Love Letter to my Immigrant Family


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In 2010, the street artist Stephen Powers completed a series of murals as a love letter to the city of Philadelphia, his home. I had never heard of him before, but I’d seen these murals on my trips into the city with my friends and family. It was something to look forward to when riding the El, and my favorite one had graphic print that read:

Knocked on your door,
Knees weak, back sore
Migraine for sure
No more I snore
You smile, I’m cured

I could always see it on my way home to Upper Darby, the last stop of the El subway line going Westbound out of Philadelphia. It served as a comforting welcome home as I ended long days coming from internships and from college. Even on the days after we had fought and I escaped to the city for some space, that mural was my consolation that no matter what, I was going home to people that loved me.
My parents moved to the outskirts of West Philadelphia in 1999, less than a year before I was born. My father had just made his own way to America that year and my mother had only been in the country since 1997. After many hardships, including brief homelessness in 2000, my father wanted to pursue the American dream and open up his own business. Using my mother’s far more developed credit score, they bought a storefront on 69th Street (where the last stop of the El is located) and fought relentlessly to make ends meet. My father sometimes came home as late as 2am, and left as early as 6 in the morning.

Knocked on your door,
Knees weak, back sore

My dad started off working as a carpet installer and continued to until injury prevented him from doing so. His right knee, the one he used to kick carpet, was always painfully swollen. My mom and I got into a habit of taking turns rubbing it every night gently with medication, namely Iodex, one of the cure-all essentials of a Caribbean household.
While I was still in elementary school (or maybe early into middle school) my dad got into a bad car accident. Back in Guyana, their home country, he started logging in the Amazon as a teenger in order to support himself and his siblings. This had already put an unhealthy strain on his lower back, and the car accident made matters much worse. My father was a man that always worked, no matter what the circumstance or how sick he was. He worked on our birthdays, he worked most holidays, he worked even when he was running high fevers. He didn’t work for a week after the crash. That’s how we knew things were bad. His spine was twisted in a painful manner, and there was little he could do other than take painkillers and do physical therapy. As most immigrant parents, he didn’t take keenly to painkillers, and instead focused all his energy into physical therapy. His back hardly gives him issues anymore, but we’re all careful to ensure he’s comfortable during car rides and give him back rubs whenever he asks. Back rubs are our love language.

Migraine for sure

My mother endured a significant amount of trauma growing up. When she was young, Guyana was in the midst of violent political turmoil to the point where her life was constantly in danger. While this unrest had its effect on my father’s life, he lived in the countryside. My mom was from the city, where the violence was particularly horrific. Having largely grown up in fear, she carried these anxieties with her to the States. Overwhelmed by trying to keep myself and my brother safe in a dangerous world, as well as trying to keep a business afloat, she suffered often from debilitating migraines. I was her head doctor. She was often scared and lonely when these headaches hit her, and she would call me in for comfort. I tried to make myself useful: I would make her the go-to sick foods and rub oils on her head in hopes of relieving the pain, but all she really ever wanted from me was to hold her while she cried.

No more I snore,
Your smile, I’m cured.

Largely due to my mom’s anxiety, when my brother and I were little enough to fit, all four of us slept on my parents’ king-sized bed. They wanted to make sure we were safe through the night. If burglary were to happen they wanted to prevent us from being kidnapped. These fears were largely unfounded, but nonetheless every night we all piled into bed together. I think they found it comforting, as all of their hard work was to provide a future for us. I liked it because we were all a team working together at the end of the day. As my brother and I grew older, we both had a part to play in developing and working for the family business. It was something we had all sacrificed a lot for.
We are far from a perfect family, and as I have progressed through college we have become more distant. It may be tied to the fact that we have equated our love for one another based on how hard we work for one another, which has left us all worn out and feeling unworthy. To be honest, while I am grateful for the monetary support my parents have been able to provide me to pursue my professional development, the moments I am most grateful for are the ones of us piled on their bed at the end of a long day.
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