She stands in the huge living room, warmed by the slanting light of a winter morning sun. She looks like a shadow, as she moves across the room, and not only because of the black shawl that she has wrapped around her shoulders.
When I reach out to hug her, she stands tight and motionless. All her effort is spent in centring the black hole of sorrow that continually threatens to spill out of her being. Standing unmoved is the only way, perhaps, to contain it within, her body like a steel dam clamping around the gigantic vortex within.
We sit down. A strange silence descends on the room, like a deserted street after a holocaust as the world empties out all its colour. The only sound, ironically, is that of a ticking clock, muffled and relentless, counting out this time in slow motion.
She looks down, vacant eyed, a solitary black figure against the white sofa, a blank silence against the noise of life around her.
I am sorry, I say. It was a shock. The sentence hangs in the air, incomplete, irrelevant and unnecessary. For, what can you say that can even touch the skin of what she has gone through; mere words and feelings fall abysmally short in even reaching the base of the impenetrable tower of death.
What unimaginable burden of grief and guilt for a mother to carry when she loses her only son at the age of 19. Her entire life stretches like an endless tunnel, as she realises that she has to go on, when he cannot.
She occasionally looks up, but mostly her eyes are averted, as she speaks. She is far from ready to look life in the face. She would rather relive her son’s brief life, as images flit one after another, of his childhood, school days, the things he said to her, how he felt in her arms when he was an infant, his favourite food and how his eyes lit up when she gave it to him, his mischief, his bullying of his younger sister, the care with which she had brought him up, every day- all these images come rushing by and that is all she can see, all that she wants to see, all that she can’t help but see.
Before this tsunami wave of memory engulfs her, she composes herself, so that not a trickle of what’s happening within her reaches the shore of her eyes. Straightening, she drags herself back to this stark world, its light too bright. Will you have tea? She asks. Life must go on, she has been told. She has to stay strong for her daughter, she has to bridge the world where her son has gone, with the world she now has to inhabit, over and over again, with its duties, responsibilities, obligations and chores.
Why, she asks, looking up, her eyes filled with incoherence and something close to a smothered scream, did this happen to him? He did not eat or drink anything wrong or unhealthy. In fact, he took good care of himself.
The question floats around the room, ominous and large in its uncomfortable silence. There is no reassuring answer, no possible reply, and like a balloon without a string, hovers without any destination.
She fumbles for answers herself, for she wants to know, has to know. Her mind darts, clutching at reasons, for a sense of prediction at the core of this annihilation. Maybe it’s the stress of studies. Maybe we give them too much medication for the smallest of ailments. Maybe its destiny. Maybe. Maybe.
She sighs, her face shutting down again, defeated by her search for meaning, a cause, to what seems like massive, meaningless occurrence.
In a few days, she will need to sift and sort through his belongings. The sweater that had kept him warm, the t-shirt that had seen better days but which he still insisted on wearing, his shoes- the laces of which he always tied in a hurry and came undone the moment he stepped out of the door. His books with his name scribbled across the front page, his dreams to be a doctor left within their pages. Each of his possessions is alive with his presence, only he is absent.
How will she give him away, yet once again, part with what he had grown into, grown with her love and care? How will she give away so many years of love and laughter and living? How could she no longer be his mother? How could she dissolve the identity fused into her being for so long?
She talks about children, as young as 3 or 4 years afflicted with cancer that she has seen in this past year of being in and out of hospitals. They cannot even express their pain, she says. We talk about other cases, of children snatched away too early. Is it? she asks, strangely reassured after each such story. She wants to believe she is not alone, that there are others worse off than her, that somewhere she is not the only one who feels this bottomless void of confusion and loss, that she is not the only mother God chose to play a cruel joke on. She wants a resting place, some temporary relief for her grief in these shared stories.
Perhaps they should have tried alternative therapies earlier. Gone in for other options, opinions. They had put all their trust in modern medicine. Perhaps they shouldn’t have. All the coulds, woulds, shoulds rattle on the window of her mind like a storm raging on the panes all night through. It will be a long, very long night.
Take care, I say as I leave. Please keep in touch. She nods and half smiles. She comes to see me to the door. Assured and courteous. She stops by and lets her mother-in-law know I am leaving, gives instructions to the house help. She opens the door and lets me out. A visitor to her grief. And then the door shuts. Enclosing a vacuum too deep and heavy and big to fill. I imagine she lets her guard down behind the closed door, as much as I breathe into all the mixed feelings I find swirling inside. Even to think of oneself in her shoes is an act of selfishness.
Outside a generous light washes the lobby. A bright pink bougainvillea drops on the walls, its branches heavy with the blooms. Birds chirp on trees in the driveway. People come and go, through the gates, busy with another day.
And time ticks by, life goes on.