Just as it is
by Sujatha Raman
Every morning for two years, I slipped on a glowing round ruby ring in a square gold setting with gentle curves at the corners. During the day if I unexpectedly glimpsed the ring, my heart would hurt and I’d see my mother’s face. Or if someone complimented the ring, I’d glance at the tiny diamonds scattered around the ruby, sparkling against the gold and wonder when she’d last worn the ring. Night after night, tucked in bed, I looked at it, tracing the curves and feeling the smoothness of the ruby. Finally I part with it, laying it close by on the bedside table.
About a week after the funeral, my eldest sister drove to the bank and brought home the contents of our mother’s safe deposit box. When the small boxes, silk pouches and red purses were opened and carefully arranged on the dining table, my mother’s apartment in Singapore was transformed into an oversize jewelry box. As I stared at the rich collection of jewelry, memories surfaced of trips to the grocery stores in Little India, or Serangoon road in Singapore, and the goldsmith shops that sprouted up conveniently close by. My mother loved little trinkets and chachkas and would come back from her trips with a gold chain, or a gold ring or knick knacks for the house. Usually very ornamental with lots of fancy filigree work, they seemed to my then young eye, old-fashioned. But those little trinkets locked in her bedroom closet did not add up to the profusion of gems and stones of every color glittering on the table. Confused, I examined the treasure trove, striving to reconcile this wealth that had been secreted in the bank, with my extremely frugal mother.
I remember how she expertly diced and chopped with knives blunt from overuse, and fried and steamed in kitchen pots and pans blackened and chipped. She cooked delicious, nourishing meals carefully proportioned between her seven children. We rarely ate out. Amah shopped for groceries at the open air, wet market next to her apartment building, treading carefully over puddles and haggling for the best prices. Even when an air-conditioned small supermarket with neat rows of produce and vegetables opened up conveniently close to her home, she continued going to the old-fashioned, noisy market to save a few pennies. Despite our pleas, she took a bus everywhere hoarding the money we gave her for cab fare. She washed and dressed her long hair with coconut oil daily, and the only time I remember her going to the hair dressers was for my brother’s wedding. But she had splurged on beautiful jewelry: diamonds, emeralds, rubies, pearls, sapphires and strands upon strands of gold chains, earrings and bracelets. Perhaps she considered it an investment? What was the need it satisfied – beauty or security or something else?
On that day in the apartment we had grown up in, dividing up our mother’s jewelry, my four sisters and I felt we needed a ceremony. We knew how important the jewelry had been to Amah or perhaps ritualizing this divestment of her jewelry would help us cope with our pain. So my eldest sister took the first turn and as the youngest I went last. When it came to my turn, I noticed the ruby ring right away, surprised that none of my sisters had chosen it. I felt it was meant for me. The rich red color and simple yet obviously Indian setting caught my eye. I pulled it on and fell in love; on my left hand, the ring almost poured off, on the third finger of my right hand it slid round and round but stayed on. Yet even as I admired the ring, my mind critiqued it. I loved the gentle curves of the square setting and the rich red color of the ruby. But was the stone set a bit too high and the band too broad? And the gold tone was garish, not the sophisticated, muted patina of Italian gold. The next day I asked friends for recommendations on jewelers, and for a few days I checked out jewelry stores and looked at jewelry online for several weeks. But in the end, almost reluctantly, I kept it the way it was.
Recently I heard the term anticipatory grief and understood that I’d suffered from it. About five years before my mother’s death, my sister called and I found out that my mother had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. The news was like a fist punch to my heart and my lips went numb. My mind immediately pictured my mother as I’d seen her a year ago when I visited her in Singapore. I’d noticed her unsteady gait, irritability and inability to concentrate and felt a growing sense of dread. But consciously I refused to acknowledge these changes and instead nagged her to exercise or walk and cut back on sugar. After my sister’s call, I sat in a corner of my bedroom needing the support of walls on both sides of me. I was living in Brooklyn, single at that time, and felt very alone as I struggled with shock and overwhelming fear. I called an acquaintance who was a medical doctor. She kindly went over my mother’s symptoms and listened as I talked about my numbness and feelings of disorientation. She quietly suggested that I visit my mother as soon as I could. Because of a new job, I had wanted to travel less and focus on the work. Now I vowed to visit her at least twice a year.
Before my next trip I spoke to my mother on the phone and asked what I could bring her. She wanted a book. She had been an avid reader, devouring the morning newspaper from cover to cover and always with a book in her hand in the quiet afternoons or after dinner. Almost as soon as I arrived, I pulled the book out of my suitcase. But when I gave her the book, she flipped through it and then put it aside. Later my brother told me that she could not really focus or read and I suggested reading it to her. She seemed to enjoy that and listened closely as I read the first chapter, her eyes alert, a slight smile on her lips. Suddenly she was tired and shuffled to her bedroom. I sat alone, book in hand, and then I went into the bathroom, closed the door and wailed, burying my face in a hand towel to prevent the sounds from carrying to her bedroom. I washed my face and saw my reflection in the mirror above the bathroom sink, dark shadows under my eyes, my mouth gaping in a grotesque grin of grief.
It was only after my mother had a stroke, that I grasped her fascination with jewelry. The stroke incapacitated her left side and she spent much of the day in bed. In the afternoons, with the help of a walker, she slowly pushed herself to her bedroom closet, inched the drawer open, struggled to lift and hold onto the bags of jewelry with her weakened left arm and then she pushed her walker back to the bed with her stronger right arm. Jerkily, my mother lowered herself, losing her balance at the last instant and landing with a frightening thump down on the bed. I stifled a cry and restrained myself from darting forward to help. After the panting calmed down to a more or less even breath, she opened the jewelry box with shaking fingers, and her eyes feasted on the contents. She picked up the ornate trinkets and ran them through her hand, one by one, over and over again, thin gold chains, bracelets and earring. After twenty minutes or so, she would hoist herself back up and make the return journey of four feet. A short distance of a few minutes seemed agonizingly long as I watched with bated breath, aching to help but fearing that an offer of help would be met with a spewing of angry words. Several months later when her mobility had further declined, dazed by medication and pain killers, she would ask us to bring her jewelry as she lay in bed. After the ritual of opening, feasting her eyes and running the chains, bracelets and rings through her fingers, we secreted them back in the closet.
I saw her six months before her death. Restricted to a wheel chair which she resented mightily, her speech was so unclear that it was only after spending two days with her that I began to understand the sounds coming out of her. In one of our many arguments years ago, she said that I thought I knew better than her. She felt that I was patronizing. As a teen, I impatiently turned a deaf ear to her advice, thinking she lacked the experience to help me with my life issues. We were so different; she had grown up in a big house surrounded by padi fields in a small village in India and was barely sixteen when she married right out of high school. All she knew of life was raising seven children! She had no life outside the home whereas I grew up in an apartment in an urban environment, started working when I was eighteen, and had gone around the world before I was twenty one! On this last visit I yearned for her to understand I had changed; the young impatient woman had matured. College, the shock of divorce and the struggles against unemployment had forced me to take stock and face my own darkness. But she was trapped in a fog of pain and medication that limited our interaction to necessary rituals of physical comfort, cleanliness and meals.
Like my mother, I too moved away from my family and immigrated to another country. I was not by her side when she passed. When my brother called, I said something silly like “but I’ll be there in three weeks.” We had been planning her 80th birthday party.
She had wanted to be cremated. It was only the second cremation I had attended, the first being my father’s when I was seventeen. The service was short and lightened by the presence of many old friends and distant relatives that I had not seen in many years. Then my brother pressed a button and the coffin slid back into the flames. We watched for a few minutes until the curtains smoothly drew shut. A few days later we collected the ashes and went north to the beach at Changi point to cast the ashes into the sea. As I stood on the shore and looked at my brothers carrying the urn with my mother’s ashes, wading out into the water until waist-high and then casting the ashes, I struggled with feelings of helplessness, disbelief that this was now my life. I was now without a mother.
They say time heals. I think it brings acceptance of how things are and soothes the yearning for an idealized version of reality. Just as my feelings for the ring were a weave of love, happiness and dis-satisfaction, my relationship with my mother was fraught with strands of conflicting emotions. Today when I look at the ring, I no longer think “it’s not quite me” or wish the stone was not set so high or that the band was slimmer. But instead I cherish it for its beauty and because my mother loved it. It’s perfect in its own way.