(This is a personal reading of the book “Notes on Grief” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I write this to help myself. I hope reading this will help us all in some way, that we grieve as we feel.)
The bold and italics are excerpts from the book.
An impermanence in the air. The virus brought close the possibility of dying, the commonness of dying.
I am one of those millions of children who live far from their parents. We live with certain confidence that we will be able to reach them quickly in case there is an emergency. That certainty ended with the pandemic.
After fifteen long months of corona restrictions, when I could finally travel, I was shaken by the frailty of my father. My heart pounded non-stop, I lay awake at nights, I jumped if the phone rang at the slightest of odd hours. I could not keep away from the thought that my father may be gone soon. In that state of gnawing sadness, I looked for something that would quieten my mind, would keep me afloat.
Sometimes a book finds to you. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘Notes on Grief’ was on the shelf. But I was evading reading it. The line between fear and premonition can get easily blurred, especially when you know the eventuality, that your fear is the ultimate truth. I was avoiding a daughter’s reminiscence after her father’s death. Will it prepare me or will it devastate me?
I removed the cover of the book to spare any anxiety to the people around me, and started reading it after my father’s passing. Because I loved my father so much, so fiercely, so tenderly, I always, at the back of my mind, feared this day. From a daughter to a father, and an overwhelmed family, the grief in this book connected like there are no boundaries. Every sentence resonated; either in its parallels or in its manifestation. I also realised, that grief is intensely personal, obstinately individual, and is way more complicated than it’s understood to be.
Several of my friends lost their parents in the past few months. The loss continues as I write. It is in this living and breathing an air leaden with angst and ambiguity that broke us bit by bit. It’s not that I find succour in the fact that so many of us are grieving. I find the true meaning of how hard it can be.
So here is how the book is both solacious and cathartic.
A brain surgery four years ago, followed by diagnosis of Parkinson and incontinence severely impacted my father’s daily activities. A man who always walked, never depended on anybody, now needed assistance for almost everything. Age descended as if in a hurry and with savage intensity. He complied to the doctor’s prescriptions with single-minded devotion that he will be able to walk the streets again. We answered his questions with care and believable vagueness. We were in constant search for what could make his living easier (I say living and not surviving). A straw to sip, softened food easy to chew, regular review of medication, grab-bars, anti-skid bath mats, electric shaver, several kinds of aid for mobility etc. Our mind space filled up with the pursuit of solutions, every conversation opened up a possibility or threw up a challenge.
Zoom calls, there was my father, only his forehead on the screen. Thanks to video calling, and my mother’s ability to pick up technology, we saw each other twice every day. I will hear her prompting my father, ‘hold the phone properly so that she can see you’. My mother tells me now, that my father will ask if I did not call or was late. Till the time he could, he will dial from the non-smart-screen phone and ask “kahin galu” (where have you been?), with a mix of concern and demand in his voice.
It was so fast, too fast. It was not supposed to happen like this, not like a malicious surprise, not during a pandemic that has shut down the world. Through the severity and continuity of this pandemic nightmare, I had prayed for a proper closure. Amid the horrendous episodes of deaths that happened in isolation wards, last rites performed in PPE suits, I had prayed to be spared of the misfortune. That there be an opportunity for a good bye.
Thankfully, that could happen. About two weeks before my father’s death, we could all be together, me, my brother and my mother, reliving how it all was when we were children. The photos from that visit make me weep. In that blessed time, I often caught my father’s eyes, fondly, longingly, looking at all of us, as if to say ‘this is it in this life.’ He was slowly willing away from life.
The recent the memory, tiny bit less is the weight of the grief. My heart goes out to all those who could not be with their parents in their last days. Death is not just death. How it happens matters, in our reasoning, our healing, our acceptance, our closing. Was it the gradual onslaught of advancing age or was it a sudden, freak, unconceivable incident? My mother saw it coming through his progressing illness. Someone who read and re-read the newspaper at least twice a day, would fall half asleep on the second page. He talked less, opined less, participated less.
The dictates of Igbo culture, this immediate pivot from pain to planning. And so, I try to remind myself that my father would want things done as they are done. Already friends and relatives are saying this must be done and that must be done. The rituals, I am told, are designed to keep you occupied, mentally and physically. There are tons of things to do. Several arrangements for the body to be laid to rest, for the soul to be set free of human bondage. And while we were engrossed in doing that, we were also starkly aware of the absence of my father. This worsens as rituals get over. The everyday routine returns, and along with it, the memory of what it was when my father was around. It’s as if the clock, the house, the phone calls, the food, everything was in synchrony with that one person who is not there anymore. He is not at the dining table for breakfast, on his chair backing the window’s light, and that after breakfast he is not settled on the sofa in his mid-morning ritual of napping, reading and napping again. My brother and I take turns to sit on his desk, to look at what he saw when he looked out, tuck ourselves into his space.
We had tremendous outpouring of love and remembrances. People taking over without fuss what needed to be done, sparing us to gather ourselves. From waiting at the hospital, keeping him in the morgue till we arrive, arrangements for the last rites, the rituals, the community feast, all the tasks were picked up and completed seamlessly.
Except, the consolation.
Grief is not gauzy; it is substantial, oppressive, a thing opaque. Grief is raw wound on the skin. Any touch singes, salve or sharp. Grief has at least two vital elements. How as a person we deal with the deepest, closest feeling of loss. The second, how people, family and friends, make us feel. I don’t know why the second becomes significant. But it’s hardest to say “I don’t care” when in grief. You are vulnerable, your wound is in open display.
You learn how much grief is about language and the grasping for language. I have in the past found my-own-self fumbling for an expression, for words, that would touch a grieving soul. The same words come back to me with a vengeance. Be strong, I hear often. Tell me what is strong? Not crying? Is holding my father’s hand which is now ice-cold after being in the morgue for over thirty hours, strong? Is weeping when he is laid on the hard-wood-pyre strong?
A friend sends me a line from my novel: ‘Grief was celebration of love, those who could feel real grief were lucky to have loved.’ How odd to find it so exquisitely painful to read my own words. Some say he is in a better place. Where is that place? I cannot conjure up the image of that place. And why is that place better? How am I supposed to feel comforted by the idea of a place I do not know exists? All that I know is that our family is now broken, it has an empty chair which will remain empty, always.
I am to draft the invitation. Writing ‘funeral’ is impossible for me. I could not bring myself to write the intimation. I sought help. My eyes would well up with every word. I could not be part of a conversation where that lovely picture of him, with that gentle smile, would be up on a frame and garlanded.
How is it that the world keeps going, breathing in and out unchanged, while in my soul there is a permanent scattering? How do people walk around functioning in the world after losing a beloved father?
“This is the rule of Nature. This is the ultimate Truth.
We all have to leave one day. He would have suffered had he lived.”
Yes, I know. I will still cry. Because it hurts.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” (Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird).
I back away from condolences. People are kind, people mean well, but knowing this does not make their words rankle less. I am incensed when asked ‘when are they bringing the body?’ I supress a sob and reply ‘we will bring my father home between 12-1 pm.’ ‘Oh, you don’t have a nice framed picture of him’ asks someone planning a condolence meeting. ‘No, I did not prepare for my father’s death. No one hangs the image of a living person on the wall.’ I think but do not say it. In about three hours of his passing, a close associate asks my mother ‘will you move in with your son or your daughter?’ My brother gets a message ‘be brave. you are the man of the house now.’ Anyone who knows our family, knows that my mother is the (wo)man of our house, is the most resourceful, rooted and has always been on the top of everything, including my father’s office cum residence. We are actually borrowing from her, what it needs to go on. It breaks my heart when she says ‘just because your father is not there anymore, everyone now thinks I am shiftable.’
I hear from others that videos of my father were circulated immediately after he was gone, on the way to the morgue. I am unable to accept such brazen intrusion. People stand around him, as he lay on the ground, frozen, and click pictures. Click several pictures. Someone places a paper with the name of an organisation on him. I remove it. My father is not a billboard. After a while, I ask people to stop taking pictures.
What does not feel like the deliberate prodding of wound is a simple ‘I’m sorry’, because in its banality it presumes nothing. My deepest condolences, as simple as that, also feels okay. The most consoling voices are from those who have gone through the loss of a parent A sixty-year-old neighbour who sits next to me and weeps for parents long gone. Another daughter talks about losing her father in the isolation ward after testing positive for covid, while he pleaded to be taken home. Another friend recalls the disturbing dilemma when the doctor mentions withdrawing the life support of his father. Or the thirty-six long days a friend’s mother was in the ICU. Till the machines keep beeping. Or the friend whose mother went for a check-up, never to return. Or the friend who came back home to find his father cold.
Concrete and sincere memories from those who knew him comfort the most, and it warms that the same words recur. How they knew my father, how he helped them, how he made suggestions that changed the course of their lives, these narrations fill the air with happy memories, with gratitude for a life that had touched so many. My father had the ability to find something good in people, from a gardener, an autorickshaw driver, to an industrialist, academician or a politician. It all showed in his death.
There is value in that Igbo way, that African way, of grappling with grief: the performative, expressive outward mourning, where you take every call and you tell and retell the story of what happened, where isolation is anathema and ‘stop crying’ a refrain. Grief is individual. I have built a tight wall around it. I don’t let anyone in other than close family. I don’t talk. I avoid phone calls where I have to give a chronology of my father’s death. My mother is different. She grieves through the retelling and comes out less stricken. And so, we mourn differently. Yet ‘people mourn differently’ is easy for the intellect to absorb, but for the heart it is much harder.Grief is both universal and unique. The loss is universal, how each of us take to it is a little bit common and a little bit sole. No matter how we tend to grief, how each react to grief, how our culture influences us, grief’s characters are common. I have mourned in the past but only now have I touched grief’s core. I cage my thoughts. I do the same.
Because I am drained limp from crying. And to speak about it would be to cry again. But later it is because I want to sit alone with my grief. Is it possible to be possessive of one’s pain? I want to become known to it, I want it known to me. So precious was my bond with my father that I cannot lay open my suffering until I have discerned its contours. I burst into tears when am asked how I am. Else I go about doing what I am needed, expected to do.
One day I am in the bathroom, completely alone, and I call my father by my fond nick name for him – ‘the original dada’ – and a brief blanket of peace enfolds me. Too brief. I am a person wary of the maudlin, but I am certain of this moment filled with my father. If it is a hallucination, then I want more of it, but it hasn’t happened again.
I have never been someone who thought of ‘life after death’. Not until I experienced death from this close. I look for a sign, a dream. Others tell me they dreamt of my father. That he appeared as a light, or he spoke, or he hugged, or he was writing on a desk. But I have nothing from him. And I want to ask him ‘why?’ One night, in a vivid dream, my father comes back. Mistake and mistaken identity. I am ecstatic. How can your unconscious turn on you with such cruelty?
It was the wholeness of him that formed me, but it was also these incidents, slice by slice. My father taught me that learning is never-ending. My father took notes of everything he read. He kept news clippings with the date on it. The last article that I read out aloud, he listened with rapt attention, nodding. Later he asked me for the clipping of the article and I asked ‘do you want to read it again or do you want to keep it?’ “Keep it” he had replied.
Every time he picked up a book, he would write down what appealed to him, a passage, a historical fact, an articulated emotion. I find his handwritten notes everywhere, on all sorts of topics. There is an intense pathos to looking at his handwriting. Pathos is a word I had heard first from my father, and often. Orphaned early, he grew up in hardship. There never was a second serving at meals. Even later in life, where food was not scarce anymore, he continued to eat only one serving. Nobody has ever seen my father overindulge.
One of the last wishes of my father was to also immerse his remains in Mahanadi, the river around which he grew up. He told us about bathing in the river. That he would run as fast as he could because the sun would be blazing hot, and the sand under his feet was scorching, and he did not have any footwear. He would carry a wet gunny sack while he ran. When his feet could not take it anymore, he would throw the sack down and stand on it to cool his feet, at the most a minute, because the sack must not get dry, and it has to last till he reaches the river. Because he will also come back the same way, run, pause, stand on the wet gunny sack, run, pause till he is home. Now his remains embrace the river. “You don’t need to run back anymore Bapa. You are home.”
But that he was so respectful of our boundaries, and so grateful for the smallest things, was like a priceless trimming. A man of small needs, he would over-think what we do and whether it will cause inconvenience, extra burden or upset our routine. A holiday, a health check-up, or the travel to be with us, he will be happy but will also worry about how much extra work it may be for his children. One pen, a book, a writing pad, collection of newspapers from the airport could make him so content. How exquisitely he paid attention, how present he was, how well he listened. If you told him something, he remembered. He observed what mattered to him. Not ostentatious, grandiose things. But a word, a frown, a description, a museum, a fact in history, a quote.
Part of grief’s tyranny is that it robs you of things that matter. His pride in me mattered. He read everything I wrote. The one person who savoured even a ‘Letter to the Editor’ by me.
I like that his response to power was a shrug. He worshipped integrity. He was indifferent to, if not distrustful of, grand flourishes. My father was a journalist. Mild, softspoken, thorough investigator of facts and a keeper of history. He survived and flourished in his profession because of his integrity and impartiality. He could get people to be their best around him. His was a kind of naivety, an innocence of the just.He admired Lal Bahadur Shastri. He would tell us about the call by Shastri to forsake one meal during the war and my father is the only person I know who ate one meal every Monday. We would turn to him for any question on history. In some strange coincidence, my last face to face conversation with him was about a question on Shastri, which he answered correctly, and as always ended it with ‘I have limited knowledge’ followed by a hearty smile. Another revelation: how much laughter is part of grief. I laugh too, at times, but I know that my eyes have lost the happy twinkle.
My mother is strangely progressive and also stubbornly conformist. I am heartsick to see her so brave and so drained. In her forever pragmatism to life, she starts offering his shirts, shoes, medicines. I quickly hide one of his often-worn shirts in my suitcase. It still seems to have the smell of him. I want things to stay as they are, my mother is making space. After devoting every single minute to my father’s care, my mother says with simple finality ‘everything has an end’, in a very matter of fact way, as she goes around following the rituals and getting everything cleaned.
Nobody expects the bodies of men to wear the imprint of their loss. But my mother says she wants to do it all: ‘I will do everything that is done. I will do it for Daddy.’ My mother understands the society’s unfair treatment of women, in happiness and in grief. She balances herself in the spectrum, makes her choices. If she is not allowed to use red any more, she won’t allow white either.
I had often wondered, especially with the corona restrictions, what if my brother doesn’t make it to India to perform my father’s last rites? I ask my mother, assuming she would name a close male family member as women are not allowed to light the pyre. My mother surprises me ‘If your brother could not be present, I never thought it would be anyone other than you.’
To sit with him and talk about the past was like reclaiming gorgeous treasure. My father’s past is familiar to me because of stories told and retold, and yet I always intended to document them better. My father had a twin brother who did not survive. I have this sudden quest to know his name? How long did he live? There is no one in the family to tell me, their entire generation is gone. One life is never enough to know another. There is a sensation that is frightening, of a receding, of an ancestry slipping away, but at least I am left with enough for myth, if not memory.
So, I knew. I was so close to my father that I knew, without wanting to know, without fully knowing that I knew. A thing like this, dreaded for so long, finally arrives and among the avalanche of emotions there is a bitter and unbearable relief. No parent should have to bury a child. And all children should know that they will be the one to say good bye. I don’t know in the case of happiness, but hindsight trails grief. We look back at everything. On hindsight, his suffering was only going to increase. His body was giving away. He would have abhorred being fed through a tube, an oxygen mask, laid on the bed the whole time. Hindsight can be comforting. But the hope for a little bit more of him, little bit more time with him creeps right back in.
I am my father’s daughter. It is an act of resistance and refusal: grief telling you it is over and your heart saying it is not; grief trying to shrink your love to the past and your heart saying it is present.
‘When will Grandpa wake up again?’ The little boy asks ‘when is Baba coming back after his meeting with God?’
I accompany him on his final journey, talking in mute, singing to him some of his favourite songs,
Babul mora, naihar chuto hi jaye… Mora apna begana chuto jai ….
(Sung by K.L. Saigal, O My father! I’m leaving home… I’m leaving those who were my own…)
Our home is never going to be the same again. My mother is never going to look the same again. Our family is now altered forever. It’s going to be one less, forever.
My memories bring eloquent stabs of pain that say, ‘This is what you will never again have.’
I will never see my father again. Never again.
‘Never’ has come to stay. ‘Never’ feels so unfairly punitive. For the rest of my life, I will live with my hands outstretched for things that are no longer there.
This grief is a long haul. Sometimes I freeze for a moment, at times I drop into cold sweat, I cry, the finality of death sinks its teeth on me, crushing, merciless. When death comes un-announced, no alert, it has the potential to alter us. Sudden death is unfathomable grief. I see the picture of two daughters looking at their young father in a glass coffer, gone in the best of health and I imagine their grief. I wish them space. And that they find their ways to grieve. And that we are supportive of grieving, no matter how and what it takes. No rules.
We don’t know how we will grieve until we grieve.
After many weeks, I look at myself in the mirror and pick up kohl. I open the cupboard and choose what to wear. We will go back to doing what we do in our everyday lives. Interspersed in that routineness will be grief. A void forever. Grief inserted in our everyday lives.
“This is it, in this life”.