Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Turning tears into wine


It is a recurring dream. Shekhar comes back. He’s happy, vital and full of beans, like he never left. He does not speak or explain his absence but I am overcome by an overwhelming need to account for myself during the time he was gone. I invariably wake from the dream with an inexplicable anger. How dare he? Then the anger turns inward, how and why dare I?

I began by counting minutes… then hours, days, weeks, months and now, it is years. At first, it was about how many days he had been gone. Now, it is about how many days I have survived…

When you marry young and your relationship is strong…it leads to integration, a growing together into one amorphous whole…then, when one is lost, it is not the death of the other but the death of the self as you know it. But you are not dead… just broken, numb and unaware. Fragments remain, you reassemble them like a puzzle with missing pieces…

It is not easy when you no longer look over your shoulder, seeking permission, approval and support from the other. This one is on you and you alone. Time accumulates. You don’t quite realise when it happened but you made yourself without the other and now you stand on your own – you wear the scars of your journey with a humble pride and dignified responsibility. It is like the Japanese art of kintsugi or golden repair, which treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. At some point in time, you understand that you have to stop picking on healing scars to make them wounds that bleed again and let the puzzle of your history shine in golden repair, missing pieces and all. That is what grief has done to me…every thing, every experience has become a metaphor for my journey.

The Headmaster at the boys’ school called me in soon after Shekhar passed away. He wanted to discuss how I would like the school administration, faculty and students to handle the bereavement. I had no clue. All I could do was sob. He was compassionate and sensitive as he spoke. Then he said something that has stayed with me ever since. He held out his open hand, “Now, there’s just the three of you. You are the family.” He closed his hand into a tight fist and showed it to me, “You have to be like this.” I walked out of his office, emotionally overwrought but somewhat reassured by the concrete message and direction. I could do that.

I had been allocated a driver and a car that first week. Bob was dignified and non-intrusive, a quiet and concerned presence. He let me cry unashamedly and watched over me as he drove me around the ruins of my world. As he helped me with unloading flowers for the funeral, he gently said, “After this, you should take the boys and go away for a holiday somewhere. Get away for a bit.” I looked at him as if he was insane to even suggest it although subconsciously that was exactly what I wanted to do…escape. I couldn’t do that.

It took three years for both messages to coalesce for me. I made a commitment then to take one holiday a year with the boys. Just the three of us…our family. Now, five such holidays later, I am truly grateful for the advice. They have been amazing and extremely bonding experiences and as the boys have grown, very rewarding too.

Travel brings its own insights. I realised that when I resisted the waves, the sea slapped me but when I let go, I rose and fell with each wave…softly cradled and carried. When we moved from one place to another, we stayed in rooms where others had stayed before us and yet others would come when we left. Someone else had slept in the same bed, had the same food, probably done the same things and had similar experiences…fellow travellers separated by time. For me, travel reiterated the message of transience, of impermanence…the fact that we were visitors not residents…

Before we dove to the depths of the sea for the first time on our most recent holiday, we were taught to ‘equalize’ the air pressure in our ears as we went deeper. To stop for a beat and prepare for the next step of the journey…In that silent space, all I could hear was my breathing. There was no thought, only presence. It made me realise that I could not be in two places in one moment…In that world below and in the one above it at the same time…It was not a staggering leap of logic…if I am grieving, I am not being…if I am being, I cannot grieve…It made me understand the message in the recurring dream…Shekhar does not want me to account for myself but to make my life count…

The year is new, as I ‘equalize,’ I am looking ahead and not over my shoulder. I do dare. Shekhar may have departed but I have arrived…for the time being.

***

It is a fierce heavy feeling, thinking something is expected of you but you don’t know what exactly it is.

Bob Dylan

Lie still, lie still, my breaking heart. My silent heart, lie still and break; Life, and the world, and mine own self, are changed…

Christina Rosetti

What if in your dream you went to Heaven, and there plucked a strange and beautiful flower, and what if when you awoke, you had the flower in your hand?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

 

Monday, December 7, 2015

First, put on your oxygen mask, then…


Last week I sat with three of my friends, all of us had phenomenal marriages and were widowed in our early forties. As we recounted our experiences, there were many moments when we looked at each other and said, “I’ve been there.” I have never felt so understood or ‘seen’ since losing Shekhar.
 
I am learning that the process of grieving after losing a spouse is very different from the grieving that follows other personal losses. One of the biggest insights during that conversation was that each one of us had a moment around the second or third year when we were overwhelmed and said, “I can’t do this alone.” This finally answered a question that I have been asked often, mostly by people who have left marriages that were unhappy or had reached dissolution. In widowhood, your world collapses around you in an instant, in death of physical life…not love. You were not trying to escape from untenable circumstances or dreaming of freedom. Hence, it’s not about, “Aha! I can finally do what I wanted to do,” or “I am going to prove to the world and myself that I can survive and manage by myself.” You are essentially just trying to keep your head above water and put one step ahead of the other. The ‘I’ is submerged and the ‘we’ is paramount, especially when there are children who need to be looked after and protected from the aftermath.
So, where most people moving out of a marriage begin is where we reach or have yet to reach, subsequent to years of struggling to reconstruct ourselves after an integral part of us has been amputated. The significant other is not there, it’s just you…and the children.
Another insight that echoed across the table was that on many occasions we have been called brave and strong...both of which are completely dissonant with how we actually feel. What from the outside looks like courage and strength is our life, we just live it in any way we can.
I have realised the toll grieving has taken and how it has emptied my well of love, compassion and sense of connectedness with the world. This year, it dawned on me that if I did not first put on my oxygen mask, I would no longer be able to be there for those who depend on me. I have now understood that ‘I’ have been absent, detached and disengaged…like I am watching a movie and the person playing me is someone else…living, surviving, thriving, loving…angry, used up and disembodied…
It is hard to begin the flight to oneself when everything is rooted in making up for the missing one rather than acknowledging the abundance of blessings that rainbow through the clouds…I want to believe it is a worthwhile endeavour and though there may be turbulence and a drop in cabin pressure, I am testing my wings by taking tentative steps…and putting on my oxygen mask first. And when I land someday, I may actually move from being a tenant to becoming the owner of my life.
***
Sometimes everything
has to be
inscribed across
the heavens
so you can find
the one line
already written
inside you.
Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that
first, bright
and indescribable
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.
Sometimes with
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out
someone has written
something new
in the ashes of your life.
You are not leaving.
Even as the light fades quickly now,
you are arriving.
from The Journey, ‘House of Belonging’ by David Whyte
 
 

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Everybody says I am fine


Advice is abundant and freely given even when you are not grieving. It is the milk of human kindness. Aside from the platitudes, I have received a lot of advice in the years since Shekhar…some of it immediately useful, some to be taken under consideration, some contextually irrelevant and some just painfully insensitive. All well intentioned, I understand, because it is hard to see someone you care about in pain and not try to alleviate it.  

I have been told I was emotionally unreachable for the first five years. I didn’t think so. I was busy trying to make sense of and bring order to lives disassembled. Then to mark the five year milestone, I made a personal decision to crawl out from under the rock of grief. I thought that if I acted ‘as if’ I was healed, I would be. There was a collective sigh of relief from those close to me. The tenor of conversations changed…I became easier to relate to…and for a while it worked. Even I started to believe I was fine.

The truth, however, is that in all these years I have pushed down active grieving to deal with the aftermath of loss. It was monumental yet somehow mundane because it involved a lot of paperwork. I had to chase paper and finances across three countries and a few cities within one. Then there was the issue of securing the future of our children, their education, their needs…both emotional and resource based. After all, I had suddenly become the sole provider for our family. The practicalities of life left no band width for emotional engagement. At about five and a half years, with the bulk of issues sorted, I felt like I should make the effort to reconnect with the world as a human being and not an emotional desert. The catch was that I wasn’t doing it because I was ready or because I had finished the business of grieving…it was because most people around me expected me to stop, to move on, to see that I had finally come out on the other side…I began to believe I had until a recent visit to my marital home opened the floodgates of grief unobserved and attended to…

I realised that calendar time held no meaning…the anger, the sense of betrayal and abandonment, the silence and absence, the deep and debilitating loneliness all bubbled up to the surface clamouring for the attention they had been denied in these past seven years…I had bypassed not dealt with them and that is the scary part…it is still not over and there are days now when I feel it never will be…if Shekhar had not been the person he was, if our marriage had not been the outlier, if his loss had not been so sudden, I believe it might be easier to bid goodbye once and for all but that isn’t the case. Instead, I find myself caught between a beautiful past filtered through memory and a future that is constructed out of fear of the unknown. In the present, I have to face the truth…I have not truly grieved. That for me is the enigma…what have I been doing for these seven years?


***

And honestly
I kind of jumped right in
My eyes lay golden
But my feet stay still
There's comedy
Within this tragedy
Laugh with tears and hear
The rain…


Time has stopped and I have spoken
Let him say
As lights go dark
Your thoughts betray…

From ‘The Enigma’ by Dhruv Visvanath

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Absentee landlord

 
It was Shekhar’s birthday yesterday. He would be 53.
 
On Father’s day this year, our younger one came to me and said, “Happy Father’s Day, Mom!” I looked questioningly at him and he added, “You are both parents to me now.” I bawled, made mute by the simple profundity of his statement. It’s been on my mind ever since.
All I have done in Shekhar’s absence is to scale up to being there for the boys no matter what. It has not been a conscious choice.  There has been no thought or consideration to becoming the sum of two people. On most days, it is hard enough just being me. I tread a fine line everyday where I have learnt not to push too hard or go too easy on them. I realise that I am their soft place to fall and if I turn on them, they have nowhere to go. But manning up is not half as much of a struggle than the times when the boys achieve milestones that we should ideally have celebrated together as a family. Like when our younger one graduated college with flying colours this year. I had not envisioned how I would feel when it happened. It was an expected milestone and one which I saw as a culmination of my responsibilities towards their education. I craved to share it with the only other person in the world who would be as invested in his achievement as I was and he wasn’t there. It is hard to articulate the complete sense of deflation and utter loneliness of the moment…
Yesterday, to honour Shekhar’s birthday, our older one released a single, Redemption , from his upcoming debut album ‘Orion.’ He dedicated it to me. Again I was overwhelmed by the need to share…and again…
As the boys leave behind delineated milestones and move into the realm of achieving dreams, the pain of his absence becomes more and more poignant. I wish he could see them now. See what awesome young men they have become. How they shine in his light. How they carry his legacy and name…I imagine that the heart that failed him would find a new reason to beat…with the inexplicable sense of pride and joy of bringing them into being…just like mine.
***
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.
 
On Children by Kahlil Gibran
 


Sunday, July 19, 2015

I am the cavalry


 
As I hit the seven year mark of Shekhar’s passing this year, I questioned why I write this blog at all. I had started with the intention of documenting my journey through grief. I even used the word metamorphosis in the tagline hoping for a dramatic transformation at what would be a tangible end at some point in time. I was aiming for a readership of one. Then there was the hope that as I journeyed through, if I could connect with even one fellow traveller through my words it would be a bond of the human condition in the knowledge that the pain is recognised and shared.
 
The primary intention is somewhat moot. Metamorphosis in humans is a slow and painful process and a life’s work. It might never be done. So, I considered whether I should continue or stop what some view as indulgent wallowing in grief even after seven years. I looked at the statistics of the readership and noticed with quiet amazement how they reflected the pervasiveness and universality of grief… and strangely enough, major events of war, disaster and political upheaval. The numbers documented a geography of pain. It has given me the impetus to continue…if even one other can see themselves in my words, this blog has achieved its aim.
It is easy to pontificate from the emotional distance created by time but anyone who has encountered the loss of a loved one knows that the pain is always near the surface, ready to jack-in-the-box on you in the most unexpected ways. It is like climbing a Sisyphean greasy pole, one revisit and you feel like you are back at the very beginning…again.
 
Grief can make one self-centred and oriented, unable to appreciate the journey, the erosive effect of time and all that has been accomplished in the absence of the one who defined your world and life. It engenders a sort of karmic bankruptcy where each thought, deed and action are rooted in lack. This to me is the hardest part of grieving…to be blessed by the grace, beauty and generosity of a higher power and yet only see what is missing…
I have accepted that I changed forever that fateful night in April 2008. My life became a three part series - before Shekhar, with Shekhar and after Shekhar. He defined and made me who I was…it has been a tremendous foundation to build upon, even in ruin. He remains embodied in the boys and embedded in my soul…it is said no man ever dies as long as his name is spoken…he lives in ways he could never have imagined and I could not have believed…
 
The beauty of survival and transformation, if you forgo the guilt and anger, is the emergence of a new sensibility…of the search for the wholeness of the self despite the missing piece. There is no point in waiting for the one who will never return, for a saviour, to be rescued…there is no cavalry. Just you…and the only way to go on is to make your journey to yourself – your complete self.
In Hindi, a comma is called alpviraam, a ‘short rest’ and a full stop, viraam, which translates to ‘rest.’ There could be no better metaphor for life after loss. Short rests to deal with the overwhelming exhaustion of grieving until the final rest. The spaces in between are open to new experiences, learning and becoming the person you were meant to be without the other. To quote Shakespeare in Hamlet and hark back to the destination of all our journeys, whichever path we may follow…the rest is silence.

***
“It was too perfect to last,' so I am tempted to say of our marriage. But it can be meant in two ways. It may be grimly pessimistic - as if God no sooner saw two of His creatures happy than He stopped it ('None of that here!'). As if He were like the Hostess at the sherry-party who separates two guests the moment they show signs of having got into a real conversation. But it could also mean 'This had reached its proper perfection. This had become what it had in it to be. Therefore of course it would not be prolonged.' As if God said, 'Good; you have mastered that exercise. I am very pleased with it. And now you are ready to go on to the next.”
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Personal Velocity

The night Shekhar passed away all fear vanished, laughter disappeared…in essence, life died. The numb silence that followed was timeless. At any other time of my life and for any other reason, I would have welcomed the reprieve from the business of living. The opportunity to check out and drift, like a wraith. I would curl up in a ball and sleep…when I was awake my body rocked itself. I was not hungry, I felt no pain, I was not aware…It was a strange phase but could only last so long…

Two days before his funeral, I started writing my journal again. On my last entry…the day he died, I had written a phrase on a post it and stuck it on the page to explore the next day…I remember reading it somewhere and being impressed by the sheer elegance and poetry of those two words together. I now like to think that it might have been a prescient message to myself in the wake of what was about to happen…the green post it with the words – Personal Velocity. Personal as in originating from, relating to my self and Velocity… the vector, path, trajectory, direction defined by change in distance over time…In that enlightened moment, I believed I had been given the mantra to make the journey through my grief.

Soon enough the numbness started to ebb and as it receded fear returned with what if…? What if I die? What if I live? What if I make the wrong decision or choice? What if something happens to the boys? What if I can’t do this alone? What if I can’t do it at all?…What if, what if…and life kept coming at me, testing and pushing, challenging and dragging…and I reacted with resilience and personal velocity only to realize that you can’t sprint a marathon. I have tried, believe me! But time will not be pushed…it will follow its own frustrating pace…too much when you want little and too little when you want more…one way or another, you have to go through it. But thankfully there is a flipside…

Over two thousand years ago, Seneca wrote a treatise On The Shortness of Life, where he spoke of living a preoccupied life and wasting time. Essentially, he said life is long and there is enough time to spend on what is truly important…Seneca recommended studying philosophy as the only worthwhile endeavour. I have learnt different…I have seen that Shekhar lived a long life in his short while here because he knew his priorities. No time was wasted. I have also seen that when you let every preoccupation fall away as it did for me the night Shekhar died, what is truly important calls your attention and focus. That night I realised, for me, it was our children. They were all that mattered…so I applied my personal velocity and invested myself heart and soul. But velocity is distance travelled over time and we have come a long way. Much has happened. The boys have become young men with independent spirits. They don’t need me as much…and I have to learn to accept it. So, what is truly important now?

A semblance of an answer is forming…slowly. A few insights have emerged…instead of letting life come at me, I need to throw myself at life…not with a reactive vehemence as I have done before but in a studied state of grace and presence. To learn to say Fuck Yes! Or Hell No! And stop living in the shadows of myriad shades of grey…what is truly important now is to make the journey to myself. That is the only way, as Spock would say, to live long and prosper…and Seneca would qualify, live immediately.

***

The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.


 

Monday, January 12, 2015

The lost year

Absent Presence 
It is funny how as a year ends, conversations become deeper and ruminative, harking back to what happened and the lessons learnt over its course. Then there is a date change and suddenly, hope springs with dreams of an aspirational future…this is the year to…this year I will…

For me, 2014 was a strange year…there was an odd speed to it, everything seemed rushed, hours quickly became days, days became months…and before one knew it the new year arrived. There were the usual milestones, some big accomplishments, travels and travails, emotional and physical ups and downs but in real terms, it felt ordinary…365 days of anhedonic, meaningless living in the service of a life. As this year threatens to follow suit, I feel the need to pause and take a beat…

Looking back over the years since Shekhar, I realize that when he went my tank was still full of his love, belief and trust in me…so despite the pain, I pushed myself to do what needed to be done…the paperwork, organising finances, ensuring that the children were looked after in every which way, smoothing invisible wrinkles in time and space. What I didn’t realize was that I was drawing on fuel that was not replenished…somewhere in the past year I found myself running on fumes and still I pushed…and although it feels sudden, it has been nearly seven years in the making, the engine slowed down…then came to a halt…the tank was empty. I find myself longing…no, yearning for his reassuring hug, the gentle hand moving from my forehead to my hair, the quiet concern, the warmth of deep affection, the look of acknowledgement in his eyes…all telling me he was there, everything would be alright…I was alright…I could lean or fall and he would catch me…

As I stand at this weird crossroad in unknown terrain, I only have questions, no answers… Which road do I pick and how do I travel? Where do I go from here? Do I even know this person who lives in my body anymore? Have I really grieved at all or is this a sign of healing?

In this moment of stillness, I am recalibrating my life - one moment, one day at a time…is there really any other way? I am willing to surrender to the passage of time and the narrative marks it leaves on me…I long to be quiet, to stop externalizing, to break the cycle of busyness, to end the game of whack-a-mole with my pain…to acquaint myself with this new resident in my body…to see this as Shekhar would, not an end but a beginning…

The year has turned, the maudlin call of the past needs to fade and be replaced with the hopeful clarion of the present…it is time to fill the tank with love, belief and trust in myself…maybe then the ‘check engine’ light that has been glowing on my dashboard for the past seven years will finally disappear…

2015 is the year I will…be.

***

“Grief ... gives life a permanently provisional feeling. It doesn't seem worth starting anything. I can't settle down. I yawn, I fidget, I smoke too much. Up till this I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty successiveness.”



*

There are years that ask questions and years that answer.

Zora Neale Hurston