It is exactly 15 years ago today, that my mother died. I tend to come slightly unhinged this time of the year. Not in an obvious sort of a way anymore, surely 15 years are more than enough time to get over the five stages of grief… And yet it this time of the year, when I reach towards the telephone in desperate forgetfulness or dissolve into tears at the sight of her favourite Shenbagam flower, right in the middle of the crowded station road. One doesn’t get over the loss of a loved one apparently, you only learn to cope. A few years ago, in a bid to do just that, I wrote the following piece as a part of a book compilation on death/ dreams, an idea that was eventually shelved. A warning: For those among you who have suffered loss, this could hold potential triggers, so you may want to stop reading now.
I pride myself on how far back into my childhood I remember. I in fact remember one incident at which point, when I cross-referenced with relatives, I couldn’t have been more than a year and a half to two years old. But try as I might, I can’t remember Amma being pregnant with my younger sister L. I would have been about 4 years old then. You think I would remember my slender mother sporting a huge bump around her middle for the better part of a year. But no, nothing surfaces of that time. I do remember crying myself to sleep when she disappeared for three days. And we had to put up with my bad-tempered grandmother feeding my elder sister and me thairsadam every night.
Were they disappointed when it was yet another girl child? I can’t remember this either. This was the ‘hum do humare do’ era. So a third child was usually attempted only for the elusive male torch bearer. But if anything, my parents were most relaxed in parenting their littlest one. I think they shrugged their shoulders and figured that it was the last time they would probably experience the miracle of a baby entering their lives.Consequently my younger sister has always been the most easy-going and sweet-tempered of us three.
We were taken to the hospital for the a formal visit to see the new baby. It was a big airy room with a picture window. Amma was wearing a strange white gown. She looked odd without her saree.
I wasn’t allowed to touch the baby in the crib. I didn’t want to really. She was red and funny-looking and when she waved a tiny arm about, someone exclaimed that she was saying hello to her older sister. I politely smiled acknowledging the weak adult humour. On another visit I asked Amma how the baby came about and she told me that the doctor had left her there while she, my mother, had been sleeping. I stared really hard at the young, bespectacled doctor when he was on his rounds wondering why he would do such a rotten thing and he smiled quizzically back at me.
I wasn’t really happy either when Amma came home with the baby. Especially when she would disappear into the bedroom with the baby many times during the day shutting the door behind her. Though nobody said anything to me but I sensed that I wasn’t really allowed to go into the room. One time I decided to sneak in anyway. The room was dark though it was mid-morning. The curtains were drawn -all very unusual and mysterious. In the sliver of light entering through a chink in the curtains I saw Amma on the edge of the bed, leaning against the headboard holding the baby close. I went and stood next to them quietly wondering what to do now that I was here. I tugged at the baby’s foot and she looked up, disturbed from whatever she was doing.
Then I saw Amma’s naked breast. Golden with a cocoa brown nipple. It looked so soft. I stumbled away and the baby went back to it making slurpy noisy sounds. Amma, I thought would be angry at me, but she smiled gently and drowsily at me . Her hair was slightly undone and she looked so content.
When my little sister turned 21 and was away doing her post-graduation, Amma discovered a lump in her breast the size of a small lemon. My elder sister N and I took her to an oncologist- the first of many strange men who would poke and prod at Amma’s breasts. I sat outside in the waiting area. My elder sister by virtue of her being a doctor automatically went in. The first time because the oncologist had been her teacher and subsequently because everyone happily dumped the whole chore on her. After all she was a trained doctor and the effort and money spent on her education had quickly proved fruitful.
The oncologist was certain it was cancer. My mother while not fitting any of the other parameters was at least in the right age group for it. I don’t think my mother or I felt anything as we left his clinic. But my better educated sister was totalling up the odds, I think. And so it all began. Pathology lab visits for aspirations, biopsies followed by second and third opinions, mammograms, and finally the surgeon. And everywhere I sat outside waiting while my sister or my father accompanied my mother. Nobody asked me nor did I offer to accompany my mother. I always remembered to carry a book with me to bury my nose into. Even a few years later as my mother lay dying in the hospital, I would sit next to her embroidering a kurta for my younger sister. It still lies unfinished at the back of my cupboard- my mother didn’t last long enough for me to finish it.
The cancer the doctors determined was at a very early stage and the chances of my mother beating the thing were really bright. But the case file did land up at a surgeon’s and of course he began sharpening his knife. Amma was advised to go in for a radical mastectomy-the breast with the lump was cut away in lieu of drawn out radiation and chemotherapy treatments. She came home a week or so later with a bag on a tube attached to her side draining the lymphatic fluid. Somehow diminished.
My Athai, my father’s sister was visiting. And I remember all of us sitting around in the kitchen eating a meal when my aunt companionably asked to see the wound of the surgery. Amma looked shocked and I expected her to refuse curtly. But I hurriedly got up and left the room when my mother started undoing her blouse.
Maybe a couple of weeks later when we were alone in the kitchen, my mother and I, she asked me if I would like to see her wounded chest. I knew I didn’t want to, but is there any answer that would have been appropriate? I stood there frozen in agony, feeling assaulted and angry as she undid her blouse hooks one by one. Of course she wasn’t wearing a bra. I could see the tube was still going into her armpit draining the yellow lymphatic fluid. The scar of the surgery was as vicious as I braced myself for it to be. Red and angry and about 5 inches long, it was interrupted with evenly spaced white stitches. And half her chest was flatter than a man’s. Concave, scooped out. She looked at me looking at her wound. What did she expect? Did I let her down? Why did my extremely private mother spring this on me? She didn’t show me her other intact breast. After she righted her clothes she muttered in a trace of the black humour she was known for that she was half a hijra now. Hijras being half and half themselves- that sort of a thing.
A few years later the cancer came back and her other breast had to be removed and she had to go through extensive and very painful chemo that she had avoided the first time around and many many more indignities. But she didn’t offer to show me her second scar. A couple of years later, my beautiful Amma died maimed, mutilated and exhausted.
About 6 months before Amma died, I had a dream-
My 2 year old daughter has died and Amma and I are cradling her little body on our laps and sitting at the cremation ground. I am inconsolable in my grief. Amma is gently and lovingly explaining to me what has to be done. She tells me to lay my daughter upon the pyre and to kick her skull open to set the soul free. I can’t believe the horror of what she is asking me to do to my baby and I refuse. So she does it for me and when the flames have died down she hands me the broken bits of bones to immerse in the ocean…
There was an important lesson in the dream, which I would understand only much after my mother died. I had been dealing with the situation rather airily, blithely up until then. Now when I’m in the down and dirty up to my knees and elbows of mothering my own two children, I wonder at the how strong my sense of self-preservation was back then. Always cocooned in my thoughts, carefully protecting my feelings. While outwardly expressing my support in being there on important occasions, I didn’t really want to know what was going on on the inside. OK so my mother had had cancer. But it had been dealt with. Could she now go back to being my mother? Oh, how she must have despaired at my attitude! She was trying to ‘grow me up’ I think, the day she showed me her wounded body. She had wanted me to treat her as a person with feelings, a person seeking my loving support and not merely as my Amma. Not anymore.
It didn’t happen then. Not for another few years. Amma really set me free the day she died. Her final gift. It was as in my dream- the daughter, the child was dead. I had to cremate her, let her go. With Amma died my past, my childhood and me, the daughter. I grew up finally.
We were, us three sisters and my mother’s sister, my Chitti, all lying around my mother in that cold, sterile hospital room. We had all been taking turns in keeping vigil as Amma slipped away little by little. In the one moment at about 5.30am that all four of us fell asleep, my mother died. A few minutes later a doctor walked in to check on her and pronounced her dead. I remember my elder sister turning to me with eyes large and fearful saying, it’s over now.
So, Amma died with a smile playing upon her lips. She looked relieved. All the people she truly loved were in that room with her. She knew what we didn’t then. It would all work out. We would all grow up. Everything would be OK.