As I was walking my puppy, and observing how joyous and happy he was with the energy of new life and youthful sprightliness of a 4-month-old, a gentile couple walked up and asked to pet him. They left by saying “enjoy him as much as you can, we just lost ours after 17 years”
But. I have already prepared myself for loss.
You see, when I meet someone new or fall in love with someone, I often think of their funerals immediately.
I began to ruminate.
I attended my first funeral at 8 years old. My great-grandmother. I was still figuring with what this meant, I knew that you were supposed to cry.
At age 11, I witnessed the death of my maternal grandfather on Christmas Day.
My grandfather, who guided me, loved me, nurtured me when I was a wounded infant, protected me. Dropped dead in the kitchen. Spontaneous rupture of an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Because, despite his love for me, he loved his cigarettes more.
I insisted on viewing his body at the morgue and at his funeral, I threw myself onto his unlit pyre, as they were about to light the camphor in his mouth. A Hindu tradition. I observed my mother gripping the gate and sobbing.
4 years later, I spent the day with her, my mother whom I did not nor never have lived with. She cradled my head in her lap and asked how I knew I liked the boy I was telling her about. I stared up at her and observed her as though intrinsically I knew that was the last time I would ever have the chance.
My mother, with the perfect eyebrows, orange-red lipstick and the highlighted hair. The laugh that echoed. The perfume which lingered.
“She was the only woman I ever chased,” my father once told me.
She, the artist. The well traveled. The music lover. Her childhood bedroom became my childhood bedroom at my grandparents’ home. I grew up seeing all of her pen pals’ addresses speckled all over her/my door, addresses to unknown people from foreign countries.
She who made me mocha drinks, her version made by mixing Milo and coffee. Listened to me and counseled me when I did badly on a test or had a falling out with school friends, always made time for me when I called her using the phone’s payphone. Nothing was more important.
She taught me about waxing my eyebrows, blow drying my hair and only ever scolded me once in both our lives when I could not recite my 9 times tables.
A week later, I would be the one asked to put the camphor in her mouth and light it.
That night my sister called me at 2 am and whispered that whisper which only sisters share. The one which even now, we share sitting in the dark with my 9-month-old niece in front of the refrigerator light.
"I think mummy just died."
I told my grandmother, her mother, about her now lost daughter.
Her daughter. The generous soul. The best friend. The first born. Her first born. The one with the ribbons in her hair. The clean uniform. The flight attendant’s crisp overalls.
The one with the bruises and black eyes.
I was broken out of my trance with the arrival of my father and sister. My father prostrated himself under my grandmother’s alter, and bawled for his ex-wife of 6 years. The one who wore the red sari and walked around the fire with him in secret, 10 years before parting. The one whose face was now mixed with his, in both daughters whom she bore and loved. The one who cooked meals and dropped them for him and his girlfriend then cried in her car. The one who punctured his tires.
At the funeral, my sister could not give the eulogy so I did. Unprepared. To speak of a woman I knew as my mother but shared a friendship. About the woman who separated herself from me when I was a few weeks old and was never able to bring me back home.
I could not light the fire. This time I ran away from the steel pyre. I gripped the gate and sobbed.
The next time I would lose someone, it would be the man holding his two daughters and grieving for his lost soul mate and the premature disposal of their time together.
I would not be asked to light the pyre.
I look back on these incidents and observe the impact on my life, a decade and a half later. For one, I hate the word condolences. I never want to be offered any condolences and I do not use it for others. I cannot attend funerals. Or weddings. Painful, painful in too many ways.
The sorrow in one. The unity in the other.
The good thing is, there is not much that can break me now. I already have a gaping hole in my heart that will never be filled. Mothers' days and Fathers' days are nothing more than painful reminders and further agony trying to revere someone else as the person who has come close to that space.
I spent a long time trying to find ways to fill the hole. Many women tried to mold me as their own, some have come closer than others. Boyfriend’s mothers, friend’s mothers, family members, and now my Mother-in-Law who so desperately wants me to see her as my only Mother. But all come with their own disclaimer of limitations and reminders that they can not and never will be Her.
One day, my husband enlightened me that my goal was unfounded. No one will ever fill that space but, why should they? My parents do not need to be replaced. They cannot be replaced. They shouldn’t. The empty space is mine, it is as much part of me as the physical. I honor it. This heaviness it carries.
Its been 15 years and I still am reduced to tears when reminded of her and what I missed out on not having her in my life.
A visit to Venice, a book, someone mistakenly asking about my mother, someone mistaking someone else as my Mother. A song.
I long to ask her advice, tell her about my life, show her pictures of her grandchildren. How her granddaughter is her namesake. How many people say I look like her. I have dreams of introducing her to her son-in-law whom she would have adored. I visit the countries she has visited, I wear the orange-red lipstick. I search for her in my sister’s face and mine. How my nephew pouts like she did while he sleeps. How my hair dries like hers. I’ve seen the back of her in strangers. I imagine her life at my age now. What she must have thought, done, seen, eaten, loved.
She who whizzed past my world like shooting star that I did not deserve to linger my gaze upon. She who crashed and burned in the palm of my hand faster than it took for me to taste what a mother’s love felt like. Taking with her all the light and shimmer of pure love and leaving me only with the brandish, lackluster glisten of a burnt out meteorite.
Her life was short, sorrow filled but yet beautiful and full. She dreamt until the dreams were ripped away from her and beaten with a hockey stick until she was jaded enough.
She loved until her breath was no longer welcome into her inflamed and spasming airways.
“Mummy, I think when I get married, I want 100 white doves to be released”
“Don’t plan your wedding. Things never work out the way you want.”
said the jaded queen to her wide-eyed, 14-year-old princess.
"Just focus on now."
I swallowed the heaviness back into my chest, bent down to pet my puppy, squeezed my husband’s hand tightly and we continued on our daily walk.