By: Farzana Hassan
Azeem Kayum's personal account of his struggle with a debilitating
illness forms the subject of his book entitled "Wrestling with the
Goddess". It is a story of courage, faith, resilience, perseverance
and an unflinching belief in oneself despite countless verdicts to
"Bad outcome of a good delivery" appears several times during the
retelling of the story as a reminder to the physical and emotional
pain Azeem suffered during his growing up years. The nagging sadness
caused by such a callous remark remains with him throughout the book
To be faced with ones mortality every day of ones life is a scenario
few of us have to deal with. While each human life is fragile, it is
that much more so in Azeem's case as his breadth, the very substance
of life, must perpetually reel between ventilators and trache tubes.
"I am being trained to become totally independent and I know I will
but not with my breathing" Azeem notes ruefully at one point.
Later, he goes on to explain the details of his condition warning the
reader about his inadequate reasoning and verbal skills in
communicating his thoughts. His articulation and writing are both
entirely lucid and coherent nonetheless.
He explains that his medical condition is extremely rare. "Odine's
Curse" named after the Greek goddess Odine, had affected only forty
known cases in the world until the year Azeem was born. According to
mythology, the goddess placed a curse on her human husband for his
unfaithfulness by stripping him of his ability to breathe
independently. The analogy applied to Azeem and others affected by
Odine's curse greatly hampers their ability to breath on their own.
Yet Azeem, with characteristic optimism concludes on Page 42
that "life is worth living." And despite his multiple disabilities,
Azeem decides to pursue all his interests and ambitions.
"Brain damaged, mentally retarded, slow learner" as the doctors have
always told him, Azeem surprises everyone including himself by
graduating with honors from Seneca College in 2002, but his academic
career had never been smooth as he faced many hurdles during grade
He recounts the painful incident during recorder class when he was
removed from the classroom because he experienced difficulty playing
an instrument which required controlled breathing. "I was insulted
before my classmates" he narrates. Such a ruthless attitude of the
music teacher who refused to provide Azeem the added support both in
terms of instruction and understanding, contributed to the
humiliation he suffered that day. Yet, with characteristic
determination he proved both his music teacher and class mates wrong
by playing the assigned recorder piece impeccably the next day.
Although there were many such disappointments and heartbreaks during
grade school years, Azeem expresses sincere gratitude towards most of
his teachers who bent backwards to help him overcome his handicap and
its associated pain. His "angels"as he calls his favorite teachers
include Mrs. Kim Smith, Mrs. Bev Carson and Jim Karr.
And Azeem never tires of relating the continued sacrifices of his
family. His father Faizal's emotional and moral support, his mother
Laila's academic help, his sister Lisaan's patience and understanding
are acknowledged numerous times in the book. He is equally grateful
to his extended family for their loving care and support.
But even the most perfect family can sometimes unknowingly cause
hurt. Azeem recalls the painful incident of being the only child
excluded from a family activity due to his disability. Although
generally finding his writing cathartic, Azeem is not able to
overcome the hurt and anger caused by such exclusion despite his
magnanimity as he relates the experience.
Faced with daily social, emotional, academic and physical challenges,
Azeem frequently reminds himself that he is "no quitter". He
therefore lovingly embraces life along with both the simple joys and
great pleasures it might send his way. The new leather jacket, prom
night with friends, Disney World, vacationing with his family and the
recognition he receives for his many acts of courage and academic
accomplishments all occupy an important place in the narrative.
Only a person with an unconditional zest for life could overcome the
countless obstacles and challenges when life itself seemed to elude
him on occasion.
Throughout his inspiring personal account, Azeem admits he wants to
be "normal". At one point he concludes that regardless of how others
may view him, he is definitely normal because "it really comes down
to a person's thinking."
Most human beings strive for greatness in their lives. Azeem wishes
only to be normal but without realizing it, he has achieved greatness
through his sheer hard work, courage and a resolute will to survive
despite all odds. He is both "normal" and great and has done ample
justice to his name, which means "great". A wonderful role model for
other children and adults with disabilities, Azeem has set a new
standard for bravery, wisdom, generosity and optimism. He is also a
role model for all "normal" people who may feel daunted by the daily
challenges of living
As I close I am reminded of American poet Emily Dickinson's line: "I
dwell in possibility". It sums up Azeem's story beautifully, for
this remarkable young man carved out numerous possibilities for
himself in spite of being told none of them could ever be within his