We are sitting at the dining room table overlooking the patio. The trees in front of us have the beautiful shades of autumn. We are eating two types of chowder and shrimp cocktail. This is the best meal, my father says. He is eating heartily. I’m glad. Trying to fatten you up, I tease. When we are finished we retire to the “living room” a few feet away. He looks around the room and says he is pleased and comfortable with the new apartment. We brought most of the furnishing minus a few geisha dolls and an array of angels and madonnas. The apartment has a more masculine feel. It feels uncluttered and relaxing. He looks more rested these days. I notice a quiet air about him. He is in deep thought. I still miss her a lot he says. He shakes his head. This time he is not laughing or smiling. He is no longer in the denial stage of the grief process. He has accepted that my mother, his wife is no longer living as we are. But where did she go?
Where does any living thing go after what we call life? Temple Grandin asked this same question. I recently viewed the HBO film about the well known woman with autism who went on to become a PhD graduate in science and animal rights advocate. I also went to hear her lecture on autism and was inspired enough to read her book on the subject. People “on the spectrum” are characteristically socially awkward. They have a neurological wiring that is different than the general population yet two scenes in the film touched on a universal theme. The first scene she witnessed a cherished horse’s death. But where did he go? The young Temple asks. In the second scene she is at a funeral for a beloved teacher and mentor. She is leaving the funeral and her mother tries to teach her the socially correct behavior. Temple says He’s not there. Where did he go?
I have asked my self this same question so many times. My Catholic upbringing told me that people go to heaven after life on earth. But where is that? What is that? Science tells me that matter cannot be created nor destroyed. So where does the spirit go? I sit with my father and talk about my mother. Her urn is bright and colorful so representative of her personality. The urn is set on the Asian themed curio in a prominent area of my father’s apartment. It holds the last physical matter of what we knew as my mother. The room is permeated by her spirit. In order to answer the question where do we go we must ask ourselves where are we now and what is our purpose? What is life? What is life after life. For now I just respond to my father, I miss her,too. Stay healthy,Dad. I need you around for awhile longer.
In “The Namesake” by Jhumpa Lahiri there is a scene where Gogol’s father frets that he forgot the camera. He is walking with Gogol. “Try to remember it always, ” he said once Gogol had reached him, leading him slowly back across the breakwater, to where his mother and Sonia stood waiting. “Remember that you and I made this journey together to a place where there was nowhere left to go.”
It’s been five months since my mother passed away. I spend a lot of time trying to remember. I started to write in her final weeks for just that reason. I was afraid in my grief that I would let the memories slip away. My sister would often reminisce about our childhood and say Remember when? and I didn’t recall the event or had only a vague recollection. Sometimes it was the memory of being told of the event. Sometimes it was the story being retold time and again. At first I worried I might have early dementia or maybe I fried too many brain cells in my teenage years. I came to realize that being the youngest I was often too young for some of my sister’s memories to be imprinted on my brain. I also began to realize that I had my own memories and experiences. Some of these events and memories are catalogued in the hundreds of photos I have. Others are forever in my heart and mind.I grew up in the time before selfies. I suffered the generation before digital photography. I existed in the time of fretting over forgetting the camera. One needed first a camera. Then the film had to be fresh. It was necessary to send a complete roll out for processing and the eternal wait for the envelope to arrive in the mail. Color film was a novelty. In short, photography was time consuming and expensive. Best to be saved for that special occasion.
My mother had boxes of photos. I have been going through them and finding tokens of those special occasions. My mother holding me with my family sitting on the couch before my baptism. My graduation from kindergarten. My first communion, confirmation, graduation from 8th grade and high school. My nursing degree ceremony. The story of my life in pictures. My mother has her arm around me in a maternal pose. In my pictures, those of the digital age it is I who has an arm around my mother, in a protective manner. I cherish the pictures as they jog my memory and bring my mother alive again.
I wonder about the memories that aren’t in the box. I think about the times I must remember. I think about the journey where there was nowhere left to go. I wonder what it’s all about, this journey called life. I try to find solace in knowing my mother was okay with the journey’s end. I, like a child, want to scream, I don’t want it to end. So I listen to Krista Tippett talk about spirituality and the meaning of life. I read Einstein and Stephen Hawkings and wonder if there is a mathematical formula that can tell me the theory of everything or at least tell me that there is no true dimension of time and therefore no past and no future but only now and we are all part of the here and now and that there is only space/time. I want to know that the universe is ever expanding. I want to be both a particle and a wave. I want to travel at the speed of light. I want to know if two trains are passing each other with me in one and my mother’s spirit in the other, will she still see me as her child when I wave. I think about my own mortality and that of others that I love. I think the afterlife. Where do we go? What do we become? I remember telling my mother I didn’t want her to die and she said everything will be all right but it’s still not all right.
Sometimes I sit quietly and remind myself of another Indian character, Simit Patel. In The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel he quotes John Lennon. Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it is not yet the end.