I lost my mother in 2008, the evening after my convocation ceremony. I was suddenly told to come back home, leaving my life open in half-packed cartons. On the flight I hadn't yet understood that mum had gone. When I entered the building of the dispensary, I was surprised to see people I don't see often hugging me. I was taken into her room only once. A nurse took the sheet off her face and I tried mumbling between my sobs, dad by my side, "But it looks like she's smiling, doesn't it?" Her forearm was cold to touch, not the sort of warm milky softness which I was accustomed to clawing into every time I was nervous.
I felt like everything around me was spinning really fast, even when I was still.
I was sent home to wait for the ambulance. I lay down on my bed after two years of being in a hostel. In my head, I felt like everything around me was spinning really fast, even when I was still. I waited in a corner of the balcony, at the same spot where mum used to stand to say goodbye, every single day that I went to school. I wondered if the ambulance would have its siren on, but decided it was unlikely. Because the red alarm is on only when there's still some hope or chance or whatever positivity it is that doctors try selling to you. Hours later, she was taken away, taking nothing, among a thick audience of family and many more people I still don't recognise.
Over the next two weeks, our relatives had built an empathy calendar around our lives. All their visits and small talk would suddenly boil down to "But you have to be stronger" or some variation of the phrase. I understand the strength that comes from eating five almonds soaked overnight but seven years on, I still find it difficult to pin down this special strength when I see a mum feeding her daughter on a train which we took on Saturdays to go to my grandmum's house. Or when I am suddenly seeing English Vinglish, where a stubborn daughter thinks her mum's broken English is embarrassing. I want to go back to every single day that I awkwardly turned down my mom's hug. They made us take a class in stitching in school. It was supposed to be an important life skill for emergencies, like if you suddenly lost a button. But nobody gave us an extra-curricular class in dealing with permanent loss.
I started preserving some of her dupattas, kurtas, a head scarf, and rationed their use slowly, hoping I'd at least smell like her.
Some close ones assume that grieving is caged into the first one or two years of the event. But nobody fully realises that you hurting and healing simultaneously, that this loss is not a 24-photo album from the 90s, which you stack in a drawer that you rarely open.
It started for me with recreating any notion that my mom exists. I used to wake up in extreme panic from a dream where someone would be shaking me and warming me up to something not being right with mum. They'd never say what -- it could be an aunt or a professor, but they'd know that she was not doing well and push me to go home. When I'd land up home, I'd see her walking around the house, in perfect health. I started preserving some of her dupattas, kurtas, a head scarf, and rationed their use slowly, hoping I'd at least smell like her. Until they eventually started smelling like me, and then the detergent, then some generic cupboard smell. I constantly check my face closely in the mirror to observe which profile looks like her. I even try hugging my mum's sisters to check if any of it feels like her touch. Even our family tries keeping her alive. I tie her brothers a rakhi every year. Keeping someone alive in memory is like balancing a really heavy basket of happiness on your head; its weight can sometimes cripple you or seep through your brain cells and trigger more memories from the past. I call them setbacks. Imagine you've changed the lock to a door long ago, but every once in a while you insert the old key accidentally.
Often, I meet people and friends who in passing, or with slight deliberateness, say that I use my loss to my advantage by being a victim.
I started distracting myself with things to do beyond my routine. Imagine an endlessly big hole on a narrow street. No car can pass over it, until it's filled. I started filling my loss hole with everything I could lay my hands on. I learnt archery, did theatre, tried learning Spanish online (and failed), and threw myself in. Sitting still is the enemy of running into trouble, I thought. I also started expecting some of my relationships, my partners, to somehow fill the same void. Filling up the loss hole is a bit like asking people to fill up a donation form. Every person or experience you beg from will give you something. Sometimes you get a row of donors putting in a standard Rs 5, and some magical donor will hand you a Rs 50 note. But I have realised not to feel shame in such begging; after all it's for a cause.
There are no stages in coping, only perspectives that I try to adopt. For an entire year I distanced myself from "emotions" by reading all her medical reports to assimilate that her going away was a physical and biological breakdown. I even got myself an organ donation card to give death its technical due, ripping it off all its feelings. On nights that this rationality didn't put me to sleep, I wrote my most personal and cathartic poetry. I am a performance poet; I lay open all my life in verse to an audience. Often, I meet people and friends who in passing, or with slight deliberateness, say that I use my loss to my advantage by being a victim. As hurtful as it may feel, it is circumstantial that sadness is one of my first responses to a lot of my personal history with my mum. Writing helps me channel all of my thoughts, in silence, for myself. It is like taking a long train ride on your own. Within the borders of that page, it is perfectly acceptable to not know what that "strength" that people keep asking you to have, is.
I started filling my loss hole with everything I could lay my hands on. I learnt archery, did theatre, tried learning Spanish online...
It is also nice to let people help you. It took me the longest to understand that people are really trying to help. In fits of rage and "setbacks" they appear patronising and superficial, but what they are is a safety net. My close people always say that Preeti is a fighter, she can get through anything! This positivity has the same impact on my ego as Mario (from Mario Bros.) eating a mushroom, and enjoying his invincible status, however short-lived. What really comes in handy is to have a sense of thankfulness for everything that's going right for you. I have forced myself on difficult nights to make lists and lists of things that are swimming in the right direction. It is very easy to forget all of them when everything seems to be a giant train wreck of "why does everyone I love, leave me?" A job that I enjoy, a comfortable house, friends who are waiting through my long and frustrating silences, and above all, the slow-cooked realisation (however selfish) that outside of being a daughter, a friend, an employee, you are still alive and functioning as a sole entity.
Given the unpredictability of "attacks", I have accepted that I will never fully move on. Now I allow my body to be comfortable every time my throat swells up with a distant memory, rarely ever running to wash my face. There will never be a total release from this void, but help is always close by. More in the form of planned and unplanned efforts you make on your own rather than things you hope someone will "do" for you.
I am told that my mum kept asking that day in broken words, if my function would be over by now, if it was a good time to leave. I know that she isn't here, but I can only go back to sleep after that dream, believing that she is.
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