A Dream Deferred
My dad has cried three times in his life.
The day his older brother died, the day his mother died and the day I called him a failure. The words came at the height of our most intense argument. My senior year of high school I was in a serious relationship with my closest friend. My parents never explicitly forbid me from dating, but it was an assumption they hoped I wouldn’t question. My mother was tolerant but disappointed I was not dating a Muslim woman. My father expressed his disapproval through stoic silence, exasperated sighs and a willed blindness to my relationship. His disappointment was not that I was dating—he often regaled me with tales from his bachelor days—but rather that I was dating a woman who was African-American and Vietnamese. I was blindsided by this revelation, never expecting such discrimination from him.
Eventually, he could not hold his tongue any longer. Prom was approaching and he was aware I would be taking her. And if this wasn’t obvious to him already, my youth necessitated I make it so. I spoke to my mother in the kitchen, he sat on the living room couch, and I said as loudly as I could, “I’m going to be taking Khortlan to prom.” With all the authority assigned to a father in an Indian household he declared: “You can only marry an Indian woman.” Never one for authority, I challenged him with all the intensity that high school testosterone can muster.
We hurled words at each other as each of us held firmly to our position. He spoke with the certainty of tradition, I with the boldness of insurrection. I wanted to watch him crumble, as though he were a precariously balanced Jenga tower and I had stolen the last block holding him up.
The words came; a cooled coup de grace delivered with disdain.
“You’re a failure.”
He fell silent. I left for days and slept on a friend’s couch.
Nothing was the same after that night. My father and I grew distant with the silence of pride and youth. My father’s unwillingness to accept my girlfriend undermined our relationship. We broke up my sophomore year of college. She couldn’t love someone who’s family wouldn’t accept her.
* * *
The looming approach of graduation marks the close of one comfortable chapter and the uncertain arrival of the next. Suddenly block plan mentalities confront real world schedules. I arrived on Colorado College’s campus four years ago, alone with the four oversized bags of luggage my family had used when we immigrated to the United States. My parents had never attended college and we didn’t know what to pack. Would I need a stapler or hole puncher? What about an iron?
I will graduate this May carrying only two bags, confident in my ability to sustain transitions and live with ambiguities. Yet, through it all, my parents have never set foot on the campus I have come to call home.
This absence is not of their choosing. As an immigrant, I started college with two facts in mind: that my parents will sacrifice everything to ensure that their children will live a better life than their own and that, coming from a low-income household that could hardly afford tuition, this sacrifice was so profound that it would prevent them from ever purchasing plane tickets to visit me or see me graduate.
As I graduate I am confronted with my first down payments on two new debts: a monetary one on student loans and an emotional one owed to my father.
* * *
I was seven when my family decided to move to the United States from Zambia. My family struggled there for some time to make ends meet and they knew it would only get harder with time. In 2002 they chose to sell everything, leaving a place they had known their entire lives to move to a country they could only hope would provide their children with a brighter future. The siren song of the American Dream drew them like moths to a flame.
My dad struggled to find work at first, yet remained adamant my mother stay at home. Desperate, he worked as a valet for a time, parking cars he could never afford, running up and down for hours and using his charisma to earn whatever tips he could. Each day, he returned home exhausted and collapsed on the couch, soaking his feet in warm water and complaining that he had only made twenty dollars that day. He’d see me studying and would speak with a distant stare of regret.
“Work hard so you don’t have to end up like your dad.”
He found a second job soon after and since then I cannot recall a time when my dad hasn’t worked two jobs. Growing up I remember him finishing his first job and rushing to pick me up at school. We’d get home and he’d fall asleep on the couch for a few minutes, head off to his second job, return by midnight, and fall asleep on the living room floor, knowing his snores would keep my mom awake. His alarm would ring at five A.M. He never hit snooze. It’s been ringing for years and I never understood how he always got up.
In the morning, he would drop me off at school and I’d be embarrassed by the car we drove, fearful it would stall again and we would have to hop out and push it; that people would see us and know that I was poor. I’ve always been ashamed to speak about my dad. Friends would share that their dads were lawyers or doctors, businessmen and scientists. I never knew how to say that my father was a janitor. That he repaired air conditioners and refrigerators. That he folded clothes in the men’s department of Target. That he had probably valeted their car.
I was silent. Friends would say they saw my dad at Target and I always hoped that he hadn’t talked to them. My dad had a story for everything, and he never knew when to stop.
Sometimes he dropped me off where no one would see, telling me to have a good day and that he loved me. The first thing he asked when he picked me up was what I had learned that day. I usually brushed it aside with short answers. Yet when we got home I shared every detail with my mom as she cooked in the kitchen, all within earshot of my dad.
Some nights I would stay up late, waiting to hear the sound of his keys in the door as he returned from his second job. He would spend his precious few moments of freedom awake with me, sinking into the couch as we watched reruns of Seinfeld until his snores drowned out the audience’s laughter. I’d remove his glasses, cover him with a blanket, turn off the lights and head upstairs to bed.
My dad always encouraged me to write and be inquisitive—from helping me get my first library card when I was six, to waiting for me as I spent hours in libraries and bookshops. The library has always been a place of refuge for me and I have never felt more at peace than when surrounded by books. In elementary school, I read more books than anyone in my entire school. I struggled to make friends throughout middle school and would often eat my lunch in the library. Growing up my dad would comment on how similar I was to his nephew who studied law at Cambridge University and would skip classes and read, glancing through the book the night before a big test and managing to score the highest grades. He had a photographic memory and his professors could never understand how he did so well.
After graduating, his nephew returned to Zambia as a human rights lawyer, documenting atrocities perpetrated against the Palestinian people. His nephew grew more vocal in his criticisms of international governments and his own. His voice was eventually silenced by imprisonment. My dad knew the cost of being outspoken.
As I grew older my dad’s fears grew. He would often warn me to never talk about religion or politics outside the house. To never share my views on social issues and the world. To be Muslim in America after 9/11 is to be eyed with suspicion. This realization was all the more enforced after my first interaction with the police at 13. A white student had been busted for selling drugs and the police had been called to search the campus. My classroom filed out into the hallway as the dog was unleashed into the room. We sat in the hallway wondering what was happening. An officer stepped out of the classroom and whispered to my teacher. Before I knew it my teacher had called me up. I stepped into the empty classroom; two police officers, a German Shepard and me. As I walked closer to the officers one yelled at me to get away from her dog. I was put up against the wall and the dog went straight to my backpack. They made me empty my pockets: an olive green wallet with a drug free sticker and a pencil. They interrogated me as the dog sniffed my body. Had I ever used any drugs? Did I sell drugs? Did my parents use drugs?
Why did the dog go straight for my backpack? I had never used any drugs. I was silent like my dad told me to be. I listened to what the cops said. It’s a question I wondered about for years. Why was I was the only one searched?
My observations of the world only produced more questions—questions that were guided in part by the stories my dad shared as he watched the BBC. It was a ritual that would always follow the competitive sparring that occurred when we watched Jeopardy together. I remember him shaking his head as he watched TV, calling the American government hypocrital for the amount of violence it had used in its own history: the genocide of Native Americans, the dehumanization and enslavement of nearly 12 million, the wars fought for oil under the guise of patriotism. I read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” when I was 11 and understood for myself what my dad was so frightened of. To be curious, well read and outspoken as a Muslim in America is to be a threat. As I entered high school I began to grow more politically conscious. I created a club called The Forum that focused on reading philosophical texts and examining social issues. I began to experiment with rapping and spoken word poetry, finding my voice through individuals like Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton and Tupac Shakur. One of the first poems I wrote was titled “Mohammad: A Poem About a Name.” It wove together Islamophobia, racism and wars in the Middle East with internment camps, and questioned what it meant to be an American. My first performance was at a talent show. I won. I knew I could never stop speaking after that.
Audience members congratulated me after and remarked on how proud my parents must be. My dad was more afraid than ever; he saw echoes of his nephew in me.
My dad wanted me to be a silent Muslim. Seen but never heard, social without revealing one’s thoughts, normal and yet always alienated from the world. Such an inauthentic existence depressed me. I was forced to ask myself what life I cared to live, that of my father’s familiarity or the uncharted uncertainties of my own path?
I consciously cultivated my personality to be in direct contrast to his. Where he was loud and talkative, sharing stories and jokes with friends, I was quiet and listened. Where he got angry and yelled at the slightest offense, I smiled and calmed my surface as anger stewed within me. Where he didn’t care for his appearance and didn’t mind the stains on his shirt, I was meticulous and could never leave the house without being well-dressed. Where he gave way to emotions and idealism, I drew closer to stoicism. I didn’t know what it meant to be myself, I just knew I didn’t want to be my dad.
* * *
I see in my father a man whose masculinity has been defined, or rather reduced, to merely a means of financial provision. His worth defined not by the humanity displayed to the elderly residents of the retirement home he once worked—purchasing Christmas gifts for those whose children had all but forgotten and abandoned them—but rather the expendability of the brown blue-collar worker. An expendability that has reduced his existence to a fragile state of financial insecurity. The loss of a job would have resulted in the ever-present possibility of homelessness and any attempt at working more hours would be countered by ineligibility for Medicaid which covers the exorbitant cost of my mother’s medication.
The catch-22 of poverty is that you are damned for trying and damned for being. For years, I’ve watched the strain of a frayed existence weigh upon my father, observing how my relationship with him has altered with maturity and experience. I’ve watched as vultures of regret circle above my father’s head picking at what scraps sustain him. Moments when he would apologize for not being a good enough father, for not being able to take family vacations or to spend more time with us. Faint glimmers of hope twinkle in his eyes where a fire once kept him warm. Dreams of returning to Zambia and opening a business, returning to college to pursue advanced studies or perhaps retiring to the vast stretches of open land where life can be more than just working towards a life you know you’ll never have.
The decay of dreams deferred has given way to a fantasy that my dad knows he will never see. He shares his dreams with me each time I return home; I’m the only one that still listens. I follow the excitement in the crinkle of his eyes, animated gestures below a field of gray snow where jet-black hair once stood.
My mother has always said that my dad would never change. That his anger will never cool. That he’ll never notice when his pants are tucked into his socks. That he’ll share his stories and jokes oblivious of those who hear them. My dad will never change. He’ll never stop asking how my day was. He’ll never stop showing kindness to all those he encounters. He’ll never hit snooze, and he’ll never stop waking up for us.
My dad has cried three times in his life: the day his older brother died, the day his mother died and the day I called him a failure. I wish his fourth could be the day he watched me graduate.