Since you’ve been gone: Nothing prepares you for the passing of a mother

When she who gives you breath has no breath, the world changes. It stops, keels over, and see-saws between teetering and straightening.

Written by Shubhra Gupta | New Delhi | Updated: December 28, 2014 1:00:52 am
mother death, mother, mother love Nothing prepares you for the passing of a mother

I closed a lid this morning. The box had the leavings of chikki I had made for the first time. I scraped off some bits, and realised that the lashings of gur and til and peanuts had turned into a crumbly mess. But it tasted just fine.

Till very recently, I would have phoned my mother to tell her about the misshapen gur ki patti. That’s what she called it. Even though we lived in the same city, we didn’t meet as often as I would have liked, because of distance and crazy traffic and crazier schedules. But we would try and speak as often as possible.

The chat would range from culinary misadventures, to the doings of our large, extended family, and then it would end, with her saying “achchi baat hai”. That’s the way she would finish phone calls. And that’s what I would say, right back to her.

“Would”. Using the past tense can act like a cleaver. Clean through flesh, ice cold, no evident bleeding, just a hurt that lingers. You can close a lid. You can close a chapter. You can learn, slowly, painfully, to end a relationship. Or to resign yourself, with equal sadness, to a partner’s inability to extend empathy.
But closure? After the loss of a loved one? That’s a different beast altogether. And a complete misnomer.

My mother passed away a little over a year ago. She had a game heart, but that heart, which beat a little slower every day till it stopped, was the biggest ever.

The family joke was that she would give the shirt off her back, if she wore a shirt, to anyone who asked for it. Every time you turned around, something in the house was missing because she had decided that it would be better off with someone else.

That old Braun mixie, with a cracked lid, on which I learnt to make thick, creamy mayonnaise? Those very precious Time magazines which I used to collect? The comics I got for being a good patient after a tonsilitis operation? Gone, like so much else she deemed clutter, just like that.

She had been unwell, on and off, for the past two or three years. She had been in hospital on and off, for the doctors to poke and prod and tweak her heart. But that last time, when she came out after a procedure, she had been given a clean chit. Her surgeon said she was doing fine, that her medicines would be reduced, that she would begin to eat and feel well again.

My father gave me the bulletin when they stopped off to meet me briefly on the way back from that final post-op check-up. She didn’t look well. In fact, she looked sicker and frailer than she had ever before. I wondered at the doctor’s verdict. I looked at my mother’s face. She didn’t say a word. We sat side by side for a brief spell, and then they left. Was she simply too exhausted? Or did she know something I couldn’t have borne to know?

But I didn’t have time to pursue that thought. I got busy with things, as one does. With deadlines, with chores, with social engagements, with weekend travel. I met her a few days after that disturbing post-hospital visit: it was my parents’ anniversary, and she sounded so much like her old self that the niggling worry receded. She said, “Come have dinner.” We did. She looked tired, but she was moving around. We cut a cake, ate, took group photographs. And then we left.

That was the last time I saw her. Exactly a week later, she was back in hospital. When I reached after a panicked call from my father, she was lying motionless in the ICU. The formal announcement was made the next morning, but I’d known, when I saw her the previous day: there was no one in her eyes.

She had gone, just like that. In a few hours. No reduced meds, no eating and feeling better. One moment, she was there, the next, not. Just the way she used to say: “Zindagi ka kya bharosa, aaj hai, kal nahin.”

Notionally, we know nobody lives forever. We read profound tomes about mortality and death and coping. We learn to share our loved ones’ grief, we learn to say the right things at funerals. We learn how to commiserate and condole.

But nothing prepares you for the passing of a mother: when she who gives you breath has no breath, the world changes. It stops, keels over, and see-saws between teetering and straightening. It changes in a way only someone else who has felt that loss knows.

She travelled light, my mother. She had a sparse wardrobe. Because she had sparse wants. Her biggest delight was in making her family happy, and her biggest sorrow was when there was contention. I learnt the real meaning of sorrow only after she went, and I am learning to live with it, as is my family. As is her mother. My beloved nani, ailing and bed-ridden, at over 90: I can’t even begin to imagine how she has dealt with the loss of an only daughter, my mother. Or has she? She doesn’t speak anymore.

I’ve lost count of the people who’ve spoken to me about closure. How it is essential. How without it, things can be very, very tough. In the past year and a bit, I have been struggling with contrarian impulses: the feelings of total despair, of being bereft, of intense alone-ness, of not having my mother at my back. And of reaching for stoic-ness, for calmness, for composure. For reaching a place where one can function. Efficiently, so that everything else can.

But I’ve stopped looking for closure. Because how can you? I think it is deeply unfair to the memory of those gone. I think it is even more unfair to the living.

What I am learning is how to live with the not-there-ness. My mother is not there. Yes, she is in my heart, and she will always be: that’s another thing kind people say, as they have been taught to. But I can’t reach out and touch her. I cannot hear her voice. To keep her with me, closure is not an option. I reject it.

I’ve discovered that I can negotiate this not-there-ness only if I keep myself open. Just the other day, a friend who is part sage, told me to write a letter to my mum. To say any old thing I wanted to. And to burn it, as soon as I was finished. I was to continue doing this for a few weeks. And why would I want to do such a thing, I asked him? So that you can stop waking up in the night, he said.

He did not, and I am grateful for it, use the word closure.

So I wrote that letter. Mostly in Hindi, because it was our language, me struggling to form my thoughts because it’s been years since I wrote in my mother tongue. I couldn’t find a match-box, so I used the gas stove, and watched paper turn to ash.

I’m planning to follow through with this. In the next letter, I will tell her about the chikki. And I know she will say, “Achchi baat hai.”

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