Some days I forget the exact day on which I lost my mother. Some days I remember that we lose and find people when they are alive, and some days I can forgive myself for having lost her so often and for not finding her when she was still here. Other days I am aware of her here, ever present, never lost. And almost every day I can find my mother in the words written by my brother in the newspapers back home, in articles that affirm her gifts and absence by demonstrating how she lives on in his own world view.
Over these past years I have written about my mother in different ways. The first year, so full of grief, the second so full of reconciliation, the third, wordlessly but for what I posted on Facebook. I have written of the poetry she brought to me, the way she raised me, and the way her wisdom found me in words I needed to hear on the very day I needed to hear them.
My mother exists in a physical way among my belongings here in this study where I write.
- In the one complete cross-stitch tapestry I made in my life, a gift to her that she never hung up.
- In the framed picture of her above my bookcase where she sits, one of only two female teachers at the top boys’ school in Sri Lanka, young and soldiering on.
- In the photograph of her that sits behind my desk beside which I have placed a photograph of me as a very young child, something to remind me that, though I tormented myself with concern for her, my lapses were rooted in the fact that I was the child, not she. In the twisted gold metal flower that one of my daughters, the artistic one, made, resting delicately against her photograph in homage to the mother she was, in the twisted gold metal heart made by the same daughter resting equally delicately against that photograph of me in acknowledgement of the fact that she, too, deserved to be loved.
- In the tissue-bag that contains the many cards and the book of condolences written by those who came to her funeral among which is this note from a sister-in-law with whom she wasn’t always on the best of terms, but whom she cared for as she cared for everybody, giving the best of herself: Thank you very much Indrani Akka, for teaching me to sing songs and also teaching me to dance the cha-cha and waltz. We had a great time at Kandana those days. May you attain the supreme bliss of Nirvana.
- In the package I discovered just a few weeks ago, the last one I had addressed to her, still addressed to her, a gift of a book of poems, Eruipedes’ MEDEA (Oxford University Press, 2006) translated by Michael Collier that he had signed for her that year at Bread Loaf. I had chosen this as a gift from someone I love unabashedly for someone who did not always understand the shape of my love for her, this mother who taught both poetry and Greek literature. In it, he writes: For Ru’s mother, with gratitude for the gift of your wonderful daughter. I hope one day to meet you. I read those words and I think about the fact that she never heard those words of praise for me, but Michael had met my mother in me, for a great part of the strength and resilience and warmth I have came directly from her.
When I returned from Sri Lanka after her funeral in 2009, I brought with me a suitcase full of her papers and journals. I intended to sort through them when I got home, to give her something she had always craved but never received from us: a curiosity about her interiority. But, four years on, I have only opened it once, and that, to pick up one journal from her time as an undergraduate where I read only two entries. One, about visiting home and helping her mother by bathing her youngest sister, and washing and ironing the clothes of another, a second about a visit from my father. Beyond this, I have been unable to go. I look at that suitcase as I open the front door each day, glance sideways imagining its contents, but I have not opened it. I don’t know when I will, though I am glad that somehow “her things,” these paper-based things that she most cherished, are with me. The one thing I returned to Sri Lanka were the letters that my father wrote to her, things he asked to take back with him. I don’t know if he has read them, whether in reading them he has found some insight into the person she was before she became his wife, our mother.
This time when I was home, I came across a few last papers of hers, letters written from her mother and father to her. In their letters I find a girl who felt responsible for the family from which she hailed, a deep love for the entirety of it, including the far extended family, a girl happy in her accomplishments at college, involved in studying English literature, playing tennis, and learning ballroom dance. A gay soul, a spirited, happy person, a person I only saw in glimpses, and usually when we were alone together. Those letters and these, her collection of “little books,” the ones in which she wrote down the innumerable names and phone numbers and, later, email addresses of her hundreds of friends and students, many in Sri Lanka still, most abroad living the lives they thank her for making possible with her teaching, encouragement, affirmation, letters of reference and excuse, and prayers. Among all her writings, these little books tell the story of a life marked by attention to people, to the connections made, the bonds forged and kept unbroken, no matter how long the absences, how infrequent the visits, how great the distances. My mother’s world beyond our home was a web of infinite possibility and connection, a vast tapestry of generosity and love. If we, her children, sometimes failed her, if her expectations of us were too great, our long-ago grievances seem so insignificant in the face of all that she was to so many other children.
My brother, Malinda, wrote a reflection today about a grandmother he met, in memory of my mother. This lady, after spending time with him, had exclaimed that she had found a son. It made me smile to read that, knowing how most older women who meet this particular brother want to keep them for their own as son or grandson. And it made me smile also in remembering my mother, the way in which she flung her arms around the world, taking its daughters, but mostly its sons, for her own. Remembering also that, despite all that is forgivable and all that can only be forgotten, the three names and addresses that don’t appear in these little books were the ones that meant the most to her. Wherever she is, I hope she forgives me for sometimes forgetting that simple truth.
Tomorrow I will plant flowers for her. No alliums among them, this year, but others chosen for similar reasons by her grand-daughters. Because she would like these particular colors, they say, as if she will be here, come Spring, to see the flowers bloom. They are nothing like the flowers she planted in her lifetime, but perhaps she will visit.
But maybe more even than the flowers this time around she might like to know that her grand-daughters remember her sweetness this way, recalling the times that she would state her longing for sweets, disregarding the orders of various doctors, declaring that on her gravestone (a gravestone that she, a Buddhist, would never have), should be inscribed the legend, she died a sweet death. Whether she knew it or not, none of her children, not those thousands, nor us three, ever wished her less when her day came.