06/18/2014 10:25 am ET Updated Aug 18, 2014

Mama's Strength

Sabina Khan-Ibarra

When she took my dying son from my arms, I let her. I held my breath until I felt myself leave my body, only coming back because my baby needed me. I ignored the chemical smell of the hospital and focused on how much my son's hair curled like his father's. I watched my mother whisper prayers to him and adjust his newborn hospital hat making him look presentable, as if preparing for a special meeting. She took a tissue from her purse, wet it with her spit and wiped the blood from the punctures in his little arms. When she was done, she swaddled him and told him that she loved him. She kissed him on the forehead before placing him in my lap. She tucked my long bangs out of my face and leaned over me. I kissed my child goodbye and prayed over him until he took his last breath. My mom held me as I held my son, and as I felt his energy leave me, I felt hers heal me.

My mother's independence was the butt of jokes in the small social group she were a part of. But she didn't care. She did what she had to do. She came from a village where she was the only girl who left to pursue higher education. She married at the ripe age of 23 instead of marrying the most eligible bachelor when she was 17. She ignored the whispers when she left the home of her in-laws to live with her husband. She worked while my father went to school for his Masters. She drove to run errands while the rest of my aunts waited for their husbands to come home, or if my mom was available, for her to take them. She took care of the finances, and it was her we turned to when making major life decisions. Mama's practical ways and strong presence kept our family together.

I was constantly embarrassed for having the only mother in the family who spoke up when things were unfair. It was a running joke that my mother had my father controlled by a leash. But Baba smiled and squeezed Mama's hand in front of everyone, only offending the conservative uncles further.

Once, as she cleaned the caked blood out of my hair, she told me to stand up for myself and hit Junior back for striking me with the rock. I cringed and said, "No." The next morning, when I asked her to walk me to school so that she could protect me, she gave me my lunch and kissed me goodbye before shutting the door. I walked with my sister to school, terrified. I made a promise that if he hit me again, I would kick him in his knee, just like I learned from my teacher Mrs. White, a karate black belt who taught us self-defense.

Another time, while shopping, Mama told me to ask where the ice cream cones were located in Lucky's. I shook my head and shrank behind the shopping cart. She shrugged. She liked her ice cream in a bowl anyway. She walked away looking for the next item on her list. In a panic, I hunted down an employee and found the cones. I proudly showed the cones to Mama, who placed it in the cart and asked me to help her look in her purse for coupons to use on Tide.

In the sixth grade, she decided that she would make a salwar kameez for me to wear to school, instead of buying clothes from Mervyn's like she usually did. I cried in protest. She told me to be proud of my roots, being different was beautiful, but I dreaded facing the kids at school. I ended up in a fight on the first day of school because James called me a Camel Jockey. The principal was sympathetic; he told my mom that I was only defending myself. I expected a lecture when I got home, but Mama asked me to change my clothes, pray and do my homework.

I married young the first time and became the servant my husband's family wanted. Spending most of time in solitude, I only came out to do housework. I cleaned, cooked and ironed myself away to a shadow of what I used to be. Mama looked into my dimmed eyes, like when I was 7 years old, she held my chin and once more told me to stand up for myself. Terrified of my unknown, dark future, I left the only life I thought I knew.

When my son died in my arms, I didn't scream or wail. I urged him to go peacefully. I couldn't bear his pain anymore; I knew his little body was tired and couldn't take anymore. It hurt but I was ready to accept the pain so he wouldn't have to. When he finally left, I cried until the tears dried and I succumbed to exhaustion, my shirt soaked and mouth dry. Mama watched me. She walked over to me, and told me that God would fill my barren lap once more. I would meet my son in heaven where he waited for me. But new, hot tears fell from my eyes into my empty palms. I wished he were in my arms, alive instead of a cold morgue preparing to go to his tiny, dark grave.

I knew I needed to be strong, like Mama. She squeezed me against her bosom, where I felt at home -- where so many times I went when I was lost or hurt. When she let me go, I looked at my hospital wristband, the only physical proof on me that I was a mother to a child. My husband walked me out of the waiting room. As I turned the corner to leave, I looked back into the room and saw my mother with her shoulders slumped, face towards the sky and tears streaming down her face, into her hair.