“I am going to have this surgery only for you. Your siblings have their own families but you are all alone. I know you need me to live,” said my teary-eyed mother earlier this year. As the tears rolled onto her cheeks, my act of being strong was breaking away. I changed the subject to the bouquet of lilies beside her which a friend had sent to cheer us up. I didn’t want my mother to see her bravest child falling apart.
Just a few weeks earlier, my 70-year-old mother was diagnosed with a heart ailment. The doctors in Imphal where she lived suggested open-heart surgery as soon as possible. They said, her aortic valve was becoming narrower with each passing day and we could lose her to a heart attack any minute. Despite the risk of Covid-19, I flew her down to Delhi to seek a second opinion. All cardiologists we saw had the same diagnosis. But my stubborn-hearted mother didn’t want the surgery. She wanted to live out the limited number of days she had, tending the vegetables in her garden, in our village by the hills in Manipur.
After days of cajoling, she finally said the above words to me. I was happy and scared at the same time. Given her age and history of diseases, the open-heart surgery was not risk-free. The next few weeks were a blur. Masked doctors informed us the surgery went off well. We were relieved, unaware of destiny’s plans. She was on ventilator support, as the doctors treated her infected lungs. All Covid-19 test results came negative. My siblings and I, masked and covered in hospital gowns, took turns every morning and evening to see her in the ICU. Due to the intubation, she couldn’t speak but she won’t let go of our hands when the visiting hour got over. Then her organs started failing one after the other. She passed away in the third week of the tug of war with life and death.
It’s been 100 days since I last saw her on the ICU bed, covered with a white sheet, with machines all around her. Lifeless. My spirited mother. I kissed her cheek and whispered, “Farewell, ima”. There were so many things I could have told her but those were the only words I could think of in that moment.
The next few days were followed with paperwork and rituals. Covid-19 protocols had to be adhered to. Friends and family could only check in over the phone. It took me some time to process that my mother was no more – that I would never get to hear her call out my name again. I didn’t know how to describe myself now – Am I unmothered?
My mother was far from perfect but she was undoubtedly resilient. She broke so many social conventions during her time. She was forced to drop out of school in the second grade but strongly believed that every woman should have the financial independence to live freely so she became a weaver. She got married to my father at 30, which was considered late in the 80s. It was quite scandalous when people learned that she was older than my father by a few months, and to top it, she married into a Brahmin family. She was never treated like a full human being, was mostly fed leftovers, and wasn’t allowed to enter the kitchen until my brother was born. She didn’t know the word but she was a feminist who taught me from a young age that marriage disproportionately burdened women and I should focus on my education to never be dependent on any man.
During the first wave of lockdown, not a day went by when she didn’t video-call me. It was like we were making up for lost time – my high school days in Delhi when I could afford to make STD calls only once or twice a month. With age on my side now, I saw that my mother was the centre of my universe. Although she didn’t understand a word, she would watch every event I spoke at. She would make my father translate all the articles and interviews that featured me. She was my biggest cheerleader.
When it finally hit me that she is no more, I came undone. It was the most intense pain that I’ve ever felt, like I am drowning and burning at the same time. Every morning, I would ask myself whether it was all a dream. The following words by Meghan O’Rourke, which I had read years ago, haunted me, “Am I really she who has woken up again without a mother? Yes, I am.” Every night as I struggled to fall asleep, I went back to that day when she agreed to the surgery. I was unmothered because of it. The regret gnawed at me.
The condolences poured in and reading them was an emotionally draining exercise. People, with their kind intentions, said so many things to ease my pain. I know they meant well but most of the words made me recoil. I realized how limited our understanding of the right words to condole is. Every time someone said, “She’s at a better place,” I wanted to ask, “What better place is this without her family?” When people wrote to me to stay strong, it felt condescending. I wanted to tell them they had no idea about my strength and let me just grieve the way I want. “She was 70” really made me angry. I wanted to shout back, “So?” She was my mother. And I loved her deeply. How does age even come in the picture? Then there were those who were offended that I didn’t reply to their messages or take their calls, without thinking that a grieving person could need space or time away from everyone.
It took me an earth-shattering experience to really understand the intensity of grief. In retrospect, I realized how hollow my condolences must have sounded in the past. In all the well-intentioned messages, I resonated most with the simple “I am sorry.” It sounded earnest and unforced. The thoughtful messages came from people who have experienced grief. One of them wrote, “Moms go but never leave.” “She is a part of you and will always be,” read another. I clutched onto them and re-read them over and over again.
In the last three months, I’ve learned that grief is not linear. There are still days when I am unable to get out of bed or function. The tears come streaming down when I cook vegetables from her garden or see her clothes in my closet, sometimes without any reason. The searing pain in my heart has become a part of my being now. I have understood this is the new normal for me. But I have also learned that my mother continues to live in me and I will always be her daughter. And I’ll never be unmothered.
(The author is the founder of Femme First Foundation.)