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

Monday, December 1, 2014

The empty seat


Shekhar had three main material aspirations, two of which he fulfilled in his lifetime. The third, to be at Wimbledon watching the matches at centre court, didn’t come to pass while he was alive. His organisation, aware of his desire, gave the boys and me four passes in his memory just after Shekhar died. “Take whoever you want as the fourth,” I was told. It was an odd suggestion and a daunting one to fulfil. Who would qualify? Why? The only person who came to mind was gone. So, instead of struggling over the decision, the boys and I went on our own. We settled into our seats in a full audience, keeping the fourth next to me conspicuously empty. For others, it may have seemed like such a wasted opportunity…but to me, it was as if Shekhar was there. That empty seat belonged to him. For that glorious day of sun, tennis, champagne, strawberries and cream, we channelled Shekhar’s excitement…for those few precious hours, he lived again.

On our family holiday this year, we met a gentleman from Canada. He was travelling alone on work. As we met on two locations, back to back, a kinship developed. One evening at dinner, the boys and I sat at a table for four, while our new friend sat at another table. I wondered if I should ask him to join us but hesitated. In a recent e-mail exchange, he echoed my hesitation but his reason gave me pause. He said he would have joined us but it felt like what seemed to be an empty seat was actually occupied…by Shekhar. It was both a touching and sensitive observation. It made me realize I carry the metaphorical empty seat within me all the time. It’s Shekhar’s real estate in my life. Only it really isn’t empty…

I often wonder if I make Shekhar out to be more than he was and remember our love as greater and more meaningful. After all, memory has its failings. Living people make mistakes, they fall, they get up, they apologise and redeem themselves but dead people become saints. We build edifices in their remembrance, monuments of their memory and create absent personas where all negativities fade. I asked my older one about it. The boys were not just the witnesses to our marriage and love, but also its true outcome and legacy. They interact more with people than I do these days. “Dad was exceptional,” he replied, “there are very few people like him in this world.” I relaxed in the truth.

What I know, and not just remember, is that Shekhar was a very special man…he was light, fun, secure,  not conflicted, whole…and he loved me with a complete acceptance of who I was/am…as I did/do him. We complemented each other, like yin and yang, reflected each other in many ways, were remarkably similar in some but most importantly, we brought out the best in each other. We became better people because of each other…and that’s what makes it hard. Who are you when an intrinsic piece of you is amputated and the phantom, is just that, a phantom?

That is the thing about grief…it can become a habit. And it is a very hard one to break. Grief focuses your attention so acutely on what is missing that life gets remaindered. Your search for lost parts of yourself, makes you miss the new ones that emerge…and they do. Shekhar defined me in many ways but he did not define my grief. I did that all by myself. And honestly, I have not done a very good job…but then, I am still alive and can redeem myself…Shekhar may yet be surprised enough to fall off his empty seat.

***

“I said nothing for a time, just ran my fingertips along the edge of the human-shaped emptiness that had been left inside me.”

Haruki Murakami, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

*

“For in grief nothing "stays put." One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral?

But if a spiral, am I going up or down it?

How often -- will it be for always? -- how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, "I never realized my loss till this moment"? The same leg is cut off time after time.”


C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Parcelling pain

Shekhar was rather passionate about footwear, which had led to many a laugh when it came to fighting for shoe space in shared cupboards. He would spend an inordinate amount of time in their upkeep. Helping him shop for them was another story…he was like a targeted missile and knew exactly what he wanted, obsessing over it until he found just the right pair. He even used shoes as a metaphor in his training programmes…

About ten days ago, our younger son said he needed a pair of ethnic slippers for an event he was attending. His foot size is now the same as his father’s, so I suggested that we check out Shekhar’s footwear, which I had put away with an absent mind after he passed.

We pulled down the box and went through his shoes. A pair still had his socks in them, others were meticulously packed with polish and brush, still shining from his hand. It was almost as if he could walk back anytime and step into them or demand that my son stop wearing his precious shoes…we wish…

As we repacked the box for another time, the hand that was playing games with my gut let go. It felt like I had packed the pain of fresh remembrance with his shoes for now. The tears stilled with my heart. I had literally parcelled the pain. It is one lesson that I have learnt in these past six years…from the first instance when overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of his passing, everything shut down – my mind, my emotions, my breath…I have intuitively broken down the pain into metaphorical parcels. This one which revisits every time the boys reflect him, the other while cooking something he loved, yet another when something he preciously guarded reminds me of his essence…the parcels shrink with each opening…some will never be opened again…that is both the magic and tragedy of time and memory.

I read somewhere that healing is a process not an event…the parcels are my process. I pack away things, memories, pain for another time…sometimes I forget what I put away. When Shekhar was alive, this habit of squirreling was pleasant and surprising, leading to sudden discoveries, re-acquaintance and even some remorse at having bought something I already had. But now, the things I put away are parcelled pain.

After my return to India, I kept unopened boxes as a visible reminder that I was not yet home…wondering if I would ever be. In the past week, I have physically removed these boxes. A huge step for me in accepting that for now this is home, as much as any place without Shekhar can be. Like the boxes, someday, I expect that I will be brave enough to open and release the pain from the parcels. Until then, I will repack them each time with the sweetness of remembrance…not pain…that is the hope.

***
Death asked Life: Why does everybody love you and hate me?
Life replied: Because I am a beautiful lie and you are a painful truth.
Unknown


Monday, September 8, 2014

Tilting the Universe

Someone recently told me, and this is not for the first time this reference has been made in these past six years, that we create our reality with our thoughts…a basic, ‘thinking makes it so.’ Given the context of the conversation, what galled me was my implied responsibility for Shekhar’s untimely passing…by thinking about it!

Hand on heart, tell me honestly, who hasn’t ever thought about losing a loved one suddenly? Or imagined what it would be like to receive ‘that’ call at any time of day or night? If you haven’t, I seriously question your humanity or respect your sainthood and detachment.

The truth is, about eight years into our marriage, I had a dream that has stayed with and haunted me ever since. I was in mourning white, holding my two children to my chest and lamenting the loss of Shekhar. It was like a seed planted in my consciousness. It made me aware of how precious it was when we were together, as a couple and a family. It made me worry when he travelled. It made me wonder how the boys and I would manage if he were not there. Sometimes, I would place my head on his chest and sleep to the beat of his heart and at others, watch the slow rise and fall of his breath in slumber…as reassurance that all was well. As a reflex, it was what I did the night I lost him too…only this time, there was complete and utter silence…stillness…absence…

If I were to go by the argument that I created this reality with my thoughts…I made God redundant…I tilted the Universe…and it took years to do that. The years when I prayed for his long and healthy life did not mitigate the power of my thoughts and that strange dream…the years when I had many other thoughts, prayers and dreams…most of which never materialised…and how can I discount what Shekhar thought for himself? Who got heard and why?

I think the scientific research for the self-fulfilling prophecy and Buddha’s dictum, “We are what we think,” have somewhere been hijacked by the ‘law of attraction’ and intentionality. It has made some of us believe that we have powers beyond choice and free will to tilt the Universe in our favour…or against us, depending on our thoughts. If that were so, would any love go unrequited? Any disease uncured? Any death undone? If our thoughts alone had that power, would any wish go unfulfilled?

…And if no wish were to go unfulfilled…

***

Har khwab jo poora ho jaaye, woh khwab hee kya?
Hasraton ki khoobsurati wahi to hai
Hamein jo zinda rakhe aur rooh ko kasakta…

Unknown

(Rough translation from Urdu:

If every dream were to come true, what is the point of dreaming?
The beauty of  intense longing is just this

It keeps us alive and our soul in intermittent pain…)