Last month, a day before Mother’s Day I lost my mother. She’d lost much of her zest for life after my father passed 16 months ago. Frantic phone calls got me the last seat on an endless flight to Delhi. Even as Mother’s Day wishes deluged every channel, I left to say my final goodbyes to my mother flooded with shock and grief. On that journey I dreamt of an incident from my childhood. A particular evening from the 70’s I’d forgotten. Or so I thought.
In the dream I am six (or five?) again. I am tight in rapt attention. Are they lying? One of my parents’ friends had approached my sister and I, “Your parents have been in an accident.” We are being taken to the hospital. It’s the military hospital in Mathura, a small town in northern India. It’s also where my father works — a doctor in the Indian Army. We live in Mathura Cantt. Cantts (or cantonments) were permanent military stations that the British created for armed forces life in India.
My memory of the incident is amorphous except for this single crystalline scene in my head. We enter a hospital room. My mother is in a hospital bed. Her face is swollen and bandaged. I also see my father in the room. He looks shaken but otherwise intact. I see his right arm is injured. They both look worriedly at us, but manage smiles. Later I learn my father’s right arm is paralyzed. The implications of this are lost on me. That’s all I recall. How I felt, whether I cried, how I went home that evening, where I slept that night or nights afterwards, or when my parents returned home are details unavailable in my mind.
Only years later I appreciated how trying this time was for my parents. For my father it was an existential crisis. The army requires a high degree of physical fitness and his position - or “category” - in the army was severely downgraded due to his disability. For the next two years, he persisted with extensive physical therapy and eventually recovered full use of his arm. That was the only time I saw fear in my congenitally upbeat father.
I had not revisited this incident in over four decades. Most direct memory was lost. The body however is another matter. Primal feelings from that incident came flooding back with my mother’s passing — of vulnerability, of exposure to a darkness that could have enveloped my life that evening in the 70’s. Our childhoods are so vulnerable, our happiness so ephemeral, and our dependence on our parents’ well-being so complete. Yet that’s how I’ve felt in losing both parents now — in my 50’s!
It’s a curious apprehension because I have lived independently of them since I left for college nearly four decades ago. And I have lived in a different country for most of that independent life. Yet there’s a feeling of having lost my home in India, the cover of my elders, that generation, that duo that somehow warded off my troubles, who were forever concerned with my happiness no matter how old I got, that kept a home where I could always return without grudge or grievance, that loved me unconditionally like very few can or ever will.
In talking with friends who’ve lost both parents I find I am not alone. A dear friend told me about her mother who passed in her late 80’s. The lady asked to see a photo of her own parents just before she passed. Loss of parents is foundational and settles in to become a part of us. I know many have walked with a heavy heart like I do today, which btw is not a metaphorical description. But who knew the body remembers so much?
Yet I’m deeply grateful for the more than five decades I’ve had with my parents who each lived a full life*. And that I could - and chose to - make the frequent trips I made to India to see them, even in Covid times. I will always miss my mother but finding joy in thoughts of good times is what gives meaning to her memory and to my grief. I see her everywhere — in every flower that blooms in my garden, in the beautiful sound of the chimes she gifted me, in the joy I find in nature especially in the mountains, in the inspiration and humor I find in life — and in the mirror. May we all be so lucky!
* To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate the beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch Or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded!”
―Ralph Waldo Emerson
Does any of this — such grief, feeling exposed, memories our bodies carry — resonate with your experience?
My mother was a big hearted giver to everyone around her, and a generous supporter of this charitable home for the destitute and abandoned elderly in Delhi. She would laugh off the many awards they gave her, once telling me how awards are often bought. Check out SHEOWS and donate if you’re able. NOTE: They accept donations from outside India through Give2Asia
I promise to bring happier tidings next time… including of new writing, miraculously published!
And I hope you are finding succor for whatever ails your soul. My only advice: Give grief its due, yourself a big hug, and draw courage by sharing with those who know and love you for who you are.
I can relate to and enjoy your writing so much.
My Best ,Kristen Ryberg
Dearest Reena, as I was reading this I could feel your pain. Losing a parent has been the biggest fear that has plagued my entire life as I believe it might have been yours- that dreaded phone call and a long flight back home. You experience that pain to an extent when your loved one loses a parent and sometimes I wonder if it is to build an inner strength when your turn comes. Thank you for baring your grief so bravely and sharing it. I can't help but mention the obvious; how blessed you are to have had such exceptional parents who were also good human beings. They will continue to live on in you and through you. They will touch many more lives much after they are gone through your writing and interactions. Sending you love and a hug.