Apparently, Lenin once said, “There are decades when nothing happens and weeks when decades happen.” My last six weeks have been a turbulent one.
I am one for celebrating life rather than grieving about death. On September 3rd, 2021, my mother, who was married at 18 and widowed at 45, departed from this world from a massive heart attack, at the age of 93 years. My mother had both her doses of vaccination, yet she caught a mild Covid. Despite coming out of it, she could not get out of her other infections due to old age. Covid 19 has reshaped our lives in ways that most of us could not have imagined. Most people have lost a close one due to Covid. While there are many external programmes to manage the crisis, the process of dealing with the loss internally is mostly left to the people themselves. Losing a dominant influence in my life, my mother and my last parent is a new experience. As Fareed Zakaria describes it so eloquently in his new book, the Covid 19 pandemic crisis has prompted a reconsideration of the fundamentals, globally. Where the world is headed for the future looks unclear.
When my mother died, I suddenly felt all alone in the world despite having a loving family and friends. My mother was a leader all her life. For 47 plus years, she had singlehandedly led the family with grit and determination in the face of adversity even when everything seemed a lost cause. Left with no regular income because of the loss of a breadwinner, a failed business with piled up debts and seven children to bring up would have scared anyone, leave alone a sixth standard educated woman. Not my mother. She cherished my father’s memory, guided each one of us to a decent education, and taught us values that are important. She was very spiritual. A lifelong vegetarian, she walked quite a bit and till her last day at the house, she chose to walk rather than use the wheelchair. Fiercely independent with a mind of her own, no one could bully her. While my father was a Malaysian, my mother who was from a well-to-do Tamil Indian family was able to adapt to a different way of life.
Of course, such a life must be celebrated. Yet, I grieve as some of you might have done when you experienced a loss; my grief is not because my mother has departed but because her departure has left a huge vacuum in my life. It depletes my strength. As I often say in my writings, life can only be understood backwards but must be lived forwards. This was the time I chose to take out time and be with her for maybe a month, or even two or three months, to tell her that nothing was more important to me than she was. She just wanted time with her family. As religious leaders say, ‘Man proposes, and God disposes’; she chose to move on to a better place.
The last six weeks have been an incredibly difficult time. With the Covid pandemic crisis resulting in travel being regulated by travel passes and bare minimum flights, and with the family living in five countries in multiple continents, it was difficult for any of us to lift my mother out of the loneliness that was leading to her extensive mental fatigue. So, it was truly a joy for me to get to India on August 22nd to see my mother whom I had not seen for the previous 18 months. The joy was short-lived. On August 23rd, we rushed her to Apollo Hospital, and she passed away peacefully after 12 days. The entire medical team at Apollo Hospital gave her the best care one could expect anywhere in the world. The sophisticated drugs were at work getting rid of the virus but during the struggle, the body gave up. Her slow progress leading to a sudden deterioration within a few hours of her being about to be discharged was indeed a shock. The biggest consolation was that she died peacefully. A few minutes of conversation with her and her cheerful smile at the hospital looking straight into my eyes and my wife’s are things I would treasure for the rest of my life.
Being a student of psychology and being fascinated with the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud, I have always been very analytical to the point my colleagues would be exasperated with my level of analysis which they would say often leads me to paralysis. The ‘what if’ question haunts me. Should I have struggled to leave early to see her? Should we have kept her in the house rather than take her to the hospital? Should I have done that or this? These questions haunt me every day. She was a very important part of my life and I said to my siblings what my friend Jeremy Spoor once said to me: “We start thinking that our close ones are immortal.” I glanced at the words on the car that carried her to the cremation grounds: “If there is something called birth, then there is for sure something called death.”
As a student, I was often fascinated with Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank’s Separation Trauma. His hypothesis, framed in his book The Trauma of Birth, postulated that a child’s separation from the mother at birth with the cutting of the umbilical cord was the very nucleus of the child’s unconscious mind. The separation trauma is a life-long one. The abrupt separation from our mother and the sudden exit from a protected environment to a hostile world leaves a lasting impact on us. My mother’s presence was a source of strength, and her absence made me fatigued. Separations are painful. Last year, when a few long-time staff left to pursue their own ways elsewhere due to the challenges posed by the pandemic, we were pained for several months.
I was reading the book gifted to me by my wonderful niece Dr Alagu, Death, an Inside Story. Sadhguru says that essentially one grieves because someone who was such an important part of one’s life is gone, leaving a gap and a sense of incompleteness. I had made a plan to spend time with her, but she left, and I was not sure what to do with the rest of my time. I let my thoughts wander and continued my analysis with what I should have done. I was disillusioned because my illusions were shattered.
Despite my convictions that such a well-lived life must be celebrated as that is what my mother would have wanted me to do, I was filled with sadness about what I could have done or not done. Tears flowed uncontrollably. There were many friends and family members who tried to cheer me up with positive memories and forced me to look at the bright side that I was there when she moved on. Tan Sri Clement sent me words of comfort several times. Dato Abdul Aziz Sheikh Fadzir sent me old pictures of all of us with my mother. Father Jegat Gasper sent me words of solace many times and checked on me many more times. The State Finance Minister Dr PTR, my classmates Ramesh, Shan, Dr Nat and friends Annalakshmi Narayanan did what they could to make me feel better with positive words. Their kindness was soothing and comforting.
While I tried to remember all the wonderful memories of being with my mother, travelling to different countries and visiting some of the world’s attractions such as the Disney Parks, Taj Mahal and Twin Towers, my mind still wandered to the few situations when we have had arguments. Her feeble pleas asking me when I would see her haunted me. My dreams expressing words such as ‘Mom, I am here, why did you go so soon?’ disturbed me. My patient wife would plead with me to think of the memorable life she has had, and the wonderful times, laughter and happiness we have had with her. You should be overwhelmed with love and let her go peacefully, she and my children would say.
Human emotion is a powerful part of one’s life. Grief is very much psychological and accepting the painful loss is part of the healing process, as my psychologist friend says to me. Unpacking and sorting my mother’s things brought me many memories. Leaving my mother’s house was a painful moment but we had to do it. As Sadhguru says, when death happens, it is time to look back and cherish what has been, and as a friend whatsapped me, it is time to accept it and look at what you can do with the life that is here. Acknowledge your mother for what she has done for you. Cherish her life by living out her values. There is enough opportunity for you to express love and care in a million different ways to the life around you.
Fareed Zakaria says one learns in life holistically but there are some things that you only learn through experiences. For instance, he says, you will never be able to understand until you have children of your own the love that a parent has for a child. He urges young people while delivering commencement addresses to thank the parents that day. I still think I haven’t thanked my mother enough for whatever she did for me. I realised my parent’s love lot more when I had my own kids. With my mother’s departure, I suddenly felt lonely and very different and unprepared for the next phase of my life. Yet, I am grateful for the warm environment that my family and friends provide for me.
As my friend Uday Khedkar often says, the Power of Now is more important than anything else. Recognise the moment is now, say and do what needs to be done now. I spoke to my mother at the hospital for a bit of time, but I was so convinced that she will get well soon. I was so sure she was not going to die anytime soon that I forgot the moment. I regret I forgot to say ‘Mom, I love you. I am what I am because of you’. I hope she knows I loved her to the fullest.
My Dean Professor K.N. George’s poster in his room at the Madras School of Social Work sums up my emotions as I overcome my grief and celebrate her life: