Junk

On one of my last trips home when Ma was still alive, they had moved to a new place. She was still lugging around some of my stuff – old books, certificates, gold medals from the old place. I brought some of it back with me after she died, but I didn’t get the medals. Those medals gave her more joy than they gave me.

The last few weeks have been really hard for some reason. She is ever present and her memories come hit me when I’m least expecting it. It’s been raining and I miss her more in the rains. All of my childhood comes alive when it rains. We started packing lunches for Arhan for his school and it brought back memories when she was counting down the days to my US departure, verbally rejoicing the end of the days when she would have to pack my lunch. She packed me lunch as a 22 year old graduate student at the university of Mumbai. That was her way of coping with my imminent departure.

I was a diligent student. I woke early to study and I worked hard at my studies with classes, coaching classes, study groups etc. She was a huge support system for that. They both were. My dad would drive me places when i was younger but when I could drive his duties dropped off. She didn’t let off. She would wake up shortly after me, make me tea and sometimes hang out drinking tea while I studied. She would show up randomly at my classes with food. And she always packed me food if she could help it.

When I got the PHD she took a tacky photocopy and had it framed and hung it up in her living room. The horror! She was too cheap to get a color copy! I should have just given her the real degree which I kept buried somewhere with my papers. The other day I found the degree and my old degrees and certificates while cleaning up and unpacking. My first thought without registering was – I should just give this to Ma to hold on to. And then i remembered that she wasn’t there. And Baba didn’t have a place of his anymore – a room in Didi’s new rented flat since they moved in. Nobody had space for my accolades (junk) anymore and I’d just have to hold onto them myself. Ironically that evening at a dinner party, a guest was talking about how her son left all his important stuff with mom and I felt a stab of sorrow having just come to terms with that sad reality that very morning. People with young and alive mothers were so lucky and fortunate to have them save their junk and even treasure it for them.

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Backpacking on the PCT

Months ago when my mother died, the only books I read were about death and mother loss. Now I read some other books but those books are still attractive to me. One book I read was Wild about a girl who lost her mother and then everything else and went to hike on the PCT for three months. I knew I probably couldn’t replicate that but in those days the only peace I got was alone outdoors. So I signed up to do this backpacking trip sponsored by REI this Labor Day weekend.

I flew out to SFO and stayed with my friend Ujj for a night. I had ill planned the trip with virtually no training, purchasing gear only Tuesday before I left. I also asked Ujj if I could borrow her pack. On the day before I had an 11 hour work day. Arhan also started school and Bharath managed the whole thing. Even though he had been encouraging of the trip before, typically he was annoyed I was leaving for the long weekend. I packed my stuff in silence, and half didn’t want to go. But I knew I had to and somehow I wanted to just get away from this frenzy of the move and settling in a new city that my mother would never see again and in which I had last celebrated her birthday ten years ago.

On Friday a trip to REI in Oakland had me with a new backpack because the borrowed one wasn’t large enough. I started the painful drive out of the Bay Area at 4 pm on a holiday weekend. It was long and boring and I intermittently stressed about things I hadn’t packed, grieving my mom this weekend of 10 months since her death, raging against everything else about my life and that included Bay Area traffic.

I reached Cold Creek Inn at Mt Shasta where I had a reservation for the night at 10.15 pm. It took 6 hours but i was there and I crashed for the night. Next morning I woke at 5.30 am thanks to continental jet lag and began repacking my pack. At 7 am I breakfasted at Yak’s coffee shop in a block otherwise known as downtown Mt Shasta. I watched amusedly, the car show of vintage cars owned by rich old white men and admired by the poor old white men of Shasta town.

Day 1

Day 1 of the hike began at the parking lot of the inn with gear check. We thinner down the gear we brought. The stuff I excluded were 1) utensils in excess of a spoon and bowl and cup 2) camp towel 3) day pack 4) bags carrying the sleeping bag. They added to our personal stuff, group gear like tents, cooking pots and food. We got some good pre info on the tour including how we were going to use the trowel for backcountry bathroom. More on that later.

We got tips on lowering weight by taking out extra bags, organizers. Took out a lot of personal items but took some “luxury” like deo for me. I took 2 pairs of clothes and more socks. Layers. But everything needed thought about adding unnecessary ounces and weight.

The REI van dropped us to the trailhead to Deadfall lakes. The packs weighed easily 35-40 lbs and we strapped them on. We got another dose of Leave No Trace. That is zero trash to be left on the trail except your poop.

We began the hike into the base camp area which we 3 miles. On the way we saw gorgeous vistas of the dry scree- filled, piney mountains. This part of the PCT is part of the Trinity Alps State park. We were not too far from the California forest fires. On the way we drank from fresh streams without filtering the water, pure snow melted from atop the mountains.

We reached base camp by Deadfall lakes. We learned how to set up the tents and inflate sleeping pads etc. We admired the beauty of the lake and settled in for the evening. The guides made a wonderful meal of chicken stir fry with fresh cut veggies, cooked pre packaged chicken and sauces. Not your average camp meal! We took a stroll by the lake before and saw the pitcher plant.

We had hot drinks after and I was ready to crash by sunset.

Day 2

We were woken up the next day to go on the short but high altitude gain hike of Mt Eddy, named after the first woman who hiked up Mt Shasta. The hike started slow and cool and picked up pace after breaks with the sun glaring down and the switchbacks winding to the top. We saw the remaining Deadfall lakes on the way up, slowly draining away over the summer heat and dryness. At some point the guide said I could go ahead as the group wanted frequent breaks and I was getting antsy. I wanted to walk alone as I wanted to think about my mother. I was doing this trip as a memory to her. I wanted to commemorate her on this day with the feeling I got when i was outdoors when I felt closest to her. I had extra time on the summit waiting for the others and took some time to think about my mother.

This was primitive backpacking. No toilets or showers. We had a trowel and we dig holes for number 2. We put used toilet paper in bags and put them back in our packs. We pulled our pants down whenever we needed to for number one. After one day it got strangely liberating to not have to wait in line. We also got very conscious very quickly of how much toilet paper to use (because we would carry it), how much we ate during the day (to optimize output), and overall how little we needed to be comfortable. On top of Mt Eddy I wanted to go to the bathroom so I took the trowel, dug my hole and enjoyed that experience with the wind in my face while I looked on at the indomitable Mt Shasta. That may have been the highlight of the trip for me!

I shared my tent with one of the girls and it was snug and comfortable. A complete stranger. And we both made sure we were comfy. We were most conscious of the gorgeous outdoor and how lucky we were to be there. Now on a loud flight or uncomfortable seat, it almost feels not that bad.

We ate wonderful meals prepared by the guides. Some freeze dried stuff but lots of fresh veggies. Our guides were absolutely wonderful young women who had mastered the outdoor at a very young age. One was a skier and mountaineer. The other had hiked the 2.6k miles of the PCT at 22 years of age. They knew about the outdoor, the back country, and they knew about wounded hearted women. They opened up the doors and possibilities that others have for me before on the trails.

Day 2 ended with a lovely swim in Deadfall Lake and a hot burrito meal at base camp.

Day 3

Day 3 had wiped out a lot of our group in exertion. One of the guides took us for a short hike south on the PCT to a natural spring. We saw incredible vistas of the mountains and learned about the flora from her. We also talked about our lives in ways only women can exchange. The three days outdoor had brought us closer and I wished they were friends for longer with me.

The smoke reminded us how lucky we were to have this and at any moment life could take it away from us. This and everything else. How small and petulant my thoughts were in contrast to those great mountains of the California Trinity Alps and to Mt Shasta.

We returned to the base camp and packed up our things. A slightly lighter load for all of us but fuller us. We hiked back out the three miles to trail head where we started and REI’s trusty van driver awaited.

I summited Eddy at the very moment my mother passed away 10 months ago. Nothing in the world I had done could have planned that. That hike was usually done on day 3 but the guides did it on Day 2. We started hiking at 830 am. I picked up pace on my own not because I wanted to race but because I felt the need to be alone. I yearned for her on that trail. I envisioned her face, her voice and her behaviors like she was next to me. I thought about how awed and concerned she would be and that she would not understand why I did things like running and hiking. But that was when she was alive. Now dead, I find her in these quiet hillsides away from the din outside and dealing with the din inside. I was atop that hill with her 10 months after she left me.

Summit

Sep 2 PST 11.45 am is Sep 3 IST 12.15 am. Precisely 10 months since my mother breathed her last. I wasn’t there to count down to the last few breaths as i waited outside with Baba. Didi and Kedar did that. Ironically I was in the bathroom with stress related belly ache.

I summited Mt Eddy in California on Sep 2 at that hour. Huffing and panting those last ten or so switchbacks under the glaring sun and wind at 9000 feet above sea level, I thought back to the breaths she took. I thought about the impact of her death on my life. How it had shut out the sun, driven me to a mad frenzy of grief and rage against people who I love dearly. How it has left me feeling lost and confused about what matters to my life. How I’m living mostly still in pain and oblivion, just trapped in my head. Did the altitude clear my head? Probably not. I still had my stress related belly ache and went to the bathroom atop Mt Eddy facing the indomitable Mt Shasta and inhaling the fire smoke from miles away where the forest fire raged outside like my own internal rage. Ironically the same thing I was doing when she died. I can’t help the anger and feel helpless against it at times. I don’t know to whom i should direct it and perhaps it really is towards me. So many months later, most folks have moved on. But my internal state has adapted to an external veneer that sometimes doesn’t hide what’s beneath. I think it does but probably doesn’t. Sometimes the pain feels old, sometimes fresh. But it’s always there and it was very much alive atop that mountain 10 months later. Just like Shasta, in the backdrop, hazy, waiting to explode.

She turned 72 in my heart and it’s popping confetti in there.

Said my five year old son on my dead mothers birthday. I was not as positive or poetic. I was just intermittent between sadness, grief, rage and resignation at my alternate reality. The reality that I live in feels very different from my external reality. One where my successful husband is moving us to a different city, with so many new possibilities and so much to potentially look forward to. I think maybe the change will be good for me because inside I’m stuck in the past. I’m stuck yearning for my younger days when she was alive and everyone was healthy and close to me. My family feels fractured, I am terrified of losing my father after having seen the impact of my mother loss on my life. Life continues to feel joyless even though I’ve adjusted back to behaving normally and the dead are the ones that got away from this dreariness. In contrast, other people’s families including the one I married into feel like they have that semblance of blissful normalcy that my own family will never experience again. It is forever changed irrevocably because the center that glued us together is missing. And yet in an odd sense, I carry about her essence in a way that I have never felt when she was alive. Doing mundane things, I feel her subsumed inside of me, in my thoughts and subconscious mind, ever present in the pain of her absence; her absence looming larger in the presence of others who surround me. It feels like a shadow stalking me at every moment. It’s unfair to her because she only loved me with everything and she loved happiness. Yet in her death, not anyone’s love can make up for her love lost. I have much to be thankful for and should be as poetic and grateful as my 5 year old but I feel contrite in my sadness.

Cycle of grief

Been decluttering in a bid to get ready for a cross country move. Ridding myself or cluttered memories of times gone past, of holidays and vacations etched in photographs, of people younger, and perhaps alive. One realizes then how long life has been and yet it feels short. Too short for my ma to have left. Such a long life and such little time to really savor it. This year my mother’s family has seen more deaths. My father is despondent. He’s also frail and I am fraught with fear of losing him too. I provide some solace perhaps to those who have lost loved ones or are in the process of losing them. In the midst of that my scabbed wound sometimes falls open. I relive my grief briefly through the eyes of others. And I am grateful to those who did this for me. Life seems to be now the events that happen between grief and pain.

The dream

I saw her in a dream after a really long time. At least in a dream that I remembered the next day. I’ve wanted to see her so badly in my dreams but there have been mornings that I’ve awakened, feeling like I needed to remember something but I couldn’t.

It was a strange dream, meshing weird reality with dreamlike occurrences. I recently joined a WhatsApp group of my old school mates. One of them reached out and left a voicemail about how sorry she was to hear about my mom. So the first part of the dream, I walk into an event and I see this girl. She is sitting with a picture of her late father. It’s Christmas Day. I think of my mother on Christmas Day. How she loved eating those plum cakes.

I spend the day at this event and I meet other people none of which I remember. But as I’m leaving the event I can’t find my phone. I eventually locate it in a bag. And while leaving I get a call from my mom.

She asks me when I’m coming home. How she had waited all day for me. I am racked with guilt that I was always feeling when I spent too much time outside. She begins to cry. She says she made all this food for me. I see a friend walking by that I haven’t met in years. I cup the phone and tell her, I can’t talk now it’s my mother and she’s crying on the phone.

I turn back to her. None of this conversation has words. It’s as if it’s communicated wordlessly. I can’t recall a single word that was said. Yet the conversation with her happened. And here’s the eerie part.

I knew she was dead.

Even though it was a dream, I was aware of the reality that she was dead. I asked her if she had eaten. Like I normally would. She tearfully said, she couldn’t eat the things she had made. As if they’d make her ill. She said that Baba would eat but she couldn’t. I walked outside and the girl who was sitting with her late fathers picture was waiting for me. I told her I had to get home soon to my mother. She was waiting for me. And that’s it, the dream ended.

These last few months and weeks have been hard. I’ve struggled with many of the things in my life. I’ve struggled with making sense of all the changes and how I need to face them. I’ve sought her out but to no avail. People say, talk to her, she will talk back. That hasn’t happened. Yet she spoke to me in this dream. Evoking that old sense of guilt and grief, that somehow I wasn’t there for her while she was waiting for me somewhere, while I was out. That even now somewhere she had made me dinner and was waiting.

UnMother’s Day

Grief has weird ways of manifesting. It was the Mother’s Day weekend. Weeks before it starts with slights from retailers and advertisers asking me to call my mom, to say I love you. Xoom asked me to send her the best gift of all – money transfer. Well she would have liked that. She used to periodically remind me about the money I needed to send Baba. For their rent and utilities. She would say, “Baba bokbe amake”. That is Baba would scold her for asking. He’d say, she will send it when she can. It wasn’t about ability. It was mostly because I would forget. I forget these things. I forgot to pay the gas bill for 6 months. I wanted to tell them sorry but my mom died 6 months ago. But that was an excuse. I just simply forgot. But there are other things I don’t forget. Like going to the consulate to attest the power of attorney documents that Baba needs to sell the flat. That I’ve been avoiding. Not just because it’s a demand on my limited time. Because it is. But more perhaps because somewhere deep inside that’s the space I have left of her. Where I lived with them and was happy. But that too I have to let go.

6 months on the pain is less acute and less debilitating. And more cognizance of the fact that my mother is departing from me in the space of time. That the deafening of the pain is muting my remembrance of her. I am in fear of forgetting who she was. What she did.

I feel afraid and unmothered. That I’m entirely on my own. Nobody anymore is losing their sleep over me like she did. It’s my loss and mine alone. Everyone else is either lost in their own misery or have moved on. Nothing remains except for reminders like these advertising gimmicks or painful days like their anniversary or birthdays. I feel lost and less lost at the same time. How could it be? How can I feel stable and desolate at the same time?

I came home after dinner with my son and husband for Mother’s Day. We had a lovely time. I then opened my phone to read the New Yorker. And I found my grief voice again in this piece. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-unmothered. I sat to read it and unbeknownst to me I began wailing. Grief has weird ways of manifesting.