Grief and Motherhood
My sister calls to tell me our dad is ill. I book a flight to India the next morning.
Now, my sister and I are in a renowned hospital at Dehradun, India where our eighty-year-old father lies in the ICU post his abdominal surgery. The doctors don’t give us much hope and ask us to pray. We hold on to hope and pray in our hearts, every moment.
We hang around in the ICU lounge all day waiting for the visiting hours when we might catch a glimpse of our father, his rising and falling chest, or hear his name called over the PA system for consents, X-rays, or other scans, or for any bills to be paid. We engage in conversation with other patient’s family members who are also waiting for their sick loved one to get better. All of us strangers are bound by a twine of anticipation, pain, and anxiety.
One pretty woman, exuding the kind of natural beauty that holds your gaze, arrives every morning with her long, wet and washed hair touching her waist, a cotton dupatta pulled over her head. She lays down a durrie on the floor and sits quietly with her back against the wall, acknowledging no one, staring at nothing. Either she is a quiet person or pain has her tongue-tied.
My sister and I decide to approach her. We kneel down beside her on the freshly mopped floor, tell her about our ailing father, and she starts talking. Her skin, the color of freshly-harvested wheat, suffuses with red as she speaks. Her lip quivers. Her six-year-old son is suffering from Japanese fever and has been in coma in the ICU for three weeks. She is from a peasant family, native of a nearby village. She can’t answer our questions related to the disease, so we stop asking and just listen.
She dabs her eyes with her dupatta once but quickly regains her composure. I place my right arm around her shoulder. “My child is beautiful but naughty,” she says. He lies still now, that restless boy who would run all day and night if sleep never gathered him. So many tubes and wires run to and from his body. Last night, they performed surgery on his throat to ease breathing, she tells us.
Tracheostomy, I think to myself.
Her husband can’t be there with her. He has to work on the farms so they can eat and possibly pay the hospital bills.
Later, I google Japanese fever on my phone and find out that his illness is, in fact, Japanese Encephalitis, a disease borne by mosquitoes. The disease causes swelling in the brain and has a high mortality rate, especially in children.
Next morning, she is not there in her usual corner, and we worry whether doom had befallen overnight.
The morning after, she appears again, clean and placid and pretty in a lime-colored dupatta. We rush to her; she smiles and offers us sweet laddoos from a round steel box. It was her four-year old son’s birthday yesterday, she tells us. The child wouldn’t let her go, so she stayed home at the village and sent another relative to the hospital in her place. I point to the bandage on her hand. She says she burnt it while making the birthday boy’s favorite laddoos. “My mind was elsewhere,” she says with faraway eyes. She did not feel the heat until her skin was already burnt.
I am amazed at her fortitude, her divided mother’s heart—cooking for one child while another one struggles for life. The heartrending roles she has to play in the line of duty as a mother make me, an outsider, shudder. The calm sits unfazed on his face.
Later that day we hear a curdling wail from another woman whose face is so crumpled that her features become indiscernible. She beats at her chest inconsolably. There are men with her, maybe her husband or perhaps her neighbors, but no women. She needs to be held. We sisters and some other women rush to her aid,
“My daughter,” she says, “only fourteen years old. Only last week she was so beautiful, dressed in pink with bangles adorning her arms. Henna tattoos decorated her palms for her uncle’s wedding.” Then her daughter came down with a fever that refused to budge. The local doctors said she needed more platelets. Another mosquitoe-born illness. They brought her to the hospital at dawn, and now she’s gone. Her wails succumb to sobs. She speaks to let the world know of the injustice.
I have started to hate mosquitoes.
My sister and I walk to the cafeteria while other women console her. We bring back a bottle of water and a cup of tea. She sips the water but refuses the tea.
“What will everyone say?” she explains. My daughter just died and I’m drinking tea?
Her world is collapsing; she wants the petty comfort a cup of tea can bring but can’t take it because of what people might say. Because that could set some tongues wagging and malign her motherhood?
We do not press her further, but the unreasonable demands on her motherhood stay with me. Why are there rules that a mother must to adhere to at all times—even in times of grief? My own mother would nod her head and say that’s how things are. That it’s the price of being a woman.
My sister and I are mothers too. We show a brave face in front of other sad mothers, but we weep in private, thinking of our father, our mother, our children and these breaking women.
We women who play such the central role in giving life to our children are asked to wait at the sidelines when those lives are leaving us. Why we are not allowed a bigger role here? Why can’t we transfer our breaths to our dying children? We can’t live anyway after seeing them pass on.
After two weeks in the hospital, we accompanied father in the ambulance on his last journey home to our mother. Our shoulders slumped under our grief and the grief of others that we witnessed so closely—especially the mothers.
Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar is an Indian American. She was born in a middle-class family in India and will forever be indebted to her parents for educating her beyond their means. She is an Informational Technology professional, wife, and mother of a teenager. Her thoughts find clarity on her usual Fitbit-powered solitary, which she pens down on her blog Puny Fingers. Her work has been published in The Haiku Journal, MsMagazine, The Brown Girl Magazine, MsLexia, The Same, The Aerogram and some other poetry sites. She can be reached at Twitter @PunyFingers