STERLING HEIGHTS, Mich. —
She was tired of wearing black, but the teenager knew she had to, at least for one more day. So after Nadeen Ismael swept the floors and arranged the couch pillows just the way her parents liked them, she returned to their bedroom. Behind the door, Nadeen, 18, reached up for her mother’s favorite sweater, still hanging next to the leather jacket and Levi’s jeans her father left there after his last day at work three months earlier.
Across the hall, her sister, Nanssy, 13, put on the black shirt adorned with a sequined gold star that their mom, Nada Naisan, had been given as a teenager in Iraq. In another bedroom, the girls’ brother, Nash, 20, pulled on black socks, pants, shoes and a button-down, all gifts from his mother, who did so much of his shopping that he wasn’t sure what sizes he wore.
Their house was quiet that morning in mid-June, as it seemed to be almost all the time now. Nada wasn’t frying omelets in the kitchen next to the “BLESS OUR HOME” sign, insisting that her two oldest children sit and eat and talk with her. Their dad, Nameer Ayram, wasn’t crooning the made-up song in Chaldean about Nanssy that always made her laugh. “Bobbit baba,” he most liked to call her — “Daddy’s girl.”
All dressed, Nash walked to the small bedroom his sisters shared.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
“Ready,” Nadeen responded.
“Let’s go,” said her brother, who hoped that this day would mark the end of the hardest time in their lives and not the start of something harder.
News that the novel coronavirus had arrived in Michigan first reached their working-class suburb north of Detroit in early March, but the siblings didn’t worry about it because they seldom worried about anything. That’s how their mom and dad wanted it. The family had come to the United States eight years earlier after escaping Iraq, a country that had grown increasingly dangerous for Chaldean Catholics like them.
Nash and Nadeen still remembered the sounds of bombs and bullets in Baghdad. In their new home in Sterling Heights, their parents tried to give them everything they could. Nameer worked long hours on the line at an auto parts manufacturer to cover the lease on the cardinal-red Camaro that his son badly wanted, and Nada never let her daughters cook or do laundry because, she said, there would always be time to teach them later, when they were ready to face life on their own.
Now, on a day when none of their three children felt ready, they headed up a road their father traveled each morning before dawn on his way to the plant, toward the mall where their mother bought Nanssy the Taylor Swift calendar that hung on her wall, past the restaurant where they all celebrated Nadeen’s high school graduation last year.
At last, the stone arch over the entrance to White Chapel Memorial Park Cemetery came into view. The girls arrived first, stepping out of a car into a clear-sky morning, just shy of 70 degrees. They walked onto the grass of a long, narrow section of memorial plaques, searching for No. 222 among the oval-shaped metal markers pressed into the ground.
“I’m not sure which one,” Nanssy told her sister.
“Maybe that one over there,” Nadeen replied, looking toward a distant section of unearthed dirt.
“Here it is,” Nanssy said, pointing.
And there before them was not one grave, but two.
‘Don’t touch me’
On the first day the pandemic closed schools in Michigan, Nanssy was lounging on the couch, scrolling through YouTube videos, when her dad walked in the front door.
The seventh-grader got up and gave him a hug.
“Why are you back so early?” she asked in Arabic.
He was tired, Nameer said. He felt sick.
At his wife’s urging, Nameer got a coronavirus test the next day, March 17, and soon learned he was infected.
Nada, 46, slept on the couch and ordered her children to stay in their rooms, away from their father. But in a 1,300-square-foot home, quarantine proved impossible. Even after her own cough began, she kept cleaning and cooking, and each time Nameer, 52, used the one bathroom they all shared, his wife donned a mask and gloves and scrubbed every surface with bleach, hoping it would be enough to keep her children safe.
That was always what she and Nameer wanted most, and their kids understood that for as far back as their memories stretched.
Nash was no older than 4 or 5 on the day he broke free from his father’s hand in Baghdad and darted onto the road. With Nadeen in his arms, Nameer rushed into the street, pushing Nash out of the way and tossing his daughter into the grassy median, just as a car snapped his leg.
Years later, Nadeen and a cousin accidentally scalded Nanssy during a bath when she was a baby. Her lips looked as though they’d melted, and her right ear drooped down to her cheek.
“It was a horrible thing to see,” Nadeen recalled. “The doctors told my mom, ‘She’s dead.’ ”
Nada refused to accept that and remained at her daughter’s bedside for two weeks in a dim, windowless hospital room, praying that Nanssy would survive. And she did.
The kids seldom heard their parents talk about love, or even say the word, but they felt it. In Baghdad, where all five of them shared a bedroom without air conditioning, they would stay up late into the night laughing, telling jokes and stories. They knew, too, that their parents adored each other. At their wedding in Iraq in 1998, the couple slow danced to Whitney Houston. Twenty years later and 6,200 miles away, at the celebration after Nanssy’s first Communion, they looked just the same — Nada’s hand in his, Nameer’s cheek against hers.
They never explained exactly what led them to flee Iraq, but the kids surmised that their dad’s work at a Catholic charity might have made them targets. In 2012, they moved to Michigan’s large Chaldean community, where they had no family, knew no English and lost a common last name because of a quirk in the immigration paperwork. Nameer and Nada worked hard, helping their kids earn citizenship and saving enough money by 2017 to make a small down payment on a half-century-old beige-brick ranch house in a peaceful neighborhood where people kept their yards neatly trimmed.
It was the “better future” Nada and Nameer had so long talked about with their children, whom they never pressured to move out or choose careers or, really, grow up at all.
LEFT: Nadeen saw her mother as one of her best friends. MIDDLE: Nanssy, who hates to cry, is the most independent of the siblings. RIGHT: Nash, 20, has taken over as caretaker of the family.
Nadeen, demure and artistic, didn’t make many friends, but with Nada there, she never felt the need. Her mother was “a sister, a mother, a friend, a best friend — like, everything,” said Nadeen, who wore her dark hair long and curly, because that’s how Nada liked it. Nadeen relied on her guidance every day, even choosing to major in physical therapy at a community college because her mom thought it would suit her.
Nanssy was the most independent of the three, wearing her dark hair short and straight, because that’s how she liked it. She was petite, like her siblings, but headstrong. She hated crying and resisted breaking down in front of anyone. Nanssy wanted to join the Army one day, in part because she liked the idea of proving that women are as strong as men.
Nash had worked since high school at a local restaurant, but did the job more for the camaraderie than the money. He liked fast cars and had collected so many speeding tickets that, for a time, his license was suspended. With his parents’ encouragement, he’d planned to spend the summer traveling through Europe, visiting relatives, reveling in his unburdened youth.
But now their father was secluded in a bedroom and their mother was sprawled on a couch, demanding that none of her children come near her.
About 4 a.m. on March 22, she opened the door to Nash’s bedroom and told him to call 911. She couldn’t breathe. Her son, delirious with a fever of his own, dialed from his bed.
Nanssy woke up when the ambulance’s red and blue lights flashed through her bedroom window. By then, she’d also developed symptoms, so Nadeen had moved into the basement. Nanssy hurried downstairs to wake her.
Nadeen and her mother came to the door, where the paramedics explained that they couldn’t risk helping her outside. She would have to come on her own.
“Do you want me to walk you there?” Nadeen asked.
“No,” her mother said. “Don’t touch me.”
She staggered down the driveway and drooped onto the stretcher. Nadeen, wearing only her pajamas in the freezing night air, watched them load her mother into the ambulance, close the door and disappear into the darkness.
A day later, Nadeen was standing there again, having just called 911 for her dad, whose cough had become more violent. In her panic, she forgot the word “ambulance,” briefly lapsing into Arabic. By then, Nameer had already talked to his wife, and they’d decided he should go, both because he needed help and because they wanted to protect their children.
When the ambulance arrived, this time in the light of day, a paramedic got out and peered at the house.
“I’ve been to this address before,” he said.
“Yeah,” Nadeen replied. “You took my mom.”
Nash awoke to the text from his mother 36 hours after she was driven to the hospital.
“How are you?” she asked in Arabic that Monday. It was the fourth time she’d messaged to check on him.
He had been sleeping, he replied, but felt better. She told him to wear gloves around the house, for his sisters.
Nash had already asked if he should come see her.
“Don’t ever come here,” she wrote. “Never.”
From Nameer’s room at Ascension Macomb-Oakland Hospital, four miles from their house, he reassured his children that everything would be fine. Nada, in another bed inside the same hospital, sounded nervous to Nash, but she masked any hint of fear from her daughters when they talked.
On the second night, when Nanssy called her mother to FaceTime, Nada said she should be home by the end of the week. On the third, she said it might take a few days longer than expected. On the fourth, her mom didn’t answer.
“Don’t ever come here. Never.”
Nada Naisan, to Nash after being hospitalized because of covid-19
Nash learned from a cousin in France who’d been in touch with hospital staff that Nada and Nameer weren’t getting better. They’d each been placed on machines to help them breathe, Nash was told March 26. Neither of his parents were awake anymore.
That night, while Nash was praying at church, he got a call from Zeana Attisha, his boss at Sahara Restaurant. She offered to help, but Nash didn’t even know what to ask of her. He had no idea how to reach his parents’ doctors, but if he did, what would he say to them? Nash couldn’t bear to tell his sisters why his parents had stopped responding to them, and now, suddenly, Nadeen had come down with a raging fever and severe nausea. He felt lost.
“Lean on me. Don’t worry,” texted Zeana, who started joining in calls to the hospital and told him what to try for Nadeen: Tylenol, Gatorade, soup, cold rags.
Zeana, 51, is also Chaldean, the daughter of immigrants who came to the United States in 1967. She understood that in their culture, parents often didn’t want their children to leave home, or take on the stresses of adulthood before marriage, no matter their age. Zeana knew how much help Nash would need.
“I appreciate u so much I really don’t have no one here other my parents,” he wrote her on March 27. The next day, a doctor called him to warn that his dad could be dead in 12 hours, prompting Zeana to demand that Nameer be transferred to another hospital better equipped to treat him. And he was.
“I’m tired from everything honestly,” Nash wrote to her on March 30, just before heading to CVS, where he had to ask a staff member what a thermometer was and where he could find one.
“They just called for my dad they said he’s doing really bad today morning till now and his heart might stop there is a chance and they can’t do nothing about it and they said they are doing their best. To keep him alive,” he texted on April 11, the same day Zeana started a GoFundMe campaign because she couldn’t imagine how Nameer’s children would make it without him.
“The hospital for my mom called the nurse talked she’s like half of the brain isn’t working and her lungs are getting bad,” Nash wrote on April 15, while he was waiting for a coronavirus test with Nadeen, who still didn’t know the truth. The teen had started cleaning the house, just the way Mom did, so that when Nada returned, she would feel proud that her daughter could take care of their home on her own.
“They putting a tube in her lungs. They asked for permission. I said do what u got to do,” he texted Zeana on April 20.
One day later, at 4:46 a.m., Nash shared what he’d just learned: “She passed away.”
Zeana was asleep and couldn’t help guide him through what to do next, as she had after all the other devastating news — about septic shock and kidney dialysis, withering livers and dying lungs.
That morning, he was on his own.
He woke Nadeen up, and she followed him to their kitchen, where a note with a phone number and a message in Arabic, written by their mother, was still pinned to the fridge: “Emergency for corona.”
Nash looked into his sister’s eyes.
“Mom died,” he said.
“You’re lying!” Nadeen cried.
“She’s dead,” he told her again.
Weeping, she slumped onto one couch, and he onto another.
“Are we going to tell Nanssy?” she asked him later that morning.
How could they? She would be crushed, Nash argued. They should wait.
When Nanssy woke up, she could tell something was wrong. Just a bad dream, Nadeen said, but her sister didn’t believe that. It was about Mom and Dad, right?
Their father was still in the hospital, Nadeen assured, but she wouldn’t say where their mother was.
“What about Mom?” Nanssy asked, again and again, until Nadeen couldn’t hold it in.
“Mom is dead,” she said, and the sisters wept together.
At Nada’s funeral, the mourners weren’t allowed to gather inside the church, so they passed through the parking lot in their cars, rolling down windows to hold up signs — “STAY STRONG” — and shout that they were sorry for the family’s loss. Outside, beneath a spitting gray sky, the Ismael children watched from behind their masks.
By then, Nash had told his sisters the truth about their father, and Nadeen decided she had to see him. At the hospital, she put on gloves, a mask and a face shield and walked into the room of an emaciated man she didn’t recognize. He had a tube down his throat and dried blood on his nose and an unfamiliar beard.
She held his hand, turning away each time she felt her eyes well.
“Mom’s at home waiting for you,” Nadeen told him, hoping the lie would make a difference.
Later, a nurse helped the girls call him over FaceTime, but Nanssy pushed the camera out of view. She couldn’t stand to see her father look like that.
On Mother’s Day, a week after Nadeen’s visit, Nash learned that his father’s heart was failing, and that the doctors had given him a fourth dose of a medication intended to keep his blood pressure up. It wasn’t working. Nash didn’t tell his sisters.
LEFT: Nanssy wears this bracelet to honor her parents.. RIGHT: Nanssy wrote this letter to her dad.
Nadeen cleaned the house again that day, doing whatever she could to keep busy and off Snapchat, where friends and cousins were posting photos of their own mothers. Nanssy conjured her favorite memories of her mom: how she smelled like roses and gave the best, squishiest hugs and would always fall asleep on the couch when her baby girl played with her hair.
Nash went to church, to make one more plea.
“Please not today,” he prayed.
His dad fought through the afternoon and evening, past midnight and into the next morning, holding on until just after 1 p.m. on May 11. Twenty days after their mother’s death, their father was gone, too.
With Zeana’s help, Nash made a list of 10 people who could come inside the church. He sorted through photos of his parents for a cousin in Iraq who wanted to make a poster celebrating their lives. He opened their closet door and picked the clothes that his father would be buried in: the black shoes and matching socks, the gray suit, the tie with the red dots, the favorite pink shirt.
‘Who’s going to take care of me?’
Something was on fire. Nash couldn’t see the smoke, but he could smell it, seeping through the vents of his dad’s old 2012 Dodge Journey. He pulled over.
“What am I supposed to do now?” he asked a friend who was with him that afternoon in June. A mechanic later discovered what was wrong: the engine had run out of oil.
For days, he and his sisters had lived off delivery orders through their mom’s DoorDash account, though they had no idea where the money came from to pay for it. None of them had bank accounts or credit cards, and Nash didn’t want to spend the $300 in cash he’d found in a drawer behind his parents’ bed.
Zeana opened a tab at Sahara to keep them fed, but she also worried about their bills. Nash retrieved his mother’s phone from the hospital after her intubation, and Zeana told him to search it for a banking app. When he discovered that the mortgage appeared to be past due, he tried to pay it. A moment later, he found his parents’ checking account, drained of all but $900. The mortgage payment bounced.
Nash tried to learn as much as he could as fast as he could, but he often felt overwhelmed, especially on the morning nine days after his dad’s death when he discovered a $188,629 hospital bill that he was terrified they might have to pay. His family’s Medicaid, Zeana told him, would cover it.
The GoFundMe raised more than $200,000, and she found lawyers who volunteered to sort out Nameer and Nada’s finances and life insurance. Nash deeply appreciated the generosity but knew they couldn’t rely on it forever. He wanted his family to count on him.
He opened his first bank account, then applied for unemployment and tried to figure out whether Nadeen might be eligible, too. He decided to use the donations to pay off the house, ensuring that he and his siblings would always have a place to live. After he returned his leased red Camaro, because the insurance was in his dad’s name, Zeana promised to help him get a new one. No, Nash told her. It would only get him into more trouble, and he couldn’t risk that anymore.
“I appreciate u so much I really don’t have no one here other my parents.”
Nash Ismael, in a text message to Zeana Attisha
Like Nash, Nadeen struggled at first, burning a pot of red rice she tried to cook and bleaching her brother’s clothes in the wash. She wanted to help, though, and intended to get her driver’s license and keep pursuing her college degree. She’d heard physical therapists made good money, and that was important because, along with Nash, she’d agreed to serve as her sister’s guardian.
Through Zeana, the girls met Ranna Abro, who offered to spend time with them. She was young, at 32, and also Chaldean. They got along right away, watching anime and talking about boys. After Ranna found a message from the city on the door, warning of a fine if the knee-high grass wasn’t cut, the three of them went to the garage and pulled out Nameer’s mower. Nadeen knew how to turn it on, and when she did, each of them took turns cutting patches.
LEFT: Friend Ranna Abro, 32, helps Nadeen mow the lawn. . RIGHT: Jane Shallal, an attorney helping the siblings, teaches Nadeen how to shop for groceries.
Before they finished, Nanssy paused. She thought about what they were doing and what it meant.
“So who’s going to take care of me now?” she asked.
“It’s going to be me,” Nadeen told her.
Nanssy seldom talked about how she felt, but Nash and Nadeen knew she was suffering, too. Nanssy started sleeping more in her parents’ bed, where she used to curl up next to her dad. She treasured their bird, Coocoo, who lived in a cage on top of the fridge, but she pleaded with Nash to get a puppy. She missed spending time as a family — vacationing at Niagara Falls, watching movies with Arabic subtitles on for their parents. She and Nash and Nadeen didn’t do that anymore. With a puppy, Nanssy thought, they would all have fun again, because what brought them together now was almost never fun.
One day last month, just past noon, Nash called his sisters into the kitchen to help him clean up chicken wings left out from the night before. On the counter nearby was a handwritten letter from his mom’s hospital — “Please accept our sincerest condolences...” — and a sheet titled “Resources for Grief.” None of them had called any of the numbers.
“I can’t pick up the garbage. It’s too heavy,” Nanssy complained.
When Nash came over to do it, he noticed the mess of birdseed Coocoo had shed on the floor.
“This bird’s going away,” Nash snapped.
“Why?” Nanssy objected.
LEFT: The siblings keep a shrine to Nada in their living room.. RIGHT: Nameer's leather jacket and jeans hang where he left them three months ago after his last day of work.
Tired and frustrated, Nash tied up the trash bag and took it out the back door, triggering a beep from the security system he’d installed to keep his sisters safe when he wasn’t home.
Nadeen kept sweeping the floors. Nanssy watched YouTube videos on her phone. Nash went to the living room.
Nadeen’s phone buzzed, and she picked up. From the couch, Nash looked over.
“No,” Nadeen told the caller, who thanked her and hung up.
“What was it?” he asked.
Something about unemployment, Nadeen said. She didn’t understand.
“Oh my God,” Nash said, voice raised, because he knew it took weeks to get a call back from the unemployment office. Any chance Nadeen had to get help, he assumed, had just vanished.
“Do you know what you lost right now?” he asked.
She didn’t have any idea, and really, he couldn’t know either. But that wasn’t the point. To Nash, it felt like one more failure.
His head fell into his hands. Minutes passed. No one spoke.
Nash, trying to calm down, sat up and took a drag on the vape pen he’d been struggling to quit. Nadeen went to the front room to arrange the couch pillows.
At last, Nanssy said something.
“Nash, you’re not getting rid of this bird,” she told him.
“What, he’s going to get rid of Coocoo?” Nadeen asked.
“Mom loved it,” Nanssy said. “And he can’t get rid of something Mom loved.”
‘I’m not crying’
The sisters, dressed in black, had just searched the grass and found the metal marker, numbered 222, in front of their parents’ graves. They’d come to the cemetery that sunny June morning to commemorate the day when, according to Chaldean tradition, their father’s soul would ascend to heaven.
A month earlier, at his funeral, Nadeen had stood in this same spot, listening to a priest ask God for mercy as she reckoned with what the virus had taken from them. The reality of it all was overwhelming. Her knees wobbled, and her face turned pale. She saw double. Then Nadeen collapsed.
Now, as she unwrapped bouquets of poppies and daisies and dug their stems into the dirt, it was her sister who couldn’t stand to be there. Nanssy retreated back to the car, alone.
Before a half-dozen mourners joined Nash and Nadeen around the graves, she checked on Nanssy.
“If there’s anything wrong, you can tell me,” Nadeen said.
“I don’t know. I just don’t feel well,” the 13-year-old replied.
When the ceremony began, Nanssy got back inside the car because she wanted to talk to God by herself. She asked that her mom and dad would have a good life in heaven and that the other kids whose parents were sick from covid-19 — thousands of them across the country — would be okay. She asked that Nash and Nadeen would live a long time.
“So they can stay with me,” she prayed.
After a while, Nash walked over to talk to her. She asked if they could come back later, just the two of them.
Of course, he told her.
LEFT: Flowers are scattered at Nameer's grave. . RIGHT: Nadeen kisses Nanssy as they head to the car after visiting their parents' graves.
Afterward, at the house, Nadeen went to the kitchen to help prepare the dolma, vegetables stuffed with ground lamb and beef. She had never learned her mother’s recipe, Nanssy’s favorite, but Nadeen was doing her best to replicate it.
Nash changed out of his black button-down and escaped to the covered deck. A gold chain with a cross, now affixed with his mother’s wedding ring, hung from his neck. As he took a drag on his vape pen, a friend came around the back to tell him Nanssy had left.
“Why?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” the woman told him. “She’s crying.”
Nash rushed to the end of the driveway, where he could see his sister walking up the street, a block away. He called her cell.
“What do you want?” she asked, voice quavering.
“Why are you crying?”
“I’m not crying,” she insisted, even though she was.
“Come back, right now,” he told her.
Nanssy returned, running past him and into the house. He didn’t know what was wrong and doubted that he could fix it anyway. If he gave her time, he figured, she’d get over it.
What Nanssy wouldn’t say is that she’d been listening to music on her iPhone when an old favorite, “I Loved Her First,” began to play. The country song was about a father’s devotion to his daughter. Nanssy had once imagined it playing at her wedding, as she danced with her dad.
Inside, Nadeen followed her sister to their room. She found Nanssy on the bed, beside her stuffed animals. Her arms were crossed, her head bowed.
“What’s going on?” Nadeen asked, leaning down.
“Nothing,” she said.
“Are you crying about Mom and Dad?” she asked in Arabic, explaining that it was okay if she was. Nadeen would understand.
“I’m not going to tell you,” she said, because Nanssy knew what her brother and sister were trying so hard to do for her, but the people she wanted to tell were gone.