My parents and I had stayed over at my maternal grandparents’ house the night before. On the morning of March 20, 1994, we were getting ready to leave to our apartment. My grandpa was going about his usual pre-walk routine – I remember that he used to wear a rather spiffy pair of squeaky-clean sneakers which I envied. (I was a 12-year old who played street cricket. Enough said.) I was glued to the TV set in his bedroom because India had started to play quite well against New Zealand in a Test match. He was mildly annoyed that I was watching TV first thing in the morning. And then he went to his office room to pick up a couple of sundries while I went downstairs to get ready to leave with my parents. I drank my Bournvita - three scoops of the powder and two spoons of sugar. (I had a sweet jaw in addition to having a sweet tooth, I think.) I bade farewell to my grandma and got into the car. When my Dad was about to pull away, I exclaimed, “Stop, I’ll come right back.” And I rushed upstairs to my grandpa’s office room, hugged him and said, “Poitu varen, Thatha.” (A loose translation would be, "See you later, grandpa.") He responded with a surprised smile. And I rushed back to the car. Of all the times I had taken leave of him, I don’t ever remember hugging him. I have no idea why I did that day.
Today marks 88 years since my grandpa was born. March 20th of this year was the 26th anniversary of his passing away. (He met with a freak but fatal accident during his walk that day.) I have written considerably about or around my grandpa in this blog and elsewhere. So, the rest of this write-up is not going to be about him. Instead, a stream of thoughts flowed through my mind about goodbyes that I wanted to record.
Right off the bat, let me offer a confession. I am terrible at goodbyes, especially with people who are far away from Pennsylvania (where I live). At the end of any trip where I have spent time with my loved ones, I feel incredibly heavy. I dread the moment where I have to say, “see you soon” or…”poitu varen.” As much as I know that technological advances have made it easier to keep in touch, none of that seems to matter at that moment. At the risk of sounding terribly sappy, I shall share a simplistic but intensely personal theory of mine. I sincerely believe that every one of my loved ones – family or otherwise – occupies a distinct, irreplaceable part of my heart. My personal and professional circles have evolved over time. Yet the ones that matter, matter. For instance, I might be visiting a close cousin of mine during a work trip. At the end of the work trip, I would, after all, be returning to my home, to my family. But in my simplistic view of my little world, the quality time spent at my cousin’s place made that part of my heart swell with joy and gratitude for my cousin’s existence. That when it comes to bidding goodbye, I feel numb, I feel empty. Yet, it’s not a feeling that I would trade for anything. That is because there is a magical little phase that extends beyond the goodbye.
When I am on the train, car or plane ride post the trip, I let the emotions of that trip pervade my being. I focus very specifically on the memory, registering it to the best of my abilities. I tell myself that just being part of my loved ones’ world is a gift in itself. I then start to think more practically about how I can, of course, continue to keep in touch via phone, Whatsapp and so on. It is the strong yearning for that continuity, to have a shared present that also pushes me to have meaningful dialogue with people when I meet them after a gap. That is not to suggest a mutual exclusivity with the fun elements of interpersonal interactions which have their own joys. But I do make an attempt to inquire about the things that mean something to them while striving to encapsulate the highs (and sometimes lows, as applicable!) of my life in the time that had elapsed since my prior meeting with them. It is that continuity that softens the impact of the separation and offers an assuring thought in the mind that I am part of a shared journey that had just witnessed its latest stop. What felt like a period at the time of the goodbye starts to feel like a comma.
Of course, I would be lying if I said that every memory is a rosy, joyous one. That every goodbye has been at the end of a pleasant, enjoyable series of interactions. I suppose that the emotions experienced in the wake of a visit or a trip is a reliable enough litmus test to gauge any changes in value and importance of a relationship at that point in time. If the “magical little phase” that I described earlier is replaced by a haunting, upsetting, nightmarish passage of time, then that is a message in itself. That phase after a trip, at least in my mind, is not just an opportunity to judge others. More importantly, that is the time to assess my own behaviors and actions. If I had acted in a way that would have upset others, then I know that I must make every attempt to assuage others' feelings of hurt in a timely, thoughtful manner.
As I reflect on that goodbye on March 20th twenty-six years ago, I reckon that the most obvious thing that I need to remind myself is that life is a boon that is too precious, at times, too short. That mocking the best laid plans for our journey are those vagaries of fate. Instead of engaging in the futile exercise of questioning those glorious uncertainties of life, we are much better off shaping our journey with meaningful punctuations before the full stop arrives.
PS: Some of the thinking around "punctuation" and "full stop" in this article is inspired by Kamal's line in Nammavar - "Mutrupulli illaadha vaakyam bore adikum illa." See link below for the scene where he says this:
I always wondered why the lone trip back after a visit t loved ones takes you on a downward emotional arc but thats what happens and there's nothing one can do about it except bounce back.
I admire the way you've reflected on this arc and stayed with it. I'm cowardly in this aspect and all I've ever done is brood for some time hoping that reversion to the mean will happen sooner than later
"reversion to the mean" - such a beautiful, eloquent choice of words. Thank you Zola, for your lovely comment.
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