December 8, 2015

Dear Mama,

Today is a hard day, I know. You said in a text message this morning that “[from] Diwali on is kind of rough,” and I know what you mean; though your grief is its own creature, it is a cousin to mine, and they both seem to show up on our doorsteps this time of year.

In July, it will have been ten years, a number that I’m struggling to wrap my mind around. Ten materializes the distance between the time when Papa was still in our lives and now. That stretch of ten contains so much: I finished grad school and started teaching, Jill fought cancer, we adopted Shiv, you retired and moved to Houston, to fully occupy the role of grandmother.

What can’t be measured but remains constant is Papa’s absence. Having to learn, unwillingly, to work around the blank space of him. Fearing that we would lose our sensory memories of him—his voice, his smile, his smell. Realizing that we have managed to live without him, somehow, a task that seemed so impossible and has now become routine. Is that supposed to feel like a victory? It doesn’t.

Veena & Subhash | Blue Jean Gourmet

What I can feel good about is what we’ve done with ourselves, you and me, without him to referee us. There are times when I think to myself, Papa, we could use your help here!, but those are pretty rare, and I’m proud of us. He would be, too—I know that for certain. In those early days and weeks when he was gone but it didn’t seem real and it all had happened so fast and you went back to work (how?) but it was still summer for me and I could barely manage to shower each day let alone imagine a time when I would ever feel anything but completely devastated, it was hard to be around you. It was hard for you to be around me. That was an extra curveball, because usually we were pretty good at comforting each other (just as we were good at driving each other nuts), but when it comes to grief, the same rules never apply. You couldn’t stand for me to be sad. I couldn’t stand for you to be sad. You weren’t you without him. I wasn’t me without him. We weren’t us. There were supposed to be three.

I was so worried about you for so long, for all of those years between Papa leaving and Shiv arriving, worried about you alone in that big house, worried that I wasn’t visiting enough, worried that you would always sound terribly flat and far away and tired in your bones. I tried not to tell you when I was feeling sad, because that just seemed to make it worse. We didn’t know how to talk about him. We didn’t know what to say. So I wrote it all to Papa in letters instead.

Then I started to write my book, and so I needed to ask you questions, questions about meeting Papa for the first time and falling in love with him, questions about what it was like to learn to be married to a person you barely knew. He began to take shape again for me; I could close my eyes and see him, hear his voice. I asked you what he would think about certain things, and we would try to guess together. I learned how to make foods that he loved—many from you, some that I taught myself. We talked about what we missed the most, told each other (and were jealous!) when one of us had a dream in which he appeared. One day, I handed you the fat stack of letters that I had written him, and you read them.

Before Shiv came, you were so worried that he wouldn’t. You were so worried that something would go wrong—that “realist” streak of yours that Papa’s optimism always balanced out. And so, when that baby boy arrived in the world, we gave him the same initials as your husband—SCM—and you fell in love all over again.

This story is not some neatly balanced equation, of course; there is no fixing grief, only the changes in its shape and new points and edges to adjust to. Tonight, Shiv and I sat in your kitchen eating Vietnamese takeout, a weekday stop-gap anniversary celebration (we’ll do better this weekend, with a proper Italian sit-down meal of which Papa would have approved), and as he was getting sleepy, Shiv slid down from his chair and said, “Nani, hold you,” his signature phrase so sweet we all dread the inevitable switch of its pronouns. So you held him. And I thought, as I have many times before, what a gift it is to witness his fierce love for you, and the delight you take in him, and how not dissimilar your spoiling of him is to your spoiling of my dad.

Shiv & Veena | Blue Jean Gourmet

And I wished, for the millionth time, that Papa could be here to see it.

I love you. So much.


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