There is a number saved in my phone contacts, under the name “My Life”. I first saved it over a decade ago and have carefully copied it over every time I have switched phones. This August, it will be ten years since I last heard a voice at the other end of that number. And yet, there are days even after all this time, when I will dial the number, and disconnect. The number belonged to my mother. She died of metastatic breast cancer in August 2012. She was my best friend, my soulmate; I often called her “Oxygen” or “My Life”.
This last decade for me has been about relearning life; rebuilding myself around the void she has left behind. Set against her absence is the presence of “the stuff of her life”; which continues to be where she no longer is. Her phone number, the last purse she carried, the last pair of slippers she wore, an old grocery receipt with her writing on it, her phone calls that I recorded in the last months of her life knowing death was imminent, even her “memories” on my Facebook — fragments of her strewn across my real and digital life.
The impact of coming across a cherished object or memory is devastating on some days. Like last week when I found an old video while searching for a document on my laptop. My mother is putting my son, then barely a few months old, to sleep. She is rocking him gently on her lap and is singing a lullaby from my own childhood. My son has other plans and is chatting back at her in gibberish.
It’s a sweet moment; the suddenness of coming upon which, sucker punches me. I cannot breathe, and then a few seconds later, I cannot stop crying.
The passage of time – the fact that I now am a 42-year-old woman, that my son is almost a teenager, and that more than a decade has since passed – means nothing in these moments. Within a heartbeat, I am back to where I was at the beginning of this grief journey – raw, devastated, motherless daughter.
For the most part, I have managed to “move on” and build a successful life; got
promotions, switched jobs, raised a son, traveled the world, moved countries. But parts of me feel like they will forever remain unhealed.
As I write this, I am watching the Netflix series, “After Life”, starring British actor Ricky Gervais as a grieving widower. The series shows Gervais’s character ending each day watching a video of his dead wife; of them in happy days. At one point he says to a colleague, “Don’t wallow, you can get addicted to it, like I am to grief.”
Addiction is such an apt comparison for grief; a ‘take-all’ habit you are defenseless against. But Gervais’s character is about eight months into his grief, I am ten years.
There are days when I tell myself that maybe it’s time to wrap up the remnants; contain them so I can better manage the impact they have on me. Maybe all the physical objects go in a memory box. The social content can be downloaded, and then deleted from all platforms. In some ways however, this also feels like erasure. My guilt asks, “She has been dead and gone for long, you want to shrink her further?”
An oft-cited quote on death from the international best seller, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, comes to mind. “There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.” There is no one around me who still talks to me about her, takes her name. Keeping her things and memories around feels like a way of keeping her around too.
But maybe there is a better and less emotionally charged way to remember her. One of the paths I am now exploring is establishing a nonprofit in her name; an organization that can raise funds for metastatic breast cancer research – a severely underfunded research stream. Or starting a support group for individuals and families suffering from long-term grief.
Eight months before my mother died, she lost her own mother. And often in the last ten years, I have thought back to a particular incident at my grandmother’s funeral. According to Hindu death customs at the end of a funeral, family members are handed a blade of grass, asked to turn their backs to the burning pyre of their loved one, break the blade in two and say, “Today I end all my relationships with the person lying dead here,” and walk away, without looking back at the pyre even once. I remember, thinking then, how cruel this ritual was; a farce in one way, and a betrayal in another.
But over the years as I have struggled with my grief over mom, I have started appreciating the intent behind this symbolism. Maybe just like a fake smile can trick your mind into feeling happy, fake closure can help you move on. Any meaningful closure will remain impossible as long as I have the hidden landmines of social and real-world memories and keepsakes strewn around me.
Maybe a decade is a good enough time to press delete.
Madhu Arora is a communications professional by day. She mostly writes non-fictional, personal essays and poetry, on topics like grief, religion, politics and parenting.