Even if you didn’t know Abhi, the way Pratik and Sangeen Shah talk about their late son can make you feel as though you did.
He was intensely thoughtful and detail-oriented, traits that were as evident during shopping trips with his mother as they were when he cheered up friends and family members with jokes and gifts. He was a people person, who loved hosting guests and whose high school pre-homecoming gatherings seemed to swell from five invited friends to a hundred in the blink of an eye.
But when Abhi—then a junior at Michigan State University—passed away in November 2016 at the age of 20, Pratik and Sangeen came to learn even more about their son from the people whose lives he had touched. A MSU hallmate of his remembered once being sick, and Abhi picking up medication and checking on him every few hours. Abhi’s former teachers at Novi High School said he had stayed in touch through college, updating them frequently on the steps he was taking toward a career in business.
“I sometimes feel like it’s so hard to live in his shoes,” says Sangeen.
In their son’s honor, Pratik and Sangeen established the Abhi Shah Foundation, which works to enrich the lives of foster children in Michigan. Abhi had always liked spending time with young children, says Pratik. “So we said, how about we keep Abhi alive in those little kids?”
They partnered with the Methodist Children’s Home Society, a residential community for children in the foster care system. The foundation’s goal now is to build and refurbish housing facilities for foster children while also providing them with programming like therapy, life-skills classes, and recreational activities.
In one of his last posts on social media, Abhi had tweeted, “Go out of your way to help someone every day. You’ll sleep better.” That maxim became the foundation’s slogan.
“By doing this, we are keeping him alive,” says Pratik. “If it’s selfish, I don’t know. But continuing his legacy of helping is very fulfilling.”
Several months after establishing the Abhi Shah Foundation, the couple began thinking about their next chapter. “The foundation was doing absolutely great and we were getting busy. But there was a loneliness,” says Pratik.
“A void,” Sangeen says. “Emptiness.”
They wondered every day: were they really living? Or just breathing? Friends and family members reminded them that they were still young, with their whole lives ahead of them. Some suggested adopting a child or even getting a pet.
A cousin in Chicago put Pratik and Sangeen in touch with a physician who had helped his family with IVF. Thanks to the wonders of modern medicine (“Technology, injections, you name it!”), the Shahs ended up with seven healthy embryos. Though their doctor warned that it would be a high-risk pregnancy if Sangeen were to carry a child, he suggested finding a surrogate to carry the child.
They reached out to various agencies, searching for potential matches (Michigan had few options, so they expanded their search nationally). After six months of waiting, they were matched with a 23-year-old woman from Kansas City, Missouri. They had an introductory Skype interview and clicked. “She turned out to be an amazing person,” says Sangeen. She provided the Shahs with regular progress updates, letting them know things like when their baby had grown to the size of a lemon or started kicking.
The Shahs kept the news private at first, sharing their decision to have a child with only a few close family members. When their daughter was born in November, Pratik let a broader circle know and made it clear in the announcement that the birth was the result of a surrogacy process. But none of their friends were wary or judgmental upon learning the news. “They completely forgot about surrogacy. They just said, ‘You have a beautiful child,’” says Pratik. “If they are really your well-wishers, they will look at that child and the happiness around you.”
They understand that many are curious about the process, simply because they’re unfamiliar with it. “Keep an open mind,” Pratik would say to them. “It’s your own child, somebody’s just helping you to bring that beautiful angel in this world.
Are they nervous to begin the journey of parenting all over? “To be honest,” Pratik says, “it’s making me feel like I’m young again.” The two decided to have a second child via surrogacy, a son who is due in June.
Their daughter, approaching four months when we meet her, is swathed in fuzzy blankets, dozing in a baby bouncer near the kitchen. Sangeen wanted a name that began with ‘A’ to honor her late son, and when she came across the name ‘Alina’ in her research, she knew she had found the perfect one: It means light.