On Grief and Mortality

“As a woman of science, my mother is relentless in her search for answers. Why must we die? If we are to die, why do we ever live? Who designed this system?”

It has always been difficult for me to conceive of my parents as people. They have been around since before I started embracing my own personhood. I cannot imagine that they, too, face the same problems that the rest of us do. It would be like trying to think of the sun, or the earth beneath my feet, as if they were people. They’re reliable, unwavering, ever-present. But how does one really relate to the sun? And yet, the current state of the world has forced me to confront the truth of our sameness: we are all victims of the human condition.

Two days ago, my mother and I were enjoying our afternoon tea, both of us scrolling on our phones. I’m not the loquacious type, but my mother is a master of dialogue. She usually does not mind bearing the weight of conversation, and I’m always open to simply lending an ear. That afternoon, however, her words became more and more sparse as she scrolled further down her phone’s screen. 

In the havoc of the pandemic, my mother and her friends have sacrificed their get-togethers in lieu of a WhatsApp group. I would later find out that the cause for her silence was a text message sent that afternoon on this chat group. It was one of her old schoolmates, Jaya. “This is Jaya’s husband. Unfortunately, she is no more.”

Despite the losses she has encountered over the years, my mother has yet to make peace with the concept of mortality. Death leaves us with little to cling to; it stays out of our control. “It’s so unfair,” she appeals to some indifferent, imperceptible god. “How someone can always be there, until one day they’re just not. You never get to see them again, you never hear from them, and even if you never actively did those things, now you never will.”

My mind instantly flooded with things I wanted to do to console her. I wanted to put my hand on her shoulder, maybe offer to make her a glass of iced tea. I wanted to tell her that we live in a world that, by design, will hurt us. I wanted to tell her that all we’ve got is each other. Yet, I neither did nor said any of that. How does one comfort the earth? If I were to intellectualise the severely limited nature of our time with each other as mother and son, she would call me a nihilist, an unfeeling machine. If I were to join her in her grief, she would never let go of the guilt of unburdening herself upon me.

Oh, mother! I feel like I’m bursting at the seams when I have all these thoughts to share with you. I have so, so much I wish I could tell you. I find myself unable to stand in solidarity with you, despite being no stranger to the experience of loss myself. By this point, I’ve lost so much that cataloguing my losses would be an exercise in futility. I have lost friends who could never find homes where they could take refuge from this tragedy. Justine, in her infinite kindness, immediately claimed me as her friend, while I was still awkwardly fumbling with the ice I was trying so hard to break. When I last spoke to her, she was taking care of her pet dog who had just become a mother to a beautiful litter. She promised to introduce me to the young pups, but was robbed of the chance to fulfil her promise. I’ve lost friends like Vonna, who could never access the help they needed to get better. She educated me about the role that Jewish actors played in sculpting the Hindi film industry into what it is today, and instilled in me a love of cheesesteaks. I now fear that I may never learn or love again without the memory of losing her piercing my heart. They were all trapped in a world, this world that could never even begin to understand them. There are so many whom I have lost, all of whom helped me embrace my personhood.

My mother, formerly a singer of some repute, had given up on her  passion. You see, being a teacher and having to conduct classes, having to speak over dozens of rowdy teenagers does a number on one’s throat. In her case, it simply resulted in an aversion to singing. Conducting classes online has allowed her voice to recover, but not her passion. That was until a childhood friend of hers, by some miracle, managed to rekindle it. And now, this friend is no longer around to hear my mother sing. If my mother and I were to speak of our losses, she would wax lyrical about a cruel, unjust universe. I could manage naught but screams of anger at the cruel and incompetent systems that reliably failed us whenever we needed them the most.  If my mother and I were to speak of our pain, our voices would only manage laments, and yet we would never harmonise.

Tonight, my mother digs her old harmonium out of the storage closet. When I was much younger, I would crawl onto the wooden lid of the instrument and lie there, ecstatic, as my mother would continue with her weekly practice sessions. Of course, I can no longer fit there, and take my place on the mat next to hers. Years ago, her practice would be constantly interrupted by a strand of dark hair that would stubbornly fall back on her face every time she tucked it behind her ear. Tonight, that same strand of hair is streaked with grey. As she tucks it behind her ear, our eyes briefly meet, and we both know that we’re thinking the same thought. The smile lines on her face remind me that time waits for nobody, not even this woman whose mortality I refuse to come to terms with. It is already difficult enough to accept that she too is just a person, like any other. To also accept that she will not be here forever would be far too painful.

As a woman of science, my mother is relentless in her search for answers. Why must we die? If we are to die, why do we ever live? Who designed this system? I often find myself asking these questions, too. By way of response, my mother embraces me, strokes my hair, kisses my forehead. The best I can offer her is a sympathetic nod and open ears. What we both seem to lack are answers. Maybe there are no answers. There is no design, no grand scheme, no purpose. Maybe, in the words of Bob Ross, there are only happy little accidents.

But it is hard to characterise death as happy. Death is not empathetic, understanding, or predictable.  What can one really do in the face of the inevitable? You cannot philosophise your way out of it. You cannot intellectualise your own grief. You may hardly even whimper a cogent sentence. Death does not wait, make exceptions, or listen to appeals. Death cannot be reasoned or bargained with. Death does not care for our ideas of fairness. Death is. Death just is. 

“Why should I fear death?

If I am, then death is not.

If Death is, then I am not.

Why should I fear that which can only exist when I do not?”