On Grief, My Grandmother, and Never Having the Right Words

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In March 2015, six months after relocating to the U.S., I found myself unexpectedly back in my hometown in the UK. My grandfather had passed away less than a few hours after my arrival and a few days later, there I was in the local Sikh temple, the gurdwara, peeling potatoes.

Sitting alongside my mother, aunts, and friends of my grandmother, I was helping to prepare the meal for everyone who would be attending my grandfather’s funeral the following day. In the days following his death, I tried to busy myself, to step up and support my family like a grown woman and participate in traditions I didn’t fully understand. So there I was peeling potatoes, and I can peel potatoes except my movements were less fluid than the women around me. My hands are accustomed to using a peeler and using a knife instead meant that every layer I removed required a series of calculated and hesitant movements. There was no fluency. I couldn’t partake in conversation while I did it. I couldn’t look away from my hands. A lady made a side comment, I think, and my aunt suggested I do something else to help. I all too eagerly ducked out and ran to the local supermarket for extra yoghurt and butter. It felt like an attack on so much more than my ability to peel a potato.

Leaving the temple was a breath of fresh air, literally. The car parks, the aisles, even the alley way (a shortcut to my old local pub), were all familiar and comforting. Each is loaded with memories and having been away from the town I grew up in for so long, walking anywhere, however mundane, is always accompanied with pangs of nostalgia which make me feel so much older than 25.

Back at the temple, though, there was no comfort. I felt no sense of homecoming or even a remote sense of affiliation, because my only memories of this place were from well over a decade ago. Punjabi language classes were held there every Saturday morning, and among not being allowed to shave my legs and wear makeup, being forced to go to these was one of the more stressful times in my pre-pubescent life.

***

Each week, without fail, I would drag my heels, kicking and screaming. I would sit with my sisters, reciting lines and tracing the shapes of the alphabet over and over again in the cold hall of the Gurdwara. I hated having to take my shoes off. I hated the fold out tables stained with tumeric, the lack of natural light, and the way the other kids all knew each other. The Sikh temple was as much a community centre as it was a place of worship for so many people. For me, it was neither. I was not raised to be particularly religious and I got no comfort from being there. Needless to say, after one too many traumatic Saturday morning tantrums, my parents conceeded and I quit.

“The silence between us was comfortable and our interaction never pushed me to realize the limits of my ability to communicate.”

I saw no value in Punjabi because I rarely needed to actually speak it. The only people closest to me that didn’t speak English were my grandmothers who usually stayed within their local Indian community, and beyond that, were usually accompanied by my grandfather or later, their children, who spoke for them.

This was never an issue for me growing up because my relationship with both women centred around being watched over, being fed (whether I was hungry or not), and running for protection when I was in trouble with my own parents. As a kid, my childhood curiosity didn’t extend to wanting to learn more about the women who were the backbone of my family. Instead, the silence between us was comfortable and our interaction never pushed me to realize the limits of my ability to communicate. I knew enough to understand when I was in trouble, when it was time to eat, and how to wiggle my way onto the couch next to them for a cuddle.

But deeper than that, growing up, I had very little interest in being Indian. It sounds bizarre that I would describe it as though it were another potential hobby to lose interest in, but I considered it to be something that happened to me, rather than an intrinsic part of my identity. I could remove “it” by scrubbing away my henna, sticking my bindi back on the mirror, and wrestling my bangles off. I could turn it on when I needed to and for much of the time it was firmly switched OFF.

“Fifteen years have passed since my last Punjabi class. That’s 15 years of phone calls cut short before I reach the limits of my understanding…Fifteen years of relying on other people to color in the picture.”

Sitting under the artificial light of my Punjabi classes, therefore, was quite literally, like turning the lights ON every Saturday morning. It was a big fat weekly reminder that I was obligated to participate in something that I did not voluntarily sign up for.

Any improvement I’ve shown in speaking in the fifteen years that have passed since those classes is credited to my maternal grandmother. She is never one to shy away from a conversation with me just because there is no one within earshot to translate and is accustomed to my cobbled together sentences. Offering them to anyone but her feels uncomfortable and the words taste weird. Whenever the lady threading my eyebrows assumes I speak Hindi or Punjabi, I get a pang of panic followed by guilt. Worse still, sometimes when I do try, fluent Spanish comes out.

Fifteen years have passed since my last Punjabi class. That’s 15 years of phone calls cut short before I reach the limits of my understanding. Fifteen years of sticking to small talk and safe topics for which I am equipped with the right vocabulary. Fifteen years of never quite becoming accustomed to the uncomfortable silences. Fifteen years of relying on other people to color in the picture.

Being an adult in my own right means that I am granted access into the exclusive club of women in my family and I am gradually uncovering more stories about them. I can hear the stories of my mother, aunties, and cousins first hand. I can ask questions and map their experiences, failures, and words of caution against my own experiences. Whether or not they align, we are brought closer together because the ‘grown ups’ suddenly became real, imperfect, and more importantly three dimensional women.

When it comes to my grandmothers, however, it is impossible to map my experiences against theirs. I say it’s impossible not because by my age both women had multiple children, relocated to a country where they couldn’t read, write, or drive, with a man they did not choose to marry. It is impossible because everything I know about their lives has more or less been translated and paraphrased to me by everyone except my grandmothers themselves.

The limit of my language skills means that I can’t hear their stories in first person, in their own voice, and understand them without the shortcuts that come with translation by a third party. I can’t flesh out the details of the story over a cup of tea by myself. The stories they once told get shorter and lose their color by the time they are retold to me. It breaks my heart that there is an entire generation of stories of phenomenal women not being told beyond the confines of their home.

***

Fast forward back to March 2015, (a few days before the potato peeling incident) I was back in my hometown saying a final goodbye to my grandfather in the hospital, just hours after landing in the UK. When it was my turn to see my grandfather, I went with my grandmother. It was just the two of us at his bedside. Words failed me from the shock of it and all I remember is holding my breath to stop myself from completely sobbing. I was choking, literally, on the lump in my throat trying my best to keep composure.

It was then that saw my paternal grandmother for the first time as a wife, while she sat grasping my grandfather’s hand. All I could think about was the fact that she was going to lose the love of her life. There we were, outside of our home, or the supermarket, or the temple. In a strange place, and in a situation that neither one us were prepared for but knew would come one day. In many ways seeing her realize that we were out of options, and transition from total denial to some level of understanding that he was not coming home, was perhaps more painful than my grandfather’s passing. In 25 years of knowing her, I had only seen her show a limited spectrum of emotions. These were always tame and further muted by the fact that I had only body language and often a third party translation to go by.

In the days that followed, our attention as a family was focused on my grandmother. She seemed like the most fragile thing in the world, and yet still the strongest for even waking up each and every day that followed. When it came to supporting her, I was completely reliant on my parents and aunts to speak for me. How do you reason with someone to eat something when you lack the literal words? How do you try and steer the conversation away from her husband’s final moments because you know she’s sick of talking about it every 15 minutes whenever a new relative arrives?

On a few occasions her friends would visit and sit with her. They supported the idea of her coming back to the day centre, a social club for elderly South Asian people, before the traditional days of mourning were up. She needed the company they argued, and they assured her that they were guarding her chair to make sure no one else sat in it. They understood that eventually life would take over and we would sink back into our own respective normality. My grandmother would be the one left with the biggest gaping hole because, after 60 years of marriage, normality without my grandfather did not exist.

“Without the right words, I found myself waking up before she did at the crack of dawn, bringing her tea, laying on the couch beside her, combing her hair, and preparing meals to ensure that she ate. I showed her love in the same way that she did to my sisters and I once upon a time when we were children. Without words.”

Traditionally widows are supposed to wear white but my grandfather had said he did not want this for my grandmother. I watched as these women discussed my grandma’s concerns about following his wishes. They supported, defended, and comforted her. I mapped their dynamic against my own relationship with my friends.

Without realizing, I had taken it for granted that my grandparents just existed through the lens that I knew them but it dawned on me that they had conversations about this. They knew this day would come. They were parents before they were grandparents. They were a couple before they were parents. She was a young woman before she was a wife.

The night before the funeral I spent some time looking through the old photo albums that I had only ever considered a part of the décor and acknowledged from afar. I pulled them out and I was confronted with photos of their lives before I existed. Time felt like it sped up as I turned the pages and saw my grandfather posing exactly as my dad does now. My grandmother in western clothing, on holiday, with young children. It seems ridiculous now to think that I have only ever imagined her as she is now and that I had never taken the time to consider that she wasn’t elderly when she got married and started a new life in the UK.

After the funeral when everyone returned to work and my family flew back to the U.S., I stayed with my grandma for a week to keep her company in a now empty house. I wanted to talk to her, to laugh with her, to comfort her, and talk through her feelings.

After the first morning of being completely alone with her I would have settled to have been able to just chat awkwardly about the weather. I couldn’t talk about the news, which played in the background. I fixated on the television as if I understood what was being said, desperately trying to feel some kind of comfort from the man on the television reciting prayers I didn’t understand.

I resisted the urge to Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook my way through the week — I wanted to be present. Instead, without the right words, I found myself waking up before she did at the crack of dawn, bringing her tea, laying on the couch beside her, combing her hair, and preparing meals to ensure that she ate. I showed her love in the same way that she did to my sisters and I once upon a time when we were children. Without words.

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