December 26. A reminder loops in my head. It’s been three hundred and sixty-five days since I met my son Musa. The constancy of the knowledge that my son literally lives on the other side of the world isn’t easy on my ageing nerves, my tired heart. If it weren’t for the magic of video calls, I would have been a complete mess. Or am I already there?
Why we live without what matters the most to us, how we come to terms with the physical absence—albeit temporary—of our loved ones, what keeps us going despite an acute feeling of being lost, where we keep hidden the broken parts of us, how we continue to function as incomplete beings. Questions that construct us, make us, break us, reshape us, distort us, yet we pretend to ignore them as spam.
In the last few years, and in the last one year, there is so much relearning about the most important aspect of me: motherhood. My son Musa moving to New York to study at the end of August 2017 created within me a loneliness that shadows me all the time, everywhere. Musa is my heart. But I learned to live with the reality that our lives were changed forever.
In merely weeks from his departure from Lahore and still in the floundering-ness of his new life at his college, I learned a brand-new thing about him. Musa’s deeply-locked-within-him pain.
From the time he sat up as a few-month-old baby to when he graduated from high school at seventeen, the knowledge of Musa’s contentment with life helped me sleep at night. One of my most-repeated descriptions of him was “Musa is the happiest person I know.” Quiet acceptance of having a long-distance father who paid for his school, summer holidays and other stuff, and whose actual presence was rare. Great grades, rarely a problem with teachers and students in school. Respect and love and warmth for and from everyone around him—family, domestic staff, children, the elderly, the underprivileged, animals. Despite studying in an elite school, he never demanded expensive stuff other than a new PlayStation every few years. He got along with everyone, never used the slightest bad word for anyone. Musa was empathetic without ever being lectured.
Musa was and is the kindest person I know.
An Honor and High Honor Roll student, Musa loved school, had perfect attendance, did his assignments on time, was a constant chatterbox (a trait he inherited from me) but a delight of a student (in his teachers’ words), and unfailingly helpful to his friends and even students he didn’t know. Despite being short and scrawny in his middle school, and as a freshman, he practised for ages to be in the school’s swimming and basketball teams. Twice he played in inter-school basketball tournaments in Islamabad and Chennai, India.
Witty, funny, loud, curious, there was nothing Musa didn’t participate in and loved—computer clubs, sports days, art, drama, stand-up comedy, poetry recitals, class presentations. For a few years, Musa was a member of his school’s Model United Nations; their team visited Lahore’s Aitchison College, Dubai, Doha, and Russia. As the head of MUN, his leadership was inclusive and responsive.
One of the most important aspects of Musa’s school life was his behaviour with the school’s custodial, janitorial and security staff. One guard at the main gate said to me even on my last trip to school after Musa’s 2017 graduation, “Musa is one of those two-three students in this school who always greets us with respect.” The other school staff made the same comment over the years. It was always humbling.
My commitment as a mother to give Musa my hundred percent was absolute. Musa reciprocated. I never felt like much of anything my entire life, but I was always grateful to Allah for giving me an opportunity to be a full-time mother. A good mother. Musa was happy, everyone loved Musa, and the childhood holes in my heart closed, one after the other. I thought I knew my son, and I was there for him always.
Musa was the ideal son I prayed all parents to be blessed with.
Our hugs were a wordless constant.
For fifteen years, Musa’s school drop-pickup was the most important part of my day. We talked about everything. Now I know I did, Musa didn’t.
The bullying Musa faced was not brutal, but it left an impact. Alienation of his friends, at some point, elicited a silent protest. Alone, he locked it in an invisible box. I never saw it.
One day, the unravelling began. Of my sheltered peace of mind and knowledge of the “excellence” of my motherhood. Musa while majoring in computer science studied creative writing for four years. The first essay he wrote on being new in his college for his writing class got him an A—a proud moment for a Pakistani studying in one of the finest writing programmes in the world and a young person who despite being a good writer was never appreciated for his writing in his old school. Another thing that accompanied that A was the anguish punctuating the essay. It stunned me.
The essay was about “being a many-minded mongrel, not really fitting into one mould or another and always feeling like an outsider because of that.”
It continued. Musa wrote about so many things, but his profundity of emotions, honesty of introspection and scathing commentary on the stuff that is left to rot within a protective heart and overactive mind strengthened into the kind of writing that was raw, powerful, indelible, a punch in the gut. Once he wrote a poem about a father lamenting the death of his son. Each time I read that poem I cried. How a teenager captured in words the pain of a grieving father is something I still don’t comprehend. Musa wrote about pain with the mastery of an ancient soul that had lived through hell and survived—intact but held together by taut threads.
In December 2022, the exquisiteness of Musa’s writing takes my breath away. He is that good a fiction writer. His fiction is anything but fiction. His long form writing, the first draft of his novella, his short stories, the terse musings he posts on Insta, his poetry. What is it that makes his writing sublime? Sharpened observations, memories of all shades, a superbly active imagination, stark realism, love for storytelling, magic realism? Depth and honesty that is decades beyond his almost twenty-three-years? Unadulterated pain spilling in impeccable imagery? Power of kindness? Optimism in darkness? Imperativeness of lasting bonds? Empathy that shines even in his darkest descriptions of humanity? Breaking and coming together? A beautiful smile when it all makes sense?
Some of Musa's writing is on his Insta redplantiss.
Reading Musa’s writing, I feel incredulous. His way with words and emotions and imagery is unusual, magnificent, one of a kind. I wish I had an iota of his talent. The way he gets into his characters’ souls, coaxing them to face their innermost truths and scared little children and demons, is stunning in its simplicity, its self-assuredness, its courage.
And I continue to look within. How did I never know? I thought I knew Musa’s every look, his unsaid, his most personal, his good, his bad. He was never scared to come clean about being naughty or careless and breaking something, shouting at his younger cousin sometimes, his unease with this and that, his struggle in a certain class, his unwillingness to hang out with a class fellow. His mind not accepting certain mores, some ways of the world. He told me everything. I thought he told me everything. Knowing that I was wrong, and for so many years frightens me. Musa kept so much away from me.
Everything about me was all about Musa. My life with him was my life. I thought I knew what to do. But I was wrong. If there was a time machine, I would go back and redo it all. But will I succeed?
Keeping to himself was Musa’s defence mechanism. I assumed he just didn’t care. Living with a single mother in a set-up that was often turbulent, unkind, loud, indifferent, and self-centred, Musa created his personal safe space that he guarded with his big smiles and endless positivity and loud sounds of the game he loved that week. When he heard angry voices, he came out of his room, looked at the people shouting, and returned to his room.
At a very young age, Musa learned the art of not giving his mother any difficulty. The not-even-three-year-old Musa knew what to do. As he grew older, he hid his loneliness in his video games and YouTube videos that he watched and some he even made. Bullying at school was something he never opened about despite my fulltime involvement in his school life. Chaos at home was compartmentalized by constant jumping in front of TV, headphones protecting his ears from any undesirable noise. My nephew, almost five years younger than Musa, and I mocked Musa as a “fit thrower” when he tried to explain his point of view in some car journeys from school to home.
Every photo of Musa—from the age of a few months to twenty-one—is a giant smile that is radiant, kind, beautiful. What remained hidden behind that smile only revealed itself when Musa started to write. For years, he had band-aided his wounds of not being heard. He laughed away his unresolved dilemma of not being seen. He covered the inner storm with a jaunty shrug. He channelized chaos into catharsis. It shattered me. But it also made me look deep within.
Sifting through the discomfort of did-I, what-did-I-do-wrong, how-did-I-not-know, how did-I-not-see, how-did-I-not-hear guilt, my self-questioning is unabated. Is this the unsolicited advice I would give to all mothers and fathers? Ask yourself the hard questions? Look at your life and that of your children without a filter? Don’t hide when answers take you by the shoulders and shake you? To the core of your being.
Over time, Musa’s response to things is my introduction to a new dimension of being human. That it is okay to feel pain. That it is okay to weep. That is what makes us who we are. How we deal with it is what keeps us going. Without fumbling for an instant solution, a quick fix, the ability to look your pain in the eye, allow it to settle down, and let it leave on its own gives us the power to accept without crumbling each time something bad happens. Pain redefines life. It teaches, it enables, it strengthens, it sets you free. It makes you a beautiful writer.
The summer and fall of 2021 in the Middle East were traumatic for Musa in ways that shook his entire self-belief. January of 2022 in New York was a wake-up call that the support system he had created over the last four years was smoke, hollow sincerity, and big empty words.
Stress and depression, unnamed and undiagnosed, manifested in Musa as a gut disorder and a deep sense of loneliness. The almost-chronic stomach pain was diagnosed, in both New York and Middle East, as a stress-induced recurrence. For almost a year, Musa has been in therapy in New York. He finds it greatly helpful. Muay Thai boxing is another form of physical and mental therapy that Musa truly looks forward to in his busy New York life.
Self-taught, Musa plays the guitar. In all his holidays in Lahore and in his free time—a rarity—in New York, he practises for hours. A few months ago, he played to a live audience in a club. Strumming his life with his fingers.
What I know now is that Musa became an expert hider of emotions—consciously, unconsciously. Was it an armour? When did it become a big part of who he was? I’ll never know. I live trying to figure it out. I’ll die without any real answer.
In my single-minded commitment to keep my son safe and happy, I always tried to be strong and happy. I was a shouter, but I was never a crier. I hid my pain from Musa. But he saw it all. Protected in the knowledge that I was there for him always, he grew up loved, valued. At a very young age, he also learned the un-taught lesson: hide your pain. Me—the eternal nonconformist who just wanted to be a mother when I grew up—thought I knew my son. Everyone praised me as a mother. My son loved me completely and was always happy with me. I felt validated only as Musa’s mom. It has taken me years to understand Musa didn’t always feel secure. He was not always seen. He was not always heard. He was not always happy. Something jagged pierces my heart.
Questions that keep me peaceless. What we do to those we claim to love. How we don’t really see even when we look. We don’t listen even when we think we are fully attentive. Silences that we take as affirmations. Restlessness we term as part of growing up. Signs that blink like neon lights but we turn our eyes away absentmindedly. When we are fully committed and still flounder. We are there but not there. Those we love with all of us but fail.
Sorry, Musa, for failing you. I thought I didn’t. I did my best, but now I know it didn’t. What I want you to know is I’m trying to see, to listen, to understand, to be there. To be a better mother.
I love you, my son.