There

I lie next to my son at night before he falls asleep. Or sometimes on Saturday afternoons, he snuggles to me while I read a book or fail to take a nap. It takes me back to an older time, blended summer days, when I laid next to my mom in the afternoons as she took a nap, reading books or waiting impatiently for her to wake up. Sometimes I’d fidget, just like my son does and she would sharply admonish me to lay still. I would lay there, looking at the ceiling, not daring to breathe, lest I rake her wrath once more. I would tiptoe out eventually, out of boredom, to go find something else to do. No television, no phones, nothing but brown, cracking paperback books from the circulating library, me and my mother. In those quiet afternoons, when even the streets of Bandra rested in siesta, I spent a charming childhood.

Another memory floats to me. I’m at extra coaching classes for a looming exam. We take a break after two hours. I’m salivating at the thought of a spicy streetside sandwich and I count my money, walking downstairs to the street. I see my mother standing there (standing tall as usual), with a box of hot food. I was most disappointed to see her, seeing my sandwich dream disappear. But last week, on a late night flight home, I was hungry and I suddenly thought of her standing there with that hot food. I imagined then how it must have been. She would have hung up on the telephone after I called to tell her class would be running for an extra two hours. She’d have walked into the kitchen, cooked the food. Then she would have gotten dressed, walked to the nearest bus stop, 15 minutes under the hot setting summer sun. She would have waited another 15 minutes for the next bus. Paid the bus fare to maybe get a seat on the bus. After 20 minutes she would have embarked, and walked another 15 minutes to the street where the teacher ran his coaching classes in a shopping mall (hence the street food). Then, after I’d ungraciously accepted her sacrifice, she would have made the same journey back. Or maybe she waited around, I don’t remember. It’s quite possible she did and then took the bus back with me later that night, to make sure I was safe. I was 16.

Or another memory that floated up as I was looking for tights in my drawer to wear to yoga. During my wedding trip, my mother-in-law asked us to buy black tights to wear under the 9 yard sari. Neither of us understood the purpose. But we scoured the streets of Chennai at designated spots but couldn’t find anything appropriate. I finally found biking shorts. It wasn’t quite appropriate and it stressed my mother out no end. She kept her lips pursed tightly throughout that trip. At the wedding, during the sindoor ceremony, there were 3 people I remember by my side. The priest, my husband and my mother. People came, talked to me, left. They flittered here and there. Others flustered around. My wedding was a 6 hour affair. My mother sat next to me from 4 am to 1pm. We were scurried away to the registrar right after. The registration took 2 hours, even with palm greasing of the officials and a broker. She was a witness to the civil document and gave me sombre advice to not try to change my husband. Sage advice indeed.

She had a single pointed mission. Her daughters. No matter what, how or where, she was always there. My friend Debbie, who lost her mother at 13, told me how she missed out on so much. Ironically, I told her, that in college I envied that she was answerable to no prying mother. She told me that it came at a hefty price. I know, I know. The price of losing a mother at 13 is immense. At 38 it is hefty. At 13, I couldn’t imagine it. I gave a ridiculously stupid speech at my high school graduation on why mothers shouldn’t work because I couldn’t imagine my mother not being there. (thanks for the vote of confidence one of my teachers told me). Shame on me, I was immediately chastised. And look at me now, I work so much. And I can’t be the mother I had. And sometimes I can’t be the mother I want because it is so hard to grieve and be present. I wish she could be there now when I need her so much. I wish I hadĀ that Ma who was around all the time. But I think to myself, I haven’t had that Ma for a long time. Age and sickness ate away at her sharpness, her keen intellect. Her calm presence.

Is this grief the same as the pang of sadness I feel when I see myself younger or my preK son as a toddler, wishing I could have those people back? Is this grief the same as that I feel for my mother when I was 16? Is it the yearning for those listless summer afternoons? Is it the same as I feel that she’s not with me to navigate being a mom, a wife, a grown-up woman? Perhaps it is nothing more than that. Just like my son grows up and will never be that gurgling baby again, my mother grew up and blew away to the wind. All I have now are those memories of her always being there and I hope someday I will feel that she is there now too. But I don’t. I just feel the chasm. Until then I’ll be in grief.

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Narrative

I heard a beautiful podcast on NPR on grief and loss. A journalist interviewed her mother after her father passed away. Her mother couldn’t understand herself anymore in the absence of a 51 year partnership. A bee keeper and his wife that lost their livelihood overnight. Loss can by many. It can be varied. And our reaction to the loss can be many and varied. But fundamental to loss is a narrative about ourselves. With that loss, we are unable to resurrect from a different narrative. We spin around and around in ways in which we try to rationalize how we could have saved ourselves from this pain had we acted differently. Blame others. Blame ourselves. But the podcast ends saying that it’s still necessary despite what experts say to go through this in order to construct a different narrative.

The story was beautiful. A wife struggling to make sense of her life after her healthy, vital husband was suddenly taken away from her. They shared everything together. But it was only when she was able to shift the narrative from her loss to what he loved and lived for, she made an exponential jump. Literally, she parachuted out of a plane to remind herself and share with him the experience of jumping out of an airplane. He was a paratrooper during the war and it was a wonder that he came back alive. It was her way of sharing what they hadn’t shared and she wanted to “meet him in the skies”. I’ve been thinking about the story ever since. I’m not ready yet for that plunge. Neither is my dad. He is really struggling now more than ever with her loss. Living alone amidst a thousand things that remind him of her daily. “Sriti bhulte parchina” he says. It breaks my heart into a million pieces. But after that story I know he has to do it. He has to go through the pain of re-narrating the story again and again. Of kicking himself for not taking a second opinion earlier. Ironically this morning before I talked to him that’s exactly what I was ruminating over. On the flight to India when she was in ICU, I read Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. I was armed with all kinds of end-of-life questions for the doctors and my family. I feel it was so naive now. How clueless I was about how I would reel from this loss. How unprepared I was for the aftermath. And we had such little control. She was at the mercy of those doctors who without admitting had such little control either. They were in the medical equivalence of throwing a thousand darts at her body, disregarding her as a human being and us as a grieving family. I too have profound rage for each one of those doctors whose callous responses and inability to see the larger picture condemned my mother to a despairing end. I cannot live down the trauma of those last days. I cannot forget her helplessness. Or our futility. How pointless it all seems – the reading of those medical journals and discussions on minutiae of her vitals. How stupid it all seems in the face of this gaping hole. I, like my father cannot spin any different narrative. I too cannot get on with it. I slip back into the funk. Just like he does. I have complete empathy for my dear old Baba. And while Baba’s loss is singular and profound, I find my own grief just reflected in everything else, like a cracked mirror. I tell myself that I need to also go through this if I want to patch back up what I hold dear. ForĀ  another loss I couldn’t stomach.

Nothingness

Our laundry machine has been broken for the last few months. We have been trying to get it fixed, unsuccessfully and it has become a poetic source of annoyance. Here I am unable to wash my clothes at home. I have to wash my dirty laundry outside. Just like how no matter who I speak with, only writing into this empty vacuum of a blog post gives me some sense of respite from my inner thoughts. Why? Because there is no feedback. People are welcome to read it and be shocked or saddened. I’m indifferent to that feedback. I just want to spit it out here so I can remember what this felt like, should I ever be so glib to forget.

The writing is predicated by my perceived failure of others to absorb my rage and sadness from grief. It is also predicated by my preconceived resignation to the fact that no one really would get it. Yet I’m surprised pleasantly when some people do. I’m also surprised by the surprise and my low expectations of my close relationships. In some ways I’ve been so disappointed by people’s inability to acknowledge and recognize sorrow other than a commiseration with some experience they may have had, that I find it pointless to speak to anyone about how I feel anymore. I write them off before they’ve had a chance. But it has to go somewhere, these thoughts.

I’ve received suggestions to try all sorts of things. Therapy, walks and meditation. I’ve only picked on the things that seem natural to me such as hiking and yoga which have no doubt been helpful. Ive also tried grief therapy to help assess the spillage into other aspects of life – work, family etc. An expensive resort but no doubt also helpful to normalize what seems to me, so abnormal. In the beginning I was irked by the comment of normalcy but now it helps to remind myself that it is normal. Why it does is because of the statements I tend to get.

I’ve been suggested to take anti depressants. For reasons apart from avoiding unnecessary interventions, the suggestion is frankly appalling from a lack of incomprehension about what grief is about. Grief has symptoms similar to depression – which has symptoms so myriad it’s easy to mirror those. But it’s not as all pervading as depression. Just because I feel that participating in normal activities is pointless doesn’t mean I will forever think so. I’ve gotten pretty good at pretending I enjoy normal life. That in itself will be a road to more such normalcy. The only thing that holds me back is a thought that I shouldn’t get lost anymore in those activities that I lose the essence of what I’ve learned about myself. So in that sense it does feel like depression because joys are so fleeting and unsustaining. But isn’t that true of life in general? All that grief has done is highlighted that. That I may enjoy something for a brief while but it will pass and when it does, the grief rushes back in. However over time, it gets slower to rush in and there are moments of nothingness. Where it’s neither joy nor sorrow. And it’s those moments of peace and nothingness that should matter. When my mind isn’t wreaking havoc, when my feelings aren’t taking over and crushing me down. I don’t need the joys. I need the nothingness more than anything else. Because it’s in those moments that I fleetingly feel that essence of my mother. And I realize somehow that my physical sense of loss maybe on its way to transmuting to a feeling of acceptance her in that sense. It takes but a few seconds of disruptive thoughts for that to disappear. So I need to write it down when it feels like that.

That’s why the suggestion of drugs is ludicrous. I don’t want to feel numb to the pain. I want to feel it in all its intensity. Like the way I felt the intensity of childbirth with no pain meds. One cannot skirt around the concept of pain. Pain exists for a reason. Loss exists for a reason.

The other suggestion is intense meditation. I’ve considered that strongly and maybe that’s in my future someday. But I’m no spiritual seeker. I only seek my mother. My dead mother who I just want to touch and bring back. So to the extent this pain is a reminder for her I am okay with it. I have all the room for it. Because only through this pain can I get those fleeting moments of her presence enveloping me. Hence I’ve put the meditation on a hold lest it take me away from thoughts of her.

And finally the statements I’ve shied away from are those that ask me to step away from grief. To “get back to normal”. As if normal is a static state. And perfection to aspire to. Nothing is normal until you accept it to be. To me acceptance of this pain and everything that comes with it – changing moments of peace to rage to sorrow to nothingness – is normal. If there are those who fail to see it or choose to skirt around it have no use for me. I cannot provide solace to their inabilities. Yet I have sometimes given in and pretended to cater to their little thoughts. But even that pretense takes a toll and itself lends to the range of rage and sorrow. So I find it counterproductive.

I’ve also heard statements about how “she wouldn’t want me to feel like this”. My three responses to that. “Well she shouldn’t have fucking died”. When the initial rage is past, it’s more cold anger about the presumption on how she would feel. How would she? How would we ever know? How would anyone ever know? That she would be happy if we didn’t skip a beat and moved on? And finally it’s an acceptance of the fact that people don’t know what to say and that they maybe partially right. I can imagine her feeling distraught at my state. “Amader koshto hoye”, she would say when I ever told her I was sad. But the burden is greater now that I carry her sorrow and my own, and those of my father and sister.

In some moments of alarming clarity, I feel the love towards all in my life. Where I’m not angry with them for disappointing me with their emotional stuntedness and my own emotional depravity to hold grudges, where I feel towards them the love and tenderness my mother afforded to me no matter how I treated her. She must have lived through a thousand disappointments with us all and may have lamented about how we were never really there for her. How self absorbed we were in our own lives and so oblivious to her physical decay. Why it came as such a shock as to how ill she was. She should be disappointed too but she probably isn’t. She loved me nevertheless with a benevolent charm and knowing that it didn’t matter in the end. That in the end all that matters is how hard you worked to give love a chance. That to me is the essence of all life, that gives the feeling of the peace that nothingness provides, where normalcy is restored and joys and sorrow do not weak havoc. That is why to me, coming back to her and the sense of peace, belonging and love that I felt with her is the only spiritual quest that matters.

Dad

How is your dad, most people ask me. It’s a relevant question but I also get it as a sidestep that most people don’t have the wherewithal to ask me how I am. It used to irk me before but now I pause to think how to answer. How is my dad?

In a general sense, he is much better than he was a few months ago, like all of us. He has settled into a routine. He has has own place. When I visited recently, the kitchen was all set up. He was getting used to being by himself. He hadn’t really had a chance until after I left. So it’s really been only a month or so that he’s had to live alone. The aloneness of it all is finally sinking in. From morning to evening, if he chooses, he could see no one. Some days he walks over to my sisters house, somedays he chooses to stay at home. He gets a sense of independence and more so, lack of dependence on my sister if he’s able to make a meal every now and then.

My father is a sharp old man, he’s always been engaging and thoughtful. He is a thinking man yet does not over intellectualize things. He enjoys talking about and partaking in sports, literature, politics and current affairs. But he also likes talking about his deep cultural connections to Bengali food, theater and music. He and Ma would watch plays, movies (he was much more selective), music programs etc. They would banter together in their own benign way about their feelings on the shows. Ma was more mainstream than him. But in someways she had her own subtle leanings.

For us, her loss has been a tectonic realignment of the family. She was a buffer for us all. The three of us are garrulous and loud. Opinionated and unrelenting. She was the antidote to us all. Within us and counting my brother in law, one rarely knows who’s listening. So without her it feels like metal on metal. There’s friction. There’s acknowledgement of the possibility of friction that we judiciously now avoid.

Baba says he doesn’t know what to do with himself. He laments it would have been easier for Ma to adjust to life without him. I remind him that he’s doing very well under the circumstances. He talks about her, he remembers her. He doesn’t deny his grief. But he is also not a broken man. Heartbroken perhaps. But not defeated by life. He participates in everything and takes very good care of himself.

I’ve always been partial towards my father. I’ve always overemphasized sometimes his impact on me. But I know now how much that was underscored by my mother. She was really the bedrock. And together they were a unit – the argued, debated, snapped at each other. They were never passive aggressive but just aggressive and spared no one from their wrath. But they were also kind and believed that life always had second chances.

All the room

At the deepest level, my bereavement for my mother feels like a broken link to this world to where I can’t seem to make sense of my place in it anymore. It never used to be like this. I was very sure of my place in the world and how I thought that I fit in. I feel like I’ve lost my bearings. That I need to re-assess what my role is or how to live the rest of my life. The last time I felt like this was when I was 23 and a brand new graduate student in the US. It felt unnerving not knowing how to navigate life without my parents’ guidance and learning things the harder way. It feels like that yet again but now my mother is dead and my father probably is in the same obfuscating fog as myself.

Undoubtedly, being witness to her slow yet sudden passing has brought front and center the triviality of anything pursuable or obtained. Even motherhood feels like a role to be fulfilled until it’s my turn to turn into oblivion. But is it oblivion?

People say you can talk to her, you feel her. And sometimes in a few snatches, when I’m not selfishly self-absorbed in the suckiness of my life situation, when it feels just a little less foggy maybe I do. I don’t know I can’t put a finger to it.

When someone dies, you slowly forget their physical presence. In any case, I’d rather not remember my mother in the physical state of her last few days. But while I examine my inner connection to her, her essence seems to envelope me in an effervescence I can never quite define or hold on to. It’s only fleeting. Sometimes I feel it while watching a tree. Sometimes it’s while driving that I’ll recall her image, standing tall, waiting for me somewhere (she waited on me everywhere – school, coaching classes, parties always standing tall). Or I’ll remember her slouching on the couch, with her glasses perched atop her nose, delving into one of her spiritual books. She had a yearning for the divine and yet she was firmly rooted in the material joys. Even those joys were always connected to her enjoyment of the people that she loved around her. Simone de Beauvoir neatly describes this dichotomy that she had with her mother, a devout catholic who was also vainly conscious of how she looked or her fortune to be in a private hospital in her memoir devoted to her mother’s slow death by cancer in Paris some 73 years ago. How her mother struggled with the weakness of the flesh that was induced in her by her disease and yet after her passing what remained shining was how she grew vaster than everything else in Simone’s life.

The memoir translated from French is eerily reminiscent of my experience.

“When someone you love dies, you pay for the sin of outliving her with a thousand piercing regrets. Her death brings to light her unique quality; she grows as vast as the world that her absence annihilates for her and whose whole existence (I read this as the world) by her being there; you feel as if she should have had more room in your life, all the room if need be.” – Simone de Beauvoir, A Very Easy Death.

Well, I feel now that Ma has all the room she ever needed in my life. All the room I could ever afford her as much as I feel she expands in this cosmos around me. Does that mean I feel less grief in losing her physical sense? No. I’m still at the stage where i want her back. But I do feel grateful that it’s helped me pivot to something deeper inside, something no one else would ever understand or need to know, except for her. Something irreducible to words – just an essence and an experience. While it’s not a recommendable experience to join this club, no – it is painful to emerge through the death of your mother and to date I don’t see the other side of this pain and fog – it is an experience that i wouldn’t trade in just like i wouldn’t trade in the trials of motherhood. It is essential and mandatory and each person will go through it differently.

There are some days that the fog lifts and I feel her and other days just her absence makes everything unbearable. In between the spectrum of these two states I want to give her all the room to remold me and show me how to live out the rest of this exhausting life.

Air

Someone told me a few lines of a poem today and it goes something like this… “I want to be the air that you breathe, still and unnoticed, essential”.

I never truly saw my mother until she was gone. And like the air that I breathe, she was like an envelope surrounding me. I walked, ate, persevered with that breath and somehow didn’t even realize the essence of it.

I often wonder about why I grieve so hard. I’ve been asked that as well – “why are you so affected?” Or “you’ve taken this really hard”. Or worse, “this happens, parents die, you need to move on”. I don’t know if I’ve taken it harder than expected because to me it felt like someone punched my guts out. The reaction is not staged or pretense it’s visceral and it comes from inside me. And it has changed everything. Everything seems broken, cleaved or cracked. I myself feel distended within, misaligned, off-kilter. It’s difficult sometimes to parse through reasonable information to make reasonable decisions. It’s like I’ve got these glasses on that I can’t take off and the world is just a completely different hue.

But wonder why I’m so aggrieved. And the only answer I can think of is that she was the essence to my existence. The platform over which I built my life. Yet when i go back to my old writings, I find very little I had to say about her. I was very vocal about the impact of my dad on my life. But my mother receded in the background. And so there she was like the air that I breathed…invisible and essential. The world just feels like a little less oxygen today. Everything else is a passing fragrance.

I was on a flight this week when an elderly woman – she couldn’t have been too much younger than my mother – stood by my seat and buckled to her knees. I first assumed she was drunk but realized quickly she just wasn’t well. Drunk or not, she needed help. With the help of others we heaved her onto my seat and she let out this deathly gasp, her eyes reeling backwards. For a brief few seconds there I thought she was going to die. I was horror stricken and the trauma of watching my mother gasp for breath in her last few conscious hours came flooding back. I recoiled thinking about the moment when she was fighting off an oxygen mask while I was being rushed by the medics to authorize intubation. Watching this woman gasp was a numbing trigger. Eventually she recovered and went back to her seat but I hope she saw a doctor.

On that flight I ruminated a lot about dying and really tried hard to imagine how it would be to die without hurting anyone. I conceded that was impossible. Even though my mother died into her older years, she left behind a wake of sorrow for her husband and her family. There’s just no escaping this sense of loss. As much as I could wish, no matter how i try I can’t protect my own child from this sorrow.

And yet in her death, I’ve given her more love, more outpouring of feeling than I ever did when she was alive. I’ve thought about her every minute of everyday since the day she died. I’ve willed against life and hated this reality where she’s no longer there. Where she can’t talk back to me as much as I beg her to come back and be my mother again. To be standing there waiting, outside a building where I toiled – always waiting for me patiently. Always there. Like the air that I breathe.

House

There is an old house in my mind. A flat in a busy dusty city. In the upper middle class neighborhoods. In a bustling colony. Where I spent hours in the company of my mother, the proverbial stay at home mom. Far from a helicopter parent of today, she was mostly focused on keeping house, me out of trouble and putting dinner on the table.

In this old flat, that my father moved us to in 1997, I grew close to my mother and father. I spent hours talking to them, laughing, crying, disagreeing. In this old flat we saw our family fracture in many ways and in many ways we glued together. In this old flat, I went through the heartaches of first love and grew closer to my mother. We used to take evening walks where I outpaced her (and remembered how as a child she always walked too fast). We would go out to eat or catch a movie. Blissful days. When I see young girls today with their moms my heart skips a beat. On a flight the other day, a mom and daughter separated, clearly exhausted with each other after a trip. I envied their luxury of separation.

That old flat has been up for sale for months now. It preoccupied my mother even in her last few days. She of course died without a will. I had to send a no objection certificate to allow my father to sell the flat. It appears still legal hurdles exist for us to sell it. It’s ironic that her death has held up the sale that she eagerly wanted to complete while she was alive.

There are many slights in the reminders of grief. The work needed to get affairs in place is a replete with grave insults. Thinking about Baba bursting into tears with the bank teller while changing the account information or for him to express despair and loss at the confounding legal hurdles to do something she wanted is agonizing.

More so because I have happy memories in that house with her and him. I exclusively devoted my time to them in those years. Eager to grow up and move out, Little did I know how much I would yearn for those days. While it is a hassle and unnecessary reminder for Baba I’m still reminiscing about the flat in my mind.

And one day just like that it will be gone. Just like her. Drawing another line in the sand of my life, another step closer to ending the chapter in my life. Yet with all this I’ve found that life is not a straight line. We move in circles, squiggles and convoluted criss crosses. Coming back to old memories and turning points, wondering how it could have been.