in memory of my aunt: being human in a time of grief

My aunt died today. And even in her death, she taught me something valuable.

in memory of my aunt: being human in a time of grief
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

We received news this morning that my aunt had died in a helicopter crash while on pilgrimage in north India.

I've been exchanging messages and phone calls with family and cousins this morning, but there's a remoteness to it all. Whether it has to do with the fact that we've not visited family in India for almost a decade now, or that death has come knocking on the door too often in these past few years, taking young and old alike, I don't know.

But one sentiment that seems to surface at times like these is this determination to only be our best, kindest selves going forward.
In the face of death, we find it difficult to reconcile this fleeting fragility of life with the ugly pettiness of day-to-day living.
But life is not ideal. There's pain and difficulty, dispute and despair, and even though most of the things that cause us pain in the moment may feel trivial in the face of something life-shattering like death, it's humanly not possible to find and live a life devoid of pain and difficulty.
Sure, we can live a life without suffering, but that is not the same as a life without pain. The former is entirely in our hands; the latter, not at all.

I was chatting with my cousin in New Jersey and we shared this sentiment too, regretting any harsh words exchanged with anyone, not knowing it might be our last conversation with them, or thinking of a kindness not shown and wishing we had tried harder instead, and we had to remind each other that we are only human.

When I published In Search of Leo, I sent a free pdf copy to my aunt and she took great delight in reading it and then writing to me about it. And we planned to have a late night conversation about the characters and all the emotions the story evokes, but of course that's a conversation that's not going to happen now.

A few years later, when I published Dying Wishes, I was so determined to make more sales that I didn't send a free copy to my aunt because I had hoped she'd consider buying a copy instead. Had I sent her a copy, I know she would have read it with great pleasure and even enjoyed the various intricacies and details of the novel in a way only she could have, because it contained so much of my own childhood and I'm certain she'd have recognized all those elements. Yet another fantasy that will not be fulfiled now.

My heart ached a little as I thought about that this morning, because that was probably among the last conversations I had with my Aunt other than wishing each other on birthdays and anniversaries. When I shared this with my cousin, he was quick to point my own words back at me. "Don't be too hard on yourself. You are only human."

If death makes us want to commit to living better, so does a new life. When D was born, I was so determined to be the ideal mom, exhibiting infinite patience, not letting myself get caught up in petty and trivial acts, but to be some idea of an elevated human being, transcending human foibles.
D called BS on that pretty quickly. When I rejected my own humanness in pursuit of some divine or transcendental way of living, it all blew up in my face in no time at all.

This is why I have come to take a different perspective on that story that goes around, the one in which a nurse speaks with people on their deathbeds, and their only regrets happen to be not having spent more time with family or their kids or having spent their lives chasing the 'wrong' things.

This anecdote is something that I realize I need to take with a pinch of salt. Because the view from a deathbed is very different than the view from the midst of life.

When we are in the thick of the woods, we'd primarily be focussed on looking for a way out. When we reach the clearing on the other side, we can pause to look back and admire the trees and our own tenacity.

Sure enough, when we are lost in the woods, we can fill up our minds with all kinds of anxieties and regrets and not focus on the task on hand, or we can make the effort to adopt a calm demeanour and focus on the present moment, on making it out safely, instead of wishing we were already in the clearing and didn't have to wade through the jungle.

But we can't realistically take a rearview-mirror perspective when we're in the thick of a situation. All we can do is respond to the situation on hand as best as we can in that moment.

The more I see of life, the more I learn over and over again how it runs its own course. We truly have no control over anything, except how we choose to show up in the various situations that come into our lives.
And we are only human. Disappointment sets us back. Doubt gets the better of us more often than we'd like.  Envy shows up when we least expect it to. Anxiety is always lurking around the corner.
No matter how much we love world peace, we find that we don't always get along with our partner or our neighbour or see eye-to-eye on every issue with every person we meet.
Wishing it were otherwise won't change it. Accepting that this too is a part of life, and an opportunity for us to examine our reactions and how we show up, is a wiser course of action.

Although I can't recall the last time I spoke with my aunt, it must have been a couple of years ago, I clearly remember that when I was growing up, she was one of my favouritest persons in my life.

Every summer, we made the train journey from Mumbai to Chennai (Bombay to Madras, as we said in those days) and spent a month with my maternal uncle and aunt (his wife), maternal grandparents, and our two cousins.

To say that Kala Maami was the life of the family would be an understatement. She was the kind of person who lived life fully. She was the kind of person who could lift up your spirits within two minutes of you being in her presence, and this was even more admirable considering that she had faced innumerable difficulties in her life.

Her sense of humour was remarkable indeed. Once, my cousin (her son) wanted a dosa that was white on both sides. Because of the way dosa is made, it becomes brownish on the surface that is in contact with the pan. But he was adamant. Eventually, Maami came out with an idli! Even my cousin burst out laughing and he was happy to accept this 'dosa' that was white on both sides.

And those are the memories of Kala Maami I wish to carry with me in the coming days. The life lived. The life that was. Not the one that could have been. Because the one that was lived was mighty splendid indeed!

Feature Image Attribution: Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash