Our Story

Red Light Green Light

A little finger pokes itself into my eyelid causing me to fully wake up. The thick blanket I threw over the curtain rod does a pretty good job of blocking out the sun, but with a cloudless sky, the morning light still finds a way to push through the window.

Before having a baby, I swore I wouldn’t bed share. I read in a book how French parents never let their kids into their bedrooms much less their beds, something about creating a sense of mystery about adulthood I think. I didn’t totally catch the reasoning but it sounded great to pre-kid me. Of course, I’d do that. Why didn’t everyone do that? Keep those babies far away from me in the early mornings. Let that mystery abound…or something.   

But here I am at 6:45 am with a chubby finger pinching my eyelashes and a wide-eyed baby staring at me. She glued herself to my side for the better part of the night forcing me to sleep in one position on the very edge of the bed. I remind myself that I am solo parenting this summer and she did spend the first few hours of the night in her crib at least and that makes me feel a little better. 

“Eyes. Those are mommy’s eyes,” I say drawing out the last word, my voice still groggy. I try to remember the Farsi word for eyes, feeling guilty for all the English commands she’s starting to understand. But it’s too early in the morning for a bilingual lesson. She paws my face away and laughs, quickly growing bored of naming body parts.

What was supposed to be a six-week trip back to the US to visit family has turned into a whole summer. For various reasons, the departure date changed three different times—first to the beginning of July, then to the middle of August, and now to the beginning of September.

Since marrying Afshin, who holds refugee status in Turkey, we have lived in a way where the endpoint is continuously moving. Maybe we’ll be gone by Christmas, maybe the New Year, for sure by the summer. Like a single cord, the shifting conclusion constantly pulls us forward, and before I know it, five years have passed. 

This summer was no different. Six weeks turned into two months which turned into over 100 days. When Esther and I left Afshin at the airport this May, we’d only expected to be away for a short time. We hadn’t planned to be gone all summer. Hence my concern over Esther’s lack of hearing much Farsi and only seeing her dad through the phone. 

I wish I remembered where I read this, but someone likened this last year and a half to the children’s game of “Red Light Green Light”. Stop go stop go. Freezing for who knows how long on red then sprinting as fast as one can while on green. The writer was referring to the pandemic but I think it aptly describes our family’s reality over these past several years. That tiny thread drags us forward, stops us in our tracks, then yanks us into motion again. 

“But did you see the video of the baby?” I ask Afshin who is on the other side of the screen 6,000 miles away. I’m curled up on the couch in my parent’s basement with the video monitor next to me. He is in our apartment in Turkey, his phone propped up on the desk, his focus on his computer just off screen. Esther is napping in my high school bedroom where there are still picture frames of teenage friends lined up on the bookshelf and magazine clippings of sappy quotes tacked to the wall, remnants of my life from over a decade ago. Now I’m back with my own child this time. But my husband has stayed behind, still waiting for his allowance to enter the US, still waiting to see my life here, still waiting for stability and certainty. 

“A baby. Someone gave them their baby.”

I’m referring to the video circulating the internet where desperate people crowd US soldiers in Afghanistan. In one clip, an infant is offered up above the crowd. A soldier reaches down over the barbed wire and takes the baby in his arms.

I bristle at my husband’s cavalier response to seeing the video and I am once again reminded of how we function as a couple—half US citizen, half refugee, always one foot on each, straddling that messy middle.

After seeing the video of the baby right after watching throngs of people holding onto a military plane taking off, I had to delete Instagram off my phone for the weekend. I thought of Esther napping a few feet away from me. It was all too much for my heart to take. More guilt seeps in as I know how privileged I am to be able to shut out the horrors of the world just by the press of a button.

But he’s seen this before. His own people have gone through this. He’s living this now. The desperation, the willingness to do anything if it meant safety. The agony and fear running so deep that handing over your flesh in the name of security is the only option. He can’t shut it out. 

We video chat throughout the day, as much as an 8 hour time difference lets us. Through our conversations over FaceTime, I am struck by how we can jump so easily between topics these days, shifting from the good and the not-so-good without missing a beat. In one breath we chat about the size of diapers Esther is in now and when she napped that day. In the next, we wonder how long we’ll be in Turkey and the absolute injustice of being displaced. We talk of the sadness of leaving my family coupled with the goodness of the three of us being back together.⁣ 

I fill up Esther’s sippy cup and buy ranch-flavored puffs while thinking about being a wife and mom and what it might be like to raise a daughter in Afghanistan or Iran. How lucky we are. And I say things like, “You should have seen her eating her rice last night!” and a minute later, “You should have heard the things they said about refugees.” 

There are video calls showing Afshin the inside of Walmart, discussing our uncertain future while putting salad kits and rotisserie chicken in the cart. I send videos of Esther taking her first independent steps and then footage of people’s bodies falling from the wings of a plane. Pictures of a Starbucks cup, freshly painted nails, cities under siege, fleeing on foot. Giggles and horror. The everyday and the unbelievable. It’s a pendulum constantly swinging or maybe it’s just a chaotic swirl of everything, too complicated to pick apart.⁣

It’s never just joy and nothing else. These days, there’s never a time to savor joy, really savor it, letting it roll around our mouths without any other competing emotion. It’s tiring feeling joy and _____, both/and, always juggling the two. Always swinging back and forth just like we jump back and forth between topics.

Because I’ve lived in on the corner of bitter and sweet for some time now, I’ve learned the importance of looking for even just a speck of good. In her weekend blessing, author Lore Ferguson Wilbert writes, “I hope more than anything else that you found goodness. Sometimes it’s hard to see through the fog of what surrounds us, but I just keep reminding myself that it’s there, somewhere, just through that fog, waiting to be gathered by the handful when the time is right.”

I think about that—the fog that surrounds us, the hard and the heavy—as I hold Esther’s hands up above her, walking in tandem around my parents’ front yard. We stop to examine a damp leaf, crouch down to touch the rough gravel, stomp our feet in a leftover puddle. She’s getting over a cold and her nose is a faucet and her tissue is my pant leg. I think about how our neighborhood aunties in Turkey would be clicking their tongues if they knew Esther was outside in the cool air with a cold. The sun shines through the trees casting dancing leaves across the siding of the house, catching Esther’s attention. A swirl of light—such a hopeful, beautiful thing. Goodness through the fog.

Maybe I can’t fully savor joy all by itself. Not right now. But the little moments of abbreviated joy, uninterrupted for only a second, are worth noting too. 

I wish I had the words to share about what’s happening in the world right now and in our life. I wish I knew where we are in the story, when the conclusion will come. I wish I knew how long this chapter would last and if I should buy blackout curtains or make do with a blanket over a curtain rod, if I should pack Christmas decorations or if we’ll be gone by then. I wish I knew when the light would turn green and stay green. 

But all I have is a sleeping baby one room over who pokes my eyes and laughs when I blow raspberries on the back of her neck, who naps with her bottom in the air and a fuzzy blanket grasped in her fist. Peaceful and simple and settled. And maybe that’s life. Everything and all the things. The hard, the good, the ordinary, and the unknown.⁣ I don’t know when the conclusion will come, but in the meantime, when it’s right, I will try to gather the goodness—by the handful.

Photo by Steinar Engeland on Unsplash