Taking Charge: The Story of Khalida Shahzadi
Author: Zohra Goawala
Date: 2012-05-30 15:38:00
Category: all categories
Metatags: Grief, Immigrant, Loss, Pakistani, Personal Narratives, Resilience, Toronto, Women

Khalida and Mushtaq at The Iqbal Gardens in Lahore._image
Khalida and Mushtaq at The Iqbal Gardens in Lahore.

As Khalida Shahzadi walked into her first home in Toronto, she felt as though she was entering a box. She would have to share the congested space of the one bedroom apartment with her husband and three daughters. Her daughters would get the bedroom, Khalida and her husband Mushtaq, would settle for the living room.

Despite the initial financial difficulties, Khalida embraced Toronto from the moment she arrived, excitedly discovering its various nooks and corners. For her, the ability to walk everywhere was a wonderful and refreshing change from what she was used to in Lahore. Her priority was to enroll in English classes; she diligently spent her days practicing English words, determined to overcome the language barrier. After years of learning and practicing, she can flawlessly speak the language today.

Three months after her arrival, she started working at a grocery store on Queen St. and Jameson Avenue. Not having worked a day in her life before, it was a cumbersome adjustment to working life. As Khalida sifts through her early memories of working, she recalls embarrassment at having to sweep the storefront and clean the store. Today, Khalida is a proud working woman, asserting that her success today is due to the hard work she had endured earlier. After a few years of working in a few grocery stores, Khalida decided to work towards a profession. Her passion had always been hairdressing and in 1998, four years after she arrived, she decided to pursue it as a career. She started a professional hairdressing course and a few years after working in a salon, she started working independently.

In 2004, six months after Khalida and Mushtaq bought their first house in Toronto, Mushtaq noticed a numbness in his thumb. Soon after, Mushtaq was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, a rapidly progressive and fatal neurological disease that attacks the nerve cells responsible for controlling muscles. She was told he had four years left to live and would have to be prepared for his imminent death. Khalida was paralyzed with shock and anxiety as she heard the news. All these questions raced through her mind and she was troubled by what lay ahead. How would she bear this brunt on her own? What would happen to her kids? Would she be able to fulfill their needs? What about the mortgage? She realized that for the sake of her children she would have to be strong and take things as they happen. There was no use worrying about the house, she told me, after all it was just a house. The wellbeing of her daughters and her husband was what mattered the most. She had moved here for their future, and she was going to do everything to ensure that she would provide them with the best. She refused to hospitalize her husband even when the doctors recommended that she should as it would be difficult as the condition progressed. She decided to take care of him at home, she and her daughters needed him there for the short while they had left together.

Khalida looks back at those four years as a period devoid of deep sleep. She held two jobs, as a hairdresser and as a chef’s assistant at a restaurant; it was the only way she could have paid the mortgage. While she was at home, she would be taking care of her husband. As the illness progressed, there was an increasing reliance on her for little things. She was always alert, even in her sleep.  During Mushtaq’s last year, he lost the ability to speak completely and would speak to her through a communication board. While she speaks of the difficulties she faced, she shares how words weren’t necessary for her to understand what he needed to say. After years of being so close to him, she understood him completely. 

Four years later, as expected, Mushtaq passed away. She battled with depression for a short while. She reveals her initial struggle due to a lack of emotional support. It was difficult to cope without her husband around. She is accustomed to her life over here and loves Toronto, but there’s a significant internal struggle between her two identities. The Pakistani in her is a part that her daughters wouldn’t ever fully understand, in that she feels alone. She misses the understanding she had with her husband. While she suffered initially, she refused to take antidepressants and was determined to overcome her condition without medication.

Every morning, Khalida wakes up at dawn to go for a walk and prepares breakfast for her daughters. After her daughters leave for work, she spends her time working with clients. On days she doesn’t have many clients, she sews clothes as a hobby, she tells me it’s therapeutic. Khalida also joined a wellness group at the South Asian Women’s center to help her cope with the loss.
Today, Khalida lives with her three daughters and is proud to be in a house full of independent women. She is incredibly successful in her profession and is always busy with clients. It is impressive how gracefully she took control of her situation and dealt with it. As we wrapped up the interview, she said, “in life, sometimes we need terrible things to happen so we realize how beautiful life can be during the good times”. As I walk out of her house, her words echo in my mind and leave me thinking for a while.

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