It’s been three months today since my mother died. Her death has been everything like her life: big, tremendously powerful, changing everything, moving everyone within its reach to powerful and exciting revelations about their own lives, their own existences, their own choices. This was her; allowing choices to define who we are, allowing these definitions to shape what we want, and constantly demanding that these desires were fluid, flexible, true in the moment.
I’ve read so many tributes to her, heard so many kind words. None of it can ever compare to the real person or be able to fully detail the kind of impact she had on people, least of all what she meant to me, but it has only proven to us – as if we even needed further proof – that there will never be anyone like her for any of us. Through these remembering, these tributes, the most fundamental thing that becomes more and more real for me is how much everyone needed her. How much she took care of everyone.
There’s so much I myself want to write about my mother. I’ve started sentences and paragraphs and pieces in my head and on paper and on this laptop. There are a great many things I want to say, to write, and I will over time, I’m sure of it.
However, one thing I read has stayed with me. In his piece on my mother, Sanjana Hattotuwa writes, ‘She was the one you went to when in trouble. I wonder to whom she went.’
So, for now, it is this question that stays with me, it is this question I want to try and address. Who did she need? Who took care of her?
My mother had friends. She had friends who knew her well, and then friends who knew her best. There were friends who loved her, who admired her, who stood by her. There were those who loved her for the choices she made; there were those who loved her despite the choices she made. These were those to whom she went when she was confused, uncertain, struggling. The task of this special group of people was not easy; here was not someone who often admitted she was confused or uncertain. Or wrong. But there were times she was – the task was then to be there, even when she didn’t ask, help even when help was at first rejected. The task was to try and understand this immensely complex person – whose courage had consequences that often affected more lives than her own, whose choices were never the easy ones, who always said exactly what she thought and did exactly what she wanted – but to also be there even when they didn’t understand her. These friends are the ones I gravitate to now, in the wake of the enormous void in my life left by my mother’s death. These are the people I have those conversations with, the kind of conversations I had with her; feminist politics, the war, the history of patriarchy, policy, love, sex. These are the people who knew she wasn’t perfect, who knew her flaws, her strengths, her weaknesses and loved every part of her.
My mother had family. A family who was always, always there. A family of people who made acting on the things you believed in, seem normal. A family of people who, like her, lived big and laughed loud and always fought their battles bravely and calmly – sometimes, even quietly. A family who all, in their own way, believed in the same things she believed in and, in their own way, shared in her struggle for a better world.
My mother had her children. I remember, knowing her great natural knack and love for babies and little children and theirs for her, asking her once, ‘Do you miss having young children?’. She thought about it for a moment and said, ‘Young children are good for your ego – but adult children are more interesting’. I know she liked being the mother of adult children. I know she was pleased about the way we had turned out. We had almost everything in common. We talked about a lot of different things together; politics, movies, music. She enjoyed our company. We enjoyed each others’ company. We argued, debated, fought, laughed, criticized; we often did so as equals, sharing in each others’ ideas and experiences.
But also – she had me. People say this to me all the time now, and I could have no higher compliment: I am like my mother. She and I both knew it, we acknowledged it; in this last year of her life, it was indeed something we talked about and contemplated often together. I know she saw a lot of herself in me. She always related to my instincts, my choices, even though as a parent, she couldn’t always agree with them in theory. We agreed that I have the same temperament, the same emotional instincts and reactions to things and situations, the same ideas about how to live – we got angry about the same things, laughed about the same things. The same bits of poetry moved us, the same sequences from West Side Story or Singin’ in the Rain would make us sigh and marvel, the same bits from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown would make us laugh and cry. We talked about so many things. We confided in each other. She talked to me about her life. She asked for my opinion; I always needed hers. It was easy – because, really, we were so the same. But this did, at times, make it also very, very complicated. Either way, it was intense. That’s how we were.
But when we were together, it was so easy. We were so at ease in each others’ company. We could lie in bed and never have to argue about what music was playing. We could read books over each other’s shoulders. I like to think we knew each other better than almost anyone in the world knew either of us.
Particularly in the last year, we talked a lot, in great detail and with no holds barred. Of course, there was a heightened sense of intimacy, maybe even urgency, there had never been before. I learned so many details about her life that I never knew: the events that she felt shaped her; her own choices. The things she thought about, the things that have stayed with her.
We understood each other. After a point, I think we didn’t need each other, not in the same way that many people in both our lives needed each of us – we took care of each other because we enjoyed doing so. She believed in me. She believed that I could survive anything. She knew she had. She didn’t try to protect me from things. She watched as I was exposed, giving her opinion, telling me her tales of her own experiences, and waited as I emerged from each chapter of my life a slightly changed person.
I live the only way I know how; the way I learned from her. I do what I want, choose what I want. What feels right. What comes later rarely matters in that moment. I don’t spend a lot of time attempting to visualize the long-term outcomes of my choices. I don’t spend a lot of time weighing the pros and the cons, arguing out the logic in my head. I leap – and this brings me to back to my answer to the question at hand – always expecting, knowing, trusting that there are good people in my life who will pull me back just in time if the need arises, that I will never be alone no matter where I end up. Taking for granted, time and again, sometimes inconsiderately, that I will always have these people by my side. I leap, always knowing that no matter what, it would have been true in that moment, knowing I will never look back and wish I hadn’t.
‘Nothing is the end of the world’ she would say to me. ‘Except the end of the world’ I would say. She was always about perspective; but this didn’t mean she encouraged the dismissal of feelings. She would allow herself – and in turn, I learned to do so myself – to feel, to acknowledge every layer, every feeling. She would ask the tough questions, examine the tough answers, but remind herself at the end of the day which things felt truly important in her life. And even in her illness and death – every detail, every element of it – what perspective she has shown me.
I also learned from her that you could change anything about your own life. But – you could grow accustomed to anything, too. I learned as a child that life could be hard; but I also learned that you could remain happy by simply choosing to do so. I learned that from my mother. I saw in her the ability to remain happy, truly content, with yourself, with your life, with your every choice, in a way that I have never really seen anyone else do. I learned that there could be such joy in small things; that there could be such dignity in choosing joy.
More importantly, I learned from her that it is possible to be vulnerable, to be fragile – to even be broken sometimes – but never weak. I learned that even the people around you are choice, and if you chose well, then you would never have a reason to be alone – not in joy, not in sorrow.
Today, I remember and celebrate her fragility, and in it, my own; the capability we shared to draw strength from others, lean on others, to love wholly and want passionately. Today, I remember all the people who made her who she was, and all the people who have made me who I am.