There are days when remembering is not a choice one can make. On such days, memories are crazy flies, their flight unpredictable and unstoppable. As I write this, it is two years since my father died.
For the first year, I counted every day, every event and every festival as a first. In this, I was like a new parent counting in weeks rather than months, recording firsts and hoarding grief as I had once hoarded delight, against the day when my father’s absence would no longer be new.
In the second year, I allowed myself to forget. I gave myself the choice to remember what I wanted to and refuse to rise to the baits that offered themselves every day: notes or phone numbers written in my father’s hand; an old pair of shoes or spectacles still lying around; a piece of paper I’d pasted on a cupboard door at his height and not mine.
Other things I thought I would never, ever forget, whose edge I kept next to me on difficult nights, have become blunted. I no longer remember each separate detail of his last two months. I can’t remember the order of events, the names of medicines or even the terminology used in diagnoses. I’ve forgotten the names and faces of the supporting cast – doctors on rounds, nurses, ward boys, parking lot attendants. I’ve forgotten the smell of hospitals. These losses are not ones I regret.
My mother and I refused the prescribed forms of mourning. We claimed that my father had wished for no ritual conducted in his name. This was true, but only partially; we refused tradition on our own accounts, but counted on the respect given to the wishes of the recently dead. In the absence of ritual and its attendant filling up of time with activities, we were left to cope with the inevitable questions about death and impermanence, but with no ready, scriptural or metaphysical answers to hand.
These days, I don’t think about death all the time, as I used to in the first year. These days I feel more immortal than I used to a year ago. At least, that is what I tell myself.
My body has other ideas. It keeps its eyes on dates and gears itself in preparation. It is a spring being wound up tight. For the last week, though we don’t discuss the reasons for it, we have all been sleeping badly. We wake up once in the night – as we used to in the days immediately following my father’s death – and cannot fall back asleep. It is a watchfulness that comes two years too late. If we stayed awake now, we could not prevent that death that came unannounced and was a deepening of his sleep. We know this, but there is no way of communicating this knowledge to our bodies.
This last week, once I am awake, I have nightmares: what if he was only asleep? What if the doctor was wrong? What if we had made a mistake?
For a brief while, my body is filled with a physiological fear that I recognise. Because this happens in the middle of a wakeful night, it is possible to watch its passage through and out of my body. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain, I say to myself. I can’t remember the rest of that litany but it doesn’t matter. I feel my body calming down.
My father died the day before his 71st birthday. When we remember his death, we will always, simultaneously, remember his birth. Of the second we know very little and of the first we know everything. But neither our knowledge nor the lack of it matters. Death is not a lesson to be learnt.
What still strikes me about the coincidence is less the bitter irony of it that I used to feel most keenly, and more the symbolic charge it carries. It seems like the perfect end to a life: to take it to the point where it began and then leave it; and to leave in sleep, where the borders with death are most blurred. We should all be so lucky.
(An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.)