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.
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.
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.
I am listening to Rabindrasangeet (songs written by Rabindranath Tagore), as I sautè chopped onions, add fresh ginger and garlic paste, spices, chopped tomatoes to the dal simmering on the stove top. Along with the aroma of my very familiar food, memories are wafting towards me of days gone by. Each song that comes up in my Spotify Playlist evokes different memories. Memories of people, memories of moments, memories of a slice of life that I have lived, memories of sunshine and happiness, memories of heartbreak too. Music does that to one’s soul. I did not listen to music after my parents’ death. We listened and loved similar songs and I have innumerable memories of singing along to those in our shared moments together. Listening to those songs alone was simply too painful. I have slowly allowed music to seep into my life again. I realize with astonishment how life truly goes on. How I am living and laughing too at times. Sleeping at night however is a different matter altogether though.
Ma, for the life of her, could not carry a tune. Did that stop her from singing out loud along with songs that played on our radio? No, it did not. I am not a connoisseur either but I can recognize correct notes. I, of course, never said a word about ma’s singing abilities but I did laugh inwardly. I was mean to her singing prowess – in my head.
Baba, on the other hand, was quite a crooner. He would close his eyes when his favorite song came on the radio and croon along with a lot of emotion and actually sung quite well. But more than his singing, I enjoyed hearing about his memories associated with songs that he loved in his youth. He would talk about them sometimes. I tried to picture him as a young man, hanging out with his friends from his engineering college, going on trips, Durga pujas of his youth, a snatched memory of his mother or father.
My mother and father have become memories now. As the songs pour into my soul, I remember our shared moments. Music, today, was bitter sweet.
…..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 DragonTapestry 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.
This is not necessarily a glamorous photograph that I would share with the world for likes and compliments. This was taken just a few days ago by Ryan to test out the picture taking ability of his new iPhone, a phone that he purchased with entirely his own money. This was taken in a moment of happiness when I was with my family in a fall afternoon.
He took photos of me as we sat on opposite sides of each other in our favorite Indian restaurant. He put different filters on the photos, laughed at most of them as I looked ridiculous. But he shared this one with me. Unfiltered.
The “me” in this photo is almost the “me” before my parents died. This “me” is the one who almost always had an inner joy. Even on the darkest day, this “me” could talk myself out of despair. The current me is “walking a narrow path through the loss………taking sips of sorrow…..” as Julia Alvarez says in her beautiful novel Afterlife. One day, I want to be back where, once upon a time, the previous “me” used to be. I have embarked on the journey, the path is narrow and I am trying (and failing sometimes) to not fall off the edge. One day I plan to arrive.
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.
A friend asked me how I dealt with this double tragedy of losing my parents within a span of 9 days of each other right when it happened. Did the kindness of your family and friends help you recover, she asked. I thought about those horrific days when I sat on the couch completely numb, catatonic even. For a short time, I did not want to live anymore. The kindness of others did not even touch me at that point. When I look back, although looking back is very painful, I feel like I was so completely submerged in profound grief, I was beyond anyone’s touch. I felt my family around me hugging, crying, doing things for me but I was simply an observer of their action. Friends and community poured their love and affection but if I am honest, at that time, I was simply acting the way that I was supposed to act – saying thank you, smiling.
Slowly with time, I felt like I was emerging gradually from the quagmire of deep, heavy, suffocating grief. I read a friend’s post on social media, who lost his mother 7 days before I did that he was going to live his life to the fullest because that truly is the last and most precious gift that his mother gave him. He would honor and cherish that gift by being the best that he can be. That struck a chord. My life is truly their gift to me and I can honor that gift by being the best that I can be. It was then that I started looking around. And I found the acts of kindness and love all around me.
From the love of my friends to the many acts of kindness of my coworkers, my community, my cousins, my aunt – I lived in a universe of kindness. I was so immersed in my loss that I failed to feel the warmth of all the love. It was almost a selfish act. Almost, I say since I am determined to be kind to myself. From words of love to food, from taking my shifts at work to sending plants and flowers, from financial donations for Covid help in India in my parents’ memory to cards from all over the world. Prayers were said in several countries in the world by Sean’s colleagues in churches, mosques and temples for my parents’ soul and our peace. All the cumulative kindness of my community of friends and family became this huge cushion of comfort for me to rest my head. I have already written a blog about how my coworkers donated money to engrave 2 paver stones in memory of my parents in the garden of our library. I eat my lunch there these days and I go to see them during my breaks. Yesterday, I was having lunch with a dear friend near their paving stones when she said, “I have something for you.” It was not my birthday! Why would there be something for me? She gave me a gift bag with a tissue wrapped gift. When I opened the tissue paper, my jaw dropped. It was the most exquisite shawl knitted by her with all my favorite colors. She started knitting the shawl for me in June, just after my parents died.
I cried, of course. And then laughed. I went over to the paver stones to show ma and baba the shawl. I told them not to worry about me. I am loved and cared for. And now I am looking around and cherishing it.
This morning as I was talking to the girls staying in our house in Kolkata, Gouri and Breshpati, I heard a story that I had not heard before. Today is the day baba died 2 months ago and today was a good day to laugh out loud at his wicked sense of humor as well as his robust appetite and love for food, especially fish and meat.
I have written before that Khushi was the apple of his eye and both ma and baba were truly invested in helping her grow up with all opportunities that they were able to provide. Ma took care of her studies, I take care of funding her education and baba took care of investing financially for her future. One day when baba, Khushi and Breshpati went to the bank to either manage her account or put money in her account, the banker helping them asked baba, “Sir, do you own a restaurant? If you do, where is it?”
Baba was, understandably, taken aback at this random question. The banker clarified his query as he saw baba’s surprised face. He said that several fish sellers come to that bank to deposit big checks written to them by baba and so he wondered if baba owned a restaurant which needed all that fish. Baba laughed, turned to Khushi and said, “Didi, show this kaku (uncle) where our restaurant is.” He then patted his own big tummy and Khushi’s little tummy. He said, “Here! This is our restaurant.”
Breshpati came home and told ma this story. Ma commented, “Did you also tell the man that I live with a mad man? Mad for food!”
As I heard the story, I could visualize baba responding to the question without batting an eyelid. I laughed so hard till I had tears in my eyes.
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.