Our last wishes to each other was “Happy mother’s day” over a video call on May 9th, 2021. She wished me in an enthusiastic voice from her hospital bed. She had a high virus count of Covid infection. Although her tone was light and cheery, I could see she was tired. I asked her how she was feeling, she said she felt fine, just a little tired. I told her to get some rest and we will talk soon. She took my advice to heart, turned on one side and closed her eyes very comfortably. And she went to rest forever.
On one year death anniversary of my mother, I continue to ask why. Why did it end this way? Why me? Why us? And the universe whispers back, why not you?
I wish I had faith. I don’t. I don’t know if she is watching over me. In a way, I don’t want her to. She is free now from all that bound her to this earth including me. I will live my life remembering her love but I want her to be free. I hear energy is indestructible. So I hope her energy is within everything that is beautiful. I think of her every day. Every single day at different times. I cry sometimes, but I mainly smile at her memories. We have had difficult times together, we faced a lot of challenges, there were many disagreements, raised voices. But my brain has sifted through all our negative moments and only preserved laughter. When I close my eyes, I see her smiling face, and for that, I am grateful.
A friend wrote about his ideal day which got me thinking about what my ideal day would look like. This vision of my ideal day is a wistful one which I will never have again.
My ideal day would be waking up in our apartment in Kolkata while everyone still slept. Steal a couple of biscuits (they are called cookies in my adopted country) from the biscuit tin and sit by the window to watch orange hued sun rise over the coconut trees while the crows start congregating on the antenna on our neighbor’s roof to start their morning meeting.
Once the sun’s rays illuminated the top dome of Ramkrishna mission, people in the house would start slowly waking up. The municipality taps would get busy providing water to the women in the neighborhood, filling buckets, washing their dishes, exchanging news. A typical start to a day in Kolkata. My ma and baba would come out of their room, sleepy eyed and happy, greeting me with good morning and ‘how did you sleep?’
The morning would have Sean’s loud laughter, baba’s smirk, ma’s indulgent offering of her phone to little Ryan so he could play solitaire on it and Sahana’s teenage wisdom imparted to all. Khushi would have her breakfast while baba dictated what should be cooked for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
There would be visits to West Side to pick up kurtis. Ma would want to buy the whole store for us. There would be sumptuous meals, visit with innumerable family members, invitations to those visiting us to stay and have dinner with us. If not dinner, then store bought chicken rolls and sweets. There would be raucous, competitive games of ludo. Khushi would win and do victory dance. Ma would advise all the players but never play herself. Baba would beam, pace and discuss with Gouri what needs to be bought for next day’s meals. And I would soak it all in because I would know these blissful days will be numbered.
I will never have these days again. I am thankful I have had them.
It is not a secret that I am searching for peace. It is not a secret that I am searching for the essence of my parents around me. People tell me they will always be alive in your memory and I will feel their presence but I don’t though. I try to feel their presence, I close my eyes and think of them, I think of my memories – both happy and sad and I come up empty. I sometimes feel a sense of calm but that feeling is so transient. I shudder to think that one day their memory may dim. I do not want that to happen. I still can not believe my 2 closest people suddenly stopped existing – at the same time.
Yet in a morbid way, I think this is for the best. If I think unselfishly, their gentle death was a boon in disguise. Both got a very bad case of the virus. Their brain got affected and their lungs. Even if they survived the virus, what would have been their quality of life? And if one survived and the other did not, how would they have coped? It is better that they went gently. It is better that they went together. If they had to go, that is.
I think of all these good thoughts yet I keep searching.
Lately I have been often angry. I internalize the anger so as not to lash out on my loved ones but I need a target to release this emotion. So I use words to express the harshness of what happened. Ma and baba DIED! I find that verb harsh and merciless. The word ‘died’ sounds cruel, ultimate and absolute. While talking or thinking about their death, I don’t say ‘they passed, I say they died. The word ‘passed’ is too kind, too gentle, too passive. It does not emote the feeling that is inside my heart. I am angry that they died and by using the cruel word I feel vindicated.
Their death was gentle, for that I am immensely grateful. Sean and I often discussed how we would care for them when their needs increased. I surmised I would leave my job and spend months with them in India. Sean wanted to bring them here but we both knew we could not afford their medical care in this country and then there was the issue of immigration hurdles. So we decided I would move in with them for months when the time came. But baba still liked to do things himself. He felt he was needed by being in charge of their bills, health care. It gave his life meaning when he could manage their affairs. That is who he was. He was a manager – at work and in life.
Ma did not learn to do any of it. She always joked she would please like to go first so she did not have to deal with any bill paying or paper work. And she did! She was relatively in better health than him so I always thought I would lose him first but nope! The obstinate lady got what she wanted. After her death, I did chuckle and tell the family “Well, this is what she wanted – to go before him. She got her wish.”
I never thought I would lose them both at the same time. And the unfairness of it all makes me so angry sometimes.
I carry a card in my hand bag which was sent to me by a liaison of a book club that I manage at work. Her card says, “The work of grief is formidable. I pray as you journey with it grief will go from being something in front of you so big you can’t see around it, to something that walks beside you and only occasionally trips you up, to something that eventually walks behind you. I am not convinced time makes grief all better but it does make it different…albeit slowly.”
I found her words to be so true. That is exactly how grief is accompanying me. The phase where it was all consuming and omnipresent in my life is almost ending but it is certainly walking by my side, staying close and tripping me up more than occasionally. All of a sudden, amidst long stretches of normal hours, especially at work, I am gripped by breathtaking sadness that leaves me hollow. Today I saw a regular customer for the first time after a year and a half. He does not come regularly to the library post pandemic and I am there for short hours as well. Anyway, once we saw each other we asked how we were doing. And then he asked how my family in India was, how were my parents? He had been following the devastation caused by Covid in India and he thought of my family. I had to tell him both my parents succumbed to Covid. His face registered shock at this news and discomfort. I quickly changed the subject so as not to prolong the dreadful conversation and to give him relief. He offered his condolences, we exchanged pleasantries, I helped him with a technical question and then we parted ways. I held my own during that uncomfortable conversation. But in the staff lounge, I broke down crying while talking to a friend. I warned her “Uh oh, I am going to cry” before the dam broke. And she said, “Cry. Let it all out.” I don’t recall if we were even talking about ma and baba’s death.
An acquaintance texted me about a question and asked how my dad was doing. Last we spoke ma had died and baba was still fighting. I had to write to her my dad too had died. She wrote back a message of condolence which, I am sure, was hard to write. I feel now I need to protect those who are asking me these innocent questions from discomfort and shock.
Sahana walked by ma’s photo and gently caressed it as she went by. A sob racked my body at this quiet gesture.
Thoughts like “who will buy fish now when I go home. I don’t recognize any fish and neither does Gouri” popped up in my head while going about my regular chores. My parents are dead and I am thinking of who will buy fish for me?? What an inconsequential and selfish thought but no matter, I got tripped up.
Grief is certainly walking next to me ever ready to pounce. It will again come to the forefront and obliterate everything else when I have to land in an empty Kolkata eventually. Just the thought of going makes me break out into hives. Isn’t it so ironical that a trip which was something I looked forward to every year, counted months and then counted days has become such a source of heartbreak and anxiety? City of joy is now bereft of any joy for me. Ma and baba were my joy. I think often whether I told them that and I remembered I used to say at the end of almost every phone call since the pandemic started “Issh, kobe je tomader dekhte paabo!” (I can not wait to see you). Destiny/fate whatever you call it, perhaps chuckled when I said those words. It shook its head and said, “Never. You will never see them in this life time.”
It still seems unreal as I write authorization letters to people to collect death certificates for both my parents. “I here by authorize _______ to collect death certificate of my deceased mother and father……”
Those have not been collected yet and that is giving me anxiety because I need those to prove to the world that my parents are dead. As if it is not enough that when I land in Kolkata airport, two eager faces will never, ever greet me again. As if it is not enough that no one will gently stroke my arm when she sees me for the first time after many months with a smile so huge that her face could not contain it. As if it is not enough that no one will go outside the chaos of an international airport in India to call the driver of the car to come and pick us up and when everyone is safely in the car, pass us bottled water and bars of Fruit and Nut Cadbury chocolate. As if it is not enough that I, a non tea drinker, will never, ever, sit in the living room with them sipping tea for companionship and talking about life. As if it is not enough that someone will never go to the fish market and tell the fish monger that his daughter is home and he needs to buy the freshest catch. As if it is not enough that all the messages, all the video calls, all the show of love and affection came to a sudden halt. As if it is not enough that I walk among the flowers in the morning trying to believe that their energy is now merged with the universe but still can not convince myself. As if it is not enough that I constantly ask “why” and never find an answer.
Ma died on what was Mother’s day in my part of the world, May 9th. It was morning of May 10th in India. I had wished her “Happy Mother’s Day, Ma” for the last time that morning and she also wished me back happy Mother’s day from her hospital bed. Then she closed her eyes saying she was staying at her sister’s place for a while and she will go home in a few days. Those were our last words to each other. She fell asleep thinking she was at her sister’s house and never woke up.
Next day I planted a small geranium plant in my freshly weeded flower bed in her memory. I think back now on my mental state on that day and all I remember is a numbness and a desire to cultivate life. I planted that little sapling which had vibrant red flowers – a gift from Sahana on Mother’s day. After ma’s death and while we fought for baba’s life, I often sat next to the little plant and felt ma’s energy within me. In the next few days, I asked Sahana to buy whichever plants she wanted and bring them home. She bought some beautiful perennials and annuals and I planted them indiscriminately, almost feverishly. Gardening became a physical need in those days. Baba was still alive and the doctors were giving me hope. So while I planted my garden, I held on to positive thoughts – I will have one parent. I will have someone to go home to. But nine days later, he packed up and followed her as well while I was left with my flowers.
While my other flowers bloomed, the ma flower (I had come to call the geranium ma plant or didiya plant) shed all its flowers and became bare. The leaves are still alive and green but it does not have a single bloom. I ask it sometimes what it’s plan is. Why won’t it give us flowers any more? Sahana says “Didiya is just being obstinate or she got a hair cut.” We both laugh.
Ma was never into nature. She liked a pretty flower or green grass just fine but her joys were books and shopping. When they visited us in USA, baba sat outside looking at lush green and blue sky. He had a stillness about him that attracted bunnies and birds. Sage sat with him and kept him company. Ma on the other hand puttered around the house, cooked Indian food, played with the kids and gossiped with me. She loved when I bought salmon and when I took her to Target, Kohl’s or the mall. She went down to the basement and read my Bengali books, a collection which she helped me build up. She read those books several times while she stayed with us for months. She revisited her old friends, her favorite authors again and again.
It almost seems like ma is sending me a message through her non blooming alter ego, ma plant. She is telling me “Enough with all this gardening, get back to books, hit the stores, buy something nice.” Okay, obstinate woman, I will get back to books. I have not been able to read anything since I seem to gloss over life and words right now, but I will try to get back to reading. I draw a line when it comes to shopping though. I can not do it. I will not do it. I will just look at the glossy leaves of the obstinate ma plant instead of vibrant red flowers but I will still not hit the stores!
During a tearful conversation about my parents on a video call this morning, Breshpati (Khushi’s mother) reminded me what ma often said when death was a remote eventuality, not a harsh reality as it is today. She said to us “When I die don’t do any rituals, just feed some hungry people in my memory.” I had completely forgotten her wish as I live through this haze of pain. Breshpati’s words brought back the memory of what she wished for. Both ma and baba started an NGO to help the under privileged about 10 years back. They went to villages, orphanages, schools for poor children and under funded senior living facilities with clothes and food. They ran this initiative for years till Covid stopped them.
Feeding the poor would, of course, be their wish. So Breshpati and Gouri talked among themselves about doing just that once Covid came under control. The two women decided that they will go to Bharat Shevashram and feed hungry children in memory of ma and baba. I, with the help from a friend, am arranging for a shanti pujo (a religious ceremony for the peace of their souls) in our local Kali temple thinking that would bring peace. But would it? And peace for who really? How could I forget what she wanted me to do after her death? I heard her words but must not have paid attention thinking we are far away from that scenario – death. Huh!
Coincidentally, my coworkers donated money to UNICEF and Care India to help fight Covid in ma and baba’s memory. I shed some tears at their thoughtfulness. One of Sean’s donors, pledged money to his organization for Covid help in India in their memory as well. I shed tears of gratitude. This is what would bring peace to them – feeding the hungry, helping the sick and maybe, just maybe a ritual Shanti puja in front of ma’s favorite – the fiery goddess Kali.
And after the pujo, I will donate to our local food bank.
A friend suggested I meditate to calm my mind during this distressing time. Since ma left, I have been sitting outside by the flowers every day in the afternoon when Kolkata falls asleep. And I have thought of ma. That has been my meditation. Some thoughts brought tears and some brought laughter.
As I sit outside, nature unfurls it’s palm to show me the treasure that I missed when life was normal. I watch the frenetic activities of the romantic cardinal couple who flit from one bush to the next whispering, rather loudly, sweet nothings to each other. The baby bunny who lives under the bush pokes out and then tries to hop away when it sees me. But my still form instills some confidence in it, so it stays out and twitches it’s nose in the air. Today, a little white butterfly flew close to me and I wondered if all these life forms are bringing ma’s energy to her daughter thousands of miles away? The sun-kissed, lime green leaves of trees have kept me company during these sessions, the cerulean blue of the sky sent a message to be patient. The beautiful flowers that friends have sent in their kindness constantly remind me that my mother would want me to appreciate the beauty of life.
I have meditated with my mother’s thoughts. I have not emptied my mind and focused on a chant, or a point on the wall. Before the frantic fight for baba’s recovery starts the next day, these quiet afternoons have been my solace.
I have not had time to meditate after my father’s passing. I believe my system is in a state of shock and the practicalities that face me now are keeping calm thoughts at bay. I know I need to focus on both their memories to feel some peace. The hurt, however, is too recent, too raw. I am counting on the age old adage, time will heal.
This post will be one of the hardest to write, but write I must or else I will explode in pain.
A few men came in to our house to take baba’s body to the crematorium. Since he was still mildly covid positive, the Kolkata Municipality, which takes charge of such situations, took his body for last rites. I was on video as they prepared him and started taking him down. I heard one man say to the other, “So sad, he has nobody around.”
That hit me like a brick. He has so many people who love him. Not only his daughter but extended family, friends in social media. His friends constantly reached out to me, organized help, was ready to do anything for him. His nieces and nephews, which include my friends, were coordinating oxygen refills, organizing cash when needed. In his home, he was cared for by Gouri and Mashi who have cared for him for many years. Even at the hospital he called out for Gouri. Gouri was standing right by him when they took him. He has people. Nobody could be there with him at the end but he did not have much consciousness to acknowledge the absence according to his caregiver. He became drowsy and went away gently like ma.
Those words of the municipality workers hurt. They haunt me still when I think about it. This Covid has caused so much devastation. I think being alone at the time of one’s last breath and helpless daughter/s or son/s (many, many like me all over the world) looking on via video are some of the most heart-rending consequences of this disease.