Ahmad Katnani, author: Reema is the last of my four grandchildren, born during the peak of COVID-19 in New York City. Within the first year of her life, we struggled, especially her mother, my daughter, to find an explanation for her delayed development. However, all the time, Reema’s smile and love put me, if not all of us, at ease. My Syngap baby is amazing and strong-willed, and in my heart, I feel she will utilize every neuron to her benefit.
I am called Jiddo, which is Arabic for grandfather. Throughout, I will refer to myself as Jiddo and I interchangeably. When Jiddo opens the apartment door, Reema might be busy doing one thing or another; however, when she notices Jiddo, her excitement is unparalleled. She runs to me like a marathon runner with the biggest smile I have ever seen and waves her body in a dance. The scene knocks my heart out of its place. As we embrace, she holds on to my head and starts giving kisses, rests her head on my shoulder, and repeats. You cannot imagine where Jiddo is at this moment. If heaven exists, it will not give me that much joy.
Reema knows that when Jiddo is around, she is the boss. Once the hugging and kissing stop, Reema heads toward the door to find Jiddo’s shoes, signaling it is time to take our neighborhood tour. Laughingly, I tell her, “No, where are Reema’s shoes?” But she insists on getting Jiddo’s shoes. Every time, she sits, waiting with excitement. After putting on shoes and a jacket, she stands up, extending her hands for me to pick her up. She has learned that with Jiddo, the stroller is not an option because her Jiddo is the porter.
As we commence our excursion, Reema gives directions. She knows that Jiddo does not take the elevator. So she has extended her arm toward the stairs, with a constant smile and sometimes caressing my hair. I think she loves her Jiddo’s long hair. As we exit the building, the first place we pass is the playground; however, Reema knows exactly what she wants to do, extending her arm in the direction she has in mind and letting me know she is not interested in the playground. Our excursions involve stops at drug stores and bodegas, supermarkets, the subway station, and the library.
For a while, supermarkets were her favorite. Everyone in her Brooklyn neighborhood knows Reema; almost all the shelf stockers greet Reema as she enters. The store workers would greet her, and some would offer her candy or other treats. Everyone praises her beauty and smile, and no one notices a gene mutation or anything. People will stop and talk to her; at this age, people attribute the no reply to shyness or being a baby. But while she may not be able to speak, Reema is not shy from making sounds to attract someone who is not paying attention to her.
We can spend hours from one supermarket to another. She would roam from one stand to another, holding my hand and directing me to the carrots, the celery, the lettuce, etc. In my mind, and I think I am right, she wants me to tell her the names. She appreciates the time I give her, opening freezer doors and reciting the name of the fruits and vegetables. To show me thanks, from time to time, she would run to me, extending her hands to pick her up briefly just so that she could kiss my head and smile for me with a head shake. These unsolicited moments make my day. I don’t care if I carry her for a distance or in the rain or sunshine.
However, Reema’s interest in the grocery stores began to wane. So on a rainy day, I introduced Reema to the subway. I figured it was cheap entertainment and avoided the wind and rain. We would stop to entertain ourselves at lively stations filled with music and space to roam and then continue our ride on the subway from one stop to the next. The idea worked that day, but ultimately it backfired because Reema expected this to happen every time. After the first time, we passed the subway station. After that, it became nightmarish. I had to convince her I could not open the door and we couldn't pass through the gate. But she would not have it. She is a strong-willed, tenacious girl taking me back to try the door and gate again. I learned from her to be patient, as I had to keep going back and trying over and over to convince her. I was surprised that after a couple of times, she stopped protesting and agreed to move on after going through our rituals of pushing buttons and greeting the attendant.
On another day, I took Reema down to the building's laundry room. She was amazed at the soap bubbles, washing machines, and dryer spinning. So I added a laundromat to our stops, and she loved it. So many machines and a lot of people. She would touch one of the machines, run and hide behind me, peek out, and then repeat. It was like a game; the machines were fascinating but scary. I figured out for the first time that she ran to me to hide and seek protection. Also, I noticed she started doing that when she wanted to run from people. She will hide and peek to see if the danger is still out there. The place became a favorite and a distraction from the subway station.
No matter where we go, after a few hours of roaming the streets from one stop to another, ending the day is not fun. Reema never wants to go home; she just wants to stay outside. I struggled to convince her a couple of times–” It is dark. We have to go have dinner and see Mama and Baba and Marco.” She will not hear it. She sometimes cried without stopping, holding her breath until she was blue, so I had to blow in her face and try different things to get her to breathe and stop crying. Again, Reema is strong-willed, and her Jiddo is a softy. My daughter keeps telling me, “Reema knows how to play you.” Nevertheless, one day, her lack of interest in the stores forced me into a walk that ended up close to a playground. Although it was getting dark, I decided to give her a choice, and she took it. She came to life, running around and going from one area to another. She liked the swing, but not like her brother, who could swing for hours. However, she loves the slide and loves climbing it up. If you want to see perseverance, watch Reema climb up the slide. She will walk and slide down, stand up, and do it again. I noticed this about Reema, even when she was a baby. You would think she had given up, but no, she had just taken a rest or was calculating her next moves to tackle the obstacle. After a little break, she comes back and tries again. We spent almost an hour in the dark, everyone left except for us. Reema was engaged especially when I reminded her to put her hands on the railing and she made it all the way up. You could see her happiness as she would sit down and slowly shuffle her butt to slide down again and again. From that moment, we made the playground the last stop of the day, which eased the transition to going home. Mind you, it still is a struggle, but now an easier one to handle.
Regardless of the fun, she will resist once Reema realizes I am heading home. She will start leaning like she wants to get down, but when I try to put her down, she will pull up and twist her body in the direction she wants. We play this game up and down a few times as we slowly move toward the building entrance. Once we are there, I put her down and she walks to the door and enters the building without resistance. Sometimes, if she still has the energy, I direct her to climb the stairs. Watching her climb up is so precious. She starts by holding onto the rails and stepping one step at a time. But after a couple of steps, she realizes this is too slow for her, so she starts climbing up using her hands and feet (no knees). Again you notice that she wants to go faster trying to do two steps at a time. As she is doing that you hear her making sounds like growling and grunting as she moves up. The apartment is on the fifth floor. Once Reema climbs up a floor, she claims victory and heads toward the unit on that floor like hers. I ran after her saying, “Reema not yet, we have more.” She waddles back to the stairs and starts climbing again. When I sometimes extend my hand to help, she ignores me and continues, saying, “I do not need your help.” I am never sure if she is angry with me for doing her climb or if she is enjoying it. Other times, she takes my offer and I carry her the rest of the way.
The day with Reema is filled with joy, though it ends with a little struggle. Carrying her around rather than using a stroller is pleasurable because we constantly interact. She tells me what she wants and I feel her affection and love as she pulls my head toward hers and kisses me or puts her head on my shoulder and taps me on the back.
I treasure our moments, navigating the streets of Brooklyn, riding the subway, and visiting stores. I know children are great teachers; I would not be where I am without the help of my kids and now grandkids. Reema with her mutated gene offers more. I know my Reema will continue to teach us how to succeed against all odds. Our evolution learned how to minimize the occurrence of that mutation, and my Reema will learn how to use every neuron she has to conquer it. We will continue our adventures and make future stories.