Driftwood

I remember when I first found out that malignant cells were spreading inside my grandmother lungs. I didn’t cry or bat an eyelid. I froze.

Over the next few months as my grandmother suffered through small cell lung cancer and coughed up her rapidly dissolving lungs, I refused to acknowledge what was happening to her. I just stared vacantly into the distance until my eyes were red and my vision blurry. Even when her torment finally ended with her passing into the night, like Meursault in Camus’ L’Étranger, I refused to weep. Heaviness set over me as I consigned her body to the flames. I bit my lower lip until I drew blood. But I didn’t feel physical pain. I was cold and lifeless.

Still it comes. It never fails.

A few days later when all the immediate rituals had been performed and all the guests had left, a letter made its way from the U.S. I tore open the envelope and began reading. It was a letter informing me that I’d been admitted into a PhD program that summer. I still clearly remember being unable to finish reading the letter. I broke down and sobbed inconsolably.

And so the waves come crashing down on us. With marriage. With graduation. With a job or a promotion. On buying a house. With the first steps of an infant. With the scaling of every personal Mount Everest.

There is no unalloyed joy in this world, no hope, no freedom, no solace – once you have lost someone you truly love.

Who will pat us on the back when we do the right thing? Who will scold us when we go astray?

As we grow older will we be able to fill the shoes of those who taught us to walk? But how can we ever fill the shoes of those whose footprints remain etched permanently on soles?

And so we age. The furrows form. The hair grays. We wise up just enough to regret the passing of our innocence.

My better half sees her father in dreams in which she asks if he has taken his medicine. She awakens from such vivid visions disoriented. Disorientation soon gives way to somber mourning. The punishing ceremony repeats itself without fail. There is no respite.

Whoever said coping got easier with time was a liar.

Every remembrance reinforces a gnawing emptiness. The passing of every loved one brings back the unbearable burden of the loss of the cumulative.

Living in exile feeds into morbid fears easily, because deeply personal tragedies are conveyed through the cruelly impersonal telephone. Over time you begin to fret receiving any phone call from anyone you know. You assume that if no one can touch you, then nothing is disturbed. Everything is as you left it.

On weekends you call relatives up. Just as they state the plain truth that they are getting older, you either bluff your way through the conversation by telling them that nothing will ever happen to them or you berate them for not taking better care of themselves. The deception and the anger are your strange way of compensating for the impotence of not being able to do anything at all.

One day you are speaking to a loved one. The next day he or she is gone forever. You know that tomorrow it could be someone else. And the day after, it will be someone else. And one day it will be you.

And that will be that.

And so you focus on the precise. On the mechanical.

You roll back clocks at the designated hour. You neatly smooth over bed-sheets with your hands and tuck in loose ends. You sort laundry by color and material. You argue over wind chill and heat index. The time it took a certain batsman to score a century in his third test match. The average school-exam score for admission to a college you never attended. The price of onions today compared to what the price was ten years ago.

And in solitude you brace yourself for the next wave and the driftwood it will wash ashore without any sense of when it will strike.