The changing shape of love: A story about family, space and grief
This, I have come to conclude, is an act of love. There is no hint of reproach, indeed only a harping on how we, my brother and I, should be there for our kids. And that little laugh when she first hears our voice.
I married thirtyish, which some thought was late but my girl gang called it premature. Both my husband and I, having rejected each other matrimonially in our mid-twenties in favour of eternal bachelorhood, sheepishly said yes. Our USP was going to be space, lots of it. Different cities, unlimited travel and no kids. Separate friends, separate roofs, our own lives. We were going to be boyfriend-girlfriend forever. Next thing, I was with child. Next thing, I was with another child. Rapid re-adjustments followed.
Everything about love is a shot in the dark, especially marital, which doubles up as bravery or foolhardiness, depending on how it all turns out in the end. Living initially in different cities and now countries, my own marriage is based on solid pining. We are somewhat stuck like Romeo and Juliet in the balcony scene, without their articulate dialogue. This fogs up the real state of our marriage, putting flaws into deep freeze and us on slow simmer. But we are fast approaching some acid tests, beginning with the empty nest, with one kid far and monosyllabic and the other flapping wings in readiness to fly. One of us might fall ill or in love with someone else. God knows I am no Florence Nightingale, but a fishwife I think I could be.
PDA for the previous generation was mostly limited to a quick smile at PTA. My own parents’ marriage was based entirely on sacrifice. At any given time, relatives and relatives of relatives crammed into our tiny government flat to study or job-hunt in cities. That my mother actively enjoyed and encouraged this does not take away the crowding and labour that came her way. A bedridden mother-in-law only seemed to animate her and her hands-on approach further.
With dad eventually in the Merchant Navy and mom constructing a house in our hometown, my brother and I became virtual guests, coming in only when we were struck down by illness or heartbreak. When mother went through a complicated six-hour hysterectomy or dad put in a pacemaker, neither child was notified nor asked for help. After a wildcat bit her, sure she was going to get rabies my mom just shut the house and waited to die. When she didn’t, she got back to work.
The love between my parents was always practical. It translated into everyday cheer. Nothing fazed them. No sickness, no tragedy was too big to surmount with a one-liner. Humour was the answer. This did not stop them from looking at each other with deep gratitude from time to time, visibly stunned they’d found each other. Dad unfailingly and boringly cried at every wedding anniversary, mumbling to his wife in a voice choked with thankfulness and cake. She, of course, rolled her eyes. Poet he was not.
When he died, all thought that she would fold up. She’d been a sixteen-year-old bride: What could prop her up now that the man who thought her the centre of his universe was gone? For starters she proved her immediate neighbours wrong by staying put. She not only refused to move in with either of her kids, but continued with all the activities that she used to enjoy with dad. Her grief she gathered into herself with dignity, converting all her memories into muscle, into anecdotes with punch-lines. My brother and I realised by and by that her love for dad strengthened her instead of weakening her. There was no bawling, just the odd reminisce. Dad’s shirt hanging on a hook in her room the only indication that she missed him terribly, that she wouldn’t stop missing him. But no sibling or offspring was going to bully her into moving in with them simply because she was alone.
With us children unable to visit her for reasons of our own, she is all about giving us space. Not the synthetic fashionable vacuum that my husband and I spoke about in our premarital self-centredness, but the genuinely liberating ‘I wish you well’ healthy distance that frees us from worrying about her. She keeps in touch, she telephones us, and all she talks about is what a good time she is having. This, I have come to conclude, is an act of love. There is no hint of reproach, indeed only a harping on how we, my brother and I, should be there for our kids. And that little laugh when she first hears our voice.
I do not know how I will age – gracefully or, as I suspect, disgracefully. How cranky I’ll be, how clingy, how incapacitated; if I will go gentle into that good night or rage, rage against the dying of the light. If regrets will verbosely spill over or if I will sulk away imagined slights. I belong to an insomniac breed, the easily depressed brigade. Moody, jumpy at every boo on social media.
When my time comes to let go, will I remind my kids that I had them against all my dreams, so they owe me their company at the very least? Or will I love them by living my own life happily?
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