I still remember the moment when I heard the sad news. We had finished dinner on Monday Jan 25, and I completed some pending work that was due the next day and I had came back outside to the living room. My wife got a call from my cousin and simultaneously I got a call from my brother. It was the shocking news that my mom had passed away. He was at the hospital so my brother could not give too many details but my heart sank knowing that she was no more. I could not believe it.
Immediately a flurry of thoughts started flashing in my head – what was the last thing I said to her? What was her last thought between us? When did we last meet and what was the highlight of that day? What will dad do now, knowing that he was completely dependent on her – not just for companionship since they have been married for 58 years, but also for providing him his medicines, reminding about various things he needs to do, cooking, preparing breakfast and snacks, and so much more.
More thoughts. What happens to the move that they were planning in a couple of weeks? How must my brother and his family be handling this news?
The thing is, this was absolutely unexpected. If a person is ill and deteriorating, you mentally prepare yourself. You run through various possibilities in your head, including unfortunately how you would handle the person eventually passing away.
Not for my mom. Not for the one who was super active both phyiscally and mentally. Not for the one who was willing to take on a residence move at their age (and perhaps the move was one of the things that may have contributed to her stress and anxiety, who knows?). The one who was planning to send some Indian snacks to us via courier *while* planning for and preparing for the move. Planning the move? She didn’t have to pack or move but she had to get the bathroom done in the new flat, painting, new sofas, new dining chairs, clean up old and unwanted paper work, and so much more. All this with a servant who is not full-time and was not guaranteed to come regularly because she was sick off and on. She had mentioned that she was feeling overwhelmed about it.
I was definitely speechless. Numb, to a certain extent. Then I started getting calls from cousins and uncles/aunts. That’s when it hit me hard – she was definitely gone. Oh my god, I had to start looking for tickets and figure out the formalities I need to take care of to be able to travel to India in this COVID time. I found tickets for the next morning’s flight but I realized it may be complicated if I don’t have a negative COVID test. I could of course take a chance and land there and figure out, but the more I read about the paper work, the more I was convinced that it would be better to get the test and then leave. So I started looking for appointments for the drive-through test that I had done in November. I got one at 7am, locked it up. Meanwhile, my cousin came over and he started calling some hospitals in the area to see if they can give me a rapid test – they all said I would need to wait and that someone with a heart attack will get priority over someone like me who is looking for a favor. I made the call to just stick with the test, knowing that we get the results in ~24 hours. I also informed my brother that they don’t need to wait for me for the final rites since the earliest I could be in India would have been Wednesday night and that would be a good 36 hours after her passing and keeping the body for that long in the house would be inadvisable. Having settled on the plan, I got my airline tickets changed too.
Then in the moments of silence after this flurry of activity, various things started coming to the head…
She was the life of any get together – my mom LOVED to hang out with people. She would try to get people together whether it was for festive occasions like Diwali or Raksha Bandhan, or something related to her social work like Inner Wheel, or kitty parties from her past. It was not for gossip, she really really loved keeping connected with everyone. And connected she was! In the past couple of days, I heard from a large group of friends and extended family and the common thread has been that they all remember her being genuinely interested in what they were up to and taking great care of them whenever they met.
Extra – my mom was always extra in her party-planning. For as long as I remember, there was nothing “ordinary” or “simple” about any meet up or party. I remember birthday parties with fancy homemade cakes. I recall our daughter’s birthday party at a restaurant’s party hall when we were visiting India. I remember our son’s birthday party she arranged at home but with fancy decorations and of course a professional photographer. Oh, photographer! She loved, loved, loved to have a professional capture pictures and videos even for the smallest of functions. Perhaps she wanted to ensure everyone in the family was captured in the pictures (so one family member who takes pictures is not left out), perhaps she wanted the togetherness to linger on in her heart as she would flip through those pictures the photographer would send. Perhaps she just wanted frame-worthy pictures of her family and get as many of those as she could.
Feed everyone some more – the above two items were combined with another consistent trait of my mom, which was to feed to the maximum everyone she loved. There was never a single lunch or dinner table discussion where she and I argued about that one thing I did not take or for taking one more helping of the stuff I liked. Not one, it was 100% true all the time. I had invited some US friends for my wedding and I remember them saying fondly that just as they were about to get up, my mom would come with a “wheel barrow of potatoes” to dump into their plates. I remember my two college friends who used to come up as part of a study group who till this day recall the food mom used to feed them and make them feel like a “wedding party” with the “come on, you can have one more of x” at lunch every single time. She would always have multi-course meal, most of it made at home, most of it made from scratch and almost always at least 3 different courses and many times 5 or 6!
Learn, learn, learn, and try until you succeed – mom was always willing to learn something new and as long as it had some benefit to her she would not mind if something came across as greek and latin at first. I recall distinctly teaching both mom and dad how to use the computer and mouse, some simple stuff. She remembered and practiced quite a lot till she became fairly knowledgeable about most of the stuff around Excel, Word, and of course internet. She started making greeting cards in Word, creating simple spreadsheets and once the e-commerce boom started in India she was buying AND selling stuff online fairly regularly. She became known as the Google aunty among her peers and was regularly giving tips to my aunties about how to book tickets online and how to look up stuff online to get more information. Naturally she took very well to the iPad and it was her single-most used “computer” where she learned how to use Apple’s Notes to store important notes, how to use SkyDrive/OneDrive and Google Photos to back up all pictures and videos, print stuff from there to the printer, and play all kinds of free-to-play games. She was also able to get their home network upgraded to have a wifi extender so there is a good coverage in all parts of the house. I remember recently on a group FaceTime call her grandkids started putting animojis on their faces and she could not sit tight until she figured out how they were doing it. I remember getting calls in the middle of her night asking for some clarification on some tech issue she got stuck with. Or even better, she would send a screenshot in WhatsApp asking if it was ok to click on something that sounded obviously too good to be true. She knew the internet well enough to at least sniff out the bad scammers!
Travel some more, see something new – mom had a passion to see new places, try new stuff. She would never hesitate to go for some adventure (as long as her health permitted). It’s not the lure of traveling outside India, or the lure of going to some exotic places, she simply wanted to see some new places. As a result she also visited a variety of places in India like Bhuj, Varanasi, inner Maharashtra, inner Gujarat, etc. The last two times she visited us in the US, she expressed wanting to go to Mexico. I am still extremely bummed that we never planned and made the trip.
Creativity – my mom was a bundle of creativity. From the innovative birthday cakes I referenced earlier, to cool games she made us all play at family get togethers. The arts and crafts she used to make for various occasions like us visiting India or some event with Inner Wheel club, or birthdays, anniversaries, etc. to the same type of stuff digitally with variety of collage-making and funny video-making apps. There was never a repeat, it was always a unique piece of art. The brain cells were working overtime for sure and the results were fantastic!
There’s so much more I could write about my mother but I’ll finish this with a few things that I personally will miss about her.
Her sacrifices when I was growing up – I remember distinctly that she was my alarm and more importantly, my snooze button. I used to prefer to study early in the morning vs later in the night, and in some cases I would request her to wake me up at 4.30 or 5 and she would diligently do so and I would keep asking for 5 more minutes and she would keep waking me up after those 5 minutes till I actually got out of bed, and washed my face and started studying. These unconditional sacrifices continued through college and of course the biggest was sending me off to the US.
Her reminders to me and my wife about not being strict with our kids – Having spent a few vacations with us in the US, my mom knew how my wife and I handled our kids. We are not super-strict, but we have some rules and if the kids break those rules they face the consequences (lower screen time, for one). My mom did not like that and felt like we should let them be and we should always teach them a lesson when they are receptive to the “lectures”. So regardless of anything else, she would remind us and specifically my wife to let the kids be themselves and to give them a pass.
Be positive and optimistic – perhaps this was a principle she adopted later in her life but I cannot forget how positive and cheerful she was regardless of her situation. Whether it was her physical pain due to back issues or knee issues, or her huge insomnia problem, she was always looking to spin any situation positively and move forward instead of ruing over the past. She would often say aloud that she was frustrated with something and then also speak aloud that she was not going to give up and instead try to find another way to get out of that sticky situation. I did not hear negativity from here, except when it was self-deprecating. It’s something I have tried to adapt very consciously in my life.
She and I were the opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to how we think – she claimed (rightly) that I was too logical and rational in my thought process and she was of course extremely emotional. We learned to live with each other’s way of thinking because both of us realized there are so many more important things in life to worry about than argue about how one thinks.
I was really looking forward to spending my sabbatical with her and the rest of the family in India last summer but thanks to COVID, we had to shelve those plans. As a result my last memory of her was this past weekend talking about her choice of finally giving up on her 30+ years old couches and getting a new set for their new flat. She also talked about how easy it is to customize stuff in India, related to her getting a new set of dining chairs, where two were swivel-based so they are easy to get off of. And of course, what kind of snacks we would like to get shipped since she was about to send a courier package to us, now that she could send stuff via DHL.
The last in-person memory I have of her is celebrating raksha bandhan with the cousins and family and on the same trip, celebrating her birthday back in 2019. That raksha bandhan celebration was also as usual, extra, and showed off all of her traits I mentioned above. My aunt (her sister) and my cousin has his family were visiting from New Jersey so naturally it was show time for my mom 🙂 She asked everyone to come dressed up because, yes, she had called a photographer to take official pictures of the evening. She started looking online for local photographers, called up a few people and emailed a few more. Finally she and my wife settled on one of the candidates after some back and forth with her. For the event, it was not one item or two, it was a big spread of food and drink. She made everyone play unique games. For the prizes, she even custom-made the gifts! Every single person had a fantastic time as usual, and I am sure she felt a huge high off everyone enjoying that day.
We should all celebrate her life and how she lived it. She has only left us in this physical world and gone to hang out with her besties (sisters-in-law – brother’s wife and husband’s brother’s wife). Her presence and her essence will be with us forever!
Rest in peace, mummy.
Couple things – one that I forgot and one I knew but discovered to a great detail in the past few weeks.
I forgot about her LOVE of shopping, and more importantly, getting a bargain. She didn’t necessarily buy stuff but she loved the process of shopping. Much to my dislike she would sometimes go all morning or afternoon or even the whole day just browsing, negotiating and ultimately not actually buying anything and still consider it a great day. Amazing stamina and strength to do that.
The other thing, she was amazingly organized. She had documented the smallest of things – petty expenses, codes, passwords, password change dates (no, I couldn’t get her to use 1Password but she was on her way there, her vault had 1 entry already!). More, she had labeled all her stuff everywhere. What was for whom, what was done, what was pending. When we finally got to a couple of her safe deposit lockers, we saw that she had left a bag in the locker in case she forgot to get one when trying to bring stuff back (!!!!) – so cool. There are instances like this one all over her life and whatever she touched.
I miss you, mummy. You amaze all of us every single day.