Grief

My father passed on Sep 3rd. The same day my US Passport was issued. It has been tradition that my life progresses when he visits me in the US. The first time he came, I bought my first house and got my green card. The second time he came, I bought my second home, a dream home. The third time he was here, I got my citizenship, and got divorced. The last page was getting my passport and that happened right before he passed. Thinking back, it is strange that my passport was issued on a Saturday.

3 Saturdays later I sit here on my couch watching an SPB concert on YouTube. My younger kiddo is playing on his PC upstairs. A Saturday I have longed for this entire year. There is nowhere I have to be, there is nothing I have to get done today. Even if I do nothing today, its okay. I don’t like roller coasters, I am shit scared, yet this year has been nothing short of a roller coaster ride. A job change, my elder son graduation high school, researched and visited colleges for him, got divorced, cared for my younger son through his wisdom teeth extraction, sold my house, moved to another house, convinced my dad to come to the US for the third time, vacationed with my boys at Mexico, got COVID, appeared for my citizenship interview, saw off my son to college in another state, nursed my father during his last two weeks of life, held his hand as he passed, cremated him. And I am here on the other side, strong enough to tell the story.

The week my father fell ill and the week after his passing were the worst. I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would google ‘signs of death’ for my father. But I read each one of them and recollected what my aunts or uncles or mom had mentioned when others in the family passed. It all started on Aug 27th when he started throwing up only to discover on Aug 28th that the endoleak from his aneurysm repair had caused an aneurysm rupture. Almost lost him on Aug 27th and Aug 29th but I guess he was not ready. He woke up like nothing had happened. Nursing him for the one week before he finally passed on Sep 3rd is what I consider as one of my biggest blessings. The last few days of a parent is the absolute last ask they have of their children. There is nothing after that. Absolutely nothing.

I have had some really strong eye openers these past 3 weeks. After he passed, the funeral home tied him in a white sheet, transferred him onto a gurney, strapped him and covered him with a fitted blanket. They loaded him onto the back of a minivan and took him away. Everything one does in a lifetime ends in the back of a minivan. How much we emote, stress our asses off, hold grudges, push and pull in relationships, things we want to buy, positions we want to achieve, the egos we manifest, everything seemed so meaningless in that moment.
I am a believer of the concept, where the soul lives on and the body is merely a cloth that the soul sheds when someone passes. I also believe in signs. Three days after he passed, I saw the brightest light, lighting up my garage as I opened the door in the morning to drop my son to school. I knew he was going. I have never seen that light before or after. The funeral home director placed the bag with his box of ashes in the front seat and fastened the seat belt around the bag. It appeared like he was sitting right there, I spoke him on the ride home. When I got home, there were 4 birds, I have never seen them before waiting on the trees around my driveway. Like they were there to welcome him home. That first night, deers from the neighborhood sat vigil next to the wall where I kept his ashes. So many signs he has shown me, strengthening my belief in the soul.

I have been perusing a lot these last two weeks after his passing, and I realized that two roles of my life that I had been playing for years, ended in a matter of months, that of a wife of 19 years and of a daughter for 43 years. I may be a wife again, but I will never have to be a daughter again. And that has been the strangest feeling. We get so used to the multiple roles we play, that of a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a friend, and we think these roles stay until the end. They do, but the realization that we stop being them is strange.

Suddenly I am not so sure what I should grieve for. My son leaving the nest or my father passing or my divorce. Walking into my son’s room and trying to organize his room is the most painful thing. I cannot bring myself to moving his clothes or looking for something in his closet. It is easier to hold my father’s phone or see his shoes outside the door or his glasses on the coffee table. Bringing a life to this world, giving that little human everything you have, taking every chance because there is no rule book and then letting them go is by far the most unfair transaction in this world. In the end parents are just bridges for the first 18 years of their life. When I left him in his dorm room briefly and walked out, I felt something leaving my body, maybe the umbilical cord? Weird.

Then seeing your parents pass and doing everything for their physical being, is just so unfair. And you go through that twice. It takes years to overcome (if you ever overcome) to push the sadness of one, that the other one goes and creates another layer of sadness that you have to push through one day at a time.

All said and done, I am not quite sure what I should grieve for or just let it be. As my therapist says put one foot in front of the other and take one day at a time.

Family

We are taught, right from the day we have some understanding of our surroundings, that family is your parents and your siblings. Then you have an extended family which is your aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins. For many years I believed this. Family to me was always father, mother, children. It was an etched-in-stone kind of definition.

The world as we know it as moved away from this definition. There are many women who choose to be single mothers, there are many men who choose to be single fathers. Then there is the gay community, where family is either father, father and children or mother, mother and children. Families now come in all shapes and sizes. Not every family fits into the age-old definition of father, mother and children.

I grew up in a middle class nuclear family. Aunts, Uncles, cousins, grandparents were people we interacted with during the summer vacation. My core was my father, mother, brother and paternal uncle who lived with us. This was my space in the universe. In this space, I was allowed to feel, I was allowed to talk, I was allowed to be me. If I said something out of disrespect, I was corrected. If I said something out of anger, I was given the space to calm down. If I did something wrong, I was told why it was wrong and I was given the opportunity to apologize. My family had a lot of friends and we called them family friends. These were people who lent a hand financially when my parents were struggling to pay my school fees or were short handed at the end of the month. They were there with us emotionally, by encouraging us to push a little higher and have some success in the print world. We participated whole heartedly in each others family events, marriages, death, birth, etc. I have seen more of my parents friends come to our house, have a meal of simple chapathi and curry or whatever was there, than my aunts and uncles.

My concept of family developed through these people. They were family to me, not just family friends, because they were there for us. They didn’t tell my parents that they were trying to do something impossible by trying to set up a print shop. They didn’t judge my parents and say why are you sending your children to the best and most expensive school when you know you cannot afford it. They didn’t comment on the clothes we wore, or the humble living quarters. They sat cross legged on the floor and ate what my mother served. Without asking they brought money and handed it over to my parents. I owe these people a lot and remember them fondly. Many of them have passed, but they were placed in our lives for a reason.

I am a movie buff. A few movies have left a lasting impact on me. One such movie is English Vinglish. After learning English, at the end of the movie, the protagonist defines what a family is, and those words have stuck with me. She says, ‘a family is not judgmental’. That’s precisely how I was raised. My family and everyone around my family, our support systems, never judged us. So that is my definition of a family. A group of people who do not judge you and with whom you can be you.

As I go through my divorce, I have been re-drafting my age-old family definition of father, mother, children. Now my family is mother and children. And that is okay, because for single moms, mom and children is family. My son recently asked me what is family. I told him from my experience this is what I have learnt – a group of people who don’t judge you and let you be you. He said, you took the words out of my mouth. I am glad, rather proud, that my child is not stuck to age old family definitions. That he understands, family is not judgmental.

Destiny..

I don’t know what else to title this write-up. I am sitting here in a ‘media room’, something I didn’t even know existed say ten years ago, in Austin TX, land of the free, typing this on my Macbook. There is central AC in my 3000 sq ft home and luxury seeps out of every corner. It is nothing but destiny that has got me here and a lot of hard work and sacrifices from my parents.

My father was born in Puthur, Mangalore a year before India gained independence from the British. His father was a pujari (Brahmin priest at a Hindu Temple). His family migrated from Puthur to a small place called Shivapuram near Mattanur in Kerala. The king then granted the right to do pooja at the Shiva temple and an acre of land surrounding the temple to my father’s eldest brother. Mi padre went to the local school where he excelled in Social Studies and Malayalam but failed miserably in English and Maths. By grade 8, he was the school magazine editor, wrote plays for the school, and was involved in everything creative at school. That is when his father fell ill and he had to tend to the pooja at the temple. So he skipped school for a year and followed the family traditions. After a year he went back to school and failed grade 9. His skill was arts but the education system back then, just as it now, did not care about his creative talents. He tried again, but failed. After this he quit school.

Sitting at home, he saw an ad in the paper for a course in craftsmanship at Calicut, conducted by the Government. It was free and provided a stipend to the participants. My father applied, got in and went to Calicut with 10 rupees. The institution provided the training but he had to arrange his own accommodation. Staying away from home at the age of 16, made him uneasy. After a week’s class, he told one of the other participants, that he was leaving. He walked to the railway station to catch a train to Thalashery. He recalls how he hid behind a pillar in case someone recognized him and took him back to the training institute. As the train arrived, he dashed into the train and fled.

Back home, with nothing to do, he was called by his brother to join him as an assistant at Suratkal. The Engineering college was being built and his brother had a small contract job as an electrician. My father accompanied his brother on a train journey to Suratkal and did odd jobs handing over equipment or hammering nails helping his brother. During his time there, his brother a few others and my father went on a trip to Mookambika. As my father recounts, the national highway was under construction and due to limited resources, they walked.. barefoot. On the way, a stone pierced through his foot. A makeshift bandage around his foot, he continued to walk.

Due to some misunderstanding, my uncle stopped working as a contract electrician and decided to move to Bangalore. He told my father to go back to their hometown and wait for his call. After my uncle settled down in Bangalore, he would send for my father. My father packed their kerosene stove, and a few other belongings in a burlap sack and headed home.

After a few months he got a letter from his brother asking him to come to Bangalore. My father packed the kerosene stove and a few other things in a burlap sack and was put on a train by his father. In an old shirt and white mundu, he left to the unknown world.

At Bangalore, my uncle cooked sweets at weddings to earn his living. My father started doing odd jobs writing sign boards. They lived near Lalbagh inside a certain Munisamy’s electrical shop, behind the stairs. They cooked after the shop was closed so as to not interfere with the customers and their business. His first sign board assignment was in Natkalappa Circle, so he took the route from Lalbagh Rd, through Lalbagh to get to Natkalappa Circle. That is where he saw a young Jayalalitha dancing on the lawns shooting for a movie.

During those time a certain Saamy visited my uncle and brought the newspaper. One day there was an ad calling for artists to work at the Museum. Saamy encouraged my father to apply. He cut out the ad and walked to Gandhibazaar where his brother’s friend would help him write up the application and post it. After a few days he received the news to attend an interview. In his same old faded white shirt and mundu without footwear he walked into the Museum for an interview. They gave him some assignments to assess his work and offered a job as an intern. They asked him how much we wanted to earn. Since he was earning 3 rupees with his board sign writing, he asked for 6 rupees. He got the job as a daily wage temporary employee at 6 rupees a day.

His first day at office, a colleague came and told him that his attire was not appropriate and he should wear a pant and some footwear. That evening he bought hawaii chappal (flipflops) for 2 rupees. Munisamy gave him 10 rupees and asked him to go meet a tailer for pants. A stitched pant was waiting for him unclaimed by the owner. He bought the pants for 10 rupees and he walked the next day to office (from Lalbagh Rd to Kasturba Rd) looking like Chaplin in his new pants and footwear. This was the first time he had worn footwear, and his feet revolted. By evening that day his feet were swollen and he was in severe pain. His feet were not used to anything beneath them, except the ground. It took him a week to get used to wearing footwear.

After a year, owing to his exceptional work, the Museum created a position as a line artist and competitively offered him the job. His basic pay would be 110 rupees and monthly salary 210 rupees. After his first pay, he went straight to buy cloth for 2 shirts and 2 pants. He got them stitched to his size this time. His colleagues were surprised to see him in clothes that fit him and chided him saying, he looked like a different person altogether. After this his brother and him rented a room with a half wall separating the kitchen enclosure at 30 rupees a month.

There is more from how I got here from his one room dwelling. But that is for another time.

Now do you see why I call this destiny? Hearing these stories from him, just makes me exponentially grateful and humble for everything I have today. It also teaches me the value of hard work. It reminds me how my life is interconnected with many lives and people that I don’t even know. Like it is all a web linking the past to the present and the future.

Dont fix them..

Parenting a teenager has been and still is the my most challenging yet rewarding experience of these sixteen years of being a mom. This time I am taking baby steps, almost like I am the baby and he is the parent. By the time my second one becomes a teenager, I will probably be sitting up. As I’ve said like many others, there is no golden book. You fall, you get up, again stumble, again rise, you get the idea. There is some method to the madness, but each child is different. The most important lesson being, don’t try to fix them.

As parents we think our primary responsibility is to make them the best, in academics, in behavior, in manners, in their career, their family. In this process we take the leader role and the child is the follower. This is the primary mistake. They lead and we follow. The simple logic being, they are teaching you to be the parent, so let them lead. Of course, few essential things need to be taught by example, but by and large they show you the way. This trying-to-fix syndrome does not work with a teenager. Their mindset is that they are almost adults, as much as we are, so they don’t need any fixing. The more you try, the more they get away from you, emotionally and sooner than later, physically.

So as they start thinking that they are almost adults, you need to treat them like one. Make it real. Tell them one thing about your day, everyday. Don’t bring the work home, but bring the people you work with, home. It’s not about you dressing up and leaving in the car and getting back in the evening. There is more to it, and open those doors to them. They want a taste of the real world, this is when they want to race to their twenties, missing the fact that pre-twenties are the best years.

Remember, what your pre-twenties looked like? No phone, if you didn’t live on the same street, you didn’t see your friend till the next day at school. We live in an age and time that by the time they are 15, they have a phone. They are constantly texting their friends, looking up anything on the internet. Their pressure is greater and I know that fomo is real. If they don’t check their phones every now and then, they think there will be a hundred messages that they will miss responding to. If they don’t respond, they are left out. Nobody has time to wait for someone to catch up. Everyone is running, running towards what nobody knows..

Phone is not something you take away from a teenager. It is the new stuffed toy they probably carried around when they were a baby to drive away some fear. That small elephant or teddy bear stuffed toy they hugged to sleep and walked around with, which was their security blanket. Well, as shocking as it is, that 6 inch of radiation causing non-sensical gadget is that teddy bear now. When it’s taken away, it’s like they have lost oxygen. And don’t even get me started on, if you look at the phone, yes, just look, not unlock, not actually read anything. It’s an invasion of privacy. I think when we gen-x were in our teens, we wanted to tell our parents almost everything, but now privacy prevails.

With all this mess and nonsense that the internet feeds into their brains, they need an avenue to vent. I don’t think it is even venting, it is a release of unwanted energy. This is where your follower vs leader trait is put to the test. If you are a follower, they will vent to you. If you are the leader, they don’t want to get anywhere close to you. You need to give them the room to vent. They are almost adults, remember, so they get angry, and they need to release the anger. This the the age when every emotion is distinct. They are figuring it out, so follow their lead.

When you follow their lead, you also need to lead by example. You cannot tell them to spend less time on their phones while you are glued to your phone. You cannot expect them to pick up after them, if you don’t. They will make the bed as much as you do. You don’t realize much when they are young, that they are observing your every move. Well, fast forward ten years and your teenager will show you exactly who you are. This is when you are shocked, feel like you are a miserable parent, like you’ve lost this race, you’ve ruined it, and your first impulse is to fix it, without fixing yourself. A tween will point out hypocrisy before you see it.

A friend of mine posted a beautiful picture of her daughter and said ‘when parenting seems perfect’. The keyword here is ‘seems’. When there is no hypocrisy, when there is no fixing, when you follow, you will get a few moments of when you feel like you’ve won, it ‘seems’ perfect and you give yourself a perfect score. Just then they will flip and wander off to a direction. So you just have to see where they go, take a few steps further and be ready for them. As individuals we grow within ourselves, but as parents we grow in two directions. Individual growth is so different from parental growth. You have to grow as your child grows, gain strength from your individual learnings and be there for them.

And in closing all I have to say is ‘no one got it right’. Everyone aims for perfection, but nobody is. We need to understand that we are not perfect and should not expect it from our children, specially from teenagers. If you have missed the boat on something before they became a teenager, then don’t try to catch the boat and get in, its sailed away. In time, your fella will catch it.

Starting all over again…

The nineteen inch, nine pound bundle that sat cozily wrapped up in my arms many years ago, today stands next to me, towering over me, looking down to look into my eyes, grinning from ear to ear at his towering achievement. I stand there in my five foot yardstick looking up thinking, well, blank actually.

My teenager turns fifteen tomorrow and I can’t help but pen down the emotions being a teenager’s mom. When I became a mom, now what seems like in another lifetime, I thought been there done that. But that ‘becoming mom’ is just for the first phase when you help the teeny tiny thing in your arms learn basic skills. You feed the baby, rejoice when he starts crawling and then walking, go ooh and aah at his first words, play with him, give him hugs and make him feel loved. Fast forward about fourteen years and you will find yourself doing all of this all over again. Yes, everyone of this, in different ways.

Your teenager will now put into his mouth anything he likes, just like as a baby he picked anything from the floor. When he was a baby you took care to buy organic, or home prep baby food and what not. Now he dunks down soda and burgers and hot dogs what you can group as J-U-N-K. You are not feeding him now, but still have to silently watch what goes down his gut. You cannot say no (not too much coz then it becomes an issue about his freedom), but start learning to explain to him the harmful effects of too much chemicals in his body.

He can run now. He will sit in his friends cars and go to Whataburger or McDonalds and where not. Its your job to know where he is, just to be sure he is safe. As a toddler if he ran into the hallways, you pick him up and bring him right inside. Now, you can ask nicely, ‘where will you be buddy?’, ‘in whose car are you riding?’… You have to magically become smart enough to not cross into his ‘friends’ territory.

He can talk, never ending, he can go on and on and on. You don’t have to teach him the words, but now you have to ensure he is using the right words. Remember at the end of this, you want to give yourself that invisible trophy titled ‘best parent of the year’ award. You dont want him to evolve into a saint, but be able to maneuver his way in the world. He will learn cuss words, and use it. Making him aware of minding his language in appropriate situations is what you should talk to him about.

As a baby you protected him from practically everything. As a teenager, it is time to allow him to expand his territory and test the waters while you are around. Let him make a mistake, let him fall, so you are there to give him a hand while he will take it and you are there. From this whole re-learning to be a parent, my biggest learning has been to keep the communication channel open, both ways. If you want to keep it real, it is important to open up some of your emotions to them so they get an on the job exposure to adult world feelings. He is not a friend from your age group, so use your judgement at what you let him into. The biggest win at this stage is that he wants to talk to you. Encourage conversations and give him some space. In your mind, he is a baby and will always be. My 70+ father thinks of me 40+ as a kid who needs to watch out while chopping vegetables. But giving this space and having those conversations are so important for their emotional growth. Few pointers –

  • What really stands out to me is if you are disagreeing with something they say, be open to hear their perspective. The time when you talk and they listen blindly is over, because now their minds think too and at that age they think ‘they know’.
  • When you ask them to do a chore, don’t order them to do it, work with them. They have a schedule and plans. On one hand when you are encouraging them to make a plan, help them stick to it.
  • Encourage them to plan on their own, not just school work but non-school work.
  • Give them chores at home – loading the dishwasher, unloading, doing their laundry, putting it away, cleaning the toilets, putting the trash out, dusting, mopping, cooking. These are basic skills that every person should learn.
  • Give them real life experiences based on their age – how to board a flight, how to shop for grocery, how to fill gas, how to work your way at the bank, how to get an uber, how to use public transport… etc, the list is endless. These are essential skills that no school teaches.

I have not listed values on purpose. To me values cannot be taught, they should be portrayed. Based on what parents portray, children will imbibe the values.

There is no fool-proof method and everyone parent learns in the class of parenting at their own speed. It cannot be taught and only comes through experience and your unique situation. It has been the best learning school, where sometimes I fail and sometimes I pass. Every small win feels like a leap in faith that you are doing something right. Every fall doesn’t put me down but encourages me and teaches me to do better the next time.

So here’s wishing my first guru in parenthood a very happy fifteenth year of teaching ! I love you, forever and forever…

In the middle of nowhere..

Fifteen years ago I start this journey of extreme excitement, where I stepped into the unknown. Nothing could have prepared me for this, not ‘what to expect when you’re expecting’ or any other bible on parenting. I happily receive what my husband gives me, pray for it to plant inside me, and when magically the two parallel lines appear, I am on top of the world, or so I think. Every day after that was a wait for that magic door to open, for me to attain the ultimate purpose of being a woman (really? was I that stupid that I literally thought that the purpose of being born a woman was to bear a child). Anyways, I regale at the tummy grow, jump at every kick, announcing to the whole world, that this tiny being inside me decided to move in the cramped space and in the process pressed against my belly. Everything you can imagine about pregnancy and labour I embraced with open arms and rolled out the red carpet, throwing rose petals all around.

I went through the one, the usual call the whole world, first birthday party. Then the words came, one by one, then sentences, the cute pronunciation and I went oooh and aaah.. the party that has been going on for generations, except that now we have more props. The threes came quickly and I decided I wanted to have another one. So repeat. The reason for this is funny, when I think of it now. My brother was born when I was 5 and I had a friend who has a brother two years older to her. I loved the camaraderie between them, as compared to the little thing in my house who always fought with me for the remote, or chocolate and made sure I got the beating. Those two seemed like two peas of a pod and since that day I had decided (yes, decided at the age of thirteen) that I would have my children two years apart. So I have this second one, happily receive what my husband gave, double purple lines, and all the drama with two.

In a couple of years they started daycare, school, getup in the morning (I HATE IT and there is no two ways about it), pack the lunch, drop, bus, blah blah blah.. Before I realize I am blowing the candles 4 and 0 on my birthday cake. From the one instant of stepping into extreme-excitement zone till I saw 4-0, it has been a loooooooooooong fifteen years. When I think of the future, it seems like it went by so fast, but when I look at the past, Oh my God!! it took so long. It ate up a good fifteen years of my life. Now what? That is the reason for this write up.

As physically straining as it has been, as I look back, it’s been such an emotional and mentally stressful journey. My brother has a wall full of our childhood pictures (yes the same one who fought all the time with me to hold the remote). My fourteen-soon-will-be-fifteen fella tells me the other night, “Amma, you look the same now, from when you were a child…”. He pauses for a moment and continues.. “except that you looked happier then, now you are grumpy all the time…”. WOW!!! I thought… Before I entered this extreme-fun-thrill-ride as they claim it to be, I had to think only about myself. My happiness depended solely on me and the people I wanted to be with. I wanted to see my parents, I’d take the next bus and go home. I wanted to hang out with my friends, I’d plan something and do it. There were no strings attached anywhere. People who know me from that time, will remember me as a carefree person who did what she liked, all the time. So why am I grumpy now, what changed. The belief that my happiness depends solely on me has receded into the background. I have to think for these two two-year-apart fellas and every moment of mine rides on what they are upto or their needs or something about them, before that thought travels to me. I am not a control freak, I pretty much let them do what they want to do, yet, I cannot stop myself from thinking. I know this is the most common motherhood phenomenon that every mother goes through. But I have reached a stage where I want to regain the strength of my happiness from within me.

Some of you may say, this is mid-life crisis, but I don’t think so. This is motherhood crisis and only a mother will go through this. This is probably when she really releases the child from the placenta and regains her womb to herself. Maybe this is when she starts to feel like herself again and think of her and her children at the same level, versus the children on top, she below that she has been used to since they were born.

As I was telling a friend (who is running behind her two year old), the other day, that I would swap places and do the two year old again and again instead of dealing with the teens. The reason being, when the children are in their teens, that is when you start seeing the results of all the years, your sweat, your every emotion since the day you conceived them. I know everyone can’t be perfect, but when you see some basics missing, you think, what the f*** have I been doing? But you didn’t have a textbook either, you did not come into the world with a degree in parenting. Then this whole easily-blameable destiny / karma.. That is his/her karma. So now you see the am-i-to-blame AND may-be-its-not-my-fault jugalbandi playing in my head. Then my son gives me the second gyaan. We were seated at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway to watch ‘Phantom of the Opera’. I had no idea how this place looks and based on some reviews and guesses bought mezzanine seat tickets. When I sat there and looked around, I thought maybe the orchestra seats were better. My fella understood my predicament and said “Amma, stop thinking you failed..” WOW-WOW-WOW!!! Again.

So that’s where I am. In the middle of nowhere. Wanting to be worried about nothing, but absolutely worried about everything. Killing my inner happiness over ‘nothing?” The strangest thing in this world is the mind. Extremely powerful, yet so brilliantly stupid! When it is so simple to keep things simple, it convolutes and plots to make everything complicated, chaining you down, making you feel inadequate, when there is no need to feel that way in the first place.

Still searching… !