Their love, yearning and joy for her is now inextricably mixed with feelings of loss, sadness, guilt and regret. At times, their eyes shine at her memory. Just as quickly, their voices break and there are tears.
Ebrahim Rashidpour is a retired therapist, Fulbright scholar and researcher who worked in the Bay Area. Decades ago, at the University of Tehran, he was a noted psychotherapist and professor. Among his many publications is a book containing 82 short papers about psychotherapy with immigrant populations. He called it "Reconcile with Life," the title he also used for an early program in the late 1950s he wrote, produced and hosted at a Tehran radio station.
But he has found it painfully difficult to reconcile the loss of his precious only child, who came into the world prematurely, with multiple medical problems. Though she miraculously survived her birth, a series of accidents in her youth left her disabled.
Rashidpour dedicated himself to his daughter's care, even accompanying her to classes where he stayed nearby to catch her in the event of a seizure, so she wouldn't fall and injure herself, he said. Every waking hour was devoted to Ashi's well-being.
"We tried to keep her safe and happy," Mehri Rashipour said.
When Ashi died, Mehri wept. But try as he might, Ebrahim could not cry. He became deeply depressed.
He sent letters pouring out his anger and frustration to Ashi's neurologist, the surgeon who operated on her and her primary doctor. He tried to express his darkest feelings about how they had treated her — lacking the compassion and understanding she deserved, he thought.
"Medication, grief counseling, exercise, prayer and meditation, with all their benefits, did not help me to have any hope and purpose in my life," he told the Weekly.
Seven months after Ashi's death, a therapist friend suggested he write letters to his daughter. He wrote to her in English and his native Farsi whenever he felt confused, numb, depressed, angry, full of regret and lonely.
"I felt I had lost the meaning of my life, which was Ashi for 52 years," he said.
So far, he has written more than 400 letters.
Counselors say that the grief of parents takes many forms. The death of a child is a profound, life-changing experience, said Shelly Gillan, a marriage and family therapist and client services and programs director at Kara, a Palo Alto-based grief-support-services nonprofit for children, teens, adults and families.
Unless people have been through it, they can't understand, she said.
"It's not weeks or months (of grieving). It's years of trying to process or interpret this experience," Gillan said.
A child's death falls outside of people's usual expectations. The old are supposed to die before the young.
"We have this concept of a natural order of death, but death doesn't follow those rules," she said.
Parents are wired to keep watch over their children throughout their lives, and the death of a child defies that natural instinct to protect, she added.
It's even harder when parents, such as the Rashidpours, have a child with special needs.
"The intimacy and intensity of protecting that child certainly increases," she said, adding that a parent's whole purpose revolves around caring for and protecting the child, even as an adult.
And when their child dies?
"You have no compass. Every waking hour and even in your sleep you have been taking care of that child," she said.
For parents who have survived their child, Gillan said, "The truth is they never get over it."
But, she added, "The intensity of the loss definitely lessens. There is a point at which people can again take that deep breath and find a reason for living."
Such has been the Rashidpours' experience.
Ashi was born prematurely near Bloomington, Indiana in 1961. Her full first name, Rashideh, means "brave girl," her mother said. Doctors put her in an incubator for a month, and they were not sure if she was going to survive. But she survived beautifully, her father said. And she was not disabled.
"She was our miracle child," Mehri said. "She was a ballerina. From the beginning, she was always taking pictures. She was very artistic."
In 1974, Rashidpour, who taught in Tehran, was on sabbatical at Stanford University at the Institute of Communication Research. At the time, Ashi was petite, with short, dark hair and warm, kind eyes. She smiled and waved in one picture taken outside Macy's at Stanford Shopping Center, where she and Mehri often rode bicycles together.
But the family's idyll was soon torn apart: Exactly how Ashi, then 13, ended up in a water-filled ditch, her parents still don't know. The family had dressed up to attend a wedding in Escondido Village, where they lived. Ashi had asked if she could play ball with other children at the apartments' playground. A lid covering an underground ditch filled with water in the children's area was supposed to have a lock. But when her parents found her, the cover was cast aside and Ashi was head first in the water.
Though she regained consciousness, Ashi began having uncontrollable seizures. No one knew whether the seizures caused her accident — or resulted from it. Another fall down the stairs later at their apartment injured her head and plunged Ashi into a coma, Mehri said. The family took her from one specialist to another and tried multiple treatments, but the seizures continued.
Back in Tehran, Ashi fell down in school because of her epilepsy. The school asked her parents to take her home and not bring her back, according to the Rashidpours.
The Iranian Revolution also was stirring. There was violence in the streets, and the family did not know if they could stay in the country. Their first thoughts, always, were for Ashi and her safety.
In 1978, Ebrahim Rashidpour was part of a five-nation research group studying global interdependencies through a Fulbright scholarship. The family joined him in Hawaii while he conducted his research. By February 1979, the Iranian Revolution, fomenting for a year, finally erupted.
His colleagues were being executed, he learned during phone calls back home. His name was posted on walls at the university accusing him of working with the CIA, his sister told him, because he had traveled out of the country for research so frequently.
By later that fall, the family chanced returning to Tehran. But their stay lasted just 23 days. It was just too dangerous, Mehri recalled.
"On Sept. 26, 1979, we left. We lost everything," she said.
The Rashidpours returned to Palo Alto and moved to the Oak Creek Apartments, setting up a new life. He enrolled at Santa Clara University to earn degrees so he could open a licensed marriage and family therapy practice. Ashi, by then 18, still experienced uncontrolled seizures.
Family friends suggested that maybe it would help if she took a husband. When she was 25, Ashi married, but she was unhappy, and the union only lasted a year, her mother said.
Rashidpour said that Ashi's condition made her feel angry and helpless, but it didn't stop her from pursuing her dreams. She was a dancer; she attended De Anza College and studied art. As always, Ebrahim Rashidpour accompanied her to keep her safe.
Then a second tragedy befell the family. On Sept. 11, 2001, when the family was out shopping, Ashi had a seizure and fell on the hard pavement.
"She said, 'Mommy, why can't I move?'" Mehri recalled.
Ashi had broken two vertebrae in her neck, leaving her paraplegic.
Rashidpour left his job, closing his office.
"It was every day. Every hour. Then at night," Mehri said of caring for Ashi. "In the middle of the night, the seizures came. Nobody could sleep. For hours, I was comforting her. It was full time. A hard time.
"Feeding her, changing her, exercising her, washing her, taking her to the doctors. I don't know how we survived, but we did. We had to," Mehri said.
Ashi's left hand had to be amputated — the dominant one she used to paint with. But she persevered: She took up her brushes and colored pencils, painting as best as she could with her right hand, her mother said.
Ashi colored pictures of butterflies and birds; she painted free-form abstract images in vivid hues of reds and greens, electric blues and splashes of black. There were chickens, a brilliant blue peacock with its fanned tail, and a map of Iran with a heart painted where her family had lived in Tehran. Ashi gave hundreds of pictures to friends and admirers.
The artwork "gave her relief from mental and physical pain and helped her to say in color and shape what was going on in her mind," Rashidpour said.
People who didn't know Ashi might see in her paintings only a simple collection of colorful sheets of paper.
"But for me, (it was) to see every day how difficult and almost impossible it was for her to move her right hand on the paper," he said.
Ashi found inspiration wherever she could — in the music of Mozart and Vivaldi and in the writings of the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi. And in the example of Oprah Winfrey.
Winfrey motivated Ashi to live her life to the fullest despite profound disability, Rashidpour said. Ashi admired her because she had traveled the world and helped people every day through her show.
The TV personality and philanthropist opened the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa to help lift up underprivileged children. Winfrey's work in Africa inspired Ashi to continue her own education. She told her parents that she wanted to return to De Anza College to complete her degree when she got better, they said.
Winfrey validated something innate in Ashi: resilience, her father said. And that willingness to adapt and live to the fullest despite great adversity in turn inspired her parents.
People would see the family together and ask how they were living with such troubles, Mehri said.
"They told us, 'We don't get it. With what you have gone through, how come you are happy?'" she recalled.
"We said, 'We are happy we are alive and together, regardless of what happened in our life — losing the country, family, job position and possessions — and then she with the wheelchair. Here we are, thank you.
"What we thought would break us actually made us better and stronger," she said.
But when Ashi died in 2014, all of the color drained out of her parents' lives.
Since then, they have struggled every day to reclaim it. Mehri practices yoga, tai chi and qi gong, and she meditates each morning. Ashi is in her thoughts, always. When the pain is too great or when she wants to send Ashi love, she steps out onto a big rock outside her apartment and raises her arms, reaching out and throwing her thoughts and feelings to the wind.
"I send it off to the universe," she recently told the Weekly.
Mehri began to cry.
"I'm happy she's not here to suffer, but I miss her. I do set her free."
Rashidpour has coped in a different way. He wears an amulet around his neck containing some of Ashi's ashes.
He cherishes not only his memories but also feels the living spirit of his daughter: She continues to guide him, he said. He doesn't care that people see him talking out loud to Ashi and don't see anyone there.
"I would like to tell them: 'Yes, Ashi, my daughter, is alive. You know why? Because people you love don't really die,'" he said in one of his letters.
We talk to each other in my dreams.
You hear my thoughts and emotions and
I hear your beautiful voice in my head.
I say: Thank you for all the memories we have shared together and we are grateful
for having had you in our lives for an unforgettable fifty-two years.
You are listening to me and I am telling you again and again,
'You are part of our lives, dear one.
We are missing you desperately.'
I carry you in my heart every moment of the day and night.
I am missing your laughter.
I am missing the way you were talking and asking questions.
I tell you I regret very much not doing enough for you, and...
You tell me: 'Daddy, I know you are having a difficult time to let go, but I am here
in heaven and I am all right. ... Forgive yourself.'
I believe you. ... I close my eyes and I see you in my mind dancing as an angel.
I kiss you before I wake up and I hear you saying:
'We will see each other again one day, my dear Daddy.'"
Rashidpour reflected last month on his visions of Ashi — including the one that set him on a quest to reach out to Oprah Winfrey.
In a dream, he saw the word "gratitude" on the cover of a small book in Ashi's hand. She handed him the book and disappeared.
"I opened the book and saw one of her art works, a colorful shiny red painting in the shape of a butterfly. I woke up happy and excited. I saw the dream as a sign from her spirit telling me, 'Find a way to keep my memory alive,'" he said.
That message became the impetus for compiling a book of 52 of his letters and Ashi's colorings and paintings. He is trying to reach Winfrey to give her a copy of the book because she so helped his daughter, he said.
Rashidpour said the gift to Winfrey would make Ashi happy, but he also hopes to receive some advice on how to keep Ashi's legacy alive.
Mehri reads Winfrey's magazine every month. She recalled one profound statement in an article that summed up how she sees Ashi: The poet Maya Angelou asked Winfrey what she thought her legacy was.
"My legacy is the school," Winfrey had replied, Mehri said.
"No. Your legacy is every life you touch! It's every person who ever watched your show and felt something," Angelou had said.
The Rashidpours reached out to Winfrey's company seeking to get the book into her hands, but the family was unsuccessful, they said. Following an email from the Weekly to Winfrey's communications team asking for comment, a spokeswoman asked for the couple's contact information so that they might communicate directly. As of this week, the Rashidpours have not heard from Winfrey, they said.
With or without contact from Winfrey, the couple is pressing on to preserve Ashi's legacy.
Rashidpour told the Weekly Ashi appeared in one of his reveries: "Daddy Joon," she said, using the affectionate term for her father in Farsi, "as I see it, you have done your work, and it helped you to write about what happened to us. ... You could send the book to anybody who is interested to know how you as a father got over your depression and how my ever-present spirit came out to be your guardian angel." Rashidpour said he is seeking a sponsor to help get the book published so that other parents who have lost children can perhaps find solace. The couple also is hoping to find someone who would help set up a website where they can post family photos and Rashidpour's letters, and where other parents can share their own experiences and support each other.
Grief such as the Rashidpours' is common and lifelong, Gillan said, and there is no "best" way to cope with it.
"You can't therapize grief. It is something that people find unique ways to process. No one size fits all," she said.
Kara helps many parents whose children have died. For some, joining a support group allows them to be witnessed and heard. The nonprofit offers peer-group counseling in which people are linked by similar experiences: parents of special-needs children; others who have lost a loved one to suicide, or cancer, or homicide.
If grief, often linked with other underlying conditions, leads to self-harm, alcoholism and substance abuse or other behaviors, then that's another level of concern requiring additional help, Gillan said.
Cultural upbringings can also influence how one processes grief.
Rashidpour, who was raised in Iran, recalled the story of the "patience stone": "In Old Persia, the patience stone was used as a kind of psychological cure for the people with severe depression and mental problems of life. They advised the depressed person to find a stone and sit in front of it. They asked him or her to tell the stone all his or her problems and whatever bothered (the person). They advised him or her to talk as long as it takes and then wait what would happen.
"The belief was that, after the patient finished his story, suddenly the stone would explode and the patient would be cured.
"And this is what happened to me," he said.
On Feb. 3, 2018, as he was finishing writing the last pages of the "Dear Ashi" book, Rashidpour was getting up from the table and — although he can't remember why — he suddenly fell down so hard that he injured himself and could not move his left foot. Paramedics came to his aid.
"They took me to (the) emergency (room), and the next day a good surgeon operated on my leg. When I was in the ambulance I remembered the 'patience stone' and told to myself maybe I, too, told my pain to Ashi — and I exploded too," he said.
Anyone who is grieving and in need of someone to talk to can contact the grief nonprofit Kara at 457 Kingsley Ave., Palo Alto; 650-321-5272; or kara-grief.org.
WATCH IT ONLINE
Hear Ebrahim and Mehri Rashidpour tell their story in a video produced by Videographer Veronica Weber, posted at Youtube.com/paweekly/videos.
This story contains 3137 words.
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