“Did you call grandma?” she asked for the third time this week.
“Not yet, maybe tomorrow.” I made a futile attempt to dismiss off what was going to be a very preachy conversation, from the other side. I could sense it coming.
“Will tomorrow ever come?”
“If it does” I laughed. “If tomorrow comes.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” she was angry now (not getting the joke, which in the first place was not meant for her). Staying away for so long had made me forget the ‘temper’ and how precious little it took for it to surface. And clearly she had no idea who Sidney Sheldon was, thank god for that.
“Ok Mom,” I decided to come clean with her. “I have been calling you almost every other day since grandma fell in the middle of the night and had that surgery to find out about how she’s doing. And don’t forget, I did call her the day she went to the hospital.”
“And that is enough you think? Calling that person who means more to you than your own mother, just once after a fall that may leave her bedridden for the rest of her life.” I would have assumed that ‘more to you than your own mother’ part hurt her deep inside as it always did when everybody was young and healthy, but the tone of her voice today suggested that for now she was simply advocating grandma’s right on my love and attention. The tables had turned.
“Your calling me and making inquiries only helps you, not her. Since when did you turn so selfish.” Now, that I thought was totally uncalled for; name calling and doubting intentions. And then she said something else which made me whimper an excuse and hang up immediately, before the tears kind of drowned the rest.
To set things correct, grandma is actually my aunt, my dad’s elder brother’s wife. We stayed in a joint family for more than a decade before everybody went their own way, which was about a stone’s throw away, literally. I grew up in a joint family, unreasonably attached and taking them for my grandparents. Grandpa passed away some years ago and now I love grandma for the both of them.
It wouldn’t have mattered, even if I didn’t call her grandma. I would have called her anything and yet loved her the most. For as long as I lived in that city, I visited their home every day. Some days it would be a quick hello from the door, without as much as taking my shoes off. Many days it would be an hour on the swing outside in the garden, which fit the three of us perfectly, me in between. A rare few days in a year when my parents went out of town, it would be an overnight stay with the grandparents and those days I turned into a delighted child who had just been given a box full of goodies. I wish I had a picture of us on that swing. Me, snuggled between the two people I absolutely adored. It would have been something to treasure when memory failed.
I was the apple of their eye (sounds cliched but I cannot think of any other phrase to describe the situation pertinently). Both grandpa and grandma looked forward to my daily visits, they never got tired of me and my enthusiasm to spend time with them didn't waver even when I was a teenager and friends were a substitute for everything and everybody. We shared secrets nobody still knows, they trusted me completely. Grandpa loved having healthy arguments and heated conversations, she on the other hand fussed about me, pampered me.
I have countless such memories with them (which now seems like a whole different life I lived).I close my eyes and see myself running with the mark sheet of a very important professional exam, crossing the gates, into those arms. And when I open them she is sitting beside me on my bed changing a damp cloth from my forehead, her eyes worried and assuring at the same time. Perhaps, that is the magic of memories, it rarely fails. It reminds you of the good times, the shared joys and those millions episodes of life which can be played and replayed at your whim, all in your mind.
And each time you replay memories, there comes something unseen. Hidden fear, contained happiness, overflowing pain, masked skepticism and unspoken expectations. Maybe you turned wiser with age or maybe life put you through some or all of them but you see them only now, after it has all passed, after nothing can be done about them.
The time you come face to face with these buried emotions in your loved ones, the helplessness of it nearly kills you. Because many of them arose from the choices you made and which affected them deeply. Even those who love you unconditionally are not an exception to the rule, for the word ‘unconditional’ has its own limitations.
Every time, I think of her present condition, struggling to sit in the bed, making attempts to stand without support and failing, I can’t help thinking this isn’t how it was supposed to be. But when I reach for the phone to call her, something inside takes me down the memory lane.
I see her eyes, laughing with me while sharing a joke, beaming with pride as I finished reading a book in record time, frowning in disapproval on a short dress I walked around in.
Also now, I see things I didn’t see before. I see her talking to me on the swing when there is no longer anybody other than her; I see her waiting for me, long after I am gone. My presence was a given and neither of us imagined the distance in miles would only grow. I feel the pain she experiences when the assumption breaks.
And I become aware that my calling her would only be a reminder of how far I am. Making a small talk is all I can do even when she needs so much more than that. Till the time I haven’t called her, not listened to her voice, I can stay happy in my world, content and oblivious in the magic of my memories. For in them, I haven’t grown, I am still doing things for her, running errands, keeping her company, sipping sugarless tea occasionally. But if I call her, there is no running away from the thousands of miles in between or the remorse of having failed her.
I can totally hear the conversation if I were to call up grandma right now.
“Is that really you on the phone? It’s been so many days.
Yes, grandma, I know. How are you doing?
I am doing ok, could have been worse. So when are you visiting? How are the girls doing?
The girls are fine. I won’t be taking a trip this year, maybe next year.
Ohhh, not until next year?” And then she turns quiet.
As if nothing we talk about from that moment will matter because it won’t change the fact that she can’t see me for another year or two. (That’s a lot of days; she had pointed out the last time I revealed my travel plans)
And this is what my mother essentially said before I hung up.
“You can’t be here to help out or spend a few days with her, all you can do from so far away is call and for that too you need to be coerced.”
Whether she was merely pointing out facts or reminding me of one more thing I stand to lose because of the choices I made is something I am still trying to figure out!
I wish I could have said to her instead of hanging up that it’s true you keep in touch and call people you love and it’s a wonderful way to be a part of their life. But sometimes you don’t call them because it wouldn't be enough and also because you love them too much to disappoint them one more time.