“Is my mommy going to die?”
Gibran was 6 years old, and I was lying bleeding on the side of Highland Road in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He and I had just been hauled out of the wreckage of our car after a hit-and-run accident on the way to a playdate. It was October 6, 2001, just over three weeks after September 11, 2001. (Gibran told me that for years after that day, when people spoke of “the 9/11 tragedy,” he thought they were talking about our accident.)
Scientists say human beings are capable of something called “hysterical strength,” which surfaces in a dire emergency like having their child stuck under a car. Child. Car. And those six words: Is my mommy going to die? That was the precise cocktail I needed to find the hysterical strength not to fall unconscious.
The people crowded around me said that my leg seemed to be broken. They were pointing not at the right one, which carried the effects of polio, but at the left one, my strong one.
I lay back and let my bones break at will. And still, I kept my eyes open. Oh, how blissful it would be to close my eyes and simply float downstream into my own pool of blood. Under the Louisiana sun of October, my boy’s face came into view—he was sitting in the lap of a stranger, a kind-faced, beautiful blond woman among the crowd that had gathered. He was wearing his new gray Old Navy sweatshirt. The tip of a green T-shirt peeped out at his neck. His hair was still damp from the shower I had helped him take that morning.
For just a couple of seconds, I was awash in a peace that I had never felt before nor have felt after, because whatever bones were broken, they were in my limbs. All that mattered in that moment of sight and knowledge was that Mama had remembered to buckle her boy’s seat belt, and, from follicle on scalp to pinkie toenail, the boy was unbroken, the boy was unbroken, the boy was unbroken.
But he could be broken.
He was asking a question, probably the most important question in his 6-year-old life, and if you’ve ever been around a 6-year-old, you know about their questions. We were alone here, Gibran and I. Rajat was in Singapore.
Rajat had suggested I go get a Ph.D. in the United States, and I had arrived here at Louisiana State University. He had said he would quit his advertising job and follow me from Singapore, that we would immigrate to the U.S. and live together as a family, and perhaps, if we wanted, return to India one day.
But when Rajat arrived, I noticed he hadn’t brought all his luggage. He said it would arrive in batches. All seemed well at first, but after a couple of weeks, Rajat told me he didn’t plan to move after all. He said he would return to Singapore and would visit us in the U.S. every now and then. I was confused. I asked if he wanted me to return with him and he said he preferred to work in Singapore with no distractions. He left.
That day of the hit-and-run accident, my head had been swimming with questions of whether to stay and finish my Ph.D. or to find a way to return to my husband in Singapore and focus on being a good wife and mother.
Is my mommy going to die? I had to give my child an answer. My brain had to wake the fuck up.
On the way to the ER, he and I lay in twin stretchers in the ambulance. They had strapped me in to keep my spine and neck straight. I swung my eyeballs to the leftmost corners of their sockets so I could watch my boy as he watched me. I could tell he thought this van and all its gadgets were cool and scary at once. “Listen to me, Gibran,” I said. “I am not dying.”
He couldn’t nod. They had strapped him in, too, just in case he had injuries no one could see.
“I will never die,” I said. “I will always be here and I will always watch over you. You hear me? I will never die.”
In the months and years after that day, I would have the time to dwell upon the hysterical nature of my promise. I have since realized that when you make a child a promise not to die, what you are really saying is that you promise to live, to live hard and strong, to keep your eyes open even when your body wants you to be unconscious. To live hysterically.
The weeks following the accident were a blur of trauma surgery, a long stay in a rehab center so I could learn to move again, and, the hardest thing of all—letting people in to help. I was 33 years old. In all those years, being raised in India and then living in Singapore, I was steeped in an important cultural norm: Present a face to the outside world that says, “I’m all right. I’m winning. My family is shiny and successful and better than yours. They have my back, and we have it all.” Modernization and liberalization in India had only added a sharper edge to this—we were yuppies, we had walked away from “the village” to form smaller nuclear units, we traveled the globe, and we were living the dream of the glamorous expatriate life.
Letting strangers gather up my pieces from a car crash on Highland Road, letting new friends take Gibran into their home, letting acquaintances set up meal trains and hospital supervision for me until my husband arrived from Singapore felt like a stab of shame even through the haze of OxyContin in my hospital bed.
I had no village in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; I barely had a family. I had a fractured marriage in Singapore. I had a reputation to keep up in India.
The ankle joint in my good leg was mangled in the car crash and lost forever. Surgeons reconstructed things as best they could with plates and rods. (Three years later I would get a fake ankle, an implant.) Rajat arrived to tell me he was in the best years of his career in Singapore and couldn’t stay with me to help. “Perhaps you could call your mother? Your sister?”
He left. My mother took time off from her corporate housekeeping business and flew over from India. My mother cleaned my wounds, fed me, and reminded me along with each dosage of medication that I had to save my marriage. When she left, my sister, Suhaani, flew over. She is seven years younger than me. When I was 10 and she was 3 and we were kids in Bombay, she was placed in my charge, and my favorite thing in the world was to walk her to school and pick her up and play with her and tell her she could have anything she ever wanted from all the things I would own, ever. Now, as I lay recovering from the accident, her favorite thing in the world was to get Gibran dressed for school and play with him when he came home.
Confined to a wheelchair for a few months, I rapidly gained weight. I had hated physiotherapy as a child with polio. Now I spent hours on physiotherapy. Students of kinesiology at LSU helped me find strength in legs that I could barely feel beneath me. One of them, training to be an occupational therapist, asked me about my support system. I said my mother and sister had come and gone but I was managing fine. “I have numbers to call if I need people,” I said. “But I’m cooking omelets for Gibran from my wheelchair in the kitchen of my apartment and that makes me feel pretty cool. I’m resilient.”
He called his supervisor, and they gave me a talking to. “You will have to learn to ask for help. You will have to learn to accept help. You will have to let the world in,” they said.
The world came out of the woodwork. The Indian community of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, visited often and sang me my favorite love songs from Bollywood movies. The campus community of LSU brought me books from the library. The faculty helped me keep up with my papers, offering deadline extensions I refused to take. The parent community of Trinity Episcopal Day School took Gibran out on glorious playdates. A young Korean woman in my apartment complex, a Ph.D. candidate like me, drove Gibran to school with her daughter and had him over for meals of delicious ramyeon and kimbap with pickled daikon. A young Indian man, a computer science student, came around to wheel me about the neighborhood in my wheelchair. When girlfriends told me that he might be an admirer, I disbelieved them, so unconvinced was I of my own attractiveness as a woman.
At home, the 6-year-old Gibran ran around me as I struggled to put away my walker and take steps on my own. “It’s easy, Mama,” he said. “Walking is so easy. You just put one foot in front of the other.” He would bend down to the ground and hold my feet in his plump little palms to gently tug them forward. And forward they would go, inch by inch.
At night, when he’d hear me whimper from the efforts of the day, he would lie beside me, pat me on my shoulder and say, “It’s just pain, Mama. Just pain.”
Excerpt from How to Raise a Feminist Son: Motherhood, Masculinity, and the Making of My Family by Sonora Jha (Sasquatch Books, 2021) appears by permission of the publisher.
Sonora Jha is an essayist, novelist, researcher, and professor of journalism at Seattle University. She is the author of the novel “Foreign” and numerous op-eds and essays. She grew up in Mumbai and has been chief of the metropolitan bureau for the “Times of India” and contributing editor for “East” magazine in Singapore. She teaches fiction and essay writing for Hugo House, Hedgebrook Writers’ Retreat, and Seattle Public Library.