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.

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Happy Anniversary Ma

Ma loved birthdays and anniversaries. There was always a celebration of these occasions. Usually with dinner parties that she would cook for and make enormous amounts of food from scratch. Fish, mutton, vegetables and her world famous flaky soft pulao. Hand-rolled chops and cutlets. She never cut herself any slack. She did everything from scratch, meticulously planning for weeks ahead with Baba. He would do the shopping. From serving the snacks, dinner to conversing with guests, she did it all relentlessly. When she got older she would sometimes fall ill after these large parties. But she loved and thrived on entertaining with Baba. In more recent times, they would celebrate with a small set of close friends. And sometimes they would go out to dinner with Didi and her family. I would call to wish sometimes late by a day. Today all I can think about is how I don’t have the reason to call and send happy wishes anymore. But nevertheless, here’s wishing my wonderful parents, a very happy anniversary. The importance of this day to my life and to those around me is not lost.

Glimpses

It’s been a recurring theme. I feel the loss of many things past – my baby son, the husband I first met, my mother when she was in her 50s, when she was my close friend. I know somehow I won’t get those people back. My son will never be a chubby toddler again. And how much ever I hold onto his pre school wonderment and loquaciousness I know even this too shall pass. The children grow and we age and we change. Why then does the death feel so harsh when every minute we are living through and not even realizing how the minute that has passed will never return. Why mourn when we can do nothing to stop it?

Without realizing I unwittingly mourned for her even when she was alive. But through the fog of her illness, I would glimpse the sharp mother I grew up with – not the child-like person that had emerged from her liver disease ravaged brain and loss of hearing. Her cognitive skills had probably been declining over the last ten years. After she passed I read up about hepatitis C and cirrhosis and the impact it had on cognitive abilities. I recalled how impatient I would get with her. And secretly I lamented with my sister about how she was so focused on inane things. And over emphasized comforts and luxuries. I mean why not? She had her share of constrained living. Why did I grudge her the comforts she asked us for? Of course she would never ever admit we did. In her mind we did so much for her – took her abroad, bought her fancy things and afforded her the things her friends received from well-retired spousal benefits. She always praised us and acknowledged what we afforded her. But i remember feeling inconvenienced at times and even annoyed when she would ask for something. And I also remember her embarrassment now that makes me feel so ashamed. Because I never imagined I’d have her for such little time. That it would be a few months before none of it even mattered to her. If she was still here there I would be still grumbling about how she had turned from a spartan housekeeper to a luxury seeking retiree. I failed to see how much of that may have been the decline in her cognition. And I failed to see that it was a process that had begun years after I’d left home so I wasn’t seeing it happen slowly. I rued my mother’s decline in sharpness every trip but not explicitly. It was implicit in my irritation and lack of patience with her.

That’s what makes the death so harsh. It’s like a slap in the face. A punishment for the way I unknowingly reacted to her decline that it was once and for all taken out of my hands. That I didn’t comprehend well enough and harsh judgement was meted out to me for that. I never got a chance to make amends. To retreat back and correct my errors in judgement. To see through the fog and try to recognize the mother i had in the 90s. Because while that mom wouldn’t ever return, like my baby boy i sometimes would glimpse in his eyes an expression he would make as a toddler, I may have seen her again. But now i won’t. And some days even my memories of her seem hazy as time passes. I’m taking great painstaking care that I never repeat this with my dad. That I Accord to him everything he rightfully deserves.

Today marks 6 months to the day when my mother last spoke to me. In the last few weeks leading up to her death, I never once expressed irritation or annoyance at her. She got the best of me. I gave her all of my time and patience, set aside everything else to just be with her. While it will never be enough for me what I gave her then or what I received in return – as I searched earnestly for my mother through the depths of the hospital gowns and her vacant eyes – it’s all I have of her.

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 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.

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.