My dad loved all living things. I hope he is watching Animal Planet in heaven.

I am one of the thousands of NYC kids who lost a parent to COVID. Here’s what I want you to know about my dad.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

The writer of this essay is a 2023-24 Student Voices Fellow at Chalkbeat. Click to learn more about our high school fellowship program.

On the morning of my dad’s funeral in 2021, we saw a mourning dove on our Queens fire escape. This was fitting, not only because the bird symbolizes hope and rebirth but because my dad loved birds and animals of all kinds. He even had a special connection to a mourning dove who, years earlier, made its home on that very fire escape.

My dad, Shamsuddin, loved watching Animal Planet. Every morning before work and on weekends when he was off, he would sit with steaming hot coffee, his eyes glued to the screen. He worked long hours and woke up early to catch a train to Brooklyn. It seemed like the only time he could relax was when he was watching Animal Planet.

Headshot of a teenage girl with black hair. She wears a gray sweater.
Shamima Ahmed (Courtesy of Shamima Ahmed)

He was a nature guy, always planting and learning about the earth. His love for nature started when he was growing up in Bangladesh. My dad was from a big family and spent a lot of time outside, gardening and taking care of his family’s chickens and cows. Years later, after he immigrated to the U.S, he turned our small fire escape into a garden where he grew habanero peppers and greens. He nurtured his plants much the same way nurtured the people he loved.

He had such a love of life that it’s still hard to believe he’s gone.

I am one of the roughly 8,600 New York City children who, as of 2022, had lost a parent or caregiver to COVID. Nationally, more than 200,000 kids experienced such a loss; worldwide, that number exceeds 10 million. Without even knowing the other kids, I know it affected their lives, their school work, and their relationships. We are all still grieving. The need for support is immense. Nearly 7,000 New York City teens signed up for free online therapy through the city since it opened in November. There are surely students grieving various losses among them.

What helps me grieve my dad is remembering his kindness.

My dad was a simple man. His small corner in our hallway closet held his slacks and his button-down shirts, which he would wear either to work or to relax. He didn’t buy much for himself so that my mother, my two older siblings, and I could enjoy the luxury of getting clothes we wanted or needed.

He only really needed his family and his coffee. Yet looking at him you would think he’s the richest guy in the world because there was always a smile on his face, no matter how he felt or what was on his mind. I miss my dad’s smile. It was welcoming and comforting.

Photo of a father wearing a white top and a white hat sits with his young daughter, who is wearing a multicolored dress.
A young Shamima Ahmed celebrates Eid with her father, c. 2009 (Courtesy of Shamima Ahmed)

My dad would make me coffee to have with the Parle G. sugar biscuits that he would buy in bulk just for me. Coffee and biscuits in hand, we would sit together and watch Animal Planet. Our favorite show was “River Monsters,” where a guy named Jeremy Wade makes underwater discoveries across the globe. Whenever it wasn’t on, my dad would make me put it on YouTube so he could rewatch old episodes.

He had an unquenchable thirst for learning. There would be times he would tap me while I was sitting near him and tell me about some fish on the screen because he found it so interesting. Other times, he’d make me call my mom in from the kitchen to see. He didn’t keep his passions to himself. He loved sharing knowledge and gifts.

Whether it was surprising my mom with new plates for the kitchen or cooking our family the biggest and most expensive fish he could find in the supermarket, my dad was always giving. If he knew that my siblings, my mom, or I liked something, he would buy that item in bulk the next day if he could. His presence was so admirable that it makes his absence absolutely soul-crushing.

Animals must have sensed his compassion. One day, around three or four years before my dad died, a mourning dove made a nest on our fire escape. My dad helped the bird make a better nest for the eggs inside and kept checking up on it. Then one day, the bird flew away, and we never saw it again. But on the morning of my dad’s funeral, a mourning dove — maybe even the same one — came back. It cooed on my fire escape while the sun shone through the window. Ever since then, when my family and I see a mourning dove, we think it’s my dad. It’s his way of keeping his love alive.

I hope my dad can get Animal Planet in heaven. I hope he is catching up on the episodes of “River Monsters” and thinking of his family.

Shamima Ahmed is a senior at Central Park East High School and a 2023-24 Chalkbeat Student Voices fellow. She will be attending Babson College in the fall, and hopes to earn a degree in business with concentrations in entrepreneurship and business analytics. She aspires to be a business owner and start a clothing brand that focuses on inclusivity and equity.