The Sun Still Rises
Grocery shopping was an event at my house growing up. The process started early on Sundays, when I was handed a pair of Crayola scissors and told to cut coupons for any item I might want. Then I was told to cut coupons for any items I thought my dad or brother might want. I did this for five different grocery stores, usually amassing around 50 little slips of paper. Then my mom and I sat down together and narrowed the pile. We checked inventory of the snacks in the pantry. We compared buy one get one deals at Food Lion and Kroger. We cross-listed those with Harris Teeter, then did a triple check before looking at Costco.
Grocery shopping with my mom was more routine than brushing my teeth. I pretended the shopping cart was a scooter and did wheelies in the aisle. My mom spent ten minutes picking out cereals. Even after I got my license and could have easily done the the job myself, she insisted on riding along in the passenger seat. It drove me nuts. I didn’t understand why we both had to do it together, week after week after week. I told her so in a sassy tone only a teenager can embody. She hated that I played Top 40 in the car instead of NPR. It was all very Gilmore Girls. Or maybe Lady Bird.
When I went off to college, my mom insisted on driving the 30 minutes from Raleigh to Chapel Hill, usually with my dad, to drop off groceries once a week. I remember the girls in my dorm suite telling me how sweet they thought my parents were for coming every weekend without fail. My outlook was far less rosy. I assumed my mom simply didn’t trust me to maintain my own health, and I hated the micro-managing. I’m inclined to think now that she was trying to hold onto me for as long as she had left in any way possible, even if that just meant dropping off a bag of baby carrots.
When I was younger, I treated my mom like my own personal punching bag of adolescence. I was embarrassed by the couponing, by the clothes she outfitted me in, by the lunches of biryani and sambar that she packed in reused Philadelphia cream cheese containers. I told her I wished I was white, that she wasn’t my mom, that I was born with blue eyes and shiny blonde hair and no curves. My mom took it in stride. She let me chemically straighten my hair in middle school. She paid for me to get blonde highlights when I entered ninth grade. She didn’t say anything at all when I stopped wearing my favorite Harry Potter hoodie in tenth grade in favor of an American Eagle zip-up. She started packing pasta and sandwiches for my lunches. My mom gifted my tantrums and breakdowns with grace and acceptance. She met tears and screams with hugs and promises that my culture and identity were mine to explore, to hate, to love. That was her way.
I was 18 years old when she was diagnosed with stage IV gastrointestinal cancer. It was my first year in undergrad, and I was on top of the world - cancer was no big deal. Everyone I knew, knew someone with it. You get cancer, you get treated, you’re in remission. The New Normal. And so when my mom started sending groceries down with my dad and only my dad on the weekends, I didn’t question it. I didn’t even think about it. I was too busy finally enjoying who I was for once - at UNC, people told me my frizzy hair was actually thick and luscious and beautiful. They told me that my curves were to die for. My mom was slowly slipping away from me, and I felt like I was becoming some new age woman. I grabbed bags of groceries from my dad on Saturday mornings and didn’t even feel the absence of my mom. I was proud of her for starting to let go. After all, I was in college. She had to stop babying me sometime, right?
The summer after my first year of college, I went abroad. I hiked and tried new foods and did things I never thought I’d do. I thought almost nothing of my mom, who grew sicker and sicker by the day. When I returned home and met my dad at the airport, I was excited to fill him in on all my adventures. I was met with a haggard, grave-faced man that didn’t look too excited to see me. On the car ride home, he told me that my mom had gotten much, much worse. The doctors predicted she had about three months to live. He had decided that in a month he would move her to India permanently, around the same time I would head back to UNC. If my mom was going to die, she might as well do it at home, her real home, the home halfway across the world that she left over 30 years ago.
My mom’s deteriorating mobility confined her to the couch for those few weeks, but I read to her and we filled out an adult coloring book. We looked at old pictures from Halloweens and birthdays past. She afforded around 50 words on average every day. I filled the silence with silly stories about my classes and my new friends from study abroad. A month flew by, and in August I moved into a new dorm room while my parents boarded a plane to India. I started classes around the same time my mom entered hospice care almost 9,000 miles away. The New Normal.
In early October, my dad received a call from my mom’s family. If we wanted to say goodbye, they told him, now was the time. The doctors predicted she had a couple of weeks. My dad, brother, and I boarded a plane days later. We didn’t discuss or prepare. We didn’t share our feelings or favorite memories or cry like I wanted. My dad was all business - coordinating flights to match arrival times with appropriate time zones, ensuring we had rides and taxis, and booking a hotel so that we wouldn’t overwhelm my mom’s siblings, who all live together with their spouses and several of their children. I brought all my homework and textbooks along because I was missing a week of class, and I hadn’t scheduled “Mom’s death” into my agenda. I was missing midterms that I would have to make up on top of regular lectures, and the entire plane ride I was cursing my mom for contracting terminal illness at an incredibly inconvenient time.
When the plane landed, I finally took a second to reflect on the situation at hand. I hadn’t been to India in six years. My own memories of the country were largely rooted in my mom’s own stories and memories. For me, India was my mom at ten years old with two French braids and a steel pail lunchbox. It was her singing the Hanuman Chalisa every Tuesday in front of the altar most Hindus keep in their homes. It was her throwing colors at Holi and lighting diyas during Diwali and learning how to wrap a sari as a teenager. India was my mom. It was impossible to separate the two, and yet her imminent passing was about to sever that tie for me forever. Stepping onto ground in the city my mom grew up in finally produced the guilt, anger and pain within me that I hadn’t felt in the entire year she had been sick. I didn’t speak her mother tongue. I didn’t know how to make dosas or ghee or dahi. I couldn’t sing bhajans with the proper cadence. I was a complete and utter failure to any efforts my mom had spent the last 19 years making to teach me about my own cultural heritage. I couldn’t believe she had the gall to die on me without any preparation.
My week in India was as much a punch to the gut as it was awe-inspiring. My mom’s mental and physical capacities had deteriorated severely. She was breathing through a tube, could not talk, and weighed less than I had in fifth grade. I went to street markets and temples with my cousins while my mom slept during the day. My uncles asked me a ton of questions about American politics, and if I was going to vote for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump that November. My aunts tried to distract me with games of carrom and lively discussions about Bollywood actresses I had never heard of. My mom was dying, and I was discovering an India without her. I had never spoken to any of her family without her present. I was realizing I could hold my own. I was realizing that my only choice was to hold my own. I described what she was like in America, where she taught Sunday School and listened to NPR radio shows and obsessed over couponing. The American and Indian aspects of my mom were blending together, and I swapped stories with her family like she wasn’t lying in a hospital cot just down the road.
Hindus celebrate birthdays and holidays based on the lunar calendar, and it just so happened that my twentieth birthday landed right in the middle of the week. I figured if there was ever an inappropriate time to celebrate a birthday, this probably took the cake. My mom’s family seemed to think otherwise, though. My mom was brought in from the hospital and my cousin bought desserts. I recognized the “celebration” as an extraordinarily kind gesture from my family, as my regular, calendar birthday was the next week, and my mom was expected to pass in the next two days. I’ve considered my birthday as the day it lands on the Lunar calendar ever since.
At the end of the week, my dad, brother, and I boarded a plane back to the United States. Underneath a whole slew of emotions and memories I was taking back with me, I knew this was the last time I would ever see my mom. But somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to feel anything. I simply boarded the plane and started studying for those midterms I had to make up the next day. The whole week felt like a nightmare from hell, but an incredibly unrealistic one.
My mom died the next morning, right before my dad drove me back to my dorm so I could get ready for class. She died alone in a hospital bed halfway across the world from me in the same city that birthed her. She died quietly and, according to the doctors, painlessly. She died before I officially declared my majors and minor. She died before I could ask her what it was like to have an arranged marriage or move permanently to a new country at the age 23 or give birth. Cancer gifted me an entire year to prepare for my mom’s death, to ask the right questions, and I squandered it.
The relationships mothers and daughters share, especially immigrant mothers and their daughters, are as difficult as they are joyous. My mom and I fought constantly. We were best friends. We transitioned seamlessly from discussing whatever young adult book I was reading to how I never did the dishes or swept correctly. One moment I was yelling about how she wouldn’t let me wear spaghetti straps and the next moment my mom had me rolling out chapati dough while she described the strict uniforms she was subjected to in Bangalore. One moment I was telling my mom that I didn’t think I believed in God, that I wanted to quit Hindu Sunday School, and the next we were singing bhajans together, my raspy voice struggling to pronounce the Sanskrit that rolled so effortlessly off her tongue. My mom knew to squeeze me so tight I had trouble breathing when I cried. She knew to fake-laugh at the jokes I told that she didn’t understand. She knew to hide her natural accent when my white friends were around because it embarrassed me. She did these things because she loved me. I wish I had the chance to apologize, to tell her I’m so proud to be her daughter. I wish I had been kinder. I wish I could hug my mom so tight she had trouble breathing, to show her what her unconditional love was like. I wish she knew what it was like to be loved by her, what it was like to feel safe. There are so many moments I wish I could do over with my mom.
When she passed away, I felt rage and grief and a perverse kind of liberation all at once. I felt rage that my mom died without my permission. How dare she contract terminal illness and leave me to fend for myself? I felt grief, and still do, that she will not be present at my graduation or at my wedding if I choose to get married. She will not bear witness to the milestones I want so dearly for her to be there for. For better or for worse, I also feel a freedom in that she is not here to see me make mistakes. I do not have to feel guilty about disappointing my mother, a woman who crossed literal borders, consented to an arranged marriage, and sacrificed a life in her home country for me. This is a terrible kind of freedom, one I would not wish on anyone.
Sometimes I go to grocery stores to wander around and look at the deals and sales. I put on NPR in the car instead of pop music. I keep the windows rolled up all the way and drive exactly at speed limit. I don’t buy anything, I just go.
I see my mom in everything: in sunsets and the temple and my cul-de-sac in Raleigh. I see her in my best friends when they sing along with me in the car. I see her in my brother when he tells my dad to stop hounding me about my grades, that I’m doing my best and figuring it out. I see her in myself, when I rub coconut oil in my hair and do the New York Times sudoku and brew chai using a microwave instead of her signature teapot.
I see her most of all in the insightful, beautiful, unapologetic women of color in my life. I see her in every brown woman who tells me she wants to run for office or become a teacher or cure cancer. I am hopeful that the needle of representation is finally turning in their fields of choice. I am proud of them for relentlessly pursuing their passions, as so many immigrant women, like my mom, have paved the way for them to be able to do so.
Today I choose to celebrate all of the hopeful, motivated girls and women that are a force for change. The sun still rises.