Carrying OnT. SHER SINGH
Tuesday, August 28, 2012
We had all gathered at our mother’s place - my siblings and I and our families. Our father had passed away a few minutes before midnight.
We comforted each other in reminiscing on shared and individual times with him. It was a bitter-sweet time, those hours and days we were together under one roof for so long, for the first time since my sisters, brother and I had “grown-up” and, one by one, flown the roost.
Amazing how we were suddenly, at a moment’s notice, able to pull back from our busy lives by stopping mid-stream and letting life flow by. There were moments when I felt I was frozen still while the world was carrying on, oblivious of anything that had happened, or that something had changed. Then, there were moments when I felt the world around me had come to a complete stop, frozen in a moment of time, while only I was able to move around and observe.
Images from Dali flash through my mind every time I remember those days and the surreality of it all.
It was a time I had dreaded all my life. A time without my parents - either of them - had been unimaginable. The mere possibility of it had always been loaded with terror. As a child, it was the worst nightmare imaginable, as an adult a thought you pushed aside within an instant after it invaded your consciousness.
And here we were, now that the impossible had happened, sitting around the dining table, trying to convey to our children an air of normalcy, that all was still well with the world.
In those first few days, I couldn’t imagine going back to work - everything waiting back at my law office appeared frivolous. Each of us adults disappeared into bedrooms from time to time, seeking relief in sleep.
My system reverts to sleep mode when it needs to work out things. I slept a lot, those few days.
On the morning of the funeral, I had a lot of trouble getting up. And then, staying awake.
I have these mini-arguments with myself every morning, even in normal times: do I really need to get up? Why do I need to be there? Wouldn’t it be better if others went, and I didn’t?
My mother knocked on the door. She stood there and looked at me as I sat on the bed. I looked up at her.
Yes, I had to get up and get ready.
Do I need a shower, really? Not today. Why?
Every little step had to be argued out with myself - between my “do-I-really-need-to” and my “yes-you-have-to” selves. The latter won each time, but just. Sometimes it needed help; someone would come along, sense I wasn’t moving along fast enough and gave me the necessary encouragement.
I was buttoning my shirt when one of my sisters walked by. “You’re not going to wear it like that, are you? Here, let me have it; I’ll iron it!“
Why was it necessary to have the creases right on a day like this?
No one paid any heed to my philosophical queries.
It seemed to be a bad turban day. My turban was just not turning out right. But I didn’t care. I trudged along.
Until someone remarked: “No, that doesn’t look good. Here, give me another turban and I’ll help you get the pooni right.”
The cuff-links were simply not co-operating. So I just sat down on the bed for a bit. My mother showed up at the door. Grabbed them. She had no problem doing them in a jiffy.
I was doing up my tie, in slow motion unfortunately. My daughter popped in mid-way. “No, Dad, you can’t wear that one.” She dived through my garment bag and pulled out another one. Yanked the one off my neck and handed me the new one.
There was a lot going on in that household that morning. Once ready, I retreated to the furthest corner of the dining room, out of reach of the traffic, and marvelled at how normal things appeared to be. Found it distressing.
I had never imagined it would be like this when it happened.
Was life to carry on as if nothing had happened?
I had never been able to imagine a world without either parent, and here we were, and one of them was already gone. And we were all trying so hard to make it feel as if everything was going to be all right.
I sat there, wondering why we had to dress up ‘properly’ to go see our father cremated. I’d rather not go. If I had to, I’d rather just get up and go just as I was, in pyjamas or tea shirt and jogging pants … as we were! Why did we have to get all dressed up? Was it necessary, today of all the days, to have the turban tied neat, the shirt clean, the tie the right colour?
I looked at the dozen and more souls around me, tearing back and forth, and I secretly scoffed at them and their preoccupation with trivialities.
Deep in the recesses of the fog of my mind, cutting through the numbness and the haze, I heard the voice of a boy.
I was driving home with my father in his Austin. We were heading home from a funeral. It was the first one I had been to, ever. It was a Hindu-Punjabi gentleman who had died - I remember his face well; he used to wear one of those turbans with a long shumla and a fan on the top; all of which looked odd to me, I remember, because he had no beard, only a moustache. Mr Dang was his name.
I had a million questions and threw them all at my father.
Why do we have to do paatth and kirtan when someone dies? Why do so many people come? Are they all family? So many friends? Why do we have to eat langar when it’s not gurdwara today?
I also heard his words in response, though decades had gone by. I never forgot them because, even as a child, I thought the explanations were odd, not the usual stuff that adults say.
When someone dies, he said, it is a very sad time for the family. It is difficult to find comfort in anything, or to get rid of the sadness. People want to say things to help you, but they don’t. You want to say things to soften the pain, but they don’t. The only thing that helps is to get busy. And stay busy. Not talking or telling stories or crying, but by doing simple, ordinary things.
So, the first thing we do, we clean up the house and start doing akhand paatth. Which means everyone has to help. To do the paatth. To keep the paatthis supported. To cook and feed them. To find them a place to rest. When visitors come, they can’t talk too much. They simply sit to do paatth or listen to it. To help with the chores. To cook and clean and serve. No time for gossip. Or crying or mourning.
The first few days - the paath, the kirtan, the langar, the cremation - all go by in an intense flurry of activity. No time for the family to mope or be alone at a very difficult time. When they need to cry, there are always shoulders to weep on, someone to hug you, to comfort you.
It’s a most difficult time, those first few days, and if you can somehow carry on doing things instead of stopping doing them, it becomes a little bit easier.
As days go by, the initial terror fades away and the pain and loss feel more manageable. Thereafter, life carries on. Because it has to carry on. It’s the way of life.
Our newly widowed mother burst into my reverie. She was standing beside me, asking me if I was ready.
Once assured by all that we were indeed ready, she led us off, together, to our cars and the drive to the funeral home.
Conversation about this article
1: Gurpreet (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), August 28, 2012, 11:51 PM.
Absolutely true. Life is all about carrying on. It's a cycle, and how you choose to move on in times of loss or pain or sorrow, is a true testimonial to your character. Nice work.