I didn’t think a day would come when a smile would play on my face at the thought of you.
Do you remember our neighbor’s dog ? You may remember him as that big German Shepherd who barked when your wanderings took you close to his house. Well, a few days ago, he joined you where you are. You may have seen him there. The dog followed my friend so much, even as a puppy, that they named him Shadow. One thing about him that I remember is his start in life. My friends got him from a friend who found him abandoned on the median divider of a highway. I can’t imagine the heartlessness of those who left him that way. I remember the heartlessness with which your owners abandoned you. But I thank that heartlessness, bless it often, because it led you to us. He died short of ten years with them, a few days short of the anniversary of the day you left us. And in his death, I was reminded again of the days and months and years that I spent feeling bereft when you left us.
The other day, I came home late from work, after Maya was home from her jaunts with the nanny. When I opened the front door, I heard Maya’s little feet go pitter-patter as she raced to the front door calling me. “Papa, papa, you’re home”. I remembered how you would come racing the same way, the evenings I returned from work, meowing your delight. Most days of course you had already smelt my coming and would be waiting by the garage door.
My eyes usually don’t tear when I think of you, haven’t in a while. I smile when I think of you. But the memory of your departure is a wound that has not fully healed. Every now and then, I feel the scar of that moment, a kind of terror and fear I’ve never felt before or after. I finger it gently, for I know that I haven’t yet fully learnt the lesson of death. Despite all this time.
When you go away the wind clicks to the north
The painters work all day but at sundown the paint falls
Showing the black walls
The clock goes back to striking the same hour
That has no place in the years – When You Go Away, W.S.Merwin
I’m a reading a book now, Kitty. It is a science fiction book, a kind that I haven’t read in a long time. The book is called “The City and The City”. It is a strange, weird book, set somewhere in the broken regions that once were part of the Soviet empire. It is strange because it is set in this city called Beszel that has an alter-ego city, Ul Qoma. The two cities occupy the same space and time, but the residents of one city do not acknowledge or treat the other as being part of the same space and time.
I thought of the various parables that the two cities may represent. One that struck me, maybe because it is so close to your anniversary, is that maybe the living and the dead occupy the same space and time, but do not, cannot, acknowledge each other. I found strange comfort in the thought that maybe you’re still sitting by my side, its just that I cannot see, hear, smell or feel you. Oh! I do miss you still, Kitty, and I suppose I always will. I suppose I can never unlearn the lessons you taught me, especially that there are things I must accept, they’ll always be the way they are.
I know you cannot read my letters or hear my thoughts. But maybe where you are, there is a babelfish, a translator that can translate my memories of you into meows that you can understand. And maybe you can still feel the love I feel for you.
Yours, as always,
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I envy men who’ll see their wives and children tonight.
Exactly three months shy of Kitty’s departure, I got on a plane to Prague to attend the same conference that I attended when he was alive. He was alive and Maya was just a wisp, a dream. Now, I’m on my way to Prague again and he’s the wisp, a slowly, slowly, fading memory while Maya is real, probably upset at being unable to make me stay and not knowing how to express the feeling. I left like a thief, unable to even kiss her goodbye as I left, afraid that she’d cry. This is the first time I’ve traveled for more than a night away from her, and even that single night has been only once. “Don’t forget the two times you left us alone in my mother’s house”, I can hear Shanthala say.
One the plane, a book called “Let The Northern Lights Erase Your Name” kept me company. It told the story of a woman who goes in search of her biological father when she learns that the man she called father was not biologically so after he dies. She had been abandoned by her mother when she was thirteen. Her mother vanishes and is never found. It is a sparse, literary thriller, a thriller not in the sense of a whodunit, but a thriller nevertheless for creating a tension in the woman’s quest for her biological father, for an attempt to decipher who she is, of who she may be. The writing is simple, unadorned, nothing got in the way of the story. When I pause in my reading and look outside, the plane is over some mountain range, the white of the peaks offset by the black of the valleys. I wonder if the plane went down and I couldn’t keep my promise to Maya of returning soon, would she grow up seared and searching. I’ve heard of a woman who lost her mother when she was six or so. Her father remarried. To help turn a corner on the past, they forbade any discussion of her biological mother and severed all contact with her relatives. I heard that even when she was sixteen, when everyone was in bed, she’d comb the house looking for pictures of her lost mother.
Loss. I knew the word, but not what it meant. Now I know the word like I know breathing. I know now that I can never protect Maya from ever knowing it’s meaning. With life comes loss. Just as the poem said, the ledge itself invents the leap:
The high-dive at the pool, the tree-house perch,Ferris wheels, balconies, cliffs, a penthouse view,The merest thought of airplanes. You can callIt a fear of heights, a horror of the deep;But it isn’t the unfathomable fallThat makes me giddy, makes my stomach lurch,It’s that the ledge itself invents the leap. – Fear of Happiness by A.E Stallings
It’s light again outside. I see the landscape is no longer wild, desolate, mountainous and snow covered. The day looks beautiful. Just enough wisps of cloud to accentuate the blue of the sky. I see a winding river with boats and barges plying its waters. I wonder if it is the river Rhone, wonder if Shanthala had passed this way when she toured Europe with her parents. I imagine people on the boats, the captains navigating the vessels, the crew working the ship. I wonder if they live nearby or if their homes are far away. I wonder what their lives are like. In so many ways so much like mine, yet so different. All those differences adding up to such different lives, to such different people. They say the devil is in the details. But as I imagine their lives, I think god is in the details, the mystery is in the details, the wonder is in the details.
A few months ago, I was on my way to the airport, the first time I was leaving Maya for a night. As the cab approached the airport, I saw two giant planes, taxiing to their runway. Flight. Escape. Runaway. Bolt. The words had come unbidden to my mind. I wondered why. Did I crave for a break from the relentless of parenting ?
As the cab approached my terminal and slowed to edge itself in front of the terminal, I saw a man hurriedly hug an older woman and rush into the car to drive away. In one of the few scenes I remember from the movie “Love Actually”, a narrator says that if you ever think that love is dead, just go to the arrival lounge of an airport and you’ll see people surrounded by love. If the arrival lounges are where love blossoms, are departure lounges where they wither or just seek respite ?
I felt like I was running away from love that morning. Love that lay asleep in bed. Love in the form of a toddler, almost three, and Shanthala. I longed to hold both of them for a while before I left home, but that would’ve woken them up and Maya would not have let me go so easily. If she had started wailing, I would have found it difficult to leave. That day, as I waited for the taxi, I heard her stir on the baby monitor and ask for me, but thankfully she went back to sleep without fully waking up. I say thankfully, but I’d be lying if I didn’t add that I was also a little saddened. I wanted her to wake up and demand me, make me not go.
That time, I was at the airport because I wanted to surprise another loved one, my sister – younger by 9 years – who was graduating that week. I knew that she wanted me to be there when she was awarded the certificate. I wanted to be there too. My sister is how I discovered that I had a side of me that loved babies and wanted to care for them. This graduation would mark the end of a journey began 10 years ago when she first came to this country. The road had meandered and almost gotten lost in the undergrowth. Not that it mattered to me that she didn’t finish her Masters. I wanted her to be content is all. But I was heartened to see her return to the course years after she had walked out of it, return of her own accord and finish it with flying colors. So I wanted to be there when she walked on stage.
That weekend was also my mom’s birthday and I thought that she might be pleased at the gift of my being there for my sister’s graduation. “There’s only the two of you,” she’s fond of saying, as if we were the sole inhabitants of a lonely outpost from Cormac’s “The Road”. “You must take care of each other”. She frequently asks me to visit my sister, on the other coast, always worried that the geographical distance might become the metaphor for the relationship.
Leaving Shanthala had always made melancholic. With the coming of Maya, this has only gotten worse. I wondered if I was really sad or if a part of me was only aping what I’d seen my father do in such situations. When he was away, he’d never really enjoy himself. Even in a city playing the latest English movie, which he so loved to watch and which he got so little opportunity for in the provincial towns we lived in, he’d not go to the cinema. “I don’t enjoy watching a movie without you all”, he’d say.
I didn’t understand him then. But on a plane, crossing oceans, I envy men who’ll see their wives and their children tonight.
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I look for you my curl of sleep
my breathing wave on the night shore
my star in the fog of morning
I think you can always find me
I call to you under my breath
I whisper to you through the hours
All your names my ear of shadow
I think you can always hear me
I wait for you my promised day
my time again my homecoming
my being where you wait for me
I think always of you waiting – At The Bend, W.S. Merwin
In my darkest hours of grief over your death dear Kitty, I searched for words to comfort me, to help me find my sleep. I searched in books, in music, online. When it came to poetry, the best I found were after those blackest hours, when I discovered the poetry of W.S. Merwin. He had a dog that he loved, it seems as much as I loved you. When his dog died, he expressed his dog grief in some of the most beautiful elegies I’ve read.
Some nights, my mouth still calls your names softly, when I awake in the dark and cannot fall asleep. Some nights, my ears still remember your soft breathing, your mumblings and your soft snores. Some nights, my hands search for your curled form, your soft fur and even softer pink pads. Some nights, my nose joins them as it tries to inhale and remember your smell. And I comfort them with words from Merwin.
An old colleague died early Friday morning. She was my age, if not younger. A close friend, whose cousin she was married to, informed me of the news today. She had contracted H1N1, the doctors hadn’t caught it in time and when they did, she had gone straight on the ventilator. She never recovered consciousness from that time and died, nine days later.
I had known her when I had first started working. It was her first job too. We were both fresh out of college. I was hubris. She seemed quieter, less certain of things than I was. We had worked together on the same project, gone to Paris around the same time to complete the project. Once the project was over, I moved on, lost touch. I came to know of her again, a few years ago, when a new acquaintance grew to be one of our closest friends. She had married a cousin of one of these friends. My friend told me that she had enquired after me and had asked my friend to hook us up when I was in India next. She had become a VP and managed hundreds of people, I heard. I never took her up on the offer. And now I never can.
Today was the arangetram of the daughter of another friend of mine, a friend I had also met working at the same place, at my first job. His daughter is hardly eleven years old, but she danced with the poise and grace of someone much older. Maya enjoyed the dance and the music; she couldn’t take her eyes off the violin and mridangam, even when the dancer was off stage.
As I watched her dance, my thoughts drifted to the dance of life. Three people, we shared a moment in time and place. How far apart our strands have been strung now. Each has a daughter, but one is dancing, one is rejoicing and one is bereft. The grief of the unmothered, the joy of the dancer and the watcher, all mingled together to bludgeon my mind, befuddle it, in a way that I can’t seem to express.
I am fortunate to have not been touched by death until very late in my life. Death had been a guest many times before: when my grandparents died, when the daughters of colleagues of my father’s had died – one of rabies, bitten by a dog she was caring for and the other by a snake bite -, when the parents of close friends had died. But death had never done an extended stay. Never touched me, except in sharing the sorrow of a friend’s grief. Then Kitty died. And three years later, I still can’t get my head wrapped around death. I still can’t seem to comprehend how someone is alive one instant and dead the next.
Two weeks ago, Maya stubbed her big toe and cut it when she fell running around the swimming pool. One morning, a week later, I examined her toe. It was swollen and black and infected. I rushed her to the paediatrician who prescribed an antibiotic. A week later, Maya’s toe was normal. Not too long ago, people with such infections either died or had to have their legs amputated. Today morning, I had put Maya in the jog stroller – we were going for a run together after a hiatus of several months – when I realized that I had forgotten my cap. I put the brake on and walked back towards the house to pick up my cap. Something made me turn and I saw the stroller rolling backwards onto the street. I had the stroller in my hands, safe, within a second since I was just a few steps off. But, I wondered, what if I had not turned around in time ?
Everywhere I turn, it seems death stalks us and how we escape, eludes me. Of course, no one escapes forever. I read that the Episcopalians have a saying “In the midst of life we are in death”. The only solace I find is that, at the same time, “in the midst of death we are in life”.
News comes that a friend far away
is dying now
I look up and see small flowers appearing
in spring grass outside the window
and can’t remember their name – James, by W.S. Merwin