When I was young, my grandmother would work outside in the yard, and she would make gardens and terraces out of dirt piles. She could bake really well, and she could knit intricate designs. Mentally and physically, she was very strong.
I was just the opposite of my grandmother. She called me Milk Toast because I had a soft heart and voice. She worked in a furniture factory for 50 hours a week to support my brother and I, after my grandfather died of cancer at 54. Growing up, she seemed like the pillar of strength, our backbone. Mentally, she was distant — she did not want to be touched. If we were bad, she threatened to send us back to our mother. This was hard to hear, because I already feared abandonment.
I admired her; although she was very stern, she was extremely responsible. We always had clothes on our backs and food on the table. I was weak in her eyes. She felt that you were not supposed to show emotion, but be very stoic and tough. You weren’t supposed to talk about anything negative, but just bear it. She made us realize how much she sacrificed for us. She sacrificed too much of her own happiness. She never cried, and she did not like us crying.
We did not get along, unfortunately. Both of us were as different as night and day. I was considered to be brilliant, and she was brilliant, and you could not put two brilliant women in the same house with opposing views. There were things that happened in my family that I couldn’t tolerate as a young child, such as losing my siblings to orphanages, and other kinds of injustices. Whenever I stood up to her, she would verbally crucify me and put me down to the floor and into my place. Sometimes, she would slap me.
It is wrong to swallow your emotions, because God gave you your emotions to feel, and to navigate what is right and wrong.
I was very soft-hearted towards others who were less fortunate than me. I tried to involve my grandmother in my plans to help others, and she vehemently disapproved of any involvement. We simply did not understand each other.
However, even though I deeply opposed her, I took after her in many things that she represented to me throughout my life. For example, I was extremely responsible when it came to my children. She purposely told me never come back home after I got married, so that when problems came in my marriage, I could not walk out easily. I had nowhere to go. I had no choice but to make it work. When something severe happened to me, I would clench my teeth and fix my heart with determination that I was going to be strong.
Many things happened in my life, yet I did not fall apart. I made myself determined not to cry. My grandmother had ingrained in me to be tough. She always told me that tomorrow would be a better day.
Being bipolar, and because of the circumstances, there were times when I almost gave up — times when I just didn’t want to go on. I always remembered because of her, though, that there was still hope, and that tomorrow would be better. I could be really down and stuck by my own tragedies in life, but somehow, I would be tough. I would stand up, brush myself off, and move on.
One thing, though: She did not believe in God. My grandmother was agnostic. I could not understand how anyone could not believe in God. Even from a small age, I found Him in everything, and everywhere. He was in my very bones. He meant everything to me. I relied on Him to get through everything. What would I be without God?
I saw God in everything. When I felt sad, when I felt hurt, when others betrayed me. Sometimes I did not feel God at all, but I knew deep down He was there. He was what I called my inner strength.
I didn’t work in a factory like my grandmother did and raise two children alone. I greatly admire her for that, and for taking care of us. I was well off, so I was able to stay home with my children. However, I actually felt that I was stronger than her at times. I did not give into bitterness. She gave up on people; I did not. I continue to love others intensely and was able to thank those who cared for and helped me. I prayed, especially in impossible situations that had affected my husband and children (mostly health issues). I prayed intensely. I would pray so hard.
I saw God in everything. When I felt sad, when I felt hurt, when others betrayed me. He was what I called my inner strength.
Despite my tough demeanor, I had one breakdown after another. I think it was because it became more and more difficult to be resilient and act emotionless. I got to the point where I became numb and had no emotions at all.
I had a very rocky foundation in life. Besides God, I had nothing to fall back on. My grandmother was wrong; it is wrong to swallow your emotions, because God gave you your emotions to feel, and to navigate what is right and wrong.
I remember my grandmother telling me about my sister’s death due to drug overdose. She said it as if she was telling me about the weather. I was shocked…. But soon the curtain came over, and I just went about and did my own thing.
When my grandfather died, no one wanted to console me; no one wanted to talk about the fact that he had died. My uncle told me one day never to talk about it again. Mentally, as a six year old, I collapsed.
When my siblings were put into orphanages, it was as if they never existed. No one wanted to do anything about it. In order to get well, I had to feel all those emotions that I never was allowed to feel. I had to feel grief and loss. I felt the sting of injustice. I was afraid to show my emotions, because my grandmother really punished and crucified me for showing them, especially anger. I still cannot show anger, because I am so afraid someone will abuse me.
I will always feel that my strength comes from God. I could not always depend on people around me, but I could always depend on God.
Now I feel everything, yet I still feel that I have to handle my emotions in a favorable way. I try to express them in the way that they can be most effective for me, so my emotions do not cloud my vision of God. I will always feel that my strength comes from God. I could not always depend on people around me, but I could always depend on God.
There is proof to me that there is a God. One of the proofs is that I am alive after all these years. Another proof is that when I was in a very dark place in my life, I prayed desperately that someone would rescue me. Soon after that, my husband came into my life and drastically changed it for the better. Another sign is that when my husband was almost on his death bed in intensive care because of a heart condition, I prayed the whole night and knew in the morning that he was not going to leave me. I also prayed for my children that they would have successful lives.
My grandmother definitely instilled in me the strength to go on in difficult situations. However, in doing so, she did not allow me the ability to work out my own emotions rather than swallowing them. Those emotions did a great deal of damage to my inner life since I was never able to express them.
God was always there. I called Him the God of the Woods, because that is where I found Him… I found Him everywhere. I stopped living life, because the only emotion I had was grief. Now, I live my life to the fullest, and connect with God to the fullest as a result.
Stephenie Bushra Khan is a converted Muslim, a poet, and local artist in Temecula, California. She is originally from Winchendon, Massachusetts.
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