Planning a Life

You worry how much time your daughter spends, her ears plugged, staring at screens, her head hunched over like she carries the weight of the world. You used to keep them busy when they were younger with Islamic studies and math tutoring. But now their grades in school mean everything. You want them getting top marks, their GPA the highest among their peers. You pay extra for those practice tests so they may go sit in a stuffy room on a particular Saturday, with a no. 2 pencil in hand and a sheet of pink in front of them, so they can supply the right answers to questions they will never encounter in real life. Even if they were sick that Saturday morning, sniffling and stuffy-nosed, you would still fill their bellies with tart orange juice, the cheap kind that lasts forever in the fridge, and drive them to a random suburb, you and them alone on the road, because it is a Saturday morning, and everyone is resting their weary bodies. You do all of this hoping they get into the best schools, hoping their grades can pay the bill for their studies, so they may become doctors or engineers. Never mind that your boy is too faint-hearted for the cadavers in medical school and squeamish over any diseased body fluid or phlegmy cough. Or that math bores him to tears, so engineering will slowly suffocate his soul.

And your daughter would rather be a poet or social organizer; she is not sure which one yet. She is only fourteen. You are pushing her towards be- coming a doctor, or at the very least, a nurse or a teacher. You question her choices. “What could you possibly do with poetry?” And you cajole her, “Become a doctor, become a teacher, become a nurse, and you could live anywhere and make a decent life.” You say this even though you don’t really mean anywhere; you were picturing her back home in your city, in your village. You say it to her even though you know that this is her home. She has spent all her time right here. Those nostalgic feelings you have about back home are not hers. Her fondest childhood memories are here. She doesn’t know that fruits smell like flowers back home, or that they don’t sell much junk food, or that fruit vendors on the street sell sliced man- goes sprinkled with red-hot chili powder. Telling her about the red-hot chili powder on a sweet ripe mango makes you salivate every time. It does not elicit any reaction from her. You don’t bother to tell her about the pineapples back home and how fruit vendors peel the outer skin with machetes and sell them on wooden skewers, or on hot days, sell juices of freshly pulverized pineapples, complete with foam on top. You don’t tell her about pineapples back home because she is allergic.

She will do nursing to please you when she grows up, and she will love it most days. It will show her how short life can be and teach her to appreciate the blessings. She will learn about the weakness of the human body and how it lets you down when you need it most. She will be gentle and soften her voice when she talks to you. But there will be days when she comes home with swollen feet and an aching back, and some days she will come home with her ears ringing from patients who hurl ugliness at her because, somehow, her black skin diminishes whatever effort she exerts.

Khadijo Abdi (she/her) is a Minneapolis-based Somali writer and medical interpreter. This essay originally was published in “Muslim American Writers at Home: Stories, Essays and Poems of Identity, Diversity and Belonging.”