A few weeks back, a friend’s mother passed away, and they were nowhere near being prepared. They are all going about their business and pretending everything was normal, only nothing was, is, normal. She does not even know, at this point anyway, whether she ever will be normal. Inside her, that is.
How does one even get over the death of one’s mother? I lost my dad last year and that is bad enough, and I am nowhere near being normal. I have mood swings, times when I magnify a simple thing into a big deal, in my mind; and almost always in various situations when I am hurt by people, by things they did or did not do, quite irrationally feel had Baba been alive things would have been different. Truth is, he was a shadow of his self, but even now, I often pick up the phone to ask him to do things for me and when my mom picks it up, I realize with a mental jolt that I had done it again. I remember so many things about him. He was always fully there, registering, questioning – what amazing curiosity his mind had, he went to do a 6 month course on Electronics just 6-7 years back, because he realized his Mechanical Engineering degree did not teach him about IC s etc, things which were necessary to repair DVD and CD players. He would read like a maniac, listen to music to the point where we had to ask him to keep it down. I remembered, also, how he would ask us not to listen to the radio and later watch TV, and he wouldn’t do it himself, because we were studying. His subordinates at work were scared of him, but they also loved him, as many of them tell us now, they were in awe of his knowledge. The IIT/US-post-doc oldest son would ring him up from Jamshedpur for advice on stuff. And he could handle all of them – till he stopped being the person he was.
When we grew up, I began to appreciate more his unyielding belief in fairness, which I would much later hear him define as justice played out. It was a weird kind of fairness from a man who was not the most mild-mannered of men. There was an incident when my dad and I both had severe food poisoning and his colleague and friend was taking both of us to the hospital and one of his juniors who heard about it in the factory, was known to have said, “He’s hospitalized? How can that be, he was scolding me just a couple of hours back?”
Anyway, I digress. I was thinking of my friend. This Mother’s Day, for instance, what will she do? But then, what about those who don’t have a mother? A week after my father died, I got our renewed bank cards, one of which had my dad as the additional holder, which he never once in his last several years used. The Citibank cards have pictures and signatures on them, and I told myself, it was nothing, just a bad coincidence, serendipity gone all wrong – which it was – but the empty and deep hollow that is my chest so much of the time just went deeper and I could not shake that feeling for days after that.
People will tell you time heals and that one needs to get over it. What most don’t realize – or actually, maybe they do – is that we still do all the normal things, laugh when something is funny, cry when sad, walk, talk, eat, normally. But regulating the heart is a different matter altogether. I do shrug off thoughts, special days, but some days have for years now been marked in my private calendar of grief. Anyone who has experienced loss must have one of those. There are the dates belonging to my brothers’. Just the other day I saw one friend who has grown older and looks totally different to how he used to look and I felt an ineffable sadness that I my brothers memories will always be of youth and promises and events and growth which never happened. The CD players never seen, the Bose speakers never heard. Forever in the twenties. On special days, we make a point of calling each other, us who are left, and we make a point of talking about anything but. I go to my mother and spend the day there. No one says a word about the elephant in the room. And at some point, my mother holds me and cries, and I feel a big relief, that this is now done. The obligation to cry and witness my mother crying over done, I feel lighter.
I am too aware of the fact that now our family is half and half. But I often wonder – do people have to rejoice, celebrate happy occasions in front of us when we feel like shit? Does my father’s garden have to be in full bloom now? When a gentle breeze stirs – the kind of breeze that reminds me of days when he would recline on an easy chair with the apartment door open, getting the south wind and saving electricity. Such weirdness.
But my mother is still there, thank god. Getting frailer by the minute, but she is there. My friend does not have hers any more. She is sad and indignant, feeling more unmothered than motherless at this point. It feels right – an ontological word rather than a descriptive word. She had a mother, I had a father and now we don’t. This is not a characteristic one can affix, like being paperless or odorless. The emphasis should be on absence.
I remember another very close friend ringing me up from the US to tell me her mother passed away in Kochi. She was on her way. It was gratifying and also sad that though she has been out of the country for over three decades, I was the one she spoke to, felt like speaking to in her hour of needing a shoulder.
During and for many days after my personal losses, I used to stare at people who went about their daily business and each time I saw people being normal, and I would look at the world, stare at a random man and wait for some sign of acknowledgement that the fundamentals of life had changed. This is where we used to have ice-creams together, how can they not miss that? This is where we would have dosas before movies – fancy them leading a normal life? They went on with their lives of course. How inordinately stupid of me, to think that everyone knew or even cared.
They say time heals. It’s true that the pain wears off, slightly, around the edge, like a knife in need of whetting. But here’s what they’re missing: It gets harder to explain to myself why I haven’t seen them. A month can make sense. (I took a trip; they were busy with work.) Even six months is excusable. (I moved; we were in UK.) But how to make sense of more than several years worth of distance? How to comprehend that time will only drive my dead family and me farther and farther apart? And also, how to tell myself not to feel guilty that I spent a lot of time doing things with other people, without sitting and chatting with my family, people who don’t even think twice before forgetting about me at the first chance they get? When will I learn my priorities? A friend rightly told me, “Lali, you need to de-clutter your life, focus on the important things and people”. So right. I keep trying, and mostly failing.
And my mother is so quickly going downhill, health-wise, that on some days I experience anticipatory grief, and then it chills my very insides, so I know how my friend feels. Oh and by the way, is grieving for family lost years back, classified as delayed grief? What do you call grief that goes on and on, relentless, because significant parts of you have died and there is no hope in hell of that changing? Indulging in grief, making a virtue of grief, purposely not trying to help oneself? Because I have heard many people tell me that, and maybe they are right. I stood those nights when my family died, making us bereft, and realized we were entering a new universe, with its own set of rules. Those nights when I stood being the pillar of strength everyone was praising? I never had a moment to myself and I remember staring at the sullied window of our house then, and my flat this time around, and wailed in a way I never had before. Or since. Once over, I wiped my eyes and dutifully returned to my mother or father or both – depending on whose death I am talking about. I have tried to recall what went through my mind when I cried my heart out (on and by the way, if you think that the cliche can’t be real, well, what can I say, you are lucky)
The truth is, I was thinking, selfishly, about myself. That my brother could not enjoy the satisfaction of being a doctor. That my brother would never see me married. And then that my brother would never meet Neel. That my dad will not see my son go to college, see the person he will become. That they would never read my book, if I ever wrote one. That I would turn fifty 5 months after my dad died and these very important people in my life would just not be there and share.
Sometimes, when my mother cries, I hold her but feel no sadness. Did not then, years back, and do not now. Very soon after my dad died a favourite nephew of mine who came visiting from the US told me he was surprised I was so fine, holding myself so well together. That I looked good and strong, that I seemed fine. I didn’t feel fine, but I also had no idea what to do except carry on.
So, I don’t know how this friend of mine manages, how she manages to get up from bed without wanting to collapse again. People expect her to be strong, but that is the worst thing you can tell someone who is grieving – because I will tell you what it feels like, it feels as though merely by starting the day you are betraying the dead person. Am I? I would start to panic. Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary, which I came across once, where he kept a record of his feelings after his mother’s death, wrote, “No sooner had she departed that the world deafens me with its continuance“. I read that and felt a physical spasm of recognition.. I have seen that even with my mother. Just because we seem in control people think we are suffering less than they would have imagined. Relatives and friends compare how their grief is more than ours, that we should get over it now. I am told I need to buck up, get over it. And it is right. But grief keeps odd hours, and you get sucker-punched by it at moments you would never imagine. Like when my husband left for a birding trip to Rajasthan now, and all I can think about is that on one of his birding trips last year my dad died. And so, I am scared to even ring up my mother now to find out how she is doing. I know the fear is irrational, but it is there and I feel it. The most painful moment at the most abstract moment.
I wonder if it occurs to anyone that the death of a loved one is something of an oxymoron, right, spelling out the contradictions in it? What is it if not an oxymoron? My father isn’t there, her mother isn’t there, yet she sees her everywhere, I see them everywhere. Each time a flower in my father’s garden dies I feel a sense of loss, as though I was losing my chance to reclaim a part of him which was already slipping away.
I try. I try to think of what is immutable and not what is not. The breeze that blew every time my father opened the door and sat in that chair, the warm wind whistling past him, as he kept up his efforts not to have the fan on. Bhogobaaner hawa, (God’s breeze, free) he called it. All the male members of my family’s love for the sea, even after it destroyed them, I think of that. And the unfairness that it should have destroyed them. I never quite took to the sea afterwards. The memories float by without warning. Of sitting on the sand and my father telling us all about how he preferred it to mountains because of the sense of endlessness it brought him, how the horizon was almost not there. Mountains gave him a feeling of constriction, he said. Those moments distilled all our essences for each other.
When my father was sick, it was difficult to watch him. Even when everyone told me it would only get worse. His hallucinations, his heartrendingly reduced personality were all there. But then, at least he was there. But the finality of it, the fact that even when he was sick, things were changing. He was better or worse. Sometimes he spoke, sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes he fussed with food enough to drive me crazy and at others he was like a kid, eating whatever I gave him. Things happened. Now nothing is happening. This is it.
Even so many years after my brothers going and many months since I lost my dad, I still have problems overhearing people talking about their brothers. Makes no sense, but it happens to me. I cling on to people who remind me of them. And they have mostly moved on, so I appear ridiculous. Hardest thing: overhearing people tell their family ‘Love you’ on the phone. So casually. Why did I never tell them that? I never made that overt sibling connection. I did learn and showed my affection to my dad, hugged him and kissed him and clung on to him. And I do it now for many, – I do it all the time to my son, and those younger than me but even now there are hosts of people to whom I don’t say this, even after what they mean to me. After what life has taught me.
That first time, I had no clue grief could be this hard to handle. It was piercing and hit the heart, precisely where it hurt almost physically. We each were locked in our own cells, weeping silently, without exchanging a single word. We were not alone in our grief, but I think we did not speak of it because we were so together in it, as if the bodies of the rest of us had somehow fused. That death cut me short at the very height of my youthful arrogance. It had forced us to instantly grow up. And now with Baba gone, already I have forgiven him every fatherly fault he had, but which had kept me forever a child; my life both ended and began in premature places where those incidents left off. I always thought that literature’s draw lay in making me identify with people and situations that were as different from my lived experience as possible. But the deaths in my family changed all that. It made me seek out my own kind—the left-behind and the heartbroken. That is how I feel the connect with my friend and friends and cousins who have gone through similar bereavement.
I read somewhere that when we get the last drop of rain in the season we don’t realize it is the last drop till well after it is gone. That’s how losing someone you love feels like. Parched souls waiting for rain. Only, next monsoon will never be the monsoon that has just passed. As we become parent-less, more and more of us, the realization strikes with tremendous force.