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 had 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.