Arts in New York City: Baruch College, Fall 2008, Professor Roslyn Bernstein
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Who She Is: Miss Independent

           Known for her exuberant and vivacious personality, my mother has always been regarded as the most sociable and charming person among our family and family friends, arguably the “belle of the ball.” In the eyes of many of my friends, she is the “hip” and “cool” mom for her optimistic and friendly demeanor. In perusing through my mother’s countless photo albums, which firstly convinced me that she spent half of her savings on film taking pictures of every moment, I observed a free spirited, svelte young woman who seemed to have this effervescent personality from day one. Impressed by her adventurous and independent nature in her younger years in Tehran, Iran, I went on a quest to discover what had brought her to this philosophy of living life to the fullest, embracing and savoring every minute and every second she had.

           Upon looking at her pictures, I was first surprised at the freedom that existed during the 1970s and 80s in Tehran. At this time, Shah Reza Pahlavi was in power; and Iran was just as modern and chic, if not more so, than parts of Europe. Although many picture Iran as a country with an oppressive and strict government, especially in terms of clothing, it was far from that during my mother’s youth.

           Growing up as the middle child in a family of five was one of the pivotal reasons that shaped my mother. Constantly living up to her older sister’s expectations, and dealing with the teasing and quarrels with her older brother, and two younger ones, she sought to be independent. When she was three years old, her father died from cancer, forcing my grandmother to raise five children on her own. Although my mother doesn’t recollect much of her experience and relationship with her father, the one memory she vividly remembers is perhaps the most significant.

           Always eager to be around her father, she accompanied him to the hospital for his chemotherapy treatments. It was there where she discovered what she wanted to be in the future: a nurse. “I remember this one nurse who we often saw there. She was kind, helpful, and always uplifted my father. He knew his life was short, and so did she; but she always put a smile on his face. She undoubtedly gave more life to my father placing hope in his eyes, and I realized she is precisely the type of person I wanted to be,” my mother recalls.

           However, being a nurse in Tehran was a highly competitive and prominent role. Knowing this, my mother set out to accomplish this feat, proving to her siblings and friends that she would be successful. Many of my mother’s friends weren’t concerned with having professional careers, rather wanted to get married early and be stay at home mothers. My mother despised this traditional role, and sought to exceed all expectations, and overcome all barriers in her efforts to become a nurse.

           As a result of her rigorous work ethic, my mother sacrificed and limited her social life. My grandmother laughs, “I would wake up in the middle of the night by the light shining beneath her door into the hallway. I would walk in and see her in a deep sleep, exhausted from studying. I could barely enter her room with all her textbooks and papers scattered and circled around her.” Through her studious nature, my mother was accepted into Tehran University, the most prestigious university in Iran, equivalent to today’s Harvard, where she maintained a 3.8 GPA. While many of her friends were focused on simply enjoying daily things, disregarding work and school, my mother immediately started working as a nurse at Tehran University’s Pahlavi Hospital, one of the biggest and most renowned hospitals in Iran.

           As expected, she chose to work in the Emergency Room, which is arguably the fastest paced and most difficult unit in any hospital. It is there where she encountered people of all ages: children, young adults, the middle-aged, and elderly. While working there she developed many relationships with patients. Their ailments ranged from various types of cancers, tumors, heart attacks, amputated limbs, strokes, HIV/AIDS, viruses, diseases – you name it, she probably met someone who had it or was battling it. In her conversations with them she learned about their lives prior to their sicknesses, families, failed aspirations, regrets, accomplishments, child-hood sweethearts, their unsatisfied and short-lived youth, and every so often their fulfilled and audacious lives. It was through their valuable experiences and wisdom that she instilled it upon herself to live every day as if it was her last, to take risks and advantage of all opportunities that came her way, to pursue a life without inhibitions, and most of all to smile, because there was so much in life to smile about.

           One of her most fulfilling experiences was with a patient named Kamran (or Cameron in English). He was fighting a battle with cancer, and miraculously overcame it. During his stay at the hospital, my mother attended to him with much care and attention. Embodying the qualities of the nurse that helped her father, she sought to do everything she could to help Kamran bear the pain, and persevere against this life-threatening monster. After he was happily cancer-free and released from the hospital, he told my mother that he had bought her a present as a token of his appreciation for her kindness. Though my mother insisted she didn’t want anything, he kept his promise. “Guess what he gave me? You will never get it right – a bottle of ketchup!” At that time, ketchup wasn’t a household item, rather a luxury, and this particular brand of ketchup was manufactured, and mailed from a factory in Abadan, approximately 600 miles southwest of Tehran, the capital. To this day, she still laughs about Kamran’s gift, but in fact he provided a far more priceless gift: his gratitude.

           It was her experience as a nurse that inspired and propelled her to always be independent, and follow her heart, of course within reason. Looking at her many photographs, I saw the magnitude of impact the patients’ words had on her. She constantly traveled all over Iran with her girlfriends going to beaches, parks, skiing, mountain hiking, residing in villas, dressed herself in fashionable clothing, danced the night away at social events, all while maintaining her successful professional career. She did what she wanted, when she wanted, and didn’t let any obstacle or person prevent her from experiencing the world, and making the most of every second of her life. As her patients repeatedly advised, “life is too short, and the future is never certain; so do all that you can in the time you have, for you never know when, or if ever, you will have the opportunity to go back and do it again.” Looking at her mountains of albums filled with her contagious smile and charm, there is no doubt that she took those wise words to heart, and still does today.