In a Drought of his Existence
A love letter to my grandmother, who shows the strength of purpose through loss.
Dear Ayingeramba (maternal grandmother),
The whole world shut down this time, last year. It fell apart on the anniversary of his loss, as if it finally caught up to us. As if synchronizing, a beat late, with the drought of his existence.
When it happened, you had not been able to sleep for a year. The "11's" on your forehead had burrowed deeper, sometimes showing even when you did now furrow your brow. I wonder if you felt the times had moved past you - three of your five kids a skip, hop, and continent away. Every year, someone left and someone was born. We cousins have been multiplying for a time now.
Inevitably, of course, someone died. When it happened, I was asleep. I had set an alarm - "call grandpa." But someone called me instead. My dad. The way he breathed. I knew. I wish I had slept a beat longer, or a beat later. Actually, I just wish I had called. And I hope you know, that "grandpa" always means you too. You're his right wing. I never imagined him without you.
When ayingerba (maternal grandfather) passed, our President hated us. I wonder if you knew that your kids moved to a country where our skin has a color (shit brown). Our road to here had been paved with paperwork - we slipped from India to Japan to Canada to Michigan. The path of least resistance is often the longest. Now, your daughter (my mother) had taken tepid steps to get me and Surya citizenship. She wanted to cement her kids into their home, since our capricious president might decide to send us back to you.
When ayingerba passed, I had so many questions. Was he still full from dinner? I hope he wasn't too tired. Did he recognize his last breath?
He was the type to take care of everyone, everything. He played life like chess - four steps ahead. He took care of the usual questions we would have had - the heavy ones about regret, loss, peace, purpose. He told me three years ago his last wish was to see his eldest grandchild (me!) get married. Then it was off to somewhere Up. Somewhere God. Somewhere his toes didn't fall off, and where he could have sugar in his tea again. He smiled so hard, I feared he lost his mind.
When he passed, ayingeramba, I worried about you. I wanted to ask you - Do you remember life before him? You have been with him my whole existence, two times over. The question thrumming: How will you go on?
At the visa consulate I was so mad. I was mad at my uncle for not having a death certificate. I was mad at your daughter for cementing me to this stupid country. I cried to strangers at the consulate who could do nothing for me. And I missed the whole funeral.
A week later, I cried and kicked my way to you. The whole family was by your feet. Silent. I breathed relief in that moment. I had missed my hardest part - the final goodbye. For me, closure was an open spool of thread. I would never have to knit my sadness into something tangible. I would never have to watch my ayingerba's body burn on a pyre. I never touched death, and I regard grief from the doorstep. I get to live two oceans away, and honestly, his death feels the same. I am adorned by the quotidian dull ache of missing him. The same outfit for 27 years.
Your everyday cracked open and your beloved departed (not just grandpa, but also every child that moved away). You have since lost your teeth, your hearing, your hair. Still, I didn't need to ask, how will you go on? You showed me.
You face the aftermath. You are the everyday. It's the way you get up and put in your teeth, braid your wisping hair, and drape a prismatic sari over your tiny frame. I have yet to see you in the widow's white.
It's how you dab powder and manjal on your shining skin, and I wonder where are your wrinkles? It's how you massage my feet while we sip afternoon tea, though your heels are cracked and mine are still new. You sweep the floor everyday at noon, even rooms you don't walk in. You eat food someone made for you, and judge flavor (or lack thereof). No one can cook like you can. Not even you, anymore. But you tell me recipes in scents and sounds, footnotes of the little hacks. I write them down, feeling your words with my hands.
You show me how deep our purpose rings. It was not until ayingerba died that I remembered 15 years ago, your mother left. Still, I have never seen you cry. I have only seen you feed every mouth that comes from your womb and walks back in your door.
You never complain, to the point that sometimes I don't know what to say to you. You nod along when I tell you about my job, my hobbies. You accept what you don't know, that you will never be able to say the "p" in "bublic health". You accept that you created this creature, this me - unknowable, yet yours. You show me that three generations down the line we might not recognize our kin, but we will love them harder in each cycle of life. You believe in reincarnation, so I do too. You say goodbye with grace every time I leave and promise to come back. You let me believe every time will have a next.
My favorite things about you never will change. You smile at the small joys - a phone call from across the Atlantic and Indian ocean. Your granddaughters from different mothers together. We were screaming and giggling. You still used ayingerba's cell phone - he programmed one number per child for you.
There was a moment we thought you wouldn't survive. Your cell phone certainly didn't. My dad dropped that cell phone in the dirt, shattering it. I cried like the ghost of ayingerba was lost to the wind. When we brought it to you, you just sighed. You still have calls to make, children to dial - so you asked for another.
Is that how you go on when someone dies?
Your eldest granddaughter