Fifty-one

meandma2I turned 51 today.

Last year was the milestone year. The big 50. I felt OK about it. 50 is the new 40, my older friends told me. I celebrated with a big party. My brother came from Canada, my cousin from New York. My sisters-in-law traveled great distances, too. Then everyone went home and life resumed, no different, really, than before.

Today is different.

Not that suddenly, I feel old. Or that there is no hoopla this year.

Today is different for one very important reason.

My mother suffered a massive stroke in 1982. On my birthday. She was 51.

That day changed our lives in so many ways. You can imagine all the obvious ways: my mother was in a coma for days in the Intensive Care Unit at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital and when she regained her senses, the left side of her body no longer worked. There were months and months of physical therapy for my mother. And even more months of adjustment for me and my family while we learned how to take care of an invalid, infirm woman.

She’d also lost a lot of her cognitive abilities and the mother I adored was suddenly gone. She was there in person, physically. But the woman I knew died on that day.

Over the next 19 years that she lived, I learned to relate to my mother on a whole new level. In the end, when my father also cruelly lost his cognitive abilities to Alzheimer’s, my mother became like my daughter. She’d ask me what she should wear, what she could eat. If anyone asked her a difficult question, she’d consult me before answering publicly. We exchanged roles.

My mother died in May 2001. I had to deal with her dying all over again. Except this time, there was nothing left of her at all. She was gone.

I’ve always feared turning 51. I feared it even more after I learned I was prone to hypertension — my mother’s blood pressure had soared to obscene levels before the stroke.

So on this day, I contemplate my mortality. And want desperately to make time stop so that I can have the opportunities to accomplish all that is left on my long, long list of things to do, places to see. It’s not that I want to be young again — I greatly value the wisdom time and experience have given me. Just that I feel the days whizzing past like speeding bullets.

Like everyone else, I want to feel that I did something good for this world. Now there are fewer days left for me to achieve that.

Happy Birthday

My mother and me at the Acropolis in Greece. June 23, 1964.
My mother and me at the Acropolis in Greece. June 23, 1964.

My mother would have turned 82 today. I would have picked up the phone and called her. 011-91-33-2247-6600.

I would have said: Ma! Happy Birthday. I would have asked her what she was doing to celebrate.

She would have said that my pishi (aunt) was coming over for lunch. Nothing special was planned.

I wold have asked about what else was going on. She would have given me family updates — she kept in touch with everyone. She was the glue. She would have caught me up with gossip about the neighbors in our flat building.

She would have hurried through the conversation to get to the most important part. When will you come to Kolkata?

I would have said: In mid-September, Ma. I will be there soon.

I would have imagined her smile. She would have told me how she couldn’t wait to see me.

I will get on a plane to go home next week but she won’t be there waiting for me.

Happy Birthday, beautiful Ma. I miss you every waking moment.

Ma


I refrained from posting this on Mother’s Day out of respect for all my friends who are mothers and for all my friends who still have mothers.

But Mother’s Day is tough. Very tough.

Nine years ago, my mother died.

May 19, 2001.

A few months before 9/11. It became a year that everyone remembers for the terrorist attacks. I remember it as the year my father died, and, exactly two months later, my mother.

Every year on this day, a melancholy descends on me.

I don’t feel like doing much of anything save look at her photographs and her handwriting — I still have all the letters she wrote me from Kolkata. I even have her clothes, fresh from her closet in our flat. Even after all these years, they smell like her, though the scents are fading and I desperately don’t want them to. I put a few of her things in a plastic bag to prevent her from escaping.

I miss her smile. I miss her hand on my forehead. I miss her kiss and her embrace.

I miss everything about her.

She had a massive stroke in 1982. She was only 51 then. But she lived another 19 years, bound to a wheelchair, half her brain cells gone. Toward the end of her life, we exchanged roles. I became a mother, taking care of her, making all the important decisions in her life. She was almost like my child, completely dependent on me.

And yet, every time I gazed into her eyes, I thought of the immense sacrifices she made — as a young Bengali woman who came to these shores not speaking English, not knowing how to operate an electric stove or drive a car. She endured the death of her own parents from afar, endured her loneliness. Never shared her pain with us; only her joy.

Only later, only after she died and it was too late to talk, did I discover her journals and writings. Only then did I realize how incredibly steely my mother was.

Only now do I appreciate her fully. Now that she is gone. Forever.

And a deep void fills my life. Today on the anniversary of her death. And every day that I live.