It is April 2011. We are at the crematorium to send my mother off. The doors open and the flames lick at the coffin; the system is ruthlessly efficient and within a minute the fire has subsided, the doors are closed, what was there is now no more but ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The viewing room bursts into wails. I do not cry. I try to, but I cannot, and it does not surprise me very much. Days ago when my mother’s funeral wake had first begun, we were the first people to look into the coffin and see her face made up gaudily, a pane of glass separating us. There is much more separating us, of course, although the make up artist does not seem to have realised this. The funeral director explains that this is to prevent her colour – or lack thereof – from showing over the days. A thought settles into my head from first glance, and takes root so firmly I never dare to breathe it to a single person for fear of the shame that will follow. I look in the coffin and I think: This is not my mother.
For why should it be? I can pinpoint the exact moment my mother left. When she took her last breaths and then stilled, when we leant over her to change her into clothes for the coffin because the funeral parlour workers would not come till morning; I touched her leg and in a matter of seconds it was ice cold. Here I will only speak of the moment when she left and thereafter; I refuse to speak of the days in the hospital, or the eternity that passed between bringing her home and the long goodbye. Those days live still in my head, and it is dangerous to write about days you are still living. From the moment my mother left us, a bitter calm took over my head and my body, and although the events that came after were new to me none of them truly took me by surprise. Only this – I never expected her to go so cold so soon.
I walk through the funeral wake in a haze. I go through the rituals with a newfound obedience my mother would have thanked the gods for, after years of fighting her: The year where I refused to apply to RGS, the year I expressed immense revulsion at the thought of trying for the bilingual studies program, the year I chose not to put a religion on my identity card, the last year where she had cancer and I was still a selfish child. That last year passed through me as I typed those words, and when I catch my breath again I already have tears halfway down my chin. What did I say about writing of days I am still living? In the days after, people hold me up and I let them down. Friends who come to the wake keep me sane and awake; friends whom I forgot to or couldn’t bring myself to tell I face with shame much later, when they have heard through the grapevine.
In the days following I grow more awkward and recalcitrant than ever. How does one say, my mother died last week, or last month, or last year? The first time I had to do it was on the phone with an old neighbour, who burst out crying and all I could say on the other end of the line was nothing. The last time I had to do it was telling a university senior when the fact came up in casual conversation, and I said I wouldn’t cry but before I had even opened my mouth my lower lip was quivering. How does one go about these things? I still do not know. The best I had ever felt about it was at the house of a former teacher, when she looked straight at me and asked ‘What does your dad think about you going to France?’ and I thought, she knows. It was a parting of the clouds.
Days turned into months turned into a year. Some days I wake up with sunshine in my heart and think, alright life, come at me. Two hours later I see something which makes me want to run up to her and talk about it, a child, an ipad, a new television show, watch the smile on her face because I know she will love it – until I remember that that is no longer an option, and my insides collapse all over again. The worst days are realising that I have in fact forgotten, for several hours, that my mother is dead. It comes with a little gasp, oh! Oh. Oh.
I keep walking on.
It is February 2012, and one of my best friends tells me that a mutual friend is gone. Then, she says, probably suicide. I hear my heart stop, and then drop. You don’t think about people you know killing themselves. When they do, you wonder: What did I miss? Where did I go wrong? Selfish thoughts on a selfish deed, because we are after all each man for himself. I get tired of hearing and saying, “You couldn’t have done anything.” It is not the truth, and we owe the truth to ourselves and to her. Selfish are the people who miss the cues; more selfish yet is the person who leaves us behind, each alone together with only silence.
I become furious with her, more furious than I ever was while we sat side by side on sunny afternoons in dusty classrooms and she doodled and took notes for the both of us as I slept. My rage boils over, first from knowing that our friends will only grow older now – the way I aged after my mother left – then from reading ignorant, gossipy comments left on the news article on her death. The article itself is a bizarre occurrence – the words ‘woman’, ‘twenty’ and a name which I said every week for two whole years should have no place there. If I stare hard enough, they are not the same names. I wonder how the journalist could have written so carelessly about her, then I am shamed by the number of times I have read an article on someone’s controversial passing without a single thought for the people who loved them. Facts become difficult to reconcile. Losing someone I talked to almost every single day for close to nineteen years was like sitting up into a brick wall each morning; knowing that I will never again talk to someone whom I hadn’t seen in months is a pea under an abundance of duvets.
In the week that comes she haunts all of us. My friend sees her everywhere, hears the way she calls her name. My ghost is the unrelenting reminder of her – I cannot remember the last thing I said to her, the way her tiny ponytail stuck up in the air, or a single unpleasant conversation. I sleep, I stare, I fail a math test. I decide to stop caring about anyone, because everybody leaves you. I go to a party and drink. I dance, I drink, I dance, I drink, I steal other people’s lightstick bracelets and drink some more. This is probably the happiest any of these people have ever seen me. At the end of the night something gives way inside, and I remember crying and blabbing everything before being brought home. I say, why why why do these things happen. I do not remember much else, only this: Y telling V that if this is true it is sad, and then telling me that she’s been in this place before. I remember thinking: So, it happens to everyone. So.
When I wake up I feel like shit, have to call V to ask where my keys are, and swear off drinking. When I started drinking that night all I wanted was to forget. Now I do, most days, and I am sorry for it. In the end we all forget.
It is April 2012, exactly one year on from my mother’s passing. I spend the day before hiding in normalcy, and when midnight comes and goes I think, it is not going to be an awful day. I will just stay in bed all day, and this anniversary will be a non-event. I am an ostrich. I can do this. Then, the news begins to spread amongst friends and alumni on Facebook: Our university’s director, found dead and naked in his New York hotel room. Rumours abound. A flood of posts come in, some shocked, some grieving, all respectful of his accomplishments and grateful for his service to higher education. Official emails arrive from the university: Condolences, a memorial, a book left in the office for us to write to his family. I do not go to the memorial. I do not write in the book. I do not grieve on Facebook, because for fuck’s sake people, some of you who said you would miss him very much only saw him once from afar. The only thing I produce is an angry tweet raging at the universe for the cruel joke, a tiny fist shaking saying how dare you be discovered dead on my mother’s anniversary, and how dare you be important enough to be raved about. The hype surrounding the great man’s death utterly undermines the non-day I was hoping to have. If news of Richard Descoings’ death had broke any other day I might have shared in the loss of thousands others; as things stand now, all I feel is the injustice in the excess of public grief for this great man which drowns out the grief for my mother, who was greater still to me.
It is today. May, 2012. In the middle of a busy stressful morning, the same friend from before messages. It is about a boy I barely remember sharing a classroom with, but who is part of a tightly knit circle of old classmates, including said friend. There was a child, a son, a boy with a very bright grin, and now there is a man of twenty who died while training to serve his nation. I search for and read the article, which reeks of the article from February and the strange distance in reading it which I had forgotten. A freak accident, a flipped jeep – another name in the papers that does not do justice to the person behind it. Another kind of rage, another special sorrow, I am not sure why I feel so much this time. After leaving the school almost ten years ago I only saw him twice, both times coincidences, both times without conversation, and once standing behind him in line at the supermarket when I didn’t go up and tap him on the shoulder and say hi because I was shy and awkward and with a boy I really liked. I thought, what’s the point? We will go our own ways in life. Now he has gone his way, and I have gone mine. Never again will the two meet.
Never is too much for me to take. Never, four times in a little over a year, I cannot accept. The first thing that flits through my mind upon the news hitting is: I quit. There you go, world, I quit. Nevertheless this is one of those days I cannot, and I grit through hours of nonexistence, not wanting to recreate the ten minute breather I gave myself, staring into infinite sky, going deaf from not hearing. When I reach home after a long day of trying not to let anything get to me – everything does – I decide, screw it. I go and get fried chicken at an Indian fast food place where I run into M, who makes me smile but even he cannot make me forget anything today. I go home and settle down to my worst vice, television, which somehow feels unjustified by the passing of someone I did not know. I let myself be distracted anyway. Twenty minutes later, at the end of the season finale, Sheldon says, “Boldly go, Howard Wolowitz.” as a Russian rocket lifts off into space. For reasons unknown, this strikes a chord in me.
In the months after my mother’s passing, the same words lingered in my brain each time I cried, or sat still staring. In my head someone was yelling to my mother, BUT WHERE HAVE YOU GONE? WHERE HAVE YOU GONE? WHERE ARE YOU NOW? It is trivialising to take my answers from television shows, even if they are very well written. Yet I will do it anyway, because before she went to sleep, I told my friend: This is shit, man. Maybe life is just shit. It probably is. Life will take away from you people who loved you more than life itself, people you never had the chance to love, people you will never know. It takes away mothers, fathers, son, daughters, lovers, strangers. It takes good people. It takes good people.
It is dark now and it is cold, and still I am here typing. Still, here I am. I do not yet know where my mother has gone, but I now know this: All the people who have left, wherever they may be, they have boldly gone. If dying takes the good people away from us, at least it gives them something: They are going where no living person has gone before. I began writing this with, ‘It is April 2011,’ and then I hit enter and move on to talk about the losses that are not truly wholly sincerely mine because it is, after a year, still too hard to write about my mother’s passing. Of all the goodbyes that have come to pass, hers is the only one which has not made the papers. Hers is the only one to which I am privy to every detail. I want to keep the words all for myself, hefty chains built from narratives that run in my head every waking moment. Yet this goes against every bone in my body. After I write the last of these sentences I will scroll up and follow those first four words with more worthy ones, and this is why. A few hours ago M asked me what I want to do in the future, and I said: I don’t know. That was an outright lie. A few days ago in an email to a friend I trust with my life and secrets, one of the most intelligent and sturdy people I know, I said: I know now that whatever I do with my life, I will do it with words, words – for words are all I have.
So here I am, putting these words down before you, one after another, climbing a mountain of grief. One day I will be where my mother is, but till then I will boldly go, with death my friend who walks me all the way.
Addendum: This post was written on May 12, 2012. It is the first of a few posts which, I feel, deserve a place here. This is my raison d’être, if you will. I wrote the whole thing in one sitting, unedited, sobbing. It is still difficult for me to reread, let alone alter, and remains raw and amateurish.
Further reading: The Long Goodbye, I Remember You, For Better Or For Worse.