Remembering Her Name

selective focus photography of woman
Photo by Danang Wicaksono on

The last time I visited the Pacific Northwest before this past May, I witnessed a most disturbing event. These were pre-COVID days and the Trump presidency was in full swing. My partner and I were having lunch at what appeared to be a sweet little restaurant on the way to or from our vacation destination in the region. Having had some unpleasant experiences in Oregon in the 1990s I was thrilled and relieved at this newfound openness to us – an interracial gay couple – in this tiny town where no one looked even remotely like us. Apparently we happened to be there on a Saturday morning when the local Elks or veteran’s group was holding its monthly meeting. The owner gave us a heads up about this gathering, which I thought a bit unusual, but his comment was duly noted and I remained, as usual, on my best behavior.

The food was delicious and we were pleased with our meals and the warm reception. The men – yes, all of the customers that morning were men except for the server – seemed accepting and also a bit curious about us; perhaps this would become a teaching/learning moment. My partner and I were polite and gracious, appreciative of the food, interested in their sweet, off-the-beaten-track location, and their lives.

About forty-five minutes into our time there a young family approached to get gas, use the restroom, and order something to eat. This was a young Muslim family with a small child and little or no accent, but the wife was wearing a hijab, the now globally recognized head covering. Suddenly the business owner, who had been grilling meat outside in front of our window, went on a rampage and told this family to get out! They never even made it to the front door, being physically chased away while the husband was explaining in perfect English that they just wanted to stop briefly before moving on. I will never know if, had they remained in their car and purchased only gas, this scenario might have been different. I do know that I witnessed horror that day, a horror that felt even worse because I knew too well what they were enduring and yet had somehow escaped being the target of this unconscionable attack – this time. No longer living in the 1940s and 50s South, Western and Northern New England, or certain mid-Atlantic states where I was the target, I had actually benefited from being somehow not quite as “Other” as the woman in the hijab, and that made me sad. Survivor’s guilt, perhaps? Compassion?

I was shattered, realizing that not much had really changed after all. The locals had simply shifted their vitriol from us to some new perceived threat that had kicked us one notch up from the very bottom of the pecking order, the untouchables.

Three years later, after the end of strict COVID lockdowns and near the end of the Trump presidency, I found myself in Oregon once more, visiting a dear friend on the way to Olympic National Park in adjacent Washington state. Through a series of unforeseen circumstances, I ended up in the acute care wing of a preëminent Portland hospital for twelve days.

During my entire hospital stay, I was treated with dignity and compassion. People up and down the medical hierarchy saw me, spoke directly with me, and engaged me as a fully functional human being. One of the physicians had apparently done some checking up on me and realized that I had a PhD even though all I looked like now was a broken old woman with a new titanium shoulder. That education factor may have helped considerably.

One young woman worked in food service and regularly delivered meals to my room. She wore a hijab, and I noticed that she would literally slink into the room if others were around and place my tray silently on the bedside table, careful to make herself as invisible as possible, folded over into almost half her normal height, covered so that it was almost impossible to see her face or body.

While in the hospital I made a concerted effort to learn and remember the names of people who waited on me in various roles. One day, toward the end of my time there, this young woman came in when no one else was in the room and I asked her name. She said her name was Asma.

The next day she returned with a meal and I thanked her by name: “Thank you, Asma.” The day after that this young woman returned, wearing a different, beautiful hijab, standing tall. She was composed, educated, and smart. She was no wilting lily. When I thanked her by name again she looked me straight in the eye and said, “Thank you for remembering my name.” I smiled back and replied, “Thank you for remembering my meal.”

Those moments with Asma marked me. I see her in my mind’s eye and remember that young couple being treated so brutally before my eyes a few years earlier. I see her declaring that she will be herself, fully Asma, from now on. While it was touch-and-go medically for me in the hospital, it is recalling moments like these that remind me how glad I am to still be alive. Thank you, Asma, for helping me remember my name.

Published by Helen L. Stewart PhD

Endlessly curious, writer, speaker, blogger, intuitive, author, consultant. Retired university academic administrator and faculty member. Citizen of the world. Traveler. Human being. Perhaps in reverse order.

7 thoughts on “Remembering Her Name

  1. Helen…. thank you for always Carrying the Fire with your deep COMPASSION and WISE words !!! You are a Light Bearer and you give me HOPE for humanity.

      1. Helen!!!! It’s Miriam Ramirez RAHS 1958
        I have been looking for you for decades!!!! I found you!!! Had to wait until they discovered the internet!!!!
        Please call me!! Would love to connect again!! I am a retired MD, widow & mother of 5 Granma of 9 great Granma of 2.
        I live in Orlando, Fla
        Please call me!!!


      2. Wow!! Hi Miriam! I remember you so well and left a few messages on one of the RAHS/PAHS pages. 5, 9, and 2: congratulations!! So sorry about the loss of your husband.

        I am heading out for two weeks tomorrow, but will be back early April. Let’s connect when I get back! I’ll put a reminder on my calendar so I won’t forget. Soon!

  2. What a heart-wrenching and heart-filling story, dear Helen. It is stunning in both senses of the expression. Thank you.

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