They depended on their parents for everything. Then the virus took both.

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Now the Ismael children — 13, 18 and 20 — are struggling to cope with
grief, but also with how to keep a car running, pay bills, be a family
Story byJohn Woodrow Cox
Photos bySalwan Georges

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.

Nanssy, 13, watches YouTube at her home in Sterling Heights, Mich.
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.

Nash, Nadeen and Nanssy visit their parents’ graves on Father’s Day.
‘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.What the pandemic is doing to the children of doctors and nurses
They depended on their parents for everything. Then the virus took both.
End of carousel
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.

A photo of Nameer Ayram and Nada Naisan, who moved their family from Iraq, which had grown increasingly dangerous for Chaldean Catholics.
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.