What I am going to write today is something I have never attempted before, not even in my personal diary. It came up in a conversation this morning with my partner who suggested that I should write about my experience of my mother’s death. He believes that something significant is locked there. Hence this attempt to unlock.
My mother was only 29 years old when she died. I lost her when I was three years old. In fact, she celebrated my third birthday in August of 1961 by buying me red shoes (I remember because a friend in the building asked me to stand on top of cinders on the same day and I could not wear my lovely red shoes on my birthday), and I remember her crying about my burnt feet.
She passed away three months later in November, on the same day. She died suddenly, unprepared, trying to have an abortion all by herself because she did not want to have the child for whatever reasons that she have had.
I had no clue what death was like (yes, I know I was not supposed to at that age), but death stared me at the face, except I did not know what it was.
I remember being picked up by one of the neighbours; she stood at the doorway, while I watched my mother’s five sisters hovering, weeping, crying, surrounding her body, decorating it with red wedding saree, putting a red dye (called “alta”) on the sides of her feet, covering the front of her head with vermillion as was or is the custom when a married woman dies while her husband is still alive. All the dressing up is a kind of celebration as the woman dying before the husband is considered a sign of good luck. Even as I am writing this, I feel nauseas. I don’t know whether she was being dressed up as a matter of celebration or whether her sisters were dressing her up for the last time. She was the youngest of them all – at home she was called “Kana” (means an atom, or the tiny one in Bengali).
This is the everlasting and the only memory I have of her. Its frozen in time as far as I am concerned. In some way, I am still the three years old looking at a scene which is so bizarre that it does not make any sense.
It is only now, at the age of 57, that I have started to make some sense of what happened to me because of her death and the events that followed. I have just about started understanding the deep impact the loss of a parent does to a child or to a young teenager. While I read plenty about these things during my training as a Psychotherapist, I never related them back to my experience as I believed I had dealt with all that I had to, and that some catharsis with my Analyst, some rational explanation, some perspective building and understanding were all that I needed. But today I know, those were not enough. I never mourned her, ever. For me, she just stopped existing.
After her death, I remember being taken to the same home by my Baba (father) where they both lived. The one room flat, with its closed windows and doors gave out a smell that I can never forget. I remember being held tightly by my dad and him weeping softly as I drifted in and out of sleep.
When my distraught Baba brought me to his sister’s place to hand me over to her, I remember people gathering there to look at me with pity and curiosity in their eyes to see this odd pair of a distraught man in his thirties and a child of three who had suddenly lost everything. “Ahaa re, ma nei becharar” (oh, poor thing, she does not have a mother!) is a statement that greeted me wherever I went, for a very long time thereafter. People made that statement first and then looked at me, as though in shock and in horror, lest the same misfortune befell them.
Children of my age looked me quizzically not knowing why was I being treated differently than them. There was this extra hug, extra special nudge, extra special caring …. but my little mind felt nothing. They were just words … I was learning to move on.
My Baba hardly ever spoke about her and never ever discussed his own sorrow till later in his seventies to express his regrets about actions he never took. Even when I asked him to tell me about her, he would avoid it. Today I know that if he discussed his own sorrow and his deep sense of loss, I would have found someone who would have understood partly what I felt. May be, I would have had a space to express how I felt. But, he drifted away from me more and more as he tried to forget his loss and sorrow in his own way. I now know that I reminded him of her (which was reinforced as I grew up), reminded him of a sign that she left behind and I constantly reminded him of her, I was this responsibility and liability that he felt ill adept at handling. He felt helpless, inefficient and incompetent. He looked up to all his elders, who confused him further with all kinds of advice, admonishment and criticism, about him and about me. He raised me like a ping pong ball, who shunted from one household to other and then finally to boarding school.
I remember being sensitive to everything as a child, specially of wedding celebrations, of the tunes of the Shehnai*, of cockroaches, of rivers, of strangers, of dark rooms, of loud noises …
I did not step in to any wedding celebrations till I was at least 9 or 10 years of age, as the sound of the Shehnai* made me feel tremendously sad and I had no clue why. The river brought fear as though I would be swept in it and drown, the loud noises made me jump out of my skin and my heart would race; new faces brought anxiety and fear as though they were bearer of bad news; dark rooms made my head swim … I can go on and on.
*(A Shehnai is a South Asian music instrument which is normally played at marriages and other ceremonies, rites and rituals. The word itself is of Muslim/Turkish)
What I remember the most was the anxiety that I felt about Baba when I was five or six years old. He would come home late every night after his drinking session and till he returned, my mind would conjure up visions of him never coming back to me ever again. My hands and feet would sweat and would become cold, my heart would race, my mouth would be dry and I would be numb with fear that I could not even fathom to understand or describe to anyone. I had to keep myself from falling asleep lest I missed his return. Every time there was an accident on the road or a thief being roughed up or people talked about some mishap somewhere, my mind raced as to “hope it is not Baba” (yes I know how incredulous it sounds now but my little mind had logic and rational for all of those).
Baba would often play his own private game with me (which I realized much later) – he would sing a song about remembering mother’s smile, etc. (you can hear the song here: here ) This song filled my heart with an unknown melancholy and emptiness and the little me could only deal with that by crying and putting my palm on his lips to make him stop. I did not know when it became a game or whether it was at all a game to him – all I know was that the song was sung too many times for my liking. May be he relived his sorrow through me, like this.
Others had their games with me, by putting cockroaches in my dress, by mocking me, by hitting me, by demanding obedience or complete subjugation that undignified me and made my heart race with fear, by calling me names and accusing me of things that were beyond my control, by telling me how unsuitable I was for anyone or anything …. (all these sound very dramatic but those days it was quite usual for people who grew up in other people’s households – why even today the TV serials depict the same unreasonable cruelty meted out to people who are lower in power hierarchy)
What all these experiences did to me was to convert me into a mechanical doll whose reactions were well known to others, except to me. It seemed as though I was on auto pilot. Others knew exactly what stimulus would evoke what response from me (reactive responses) but I did not. People knew exactly how to provoke me, to make me scream and cry. As a result, most of the time I used to hide from people, to be in my own world of thoughts and imaginations and books. Books opened up new vistas, new world that the actual living world could not. It was too loud and too demanding for me to handle. I always had to find places to hide, to go into my cave. Even today, I still enact the same scenes in some situations and they take me back to those days, only to make me cringe and punish myself further not not being better. Only, I don’t know what better means, except the lovely perfection that only death can bring.
People were like aliens in my world – I had to be prepared for what they would unleash on me …. cruelty, punishment, unreasonableness, demands, compulsions, even love, affection and caring came with a subtext which clearly said “this is not your due but by doing this we are being kind to you as you are this poor orphan – else you are a burden”. This came even from my Baba who forever felt like a lost teenager despite his love for me, a lost teenager who was not prepared to take emotional responsibility of either his own or of my stresses.
This led me to act quickly … to be a great survivor, to be a soldier who carried on no matter what, to learn quickly, to act, to know how to fit in other people’s world, to adjust, and to move on. Later in my life, this has helped me to be a quick learner, to swiftly act, be efficient, be alert, be ready, be highly adaptable, to be on the move … but on the other hand, it made my responses to the world more reactive than proactive, to always imagine the worst while dealing with my anxiety, to walk away first lest I was told to go away, to not rest ever, to not relax ever, to be prepared at all times, for the world was always ready to throw surprises at me when I was least prepared. Even now I have a strong irrational belief that the moment I start relaxing about my life, something untoward would happen.
What I did not learn to experience was to allow myself to fully feel : feel the grief, feel the emptiness of the sorrow, feel the rage, feel the insults, feel the humility, feel the love, feel the passion, feel the attachment, nothing. All of those were for others, who were not afraid, not anxious and were not unhappy. As though living meant mostly second guessing others, adjusting as best as one could, defending self and being one step ahead so that no one could spring up nasty surprises. This also taught me to spot opportunities quickly and utilise them. It taught me to be responsible and be dependable and be efficient, always, even when others were perfectly capable and I did not need to be so. Even now when insults are hurled at me if at any time, I become numb, and it takes me a while to feel what I am actually feeling. I always have a delayed reaction, internally, unknown to people.
Feelings of love, of dreams and togetherness, of serenity and tranquility, of compassion and kindness, of laughter, silliness and fun … were mostly for others … I learnt to be a good observer. Not that I did not feel but those moments were few and far between.
My dreams even now are full of events … my sleeping patterns are irregular despite my best intentions and I find believing in love and happiness, an impossibility. I have no dream for the future, only responsibility.
I had been observing all of the above as a sign of something terribly wrong with me – as though I was an anomaly … a person best left to her own devices … a woman who should live alone … not fit to live with anyone.
I felt jealous of my partner’s calm and resilient persona … felt jealous that he had a protected life that I did not … felt envious and resentful of all those people who had their parents, had a loving family and never faced some of the things that I did. Felt reactive that I had to face what I had to face and simultaneously felt smug that they knew little about this cruel world compared to me. That life meted out these special treatments to me for I was the chosen one. This is called delusion – belief held with a strong conviction despite superior evidence to the contrary.
Today I know better, I know what losing a parent or a trauma does to a child or a young person. In her study, Angela Nickerson, of the Massachusetts Veterans Epidemiology Research and Information Center , sought to determine how this dynamic affected these children across their life span. “As the life span progresses and the individual reaches adulthood, the psychological and interpersonal consequences of this disturbance may manifest in long-term mental health problems,” said Nickerson. “There is strong evidence that aspects of the family environment, such as quality of parental care and relationship with the surviving parent, are important in affecting long-term psychological reactions following parental loss.”
I also know that recent research is showing that anxiety, depression and trauma can even be passed from one generation to the other and people can carry on with the same trauma even without being subjected to it personally. If you want to know more about it, read it here. I have seen anxiety ruling the roost in my aunt and in my father and I know what caused them.
For a long time I felt just like the picture below:
My friends laugh at me, my daughter balks at me for saying this over and over again, and perhaps rightfully so. For some this is an attention seeking behaviour (may it is, I don’t know), for some it is a fatalistic thinking; but to me, it has been very very real. However, today as I am writing this blog and looking at this picture, it seems very fitting for a snow man to say this. Apart from the obvious humour, this is the way it has to be, it is a snow man … transient, temporary, not meant to last. Our early mental map of meanings made, choices made and roles taken are also like this snow man which if engaged with, is actually ready to dissolve and melt provided we bring them up from the deep slumber of the unconscious where they reside ..
Today, I am slowly reengaging with what all those experiences did to me …. It was initially difficult to accept… felt laughable that one could suffer so much for what happened so many years ago or that one’s nature, personality and world views are significantly shaped by something that happened 54 years ago. What I could not turn away from however, that I suffered, and still do. My sense of melancholy and hopelessness never go away, like old faithful friends. However, today the more I am delving deeper through the practice of Vipassana (which means to see things as they really are) meditation, the more my unconscious is springing up memories and insights which are both revealing and startling and they are helping me to make sense of things about me today in ways that I never thought was possible before. I am aware today that it is possible to change the meanings, the views and the choices that one made earlier in life and that :