My Dadi, a force of nature: A personal essay

Her voice cackled and her face flickered as the FaceTime dropped. Anxiety bloomed in my chest, spreading through my limbs and onto my twitching fingers as I tapped the “call back” button, but she didn’t pick up. I tried three more times, only to be met with a flatly typed out, “Don’t worry, I’m much better.” 

My grandmother — my Dadi — was all alone and had now been in the hospital for almost two weeks, amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

Sometimes my friends debate over the first things they’re going to do once the pandemic is all over — packed nightclubs, far-flung trips abroad and sweaty SoulCycle classes. But I already know my answer. I’m going to go see my grandmothers and hug them. A real embrace of intertwined limbs, hands slapping backs, heads on shoulders and patted-down hair.

Each of my grandmothers has a distinct way they hug. My Nani is gentle. She’s so small that I have to bend my body down to even reach her. Her hands like to softly stroke my hair, hair she once used to condition with olive oil. My Dadi, on the other hand, is forceful. To be enveloped into one of her embraces is to feel the full weight of her love. I usually gasp for breath whenever she puts her arms around me because they crush my bones. The only word I have to describe her love is thick. Even as a child, I understood how it had the power to drown me at any possible moment. 

Dadi, as her hugs may suggest, is larger than life, and unlike anyone I’ve ever met; keep in mind, I attend UC Berkeley, where I’ve met my fair share of unique individuals. When I asked her about the time she and my grandfather attended school in Srinagar together, she responded with, and I quote this from my childhood journal, “We played field hockey together. One time I took my stick and hit him in the shins because he was annoying me.” 

When, much to my chagrin, my chest started growing, she bought me custom-ordered bras, making me try them on in front of my aunt and cousin, because she wanted my boobs to “look as nice as possible.” After I arrived in Italy for my semester abroad, she called me to let me know that this was the time in my life to “shop around for a fun boyfriend.” All this coming from a Muslim immigrant from Kashmir in her late 70s. 

Her life may read as a series of happy accidents, but I know it comes from her uncanny ability to bend reality at will. When she first arrived in Baltimore, she somehow managed to get featured on TV and interviewed by none other than Oprah for a cooking segment. After my father left for college, she began selling life insurance, outearning my grandfather and winning a trip to Europe as one of the world’s most successful agents. She even managed to convince my uncle, a former fraternity brother at UCLA, to travel to Kashmir and come back engaged after just one week.  

The only word I have to describe her love is thick. Even as a child, I understood how it had the power to drown me at any possible moment. 

But as she’s gotten older, her sharp mind has fallen mercy to her aging body. Two years ago, my family and I went to play volleyball at the beach. My grandmother insisted she be allowed to play, so we acquiesced, not thinking she would ever jump up to try and hit the ball only to fall backward and fracture her lumbar spine. As she lay on the ground, writhing in pain, I asked her why she ever thought to do that. “Inside, I’m still just a 16-year-old Tasneem,” she said.

She ended up needing cement injections in her back, and this injury was the start of a long, arduous journey in and out of hospitals. I’d always known her to have a precarious health situation; she was constantly being trucked to some doctor’s appointment, and at breakfast, she’d take 10 pills and inject insulin, but right after, she’d smear large clumps of jam onto a buttery croissant and spend six hours cooking in the kitchen. This time was different. Dadi was diagnosed with idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, or ITP, which is a blood disease that causes the immune system to mistakenly attack platelets. She had to stay in the hospital for close to six weeks, during which she received countless transfusions and had to have her spleen removed.