “We feel that taking further action would be tantamount to pulling back against the hand of God.”

But just one week ago, when she was already clearly dying, cancer-ridden from head to toe, I pleaded with you not to operate. You dismissed me, insisting that, “She has months to live, and with the tumors in her arms, she would be in a great deal of pain.” Two major surgeries, five days apart, allowing her to emerge only momentarily to catch her breath, focus her gaze, have a few sips of Ensure, stop moaning in agony, so that she could be subjected to another assault? You performed a calamity upon her body from which she will never recover, leaving her with rubbery, elephantine arms and cantaloupe-sized fists, not recognizably my mother’s slender, brown self, but chalky and wet, paralyzed and pale. You subjected her to an excruciating cycle of pain and nausea from which she would only return to be delivered into the arms of Dilaudid and, with it, another cycle, this time of paranoia and mental anguish. And now you want to disconnect the drip, stop taking blood, X-rays, CT-scans, release her to Friendship Hospice because the insurance company won’t pay for her to spend the brief remainder of her life in this hospital room to which she has become accustomed? To save the expense of a few days lodging, you would require that she be relocated — lifted, transported by ambulance, wheeled up several flights of stairs — so that I, her only family, will dedicate my final days with her struggling to straighten out logistics, procuring a team of 24-hour nurses, managing her outrage about the move, all because, now, you are done with your experiments?

The latest in a series of doctors, appearing only within the last thirty-six hours, purported to soothe, to make a case with the histrionic daughter for rational thinking: “I wasn’t the presiding M.D. last week. Let’s try to make the best decisions now, looking forward not back.” No bombs, but a different kind of war.

There is a phenomenon whereby edema causes the body to release fluids through the skin. I didn’t have a word for my mother’s clammy, distended arms until Laura — her thoughtful, soft-spoken nurse — noted one morning that, though still swollen, they were no longer “weeping.” I’d had the impression kissing and stroking my mother’s arms that her insides were seeping out, thinking, “If only I could put her back inside herself, contain the leak,” like patching the hole in the bottom of our capsizing canoe. From the moment they operated on her, my single wish had been to return her to pre-hospital condition, so that she could die with her own arms and hands instead of the unrecognizable extremities she would briefly raise to her eyes: “My God, if my hand is like that, I must be dying.” She was being drawn inexorably away from me, slipping out of my grasp. The weeping abated and her arms even shrunk back to their original dimensions, but by that point she was time traveling on Dilaudid, in Scotland, then leading tour groups along the River Thames. Released to hospice, my mother winked at me with one eye, then the other, as they lowered her from the back of the ambulance, praising the attendants’ startling accomplishment of transferring her into a wheel chair after a full month immobilized on her back. It was indeed astonishing to see her seated upright like someone in charge of her limbs, but this was only a morbid imitation of recovery, for by the time she was conveyed upstairs and laid onto the hospital bed in my father’s guest bedroom, it became clear that what remained of her vitality had been sapped by this maneuver. My mother’s prone position acquired new weight, her cells realigning according to a divergent order as she simultaneously careened sideways, inching toward buoyancy, pursuing a secret pathway out of the room.

We had arrived, jet lagged, at the finale, but I was nonetheless determined to feed my mother, nearly choking her with the small spoonful of pumpkin I’d roasted and raised to her lips. Absolving me of the gaffe, even consenting to the fiction that we would soon share a Nowruz meal, she whispered “bia” so that I would bend down to receive her kiss, as the hospice nurse looked on, familiar with the chapter in which the stunned daughter attempts to nourish her dying mother. Two days later, I could no longer get her attention, no matter how loudly I yelled “Hi, mama jaan!” upon entering her room. She had observed with interest the photographs when I first posted them directly within her line of vision, keenly noting their replacement in each new setting, but by now she could not discern them at all, for her eyes were absorbed only with the invisible visitors hovering above her. Sweetly tilting and nodding her head one moment, grimacing and flailing the next, the Dilaudid subdued her but did little to manage the pain of the cancer’s final, absolute occupation, and she was gone in precisely one week, first speaking Persian only, picking up bits of girlhood conversations, planning our New Year’s menu, taking in the scent of the hot Abadani riverbank, then uttering disjointed word series, voiceless, eyes clouded, gurgling and, finally, implausibly still.

A memory recurs like a script in an unknown idiom. I am bathing my mother’s body in rose water in the wee hours of Nowruz, thanking her, kissing the Caesarian scar through which I emerged, then laying curled against her in the gurney. I lay next to you like this when I was a baby; now, after all these years, we are resting together one last time. Exhausted after a wakeful night, I lightly doze off, lifting my eyelids occasionally to see her profile inches before me, slowly turning waxy. Several hours later, the morticians arrive. There is paperwork to complete, and they roll her into a series of white sheets. When they cover her face, I want to object: “Don’t you need to leave a small hole so that she can breath?” That must be why they coax me — “Sometimes family members choose to leave the room for a few minutes”– but I refuse. I had stuck by her this long, and would not miss this most humbling spectacle, lower than despair, coarser than tears, my jagged grief not yet having sunk in. As they lift her, I lay my hands upon her head; it’s difficult to remain attached with the full surface of my palms while they’re moving her, but even just lightly touching her with the tips of my fingers, I soon recognize her nose and stay connected to this landmark as they navigate down the narrowly winding stairway, knocking an African mask askew with her bound feet.

Now in the living room, they cover her in a black plastic bag, zip it over her face, strap her to a cot. They are poised by the front door, but still I won’t release her nose, protruding faintly against the black plastic, the utterly recognizable sign of her individuality, long and tilted subtly to the right, her “Iranian nose,” she would laugh, remarking that it was significantly more slanted than mine but less so than her own mother’s, a trait that was vanishing through the generations. The morticians note my hands fixed in place, my dumb expression, and ask if I would like some more time with her, but I am defeated and we — she and I — are outside of time, in a place I have not yet located. Once they wheel her through the front door, clanging lightly on the curb, lift her into the hearse, and drive off southward to the Santa Ana crematorium, I retreat upstairs to take cover in the hollow under my mother’s gurney, my gaze fixed upward out the window. Meditating later, I echo this gesture, endeavoring to join her in the darkness behind my closed eyelids. My father emerges with startling lucidity from the maze of Alzheimer’s to observe that these odd surroundings wherein we now find ourselves without her are merely a single dimension of reality. Would she slip through to say, “Salaam, dokhtaram”? Cloaked in her mother’s black chador, alight like a large, dark bird, reach out with a feather’s touch to comfort her heart-broken daughter?

About Author

Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond

Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond is an Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and Luso-Brazilian Studies at the University of California, San Diego