There was lightning and yet, no thunder. The sudden flashes of light startled the night sky, as if to awaken it from slipping into a dark slumber. I still waited for the grumbling sound that gives my nerves a stir. The sky had been gathering heavy clouds all evening. Now, the heaviness was descending onto earth. Maybe, the heaviness aching inside me will soon give way to hard rain.
The summer had brought loss and the worrisome realization that my world was flammable. It burst into flames on a simple touch. The fire was vicious, it devoured all that I held dear. Now, I stare at the disfigured remains consumed by a haunting unease. I wonder if the fire will come again to take what’s left.
The rain changes direction on meeting ferocious wind. I marvel at the sight before me and forget about waiting to be frightened by thunder. The stillness of the evening finds itself drenched in a flux, as it surrenders to hard rain. And, through the course of the night, I wonder if I’ll heal the same way.
In the summer of 2012, my mother had a stroke. She lost her speech and half of her body was left paralyzed. It happened overnight, I was asleep and did not see it happen. Since then, my siblings and my father have recounted the tale several times and yet, I still fail to remember the flow of events. Perhaps, this essay is just me writing down all that I do remember.
I remember waking up to the news that my mom’s in the hospital. At the time, I thought she had fainted or come down with weakness. And, I didn’t know what a stroke meant.
I remember googling what happens when one suffers a minor stroke, I added the word “minor” because surely, nothing that bad could happen to my mom. But bad things, worse even, happen all the time. Perhaps, this realisation doesn’t dawn upon you when you’re a privileged 15 year old who’s been surrounded by loved ones and had a happy childhood. Surely, you’ve seen people go through instances of personal tragedy and you see films and read about grief. But there’s a comfortable distance between observing the horror of continual helplessness and emotional trauma, and being viciously caught up in it.
The summer had brought loss and the worrisome realisation that my world was flammable.
I remember appearing for a French exam that day, and a couple others that week- my board exams were going on. I had been meticulously studying for weeks, my mother carefully monitored my routine. She would wake me up, make sure I eat a good breakfast (just the right amount or I’d want to go back to sleep), fix my room, reaffirm her belief in my “meritorious” abilities to do well and make something of myself, and go about her chores. I remember not thinking twice about how much effort it took her to look after me.
My elder sister remembers a day where our maid had not shown up. There was a pile of dishes to be done in the sink. My mother had asked for some assistance and my sister had grudgingly agreed to help out. She remembers washing a few plates and then announcing that she’s tired: You do it, it’s your work.
I remember attending my sister’s graduation with my younger brother and uncle. It was four days after the stroke. My sister looked gorgeous, her eyes still dazed by the suddenness of what had happened. My mother had planned on being here in a silk saree. Instead, she was in an ICU, my father sitting by her side. And, none of it seemed to be making much sense.
I remember how my beautiful sister held our family together the next two months as anxious, irritable relatives flooded our home. I slept and watched movies viciously, I did not know how to be awake or conscious for what was going on. My routine (or the lack of it) left my relatives angered and baffled as I wouldn’t even visit the hospital every day. Only two visitors were allowed in the evening for less than two hours. I hated the stillness of the waiting room, it forced me to reckon myself with what was happening. And, I couldn’t seem to place it all together because my mother was completely fine just the other day. Gradually, the other day would turn into a few months ago. And yet, I would still find myself asking the same questions, how did it come to this?
I remember the day my mother came back home, on a wheelchair. It was a disorienting sight, she was back home but she was no longer herself. Now, I along with the rest of my family had to take care of her. She could not speak, the random sounds that would come out of her mouth made little sense. I remember staring at her confused, wishing that I would somehow comprehend what it was that she wanted as her face grew small and tired. I remember how small I felt inside knowing that my mother is in pain and that there was nothing I could do.
Perhaps, we all were gripped by the urge to resume a phase of “normalcy” at the time. I wrote exams while my mother was on a ventilator (conveniently, I was not given this detail). While I was worried sick and confused at my mother being in the hospital and all the running around that was taking place, my board exams were going on, and how were I supposed to skip those (sarcasm)! Perhaps, it was to do with how little it would mean to not give the exams, if anything, it was an activity that could keep me engaged and distracted from the sheer magnitude of what had befallen my mother. My sister had to leave for college soon, my parents would not hear of her taking a gap year, she had to go on with her life and study in the USA.
I remember looking into my mother’s eyes and realizing that she had been fighting far too many battles on her own.
My brother and I were here to resume her duties. We’d come back from school and take turns attending the physio and speech therapy. I remember staring at the clock wondering when this would get over, when would I finally get some time to myself. (A part of me always rejoiced on the days a session was cancelled.) I had to repeat these exercises later but could seldom remember how some of them were to be carried out. Suddenly, I realised how little time there was in a day, there was always so much to be done. I was haunted by a perpetual feeling of incompetency, that I was not doing enough, maybe I could not do enough.
But the next few months were crucial for her recovery. As many of my relatives had been telling me, maybe I simply had to pull my socks up. I remember building to do lists of all that had to be done as soon as I got home. A few months ago, I would have come back from school to my mother’s excited, welcoming voice and a delicious, homemade snack. I missed “normalcy”. At school, not much had changed for my friends even as my world had folded on itself. It angered me. Gradually, I distanced myself from my friends even as I desperately longed for attention and care.
I remember being tired all the time: perhaps, from the heaviness of the nervous thoughts that I had gotten used to carrying around, from how much I missed talking to my mother, and having my sister around. I started falling sick and skipping school. I knew that there was a lot of grief lodged inside me but could not get myself to cry it out. Instead, I felt afraid all the time. Afraid, that it could possibly get worse than this, and then I would collapse. And, I was not allowed to collapse for there was so much to be done!
That summer, we celebrated a year of the stroke by cutting a cake. Soon, my sister was back home and my vacation had also begun. It felt a little like I was learning how to breathe again. I remember looking at that rain from my balcony and speaking to myself about all that had just passed. How there was nothing I could have done to stop it and that while what happened was terrible, I’m still tremendously lucky to have my mother by my side.
I felt afraid all the time. Afraid, that it could possibly get worse than this, and then I would collapse.
I remember looking into my mother’s eyes and realizing that she had been fighting far too many battles on her own. I wanted to make sure she knew how much I loved her and how beautiful she was. And I was determined to do that devoutly.
Five years later, I still have a hard time trusting joy. A debilitating anxiety grips me from time to time that this sense of calm will not last, something will take it away. I will always be in danger of losing all that I hold dear. And so, I try to remember what that 15-16 year old girl felt in that moment on the balcony as she looked at hard rain.