It is my ma’s birthday.


I thought I would go to the local Kali temple after work to celebrate ma’s birthday. After their death, I did a ‘shanti pujo’ at the temple. I remember experiencing a fleeting sense of peace as the priest explained the path of the soul and me freeing them by saying, “Go in peace. Rest now. You don’t have to take care of me any more.”

I felt peaceful then but ma would have laughed out loud if I suggested a trip to a temple to celebrate her birthday. I simply can not wish this woman “Happy heavenly birthday, ma”. She did not believe in heaven. And if heaven exists, she certainly did not aspire to go there. She was a trouble maker, rabble rouser, a materialistic woman who had a loud laughter and lit up the room with her presence. She teased and laughed and loved despite many, many years of struggle that she had to go through. She was flawed, she was kind and she was my idol. She refused to fit into a mold. She loved me deeply and gave up a lot in life to provide me with the best opportunities that could possibly be provided. She wanted to give, always. She was a giver. My friends from both school and college came home and promptly went to chat with ‘kakima’ because despite all the hardships, ma had joie de vivre that appealed to both young and old.

On this day, every year, a boyal mach er lyaja (a fish) came to our house for her. If you are reading this, if you live in a place where you get boyal mach and if you like that fish, eat a piece in her honor. I don’t get that fish here. Sahana and I plan to hit the mall, watch a movie, eat Chinese food and celebrate her life-long love. The tradition of watching movie with moms continue, as Sahana pointed out to me this morning. I left my friends and adda to go to movie with ma. My friends joked, “Who goes to movies with their moms at this age?” I laughed and said, “I do.”

It is my ma’s birthday. This was a happy day in my life. I will try very hard to remember that this used to be a very happy day in my life.

Sunshiny today


Every morning after I wake up I sit in my reading chair and take a few moments to look at the smiling pictures of both my parents on our coffee table. When they were alive I reached for my phone as soon as my eyes opened. There would be a message from ma in whatsapp. Most of the days the message asked “ki korchish?” (What are you doing?) The woman never really got the time difference right 😀. I would obviously be sleeping during her waking hours. My response would be “ei uthlam.” (just woke up). Most days I would call later to have a longer conversation but some days, that was our only exchange. But we connected everyday. I snooped on baba’s activity on Facebook and when I saw he was active and posting something funny every hour, I would breathe easy – he was well.

These days my whatsapp messenger remains silent. So I commune for a few minutes everyday with them in the morning. At a certain time, the sun hits their smiling faces just right and both of them light up in front of my eyes. I watch the transformation happen. In a strange way, it makes me happy. I took a picture of sunlit ma today. Sometimes this feeling is all I need to carry in my heart to get me through the day.

Grief inequity


It is traumatic to lose a loved one. I don’t even know a strong enough word to evoke the sentiment that one feels when one loses two loved ones within a span of 9 days. It has been over a year that this happened to me and the surge of grief is more of a simmer than a boil. However, certain words, emotions, events often bring the emotion to a boiling point even now. My colleague recently died. The day I heard that I could not stop this overwhelming sense of despair engulfing me. My gentle coworker and I had many conversations over the course of ten years that we worked together, most of which featured the topic of caring for our parents. When I heard the news that she passed away, I was crying for her and I was crying for my own loss. I simply could not control my tears and the deep feeling of heart wrenching sadness.

I play a game with my grief sometimes. That sounds morbid and perhaps game is not the right word for what goes on in my mind either. There are days when I miss my mother too much. I miss her so much that I can not bear the fact that she is gone forever. Then I think in my mind “Oh no, baba would feel left out. I am not missing him enough. That is not right. I need to miss them equally.” I start thinking of his memories. On other days, some words or smell or the beauty of nature bring baba’s smile to my mind. My memories become awash with his words, actions, sense of humor. And suddenly I think, “Yikes, ma would be upset that I am not missing her right now with the same intensity.” I start thinking of her. I don’t allow myself this inequality in grieving.

I scold myself for this silliness, laugh at myself too. They don’t care what goes on in my mind. They are beyond caring.

Stain


I thought I had done thorough examination of ma’s sarees before I chose a few to take to the tailor. I wanted them to be made into dresses and kurtis which I primarily wear during the summer months in US. When I went back home for the first time after ma and baba’s death, I had to deal with banks and fixed deposits, lockers and house deed. One of the tasks, however, was to clear their closets. As I brought out their possessions and stroked them lovingly, both Sahana and I teared up often. Their belongings apart from their clothes, included my entire childhood – pictures of baby me, my report cards since kindergarten, award certificates, all the letters I wrote to them from US. I brought back those memories along with some of ma’s sarees, some of her kurtas, some salwars, some of her costume jewelry. I brought back baba’s sweater, his shawls, some of his kurtas for Sean and Ryan.

A few of ma’s sarees, specially the white ones, had stains on them. Sahana and I laughed and shook our heads as we discovered stains on otherwise gorgeous sarees. She chewed betel leaf and those stained her outfits. Some of the sarees, however, were pristine. I chose those for the tailor to transform them into outfits I will mostly wear in this country. And as I wear them now, the analogy of soul leaving the vessel of a body and being transformed into a new form doesnot escape me. Old sarees finding new forms.

This morning I opened a black and white kurta which was made from one of her sarees and discovered faint stains of turmeric perhaps on the shoulder area. This one should not have passed inspection, but it did. I smiled at it though. Ma became more real because of those stains. I visualized her at the moment when unaware of the turmeric on her hand, she must have wiped it on the saree. She was at some event perhaps, she was perhaps laughing with someone. She was alive. Maybe she saw the stain and exclaimed that the saree was spoiled now. But she washed it, pressed it and saved it in her closet. Perhaps this was a favorite saree and now it is with me. I am wearing it.

I have been wearing her clothes these days. Her jewelry too. I wrap baba’s shawl around me when I am cold. I feel them near me. These touched them and they are now touching me. In my search for benevolence, these feature.

In a few weeks, it will be a year since they both died 9 days apart. These days, I wake up in the mornings and relive those last horrendous days till I have to mindfully remove the memories from my head. I try to distract myself by dressing up, putting make up, posting dolled up photos on social media yet at this time grief orbits very close to my heart, restricting breath, songs, joy.

Clenched


Loss is relatively new to me. It has not been a year yet. I hear from friends that we relearn to live around our losses eventually. I am learning. I have written a grief journal which I doubt I will ever be able to revisit. However, it helped immensely as an outlet to pour out my grief at the time as I was hurting so badly that I did not think it was worth living for a short while. I now know that life is worthy because life is fragile and short and beautiful (for the most part). I now know, thanks to books and conversations, that love, joy, friendships, grief AND loss is tapestry of my life. Recently, I read a book called The Guncle by Steven Rowley where he writes “Grief orbits the heart. Some days the circle is greater. Those are the good days. You have room to move, dance and breathe. Some days the circle is tighter. Those are the hard ones.” As days go by the circle gets greater, for sure. I smile at memories more and still tear up a bit that we will make no more. But when special days come up my whole body clenches in anticipation of tremendous pain.

Ma’s birthday on November 1st, 2021, was painful. Worse than the actual day were the days leading up to it as grief orbited very close to my heart, constricting it so much that I had trouble breathing. Baba’s birthday is coming up on March 2nd. I have been losing sleep over how much pain that will bring. I smile, though, at the memory of us wishing him happy birthday via video message and he responding with an uncomfortable laughter and a confused “hmm… same to you.” He was not used to being wished ‘happy birthday’ in English. His birthdays, in his days. were celebrated with payesh (rice pudding), blessings of his elders, sumptuous lunch and dinner. When I was little, I saved money to buy him a wallet and decorated a card. I don’t remember singing happy birthday to him growing up. The singing and wishing came much later and he never got used to it. He liked it though, which was clear from his beaming smile as his little grandchildren (and even when they grew up) sang to him. He just never learned the proper response. I don’t know how I would be on his upcoming birthday as he has ceased to exist (physically). Yes, I am all clenched up inside anticipating a surge of unbearable pain but maybe it won’t be so bad. Maybe, I will make sure the memories I have with him are blessings. Maybe I will wake up that day and sing him a happy birthday anyway and I will remember his confusion……and maybe, I will smile.

A song


I could not fall asleep last night. My anxiety caused me to hyperventilate as I tried taking deep breaths. This morning I sat on my couch and saw the sunlight hit just the right way on our beloved indoor plant. The green of the leaves sparked joy.

I laced up my sneakers, plugged in the earbuds, turned on my Playlist to Rabindrasangeet and went out to walk in the woods. The cerulean sky, the cold on my face, the green grass despite the patches of frozen water on it, and the bare branches standing tall with the promise of life within it gave me peace. There were many birds out today, all puffed up against the cold, hopping on the fields, looking for grub. They took flight when I walked near them but did not go too far. I think I saw the bushy tail of the neighborhood fox in Sage’s path but I may be wrong. It was just a glimpse. I emptied my mind of all the anxiety to soak in the treasure in front of me. And it worked. My breathing calmed, my mind found temporary peace. I store these scenes in my mind to draw upon them when I have anxiety attacks as bed time approaches.

As I made my way home, baba’s favorite song came on my Playlist – Jokhon porbe na mor pa er chinho ei baate….

তখন কে বলে গো সেই প্রভাতে নেই আমি
সকল খেলায়…
সকল খেলায় করবে খেলা এই আমি, আহা
কে বলে গো সেই প্রভাতে নেই আমি
নতুন নামে ডাকবে মোরে বাঁধবে
বাঁধবে নতুন বাহু-ডোরে
আসব যাব চিরদিনের সেই আমি

A rough translation of this stanza is this:

Who says I am not present on that dawn. My being will be present in the universe. You will call me in different names but being is forever.

I have asked a lot of why’s and where’s since the dreadful month of May in 2020. It has been 8 months looking for peace, for meaning. I realized I find most peace (at least temporarily) if I believe the energy of my parents are now mingled with each and every aspect of beauty in nature that unfolds in front of me if I care to ‘see’. Baba sang this song a lot. I heard but did not listen. I listened today.

After 8 months


Sunrise

January 19th marked 8 months since my father died. January 10th was 8 months since my mother died. This journey of coming to terms with what life means now, without the presence of those who gave me life, has been an uphill battle.

Life, at least now, holds no joy.

I pretend. A lot. I pretend to act normal.

I am very mindful to keep my grief guarded so the person I am interacting with does not feel uncomfortable.

I dread going to bed.

I stay up as long as I can so when my head hits the pillow my mind does not race. I am truly terrified of nights and the solitude it brings when all hurtful feelings takeover.

I search a lot for answers and only find peace when I see beauty in nature.

It gives me solace to think that my parents’ energy is, perhaps, part of this beauty now. Or maybe their soul has been reborn in another body. Who knows?

On January 19th, as I sat quietly in the morning thinking about ma, baba and all the ‘why’s’, I saw this sunrise. And I thought “How fitting! Baba would have loved to see this. Maybe he is part of this beauty now. Maybe they both are part of this splendor.”

An ideal day


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.

You learn to live…..


…..is what I said to my cousin this morning who lost her mother to Covid a couple of weeks ago.

Right after my parents died, a friend messaged me saying I will learn to rebuild my life around this chasm of loss. She learnt to do it after her parents’ death. At the time it seemed impossible. But after six months, I understand what she said. And it is so sad that I am heping my little cousin deal with her mother’s death by drawing on my own experience of loss. She went back to work last week.

“I am worried about facing people, answering their question about how I am doing,” she said.

I was too. I was afraid of making people uncomfortable as they came face to face with me and my grief when I went back to work. I told her to be sincere in her one sentence acceptances of condolences and then ask the person how s/he was doing. It worked for both parties. It deflected the discomfort and conversation moved to a neutral zone. She followed my advice – with success, she reported later.

She sent me a poem today by E.E Cummings – I Carry Your Heart With Me and I sent her this quote from The Tea Dragon Tapestry by Kate O’Neill – “Everything that happens is part of your wholeness. The sadness, the loss, the hurt, as well as the joy, the love, the friendship – it is all part of your tapestry.”

All through time, I believe, humans have held up each other this way as they navigated through labyrinths of intense grief and loss. I believe there lies the beauty of life, in forms of solidarity, support. I received it (and continue to receive it). I am paying it forward to my little sister. “I am here for you. Lean on me”. This sentence carries so much power. And meaning.

My big, fat Bengali family continues to party…


About a week ago I told Sahana I want to get back to writing blogs again. Blogs that not necessarily document my grief journey, but something different, something happy perhaps. She gave me some suggestions and left me with ideas to mull over. My dear aunt was in the hospital though, fighting Covid in India. I got updates everyday and tried to focus on the positives that I heard – the thrust of oxygen that she was receiving was reduced, her O2 saturation was maintaining at 96/97 with oxygen support. She was weak but her vitals were strong. I talked to my cousin every morning and said to her what people said to me six months ago “Hold on to the positives. She will fight it off. After all, she has had both her vaccinations. She has protection.”

She was put on ventilator on November 13th (my time) and died within 4 hours. Her presence is so large and so joyful in my entire childhood that whenever I think of her I can see her bright, wide smile and hear her hahaha laughter. She was great friends with ma. They had similar jovial, vivacious personality. And she had the kindest face. When Sean met her for the first time when he came to meet my family, he said, “If I entered a room filled with strangers, I would go to her first. Her face exudes kindness.”

There are many, many happy memories of this woman who lived her life with joy (for the most part) and left the world without long term sickness or pain. I am spending sleepless nights again and waking with the memories of all those who we have lost this year – 5 so far in my family alone. It gives me comfort, in a weird way, to think that my big, fat Bengali family is continuing to party hard somewhere. Yes, a raucous, loud, full of laughter party. My aunt has joined them now. My mother loved her. I hope she is happy and safe to be up there (or who knows where) with them.

I miss writing blogs about silly things – about my kids or my everyday observations or memories of India. I hope to find topics other than loss and sorrow – soon. I hope and pray to the universe to stop this procession of death in my family. We have lost enough. The world has lost enough.