The loss in my life has changed me. How could it not? Even in April of 2021, I was a woman leading a normal life – parenting, working, spending time with my partner, talking to my parents, counting days to see them. India was blowing up but ma and baba never stepped out of the house. They were staying safe, right? Wrong! Despite all their precautions, despite one vaccine, Covid killed both of them. All at once, life threw me a curveball and I was left devastated. Death is an absolute truth and I have reached an age where death of parents was imminent but the cruelty of the universe in causing the death of both my parents left me shaken to the core. As I rebuild myself and learn to live again with the gaping void in my life, I am discovering new lessons about grief, about the whole process of mourning. I was somewhat aware of the different stages of grief journey and I was mindful when I passed through them. I am going towards acceptance as I write this. The journey, however, is not at all linear. I take a step forward one day only to take 2 steps back the next. But I am on the path and that is good.
As I see life go on around me, I often feel I am sitting on the sidelines alone with my grief. The world is moving on in its orbit and I am sitting at the periphery watching it go by. I am unable to join in just yet. I get up tentatively and sit back down again. The zest for life is absent and the grieving process is so lonely. No one can possibly understand except perhaps if I had a sibling.
I tell myself I am one of many since the beginning of time to experience such trauma and like many others I will come out of it. Not unscathed and yes, changed but I will get up from the sidelines and join in. But right now, nothing and no one has stopped for my grief except myself. And such is life.
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.”
This fight against Covid was closest I have come to being in a war. There were no loud guns or tanks around me. There were, however, death, mayhem, suffering, desperation, helplessness. My entire being was engaged in figuring out how to avert crisis, how to procure help in a war like situation in Kolkata, how to communicate, how to arrange, how to keep my ma and baba breathing. I stopped eating and sleeping for many days. I was functioning and sharp when it came to making decisions about their health care but everything else around me fell by the wayside. My partner took over the running of my family in this part of the world while all my ammunitions were engaged to save my parents in the other side of the earth.
Despite all that, I failed. After their death, I was numb with pain and my brain, which had worked over time during this horrific ordeal, was tired and non functional. I had trouble making simplest of decisions for a while. I still have trouble focusing and I simply look at the books on my bookshelf but never pick one up. But Sean took good care of everything around here so I could focus on what was important at the time. Of late, I have slowly started engaging with the world again. It truly seemed like I was drowning. And just recently, I feel I am slowly emerging from a quagmire of sorrow and despair.
However, today at work I realized my brain has not completely shed all of the cob web from my recent bereavement. I am generally good at problem solving and figuring out solutions. Today, though, I got a phone call from a customer whose account was somewhat messed up and needed some detective work. While analyzing the problem, I thought I should be able to straighten it out yet my brain completely shut down while trying to find a solution. I called our customer service supervisor to solve the issue, which she did in a minute. Much to my surprise, I did not call myself an idiot. I acknowledged, instead, that I need time to be where I was before my “normal” was rudely disrupted and I will give myself that time. I am determined to nurse myself back to health. Self love is an important step in rebuilding and re-emergence. I will never be the same but I will learn to live with the void. It will take time and I will give myself that 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!
I have shared my grief in public. I have not grieved silently in a corner. I have written blogs about my feelings and shared on WordPress as well as social media. I wondered why I was so public about it and I realized that while writing has been a release, sharing has been my way of wailing, keening, beating my chest, telling the universe I am in so much pain. Sharing my grief has been my coping mechanism. While I could not grieve with my extended family due to the global pandemic, I have grieved virtually with all of you.
And you have allowed me to lean on you. You have held me up by your condolences, your tears, your words, your cards, gift of plants, flowers and gifts of nourishment. You have allowed me to take time off work to take care of myself. I thank you all for stroking my back as I let my wailing take wings. Perhaps my sorrow has tainted parts of your universe but you have allowed it.
Thank you for being there. Thank you for holding me up.
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.
Amidst the beautiful condolence messages on ma’s death, the recurring one is a wish for me to ‘be strong’.
As I see more and more of ‘be strong’ I wonder if I am being strong? I seem to make phone calls to arrange for care for my dad who is not doing well. I am exchanging wsapp messages, text messages, Facebook messages with friends in Kolkata and here to make decisions regarding baba’s care, trying to figure out how to procure ma’s death certificate (seems strange to write that), communicating with Gouri who lives in our house in Kolkata and is crying her heart out, informing friends and family about regular health updates. When all this is done, when Kolkata falls asleep and I am even more numb from pain, I sit quietly, catatonic. Is this being strong or this numbness is extreme shock and extreme vulnerability? What does strength mean in this situation? Does it mean holding it together and getting the job done? If it is that, then I am being strong. But then when do I grieve? When can I just let all this go and scream and beat my chest and just cry my heart out?
I have this undescribable pain in my chest that is simply lodged there. I feel if I have a good, loud cry, the pain may just dislodge but would that seem weak? Also, tears are coming in spurts when a sudden memory rises up in my mind. When her whole life with me plays out in front of my eyes. All those years when we were apart seem such wasted time.
Saying I am in a lot of pain – is that strength or weakness?
This grief is an interesting process.