Our Story

Not Like We Imagined

Our first evening away from our then two-month-old, my husband and I sat on the rooftop of a local restaurant eating lamb kabob and drinking ayran, a traditional yogurt drink, and texting back and forth with my mom who was visiting us in Turkey for the summer and babysitting that night.

Call us easily pleased or starving for entertainment outside of nursery rhymes, but we couldn’t take our eyes off the sky. It was dusk and, almost as if on cue, hundreds of birds began to stream through the air from the west and take cover among the trees along the river bank. Black dots punctuated the sky, moving together with one mind, one shape-shifting cloud after another. Like airplanes smoothly landing on the runway, each giant flock congregated in the roost, seeking shelter for the night. A cacophony of chirps and squawks and beating wings could be heard above the restaurant’s music.

“Look what God created,” my husband murmured, always mesmerized by nature, especially birds. It’s their statelessness I think, their freedom not hindered by borders, their ability to pick up and move at the first sign of the changing season—something that, for him, is just out of reach.

First, it was the travel ban, which barred millions of individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries from ever entering the United States (still in effect to this day), sweeping my husband and his family along with it. One year of teaching overseas turned into six for me, waiting for the green light to leave. Six years of missed holidays and birthdays and life continuing at home. Six years of being at the mercy of ever-changing immigration policies and borders shutting down.

Then it was a pandemic and a country that didn’t handle it well. A different type of travel ban was put into place. U.S. embassies around the world began to shut down, effectively stopping almost all immigration, like a large locomotive coming to a screeching halt.

We’ve been hard-pressed every direction we turn and buried up to our chins with uncertainty. With our family spread out over three different continents, the future is looking foggier than ever.

Poet Samiya Bashir describes 2020 this way: “This year threads its needle between robbery and gift; horror and beauty. Global trauma and lovely surprises.” Can you relate? Does everything look a little foggy for you too? The last several months have been a delicate balance of holding many different things at one time. We didn’t ask for this. We didn’t imagine it to be like this.

I write a lot on here about finding joy and hope in hard places. The former is easier to define, but the latter, if I’m being honest, is a little more difficult. The definition of hope seems to always roll around on my tongue like hard candy and if I spit it out to look at it, I still don’t know what it is.

But I saw this question posed on Instagram the other day: What does hope smell like? All sorts of answers poured in from hundreds of people. Freshly brewed coffee, a rainstorm, chocolate, newborn babies, cookies baking. Trying to define hope by relating it to one of our senses puts a different spin on it. Suddenly, the unidentifiable candy doesn’t seem so mysterious anymore.

Just a few days after our daughter was born, we got a call from her pediatrician late at night urging us to bring her in as early as possible the following morning. We spent the next 24 hours in a cramped hospital room as she laid blindfolded under UV lights, black-out curtains drawn tight and, in true Middle Eastern fashion, heat pumping out of the vents despite the mild June weather. My still swollen feet and aching abdomen incision were made worse by sitting on the uncomfortable couch in the darkened room for an entire day and night.

When we were discharged the following day (our daughter was fine, by the way. The lights did their magic and her bilirubin levels were back to normal.), we walked out of the hospital doors and had to squint the sun was shining so brightly. My husband and I gulped down the cool air as we walked to the car, healthy baby in tow. The afternoon sun radiated onto our faces and outstretched arms. We rolled down the windows and stuck our hands out the entire hour’s drive back home, so grateful to be out of the dark hospital room and basking in the fresh air.

That’s the smell of hope: when you’ve been indoors for so long and are finally able to go outside. It’s that first breath of fresh air, cool and cleansing. It’s the smell of earth, dampness, soil, life. It’s knowing the sun is shining brightly just beyond the darkened room.

Back to the birds. They continued to streak across the sky that night while we were on the rooftop, something innate telling them the season will be changing soon. Despite the hottest part of the day still being in the triple digits (Lord, help us), there was still the tiniest, quietest whisper of something new happening, the ending of one thing and the beginning of another. It was that hint of light after coming out of the darkness, the promise of a fresh breath of air.

We turned back to the meal in front of us and fawned over pictures of our sleeping baby sent by my mom. We talked about those last six years and all that had happened and all that hadn’t happened—the good, the bad, and the unimagined.

You’re supposed to write about what you know. I don’t know a lot about what’s happening now or what will happen in the future. I wish there was a different ending—a victory ending—but that hasn’t happened. We are still here, waiting, standing on the threshold of two things. I wouldn’t have imagined life would be like this. But one thing I know is that there is peace in letting go. There is power in having an open hand. We may still be in the darkened room draped in blackout curtains but just on the other side of the wall, there is sunshine. Hope is in the unexpected and unimagined—whatever that smells like.