An incoherent grief

I just got to know about N’s passing away. It’s a shock, I didn’t expect her to pass away so soon The kids are hovering around. The firstborn says, “Mama don’t be alone.” But, I need space and silence. I need my woods. I’ll escape into its quiet in a bit but before that, words.

I never met N, we spoke on the phone occasionally, exchanged letters and shared sarees. We were two strangers who shared a love for the quiet pleasures of books, nature and sarees. Instagram brought us together and we’ve followed the snippets of our lives through a little window. Despite all the bad rap social media gets, it has brought me some wonderful people I now call friends.

Two weeks ago, I received a parcel from N, a lovely grey ikat saree and a slim book, ‘The Living Mountain’ with the sweetest note inside. The title and book blurb sounded like I needed to read it right then and that’s what I proceeded to do. One of the few instances where I read a book cover to cover at a go, despite knowing that it is best savoured slowly. But, I wanted to read a work that my friend thought I’d like and so I gulped it, greedily. I called her as soon as I finished the book and she was apologetic for not feeling more cheerful. She had recently tested positive for Covid-19. That was Neelu, always concerned about others than herself which is something I realized about her, early on in our acquaintance.

Nan Shepherd’s book is the book I wish I wrote. This book will be doubly precious now for it has come to me from her. There is a little bit of her in that note written on its page, the closest to feeling her touch. Soft, tender, gentle, kind, considerate, caring, encouraging, supportive – I could go on about her and it would be echoed by many like me who haven’t met her but only known her virtually.

Now, I sit here, typing because I know of no other way to feel grief for the loss of a friend I only knew through a screen and handwritten notes. I miss not having felt the dazzle of her smile, what I imagine would be the scent of her presence, the warmth of her hug and her lilting voice. She may be gone but she left me a title that I need to complete, if not for anything else then simply for her.

RIP N.

A nine year old good-bye

Nine years to the day since my father passed away. It seems like a long time ago now. A couple of days ago, I was talking to one of the siblings and she wanted me to go over the events of the day he died. It was a Monday. He had had cataract surgery in the morning and it went well. Later in the day, an ultrasound showed a massive aneurysm. Mother called me from the hospital and I rushed there from work, a good 2-3 hours in Bombay’s viscous traffic. He was on the 10th floor and the elevators had unending lines considering the visiting hours. So, I ran up the stairs, not sure if he’d be alive, the aneurysm was a ticking bomb. He should have been dead months before if the size of that thing was any indication.

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Terribly grainy picture taken on a phone just about 15 minutes before he passed away. 

But there he was, leaning against the headboard of his bed, quite cheerful. He was a happy-go-lucky sorts and always good humoured. It took a lot to rile him. It was impossible to feel horrible in his company, he had a way of making you feel good about yourself. Perhaps, that’s why we always had people visiting. Young, elderly, new acquaintances, old friends and relatives, the house was always open. Sometimes the visitors were long term and as kids, we resented having to share space in an already cramped two bedroom apartment. Often, we had people from the neighbourhood as well as visitors from out of town dropping in for a meal or a cup of weak Malayali chai. The Gulf War days saw a lot of people use our home as a transit house. In retrospect, I see how generous my parents were especially in times when they were in a tight spot financially.

I was glad to see him in good spirits and we chatted for a couple of hours. I got my parents to agree to wait until I came back the next morning to drop them home. It was around 8ish in the night and dad forced me to leave, saying that traffic would be bad. So, goodbyes were said and we waited for the elevator. Mother was upset considering that there was no real treatment we could get for him, with all the complications he had. She is a worrier as much as dad winged it through life. We discussed options as we waited for the elevator to ding on the floor. While waiting, an ayah passed by and asked if the patient in bed number 13 was related to us and we said no. She grumbled saying that the man was lying down with the plate on the bed and had made a mess. Dad was in bed number 12. Later, we figured that she got the bed number wrong. It was dad who was sprawled in that fashion. He had died almost as soon as we left the room.

I was at the hospital gate when mother called. The first time around, it was blank and I thought it might be a mistake; the second time, she just cried and managed to say, “he’s gone”. Long story short, I rushed back to his room. There was a crowd of doctors and nurses trying to resuscitate him. I could only see his feet and they had changed colour. He was gone. Someone removed his wrist watch to find a vein and gave it to me and I put it in my bag. I would discover it after a couple of weeks and it has remained with me ever since. I wanted to tell the medicos to let him go but they had to do the hospital thing and leave no stone unturned. Saving a life is a messy affair and has little dignity for the body. For the next hour, they tried everything till it was finally time to call the time of death. And just like that dad became a body, no longer a person.

While recounting this to the sibling, she asked me what I felt then. I don’t recollect feeling anything. I was glad that he didn’t suffer and went in a flash. Mother was in shock though, the last few years of her life revolved around him. The night was long, my brother arrived from Bangalore in a few hours and by the time we were finished with all the paperwork and calls to the undertaker etc., it was almost early morning. Somewhere in the middle of all that, I managed to have enough sense to eat something. It was simply easy to take charge of the situation and tick off things. Crises are perhaps easier to handle than emotions.

Dad was buried on a rainy Thursday. The house was packed with mourners, I was surprised at the people who showed up despite the bad weather. They came from all over the city and country. A cabbie, maids who helped out, security guards, friends, extended family and the church community, including one of my more recent friends all the way from Goa. They all had stories of his kindness, generous tips, a patient ear, help to get started, advice and so on. I had only known him as a father and through the experiences of all these other people, I started to see a person who was liked and loved by many. I loved my father although I never told him that and I am fairly certain he knew it. He was an awkward hugger and his would be a bumbling daddy hug topped with a kiss on my head. I find I unconsciously do that to some people I hug. A tiny benediction of a kiss.

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The pater as a young man.

That afternoon, we stood by the freshly dug grave and I watched the rain drops as they fell. It appeared as though in slow motion. My sister spoke on behalf of the family, she’s a natural. While everyone watched him on his final journey, I found myself going back to the night in the ICU when I bid him goodbye, alone. I continued to watch the rain pelt the coffin. It was a typical tropical downpour and the grave was flooded so much so that the coffin had to be weighed down with stones. I wondered what if he came alive and found that not only was the coffin shut but there were huge stones on top of it. Would he think that we had left him to be dead forever? Gravesides have their own kind of thoughts, on death, dying and being left behind. Warped, some of them. It was evening by the time we reached the house but there was barely any time to even sit as the father-in-law had taken a turn for the worse. He would pass away in 5 days. In one week, I lost two fathers. Both quiet men who let their actions do the talking.

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In my dad’s arms

I think of my father often, his thoughts are present in his favourite foods, Christmas time, the smell of whiskey, in quiet moments when I stare out as he would look out from his wooden easy chair. I don’t think I miss him too much now, not in the way it used to be a rude hole in the region of the heart, not in the way I wished I could have the abandon of a child sucking her fingers and snug in his arms. In the last nine years, much changed in all our lives. A nephew born after his passing away reminds me of my father, he has that same charm. Mother gets a little misty this time of the year but a pandemic has kept her distracted as has a new place to call home. She still needs solemnity of loss while I like to celebrate a simple, uncomplicated life.

I never found the time to grieve him as I lost the father-in-law soon after. It was a chaotic time, buried one father and then had to cremate another. A Christian funeral and a Hindu one with its elaborate Brahminical rites and rituals. At the time, the rituals were a pain but I see that both the spouses needed the comfort of age old customs of public grieving. It was nearly 3 weeks by the time all that was over and the guests departed. I thought I could sit down and mourn the losses but found that the time had passed. I hadn’t shed a tear and now there was nothing to grieve.

Strangely, mourning happened in small, leaky sorrows every time I attended the funeral of a friend’s parent. Waiting as one of the crowd, my mind had the opportunity to be present in an environment of grief and allow the sadness to rise. It never felt done until one Christmas. The brother and I pulled out old family albums and looked at them with mom. The sister got to see some of them via messages halfway around the world. Technology can be a wonderful thing too. That season, there was some closure for all of us, a sense of being able to move on. Else, all special days were fraught with the weight of an absence.

I wonder if any of his friends remember him now. It’s been a while and our memories tend to get overwritten with current relationships. Life grows around loss adding layers of newer experiences. Eventually, the loss becomes like a fossil, imprinted deep and looked at only when excavating old memories. This evening, I went for a walk and the woods were lush. The grass has grown quite tall in patches and I almost stepped on a snake! It reminded me of my father’s house in Kerala, fertile green acres of teak and coconut, jackfruit and mango trees. I wish I had the opportunity to walk on that land with him and listen to stories of his growing up directly from him. Maybe this is missing him.

The girl in the red plaid dress

Another morning out. I should give up the pretense of shopping for supplies and see it for what it is, the need to walk. In the absence of ambles in the woods or jaunts around the neighbourhood, I found myself picking threads from little vignettes that played out on the street or the voices and noises from households, some of it, violent. Some threads were ripped from an unruly heart, some from cold waters of reason and much unravelled in letters that remain piled on my desk. But, this is about today and a walk under a summer sun with my beautiful bald pate, a half masked face and skin that drank sunshine.

It’s been a couple of days since the hair came off and with it, everything that weighed this old head down. I suddenly feel ageless and in a manner of speaking, outside of the limitations of gender. It’s liberating in such a primal way as though the rules of convention don’t apply anymore. Perhaps, this is what monks and nuns feel? Them of the beatific smiles and melodious voices.

I’m out in a running singlet and find that my feet want to let go and break into a jog. It’s that kind of a day when the body feels its sinewy strength and there is pleasure to be taken in being alive and strong. I feel the ripple of energy in my back and legs as I move. It reminds me of long walks on the beach with the sun on my face and water lapping against my feet and I wander into memories of the sea and it’s incredible silence. The next face I see reminds me that we’re in the middle of a pandemic and all those images of sunkissed shores are a long way off.

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So I walk, soaking in sights of a changed world. I walk past a school with one hundred windows- all shut, cross a much dead cat with dried skin and ashen ribs that have no takers, watch winding lines outside liquor shops and cops who have given up trying to tame the crowds. The trees are in bloom and I hug one of the Indian Cork ones. They’ll sway in monsoon winds in a few months and their lovely blossoms will make beautiful scents. Again memories, of night time walks in my invisibility cloak. There are people out and about as though it is time to shop for Diwali, most in masks but else in thick groups. Mostly men, some women and no children except the little masked girl in a red plaid dress, walking with her father.

It was a stark reminder of the missing children of a pandemic. And I wanted to mourn for the ones with loving families and those with hateful ones, the ones with food aplenty and those who go hungry, the ones with lovely homes and those who hustle on streets, the ones with friends and those friendless, the ones who dream in colour and those who live nightmares, the ones with pretty smiles and those with haunted eyes, the ones with grand plans and those without, the ones who get cuddles and those who get beaten. I wanted to grieve for all the little children and the unborn who’ve inherited a blighted planet.

Sometimes, the need for a mourning as such is to mourn the fragility of human lives and a poem springs-

I feel the urge to keen

lament in beautiful tongues

that I don’t understand

I want to partake

the bewilderment

Of a species as it mourns

I want to

share their grief and

walk to distanced funerals

And along with all this

I want to keen

for losses of another kind

That of little children

and a lost summer of

urchins and the home schooled

The little masked girl haunts my today. She was the only child I have seen outside in all these days of lockdown. Perhaps it is also a feeble hope after 40 days of suspension that a little girl appears in a red plaid dress.