KARACHI, Pakistan — When I was a kid growing up in Pakistan, my grandmother would often tuck me into bed. After I got settled, she'd stroke a cool, soft hand across my forehead and tell me to pray hard for everything I'd ever wanted in life. I would watch my grandmother as she murmured prayers with me.
At 8 years old, I finally asked her what she prayed for. "Only one thing," she told me. "For your grandfather to pass away after I do."
For years my grandmother's simple prayer stuck with me. I thought it was the most romantic wish anyone could ever make, not to want to live without their partner.
Then, last year, my grandfather did pass away — before my grandmother. And I suddenly understood that her prayer was about much more than romance.
My grandmother has never had a bank account. She never learned to drive a car. Still, I'd never describe her as a submissive woman — she fiercely takes charge in group situations, plans large family get-togethers, and has always had an independent mind, openly disagreeing with my grandfather or my father when she believes she's right.
But now that she's widowed, I see she prayed she'd die before my grandfather because without him, she's entirely dependent on the people around her.
Recently, a family friend invited my grandmother to her daughter's birthday party. My grandmother was overjoyed at the thought of spending the day with one of her closest friends and a bunch of small children. In the time leading up to the festivities, she talked about little else. Then, the day before the party, she announced that she wouldn't be attending. There was little I could do to convince my grandmother to go; the party came and went without her.
Two weeks ago, my grandmother brought up the party again. "It was ocean themed," she told me. "Apparently they had a whale pinata." Exasperated, I asked her flat out why she didn't go. "I didn't have a way to buy the present," she told me.
I tried hard not to cry when my grandmother explained that she was simply too embarrassed to ask my father or his brother for a bit of extra money so that she could go shopping. She also wasn't quite sure what to buy a 6-year-old, and didn't want to bother me or my cousins for advice. Ultimately, she decided not going to the party was her only option.
My grandmother, in her seventies, is by no means an old lady. She's in fairly good health, she's got a great sense of humor, and she's capable of walking long distances without tiring. Unlike so many of her friends, I've never heard her complain about swollen ankles or back pain. When my grandfather was alive, the two of them would go on walks together. She'd also sit in the car while he took her on drives, and the two of them would often go shopping.
I told her that if she lived in the US, or another Western country, she'd likely have her driver's license or easy access to public transportation.
"You wouldn't have to rely on your kids to take you anywhere," I said. She nodded easily, telling me that this is why she never wanted to be a widow.
"It's the hardest thing in the world," she told me. "Being an old lady without a husband is the same as being obsolete."
I held her hand, and told her I loved her.
"But, in the West your kids don't take care of you, and put you in homes," she continued. "I'm not sure it's good anywhere, really."