When people ask me how my trip to Houston, Texas was, I reply that it is very similar to Abu Dhabi. It could be that when I’m on the highway, I feel like it could be on any of the roads in the UAE except for the occasional towering trees which are decidedly not desert shrubs or palm trees.
I spent a total of a week in Houston this Thanksgiving break—I wouldn’t say it’s the furthest south I’ve been, but it was the furthest south I would be post-elections so I admit I had a few apprehensions about travelling there. I stayed with this wonderful family who hosted me for the seven days I was there, and got to visit numerous attractions: the Johnson Space Center, the Medical Center, Galleria, Kemah Boardwalk (similar to the Corniche in the Gulf), different masjids in the area, farms, and a myriad of cuisines. The first day we ate at Pasha Restaurant, a Turkish restaurant which served halal meat, Fadi’s Meyerland Mediterranean Grill – a buffet-style meal of two sides and a main meal, Pei Wei Asian Diner, and tons of home-cooked food such as pasta, biriyani, upma (a staple Indian dish made with semolina), etc…
I did not come to Houston just to take in its sights, however. This place, though I’ve never been here before – beckoned me with a reason which maybe only a few know about. It was to Houston that my brother, Atif, came four years ago accompanied by my parents to receive radiation treatment after his brain surgery earlier that year. A few months earlier, the whole family had boarded the flight to America, where we spent a total of three weeks in New York, Florida, and Washington D.C, as well as Toronto in Canada.
It was toward the end of the summer – end of August- that he was diagnosed with brain tumor. I remember the moment vividly… what started out as an typical visit to the hospital soon became one which would change our lives in the months to come. My sister and I accompanied my parents and my brother that day, where he would be attended to by a neurologist, and given the diagnosis that he was diagnosed with brain tumor.
My brother was undergoing treatment at M.D. Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital, located at the Texas Medical Center for a duration of two months. During this period, my maternal grandparents came to Abu Dhabi to take care of my sister and me, and everyday after school we would speak to our parents and brother.
Some days were easier than others… Even though we would call almost every day, it seemed like they were leading very different lives from before. Thinking back, I see that it could be because his treatment was accelerating changes to his physical self, which I perceived as changes in his behavior. My mother would recount the day’s happenings, either events that were happening around the city, or how they were faring from day to day. Some days we would catch my brother waking up, some days more tired than others. In the third week, he started chemotherapy once a week and that’s when his hair started falling out, in clumps at a time. He was given a red-and-white striped bandana and a plush duck with a similar bandana with a catheter on its arm, similar to what he had.
Recently, I find memories of him occurring with more frequency. In Houston, I stayed with the family who has two kids- the youngest a son who was the same age as him, named Arif. I asked him what he wanted to become when he grew up. He replied that he wanted to study business, or become a lawyer Thinking back, I realized that this was a question I never asked my brother. Why we never spoke about it, I guess I will never know…
On Wednesday evening, we went to the Medical Center in Houston. Though I had no records, and did not know the doctors that treated Atif while he was here, I wanted to visit the hospital where he spent so much time- albeit as an outpatient. I saw multiple children’s hospitals located at the Medical Center, and observed it from the outside… imagining, remembering…
The following evening, we went to Kemah Boardwalk, and I found out that the host family I was staying had visited this place with my parents and brother while they were here. The aunt recalled how difficult it was for my brother to keep himself from the rides, as he was not able to go on them due to his treatment. “It was like putting candy in front of a child and telling him not to eat it,” she explained.
Personally, my trip to Houston was a cathartic experience. From the moment I knew I was going to Houston, I remember wondering what it would be like to visit the places which he had been to, and meet the people he had known. The pictures from the time they were here, in conjunction with the more recent photos from my trip has allowed me to have a glimpse into the time that my parents spent here with Atif. For that, I am truly thankful.
True to his name, Atif – which means compassionate – was loving and kind soul. As my brother, he also inherited my shyness, a love for books, and writing. From him, I nurtured a passion for playing basketball—even though I wasn’t super great at it. My ambition, my interest, my hobbies…my brother has played a significant role in all these aspects of my life, and I would not be where I am if not for him, my sister and parents, and everyone else who continues to be there for me.