I do not have an earliest memory of my mother. Instead, I have a moment. A moment of her laughter. She tilts her head back slightly as she opens her mouth wide and lets out a sound. A wild, free sound that tinkles through the room, enters the people around her, and makes them smile. Infectious. Charming. Charismatic.
I am not a part of this moment. I am simply a spectator – watching her laugh, admiring her from a distance, waiting for her to notice me. She is wearing a saree, her trusted maroon lipstick, and a red bindi – her usual work attire. She is on her way to college, where she is an English teacher, no – lecturer, no – vice principle. Labels are important.
I have always seen my mother like that. Beautiful and unreachable. I would like to continue remembering her like this. Young(ish?) Happy. Self-absorbed. Lost in her world of family obligations and unfulfilled ambitions and college politics and her need to be admired by strangers. Oblivious to my existence. Irked by my demands for attention. Critical of the parts of me that aren’t like her. I have written stories and poems, letters and laments on her inability to see me or accept me for who I am.
But I would choose this; the bittersweet tug of an unfulfilled relationship where neither could give the other what they wanted – dissatisfied mother paired with an unsatisfactory daughter – over the end; when there was no mother and daughter, just patient and caregiver, a 60-year-old child and a 25-year-old adult wrestling with each other, with time, with death.
I don’t want to remember the way she looked in the end. Doe-eyed. Sunken-faced. Her hair growing back despite the harshness pumped into her body. I think it has a sour taste, like metal or bitter almonds. I think it finds its way from her pancreas to her mouth, lingers there: making food inedible, water unsippable, life unbearable. She looks at me, and for once, waves of grief and understanding flow between us. She wants to ask me if she is going to die, but she doesn’t want to hear the answer, so she never asks. I hear the question, but I never answer.
She wants to ask me if I love her, but she frames it as an answer instead: “I love you”. I’m not sure how to respond in these moments. Just like I wasn’t sure how to respond the first time she said it, on a video call, when I was twenty-four years old and living in Canada. My therapist says I don’t know how to receive love. Maybe she is right. But I have to focus on this moment, on my mother and her need for love. I answer, “I love you too” and I wonder if she believes me. I wonder if she knows it isn’t always true.
Because the truth is, I don’t know how I feel. I wrote a poem comparing her to milk and now I can’t drink it anymore. It was right before the diagnosis – a poem on rejection, and beauty, and being just like her yet not being enough. And now it reads like a metaphor for cancer. I think about all the art created at her expense, the hours spend untangling this hurt and anger in my heart that I can neither express nor banish, just push deeper into the back as I see her living a slow-motion death.
They told us her cancer flows in the genes. “A genetic predisposition,” they say soothingly. It took her mother. Now it’s taking her. She doesn’t see what that means for us. For me. Watching the cancer consume her slowly, imagining the cells multiplying in my body, in those quiet moments between life and people, hearing the ticking clock of death. I always saw myself in her, believed that we are alike and now the thought is a ghost haunting my mind, waiting to unleash itself upon my body.
I’m locked in the quarantine and I’m trying to write. But I can hear her sickness from across the house, through the closed door. It calls out to me. I run to her. I pat her back soothingly. She is ready to give up. Death would be a relief. The sadness churns within me. I fold it into quietness. I sing her favourite songs and she sings along weakly. She smiles. Maybe she’ll stay a little longer.
I want to lie next to her. I want to stroke her hair and sing her a lullaby. I want to explain how she hurt me. I want to tell her I love her, because I feel like saying so, not because she needs to hear it. I want to tell her that I can’t give her my all. That I have to withhold some of me from her. That I want to survive this, that I need to survive this, even if she doesn’t.
I do not tell her any of this. I cook, and I worry, and I set alarms on my phone for her medication – 7 am. 8 am. 9 am. 11 am. 1 pm. 4 pm. 6 pm. 8 pm. 10 pm. I write. Furiously. Helplessly. I write all the things I cannot say to her. I capture the moments that might get lost to memory. I try to forget moments that will unfortunately be etched in my mind forever. I suffocate in guilt, and pain, and grief, and the loss of a loved one who is still here.
The end is near now. I know because she looks around the room and doesn’t recognize me. “Aai,” she calls out. “Aai.” She raises her arms above her head like she wants to be lifted up, taken away, reunited with her mother again. She does this repeatedly. Looking right through me. Another moment flashes – the last time I saw my grandmother in her ICU bed. “Asha,” she called out for my mother. “Asha,” she looked right through me.
My last memory of my mother is also a moment. I am not a part of this moment. I am simply a spectator watching her dehydrated loop – look around, call for Aai, close her eyes. She does this for an entire day before she finally passes away. Beautiful and unreachable.
Aishwarya Javalgekar (she/her) is a feminist writer and editor with a Masters in English (Public Texts). Her recent work appears in Fahmidan Journal and Mixed Mag. She is the editor-in-chief of ang(st) zine and explores identity, mental health, and the body through her writing. Find her at aishwaryajavalgekar.com or follow her on Instagram @aish.java and Twitter @aish_java.