17 November 2019
Months had gone by since she passed away yet the memory of her wane face was still imprinted in my mind. I was in Egypt when she died and my brother and I were by coincidence in the same neighbourhood in Cairo when we got the news. We both tried desperately to get back to her to be in time for the funeral but I was only able to catch the evening flight the day after she had passed away. Our family members had delayed the funeral so that we could attend. I arrived almost the morning of her funeral, weary and still in shock. I was still unable to face the reality of her demise. Later in the morning, I sat by her side still numb with the shock of the news of her death. She looked so frail wrapped in her light green and white saree that she used to like. The lady who tended to her had wrapped her in it and it was tightly secured in a few knots over her head.
I asked my aunt if we could unwrap the top as I wanted to kiss her goodbye and my aunt unsecured the knots uncovering her face. It was pale, thin and drawn. I kneeled and put my lips to her forehead and the moment I did so it felt like a dam had opened up in my heart and the pain seared through. The tears flowed down my cheeks uncontrollably as I kissed her forehead and held her. After a while I regained composure and sat beside her as other members of the family moved around arranging everything for the funeral. People came and went offering their condolences and asking me if I remembered them but I recognised none, my mind blank to any memory of their faces. I don’t recall much in the days that followed, except for the aching sense of grief that would not leave. I could not believe that she was gone and I would see her no more.
She was an ordinary yet extraordinary woman. She had lived a difficult life after she had married my father and joined him when he had wanted to return to his home country. Ostracised, unable to speak the language and to adapt to the surroundings she was not used to, she had concentrated all of her attention on us, her children. Later, when she had returned to her home country, it was always visible that the experiences she had lived during that period away from her home had significantly marked her. She remained despite all the hostility she had faced a woman with a positive heart and a desire to always help. I remembered warmly now – although it would drive us crazy when she used to do it while we were young, how she used to gather all the stray cats that had been tortured by some awful kids in the neighbourhood and slowly nurse them back to a healthy state.
She was a beautiful woman, not just outside but also inside and her thoughts were always about how one should be a better person and make the world a better world. She believed in the virtues of kindness, respect, caring, independence and equanimity. She lived her vocation in all aspects of her life. A nurse by profession, tending alternately to children with severe diseases or to third degree burn victims, I remember how the patients would talk of her with praise and gratitude. It was not that she was a soft woman as she could be really tough on us sometimes, having spent several years taking care of us on her own. It was that she truly cared about others and was a nurturing human being. It was not by accident that she had become a nurse, she had always wanted to help others hence her choice of the medical field.
I returned to my daily routine but felt listless as if something had been broken. I realised that it was because with the death of my mother a whole aspect of my life was disappearing. When we lose our mother, it is almost as if the last link to our childhood is broken. Mothers are so emblematic of those times of innocence when we could huddle up closer to them and feel comforted and safe. I had spent many a night tucked underneath her arm when I was raving with fever and waking up tightly held by her had always given me the feeling that everything would always be alright. Somehow, the fact that she was no longer there made me feel like I had lost the possibility of feeling that comfort again. There is something unique about the comfort a mother can bestow and that nothing else can replace.
One day, I was feeling particularly destitute and thinking about my mother. It pained me to think that a woman like her who had cared so much for others had died all alone. Indeed, by a rare coincidence, my sister-in-law had not returned before her carer left and in the thirty minutes or so between the leaving of the carer and the return of my sister-in-law, my mother had breathed her last. I was thinking about how I had been planning for my children to visit their grandmother again that summer and how this would no longer be possible. My thoughts were focused on my mother and I could feel the grief well inside me again. I had stopped writing as I could not bring myself to pen anything and the weeks were turning into months.
As I walked, cloaked in my grief, a shrill call from above caught my attention. There, just a few meters above my head, a seagull flew with its arms alternating between stretching and flapping. It seemed to fly in a criss-cross pattern, right above my head, all the while calling shrilly. I stopped and looked at it and it stopped on the rooftop to the right of my head. I moved onward and the seagull called out and flew over my head again. From the entrance to the compound where I lived until the building where my apartment was, it continued to follow me calling shrilly all the while flying above my head in that curious criss-cross pattern. As I reached my building and looked up at it again, it turned its head one way and the other almost as if it were sizing me up. I felt as if it were a messenger from above as it called again shrilly. I thought of my mother again and as I smiled up at it, I could feel a weight lift off my heart. I looked around me and noticed the intense purple of the lavender in the pot and the bright yellow of the fallen leaves. That sense of comfort would always be there. Her body may have disappeared but she was still there, in every bird that flew, in every leaf that fluttered, in every beautiful thing that shone on in this world around me. I smiled up again and the seagull flew.
Mother (in Arabic) and woman (in English) both dedicated to my mother – Geetha Balvannanathan