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The first time I realized that my story may have been different from all of the other children my age, was when I was in grade seven. Aldergrove Public School, the place I don’t like to think about much, the place I was made to realize that I was just a young teenage girl who had been living in isolation most of my years in school. I was the girl who chose to make up excuses so that my teacher would allow me to stay inside for recess. “I’ll do anything, please just, can I stay inside?” Whether it meant wiping boards, or organizing shelves; In my mind, nothing could be worse than going outside and having to pretend as if being alone didn’t bother me. I remember one year, I broke my arm trying to jump off of the swing set, mid air—the swing set my father had built himself in our backyard. I was playing with the only other people I could be comfortable being myself around at the time—my sisters—in the only place I felt comfortable: home. Breaking my arm was painful, but during a school day, it was a blessing in disguise. I didn’t have to make up an excuse for a change. I remember sitting on the windowsill, looking out onto the pavement, and through the portables into the field. I don’t remember what was running through my mind at the time, what I was thinking about, but I remember feeling alone. I felt trapped inside of myself, as if there was more to me than the person I was, and I felt the need to hold that girl captive. I didn’t want anyone to see her. So I stayed quiet most of the time. I hid in the washroom during recess. I took walks through cliques of my fellow classmates, but never stopped to talk to them. I would stand by the double red doors, leaning against the wall, waiting desperately for the bell to ring. I became the odd one; the girl that most of the students poked fun at, perhaps not knowing at the time that the words they used, the words anyone used during that developmental stage of my life in particular, would shape the person I would later become.
I remember the very first crack in the delicate mirror of my psyche that led to every other life altering quake; every heartbreaking experience that could be reflected in my eyes. It was the reflection that followed me around like a shadow; My self image. My beautiful, sick mother had taken it upon herself to play "delivery woman" and bring me a hot lunch to eat while we sat together in the car parked in front of the school. It didn't matter how sick she had become, she made sure there was a smile on our faces. When her hair began to fall out, she resorted to wigs to hide her insecurities about her own self-image. She went through a curly hair wig, short hair, long hair—she went through them all—until one day, she just gave up on it. She accepted the course her disease had taken and turned to the world of simplicity. She came to visit me that day with a scarf wrapped around her head, revealing parts of her forehead that would normally be covered by her hair. I remember it to have a red border filled with different shapes and shades of purple. Her confidence was radiant, but I saw her suffer on a daily basis. That smile she entertained everyone else’s pain and sorrow regarding her own illness with, I could see through. I could see the pain and suffering behind her red lipstick painted lips. Regardless of how she felt, she would make sure I ate my lunch—as I had the tendency to go without food throughout the school day. Most days my lunch would be sent home, or I’d throw it out and lie to my mother. “Yes, I ate my lunch today Mom!” I would blatantly state with a smile on my face. She was my mother. I didn’t need to say much to her for her to understand what went on in my heart. “Make sure you take care of her Pervaiz, she’s too sensitive. She won’t be able to handle it!!” I would later hear her cry to my father, as she lay in the hospital bed in the palliative care unit of Markham Stouffville Hospital.
My father sat on a chair right next to her that day, her left hand clenched between the two of his, as he rested their hands on his forehead. “I will,” he said, as his voice cracked. I remember standing outside in the hallway, trying to listen in on their conversation, thinking, maybe I’ll get some answers? That was the day a day that no matter how much I try, I can never forget. Together, we sat in her old white Toyota Corolla as she watched and made sure I ate all my food. That particular day, after I had finished eating, after I had given her a hug and began shuffling around the car to get ready to head back to class; a portable right in front of the staff parking lot; instead of letting me go, she stopped me.
“Aisha, wait!” she said as I quickly turned back around to look at her. “I won’t be home when you come home from school!” she said hesitantly, afraid of my reaction.
“Why Mummy?” I asked.
“I have to spend a few days at the hospital. I have to go for another round of chemotherapy,” she said.
I remember being able to feel a rumbling in my belly and I could feel the panic in my chest.
“For how long?” I asked as my voice shook with grief.
“Three or four days...”
I looked down at my sweaty palms. I didn’t know what I would do without her in the house. I quickly swallowed my tears as I pushed open the car door, struggling to get out. The bell had rung. It was time for me to go. I didn’t want to say goodbye. Saying goodbye has always been difficult for me; I avoid saying goodbye at all cost. I rushed towards the portable. I could see my classmates arranging themselves as they talked, and formed a line against the portable so our teacher would let us in. I could hear the car door open in the short distance I had walked, and heard my mother call out my name. “Aisha, come back,” she yelled as I could hear the anger, the grief, the sadness emerge in her voice, while my body only responded by picking up my pace. I only wanted to walk faster. I didn’t want to turn around. I knew if I turned around, I wouldn’t let her leave. I walked upright; with my head up in the air. I stood tall and strong. I managed to avoid tears until I heard the voices that, at the time, felt as if the harsh reality of my life, the part of my life I wasn’t ready to face, slapped me in my face repeatedly until I couldn’t walk anymore. “Ewwww!! Your mom is so ugly! Look at her!!! Where’s her hair??? Your mom's a dude,” they mocked together! They were mean! They were kids!! We all were. But in that very moment, I felt the very first crack. The type of hairline fracture I knew deep down inside, that if left untreated, could one day cause a series of other complications.
My mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer very early in my life. Her days, or at least the days that I remember, were filled with pain, chemotherapy treatments, regular nights spent in the hospital emergency room in the middle of the night, fearing we were going to lose her, and medication that made her looking gaunt and ill.
For years, as I was a child when I was introduced to my mother’s cancer, I was unable to understand the severity of her health. The only thing I remember of that time, was my teacher coming out to assist me in getting back into the classroom. I was too emotional to leave. I may have spent some time in the guidance office that day, I can’t be too sure. But what I know for sure is that, that day was the very first day I taught myself how to forget. That was the day I realized how emotionally sick I had been throughout my childhood. I knew that I would need the help of a professional to deal with the eventuality of my mother’s health. But mental health wasn’t viewed then as it is now. I didn’t seek treatment, instead I continued to bottle it up until it erupted in the form of explosions of screaming and yelling tantrums when I got home; home, the only place I ever felt comfortable setting the real Aisha free, but also the place where my cries for help were misunderstood as being a typical, mischievous girl, who just needed a little bit of discipline, and so discipline I received. But my silent cries for help went unheard for years to follow, until that very day, I was punched in my head multiple times until I lost consciousness; and woke up the version of myself no one, including myself, could recognize. My reflection was a stranger, but my internal struggles that resurfaced were all too familiar.