On a vacation in India, I was talking to a family member who was moaning over the family problems she had. I tried to show empathy by relating some of my problems, when she straight out said, “Oh, you have no problems of this kind there.” I tried to make sense of this statement. Yes, we didn’t have problems with gossiping relatives, but we had more serious issues to deal with.
A phone call in the middle of the night is never good news, especially for a desi. In June 2001, we got such a call from back home: one of my husband’s brothers had died tragically. He was 45 years old. My husband desperately wanted to make it back for the funeral, but the cost of purchasing an air ticket was astronomical, even with the hardship concession. He never got to say goodbye to his brother. And over the years, I’ve heard many such sad stories.
All of us immigrants have something in us that inspires us to leave the safe confines of our home country and seek to make our lives elsewhere. Whether it is an urge to make money or a name for ourselves, or even just wanderlust, we feel compelled to experiment with what foreign lands have to offer. However, we have only a hazy idea of the drawbacks of this adventure of ours.
When we do leave our safety circle, we are faced with loneliness and homesickness when we think our past life, and uncertainty when we contemplate the future. In my case, it happened when I came over to the US for my studies, over 18 years ago. During my Master’s program, I had a horrible time of it, since I was brought up in a very sheltered family atmosphere. Two months after I got here, when it dawned on me that I was totally alone, I just wanted to up and leave.
Gradually, however, we immigrants make it, with new friends, jobs, money and a piece of the American dream, and it is then that we begin to truly enjoy life abroad. Once we had a decent pay-check, my husband and I began to have a ball. We had no obligations to anyone, and there was no one to impose stultifying conventions on us, either. We took crazy risks, and did pretty much what we wanted to do. If things went well, we mentioned it to our families on our biannual visits. If they didn’t, we just didn’t talk about them. If a festival fell on a weekday and we couldn’t do anything special for it, we postponed it to the weekend. If we were unable to manage even that, we just said a prayer and went on. On our visits back home, we congratulated relatives and friends on their weddings at the same time as we admired their first-born. Often, we couldn’t recognize youngsters.
“How you’ve grown!” we exclaimed often. They said the same to us too; only, it wasn’t complimentary, since all our extra inches were on the equatorial plane.
However, there was a shadowy side to all the bonhomie. Along with the congratulatory visits, condolence visits had to be made too. Familiar, beloved faces began to disappear from family gatherings. Grandparents, uncles and aunts who were in their sixties and seventies, and whom we loved too much to let go, were gone when we went to receive their blessings. In their cases, at least we could cite their age, and console ourselves.
There were shocking deaths, of cousin sisters and brothers, who were way too young to die, who we hoped to grow old with, and friends to whom we had said good-bye on our last trip, not knowing that it would be final. It was hard enough to come to terms with these events, but they were made more excruciating by the visits that we had to make to their families. These visits were sometimes a year to a year-and-a-half after the demise of the loved one, and embarrassing for being so delayed. We often wondered what the relevance of expressing our sorrow was, at a time when the family had already got over the worst of their grief and moved on. My worst moment was when I had to condole a cousin’s wife on the loss of her husband … at a wedding of all places. We had tried to visit her, but she wasn’t home. Even with this excuse on my side, I felt horrible.
But there was no question of the effect of these visits on us. Even these tardy visits were very valuable to us because that was the only way we could achieve some measure of closure. Being so far away from the family circle, we cried alone at each bereavement, with only strangers to console us. When I got the phone call that my grandmother had died, I was at work. A friend held me when I cried, for which I was grateful. But I wished I were with my own family that knew how much she meant to me.
This event in particular made me realize that we were living Life Lite as it were. We had all the perks of adulthood, like unlimited bedtime and no curfew, but none of the responsibilities, like having to represent our own family at happy and more importantly, at sad events. In Tamil, they have a saying: if you don’t go to a wedding, it’s okay, but you shouldn’t miss a funeral. I began to understand the ramifications and the truth of this saying.
Something happened in December 2004 that brought this realization even more chillingly close to me: my mother had a heart attack. I got a phone call the next day from my father, who broke the news gently to me. When I asked him why he hadn’t called me immediately, he said that he waited until her condition had stabilized because he didn’t want me to worry. I was upset at the delay until I finally comprehended the truth.
“What an idiot I am! Of course calling me wasn’t top priority; they were busy saving her life! That was far more important than keeping me informed.”
Hard on the heels of this thought came the guilt: I wasn’t doing anything to help out my parents at that time, or could I on the days that followed, when she had a relapse. My sister heroically bore the sole responsibility of the situation. Luckily my mother made it, but I will never forget my helplessness in that situation.
This event taught me an important lesson. Previously, I used to get miffed when I felt sidelined by family decisions. I would fume that I had not been given my due as a member of the family. However, after my mother’s illness, I quit thinking that way. When I couldn’t be a part of their daily hardships and sorrows, I really had no right or say in their daily lives or decisions, did I? It was a plain fact of life, and I had to become mature enough to accept it.
Another aspect of bereavement also came to my attention at about this time. One of my friends living here lost her father who had been in India at the time, and she couldn’t make it to the funeral. She termed it the ‘sacrifice’ that she had to make for living abroad. I agreed at the time, but I didn’t see the flip side of this argument until much later. Yes, she missed her family a lot, but her family missed her too, didn’t they? What about the ‘sacrifice’ that our family members make because we are away at the time of tragedy? A family is, after all, a sum of its members. With families growing smaller, doesn’t one person’s absence matter? Reminiscing about loved ones is one outlet for grieving. But in today’s society where neighbors remain strangers, isn’t the one other person that knew the one that passed very important, all of a sudden?
These uncomfortable questions pop up in my mind every time I get news of a loved one’s passing. As I sit and cry all alone, I wait for answers that can reconcile my need to live the life I want, with fulfilling my responsibilities as a real, not phantom, member of a group of loving individuals, that are part of my history, that know me and care about me, that are at times infuriating, but will always be an integral part of me.
This is the price of adventure.
Lakshmi can be reached at lakshmi.palecanda [at] gmail.com