When Sean was two, we moved onto a street of duplex townhouses. There, we met our neighbors, Wajahat and Mariam, and their daughters, Maria, and Zoya. Sean was in between the two girls in age, and Mariam and I were both Stay at Home Moms, and both breastfeeding. Like me, Mariam was thousands of miles from family. She served me Pakistani coffee, and our children played together. Maria, the oldest, was studious and independent. Her braids left her face open to reveal a deep soul, perhaps one rooted in making a difference from within by responding to life with determination and conviction. Zoya was a self-directed free spirit, preceded only by her curls, expressively seeking the joy in every moment.
Wajahat worked long hours at the hospital, where he directed the care for pulmonology, sleep-disordered, and critical cancer patients. It was the result of a casual conversation with him while on a walk with his family that Dave ended up being given a sleep study that in all likelihood saved his life by decades.
During our time as neighbors, Wajahat and Mariam became overjoyed at the promise of two boys. But, the pregnancy was challenging, and by the seventh month, everything went haywire. One son was not to make it beyond birth, and the other passed away in his father’s arms too shortly afterwards. There are no words to convey the sorrow, heartbreak, and pain suffered by my friends. It is a void that nothing in life can fill.
I had been making a tie-blanket for the babies before they died. Weeks later, during the holidays, Mariam’s family was visiting, and I invited them to see my decorations. Sharing in each other’s culture was something we embraced. I presented the blanket to Mariam, with her family there to support her – a gesture that I feared would only hurt her more.
I had tied satin ribbons along one corner – one ribbon to signify each family member, but two of them were baby blue. It was my hope that she would be able to shed her tears into this blanket, and that it would somehow bring her comfort – but, I kept fearing it would only make things worse. Still, I needed to giver her something, any gesture to try to convey what is entirely impossible to convey when one has never lost a child.
When we moved to Wyoming, Dave had gone ahead to start his new job. I was left with the movers, a nearly four-year-old, and two cats to vacate from our dwelling. I remember when my friends came to bid us farewell, just short hours before we hit the road. They presented us with a beautiful parting gift, and warm hugs – maybe a few tears from Mariam. I remember telling them what a handsome couple they were. Mariam was sorry to see me go, as we were open with each other, confidants, and I was nearly old enough to mother her in some ways. But, I was preoccupied with moving forward, new directions, and feeling restless.
After we left town, their family also moved out-of-state. Wajahat took a university hospital position, still focusing on sleep and critical care patients. And, then the unspeakable happened. Little Zoya, now 5, was fighting a rare cancer. In his position, and with their families’ love, the parents stopped at nothing, even went beyond stopping at nothing to save their baby girls’ life. But, as cruel as it is, Zoya left this world, and like her brothers, she took her last breath in her father’s arms, looking into his eyes.
I recently heard this personal version of Zoya’s passing when I reached out to Wajahat for advice, and of course as friends, we ended up discussing some aspects of how it has come to pass that Dave and I are divorcing. The thing is, I was motivated to write this post because, 1) I wanted to share the link and information for the Zoya Palliative Care Memorial Fund, and 2) I was blown away by the grounded perspective of a man – a father, who has experienced so much loss – so much more than any parent’s worst nightmare.
The authenticity of his perspective and desire to help me focus my own healing is unforgettable. By presenting himself, raw and shattered, in every day seeking wholeness, I saw strength and hope. I suddenly no longer feared ever losing my own child, even though at the same time, the idea of losing my own child is unbearable, still. It is a paradox wrought by survival, and it is survival practiced as compassion that has no choice but to radiate outwardly to bring any coherence to the loss of a vibrant daughter.
Mariam had encouraged me to call Wajahat in the first place. I had been reluctant, not wanting to bother a busy physician of his credentials, especially given all they have endured, even though we were friends. What I found was a man, a father who was reaching out to assuage his own pain with purpose, with compassion, with generosity, and with genuine concern for my own journey. He reminded me that we are friends. I fought back tears. His voice was focused on connection, and not just out of a need to survive – but out of a purpose so strong that he seemed naturally compelled to generate hope and remove fear.
This is the legacy left by a child who must not be forgotten. She transformed her family, and that is a gift we must admire. Her father is seeing sure of it, as his family must share the love trailing behind Zoya’s memory – for its purpose is to inspire.
He compared his pain to major life changes – the generic major stresses faced by us all – as if there could be any comparison between his life changes and my own. Needless to say, I hope I never experience his darkest hours, but I am overwhelmed with the ways in which he and Mariam, and Maria have turned their pain into promise of hope for others. It is my hope that you will please help to keep Zoya’s memory alive by contributing to this fund that will help others who must go through the type of loss my friends have suffered.
“She taught me what it means to be alive, and how one should meet death, and most importantly the purpose of why I’m here.” ~ Zoya’s Dad.
Please link to learn more about Zoya’s story. An excerpt: “On July 30, 2014, our younger daughter, Zoya, was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma. She was only five years-old. Zoya fought a courageous battle that included numerous chemotherapy sessions, a resection and reconstructive surgery of her right hip and a bone marrow transplant. The cancer won the battle but during her short time with us, our daughter taught us about patience, determination and optimism. She once told us that she wanted to be a cancer doctor but then followed up by saying, ‘Actually, I want to become a nurse. I know how much it hurts when they put a needle in my port. I will make sure that no child will hurt anymore.'”