Sunday, May 8, 2011

To Aftab, on Mother's Day

My nephew Aftab was the only guy who ever gave me a Mother's Day card. This is something I wrote for a memory book put together this year by Aftab's family and friends, 10 years after he passed out of our lives.

An energy dwelling in my heart

30 years of memories – 20 years with both of us on this side of life and 10 years with a divider between us that we cross suddenly, unexpectedly, once in a while.

I remember asking you that last time in Manila: How did you get from that to this? Meaning how did you get from being a tiny bundle in blue, born a few days earlier than expected (but of course!) to a hulking 20-year-old?

And now you’re an energy, mostly dwelling in the recesses of my heart, but sometimes bursting forth and moving right through me, as you did that time in the funeral home, pushing me to laugh right through my tears. Or an energy manifesting before my eyes as I watched in astonishment, bringing your Dadi (grandma) with you, in the church in Manila, in the midst of a rather formal wedding ceremony.

So much has changed. And yet – so little. I feel the same strong connection with you, the same love from both sides, yours and mine, the same sense that this is a “forever” connection. The quality and essence of you-ness is still the same. Whenever I connect with you, I can feel your smile, your sense of fun, your quirky sense of humour. And the warm-and-fuzzy-ness of you. The somewhat overwhelming energy of your greeting, which was your trademark. Even when you were little: you wouldn’t hug me, you’d sort of come at me and crash into me.

You first became real to me just before you were born. I’d been in hospital with your Mum since early morning, but you didn’t seem to be in such a rush to come out after all. So I wandered out for a quick lunch. When I got back, your Mum was surrounded by nurses, one of whom pounced on me. She was looking for a family member to give permission for a Caesarian. Your Mum had already given her permission but I guess they wanted a non-labour-pains-suffering family member to confirm it. Your Dad had just gone off to grab some coffee or something, so I was it.

To convince me of the need for the procedure, the nurse made me listen to your heartbeat, which was faltering. You were still inside your Mum, I hadn’t seen you yet, but that heartbeat was all that I needed to make a forever connection with you! I can still hear that beat in my head.

A few hours later, another nurse wheeled you out, sleeping peacefully in a glass case. I was allowed to look at you, but not to touch you yet – born a bit early, you were still under observation. The warm snuggles would start only the next day.

That next day, your parents were in a panic. The usual pre-natal ultrasound had not provided visual proof of gender, so your parents had decided you were a girl. They would call you Zoon, a nice Kashmiri name for a pretty little girl, meaning moon. Well, you laid that idea to rest. Under Swiss law, they had to register your birth – with a name – within 24 hours and they had no idea what to call you!

After frantic phone calls to your Dad’s parents in Allahabad, and your Mum’s parents in Delhi, they settled on Aftab, which means Sun in both Urdu and Kashmiri. Both your grandmothers, independently of each other, had come up with this name (each in their respective mother-tongue). And that’s how you became our sunshine.

I stuck on in Geneva till you were four months old. Rocked you to sleep many nights to songs by Police (Sting), which happened to be my favourite music at the time. Took you around Geneva in a baby harness with you snuggled up in front. The first time I took you on a bus like that, a young woman got up and offered me her seat. A new pleasure for me at age 21! Another time I was eating a salad with you strapped to my front, happily wielding my knife and fork, when an old man came up to me, wagged his finger in my face, and said: “Pas coupez la tête!” [Don’t cut the head!]

I loved having you in that baby harness thing – whatever it’s called. You would happily go to sleep, so I guess you enjoyed it too. I just loved feeling the warmth and restful quiet of you, our hearts beating close to each other, our energies mingling… Of course, I didn’t think in these words then, I just enjoyed the feeling...

Soon I was back in Delhi with your Mum and you. You met your Nana and Nani, your Mum’s parents. Later, your Mum took you to Allahabad to meet your Dada and Dadi, your Dad’s parents. In Delhi, there were dozens of people to fawn over you (no doubt the same was true of Allahabad as well). But we found time to sneak off and sun ourselves in Lodhi Gardens where we starred in the famous photo of me lying face down on the grass and reading, with you lolling merrily on my back.

A picture you decided to reproduce years later when you found me in my favourite pose on the living room floor in our fabulous rambling old house in Manila, falling on top of me without warning, nearly knocking the stuffing out of me. I yelled to your Mum to pull you off me, you now a hulking 20-year-old; but Tara merely laughed and rushed for her camera! Yeah, it was funny, but my laughter was somewhat constrained by a severe lack of breath.

Between those two “photo ops,” you grew from that to this. A little boy who, apart from me, was the only person in this world who loved my room in your Nana-Nani’s house. A room you mysteriously christened “doh-doh,” no-one knew why. A four-year-old who came bursting into the living room one evening as I came back from work and stopped dead in his tracks when he saw Raju, then my boyfriend. You seemed to know instinctively that here was someone who was going to be a rival for your Masi’s (aunt’s) attention. Raju and I still laugh when we remember you sizing him up from across the dining table.

Once Raju and I were married, you two became good friends, but it was only in Hong Kong that you grew really close. You were 15, in Hong Kong for a month to attend summer school. You stayed with Raju and me and, for that month, I became an official mother-figure, calling your bluff when you tried to put one over on me, telling you off when you left your room in an unholy mess the first morning, etc etc.

But we had a lot of fun too. You’d come back from school and drag me out of my den where I’d be writing furiously to meet some deadline or the other. The next hour was yours – no exceptions. You’d usually end up sprawled out on our sofa, your head in my lap, and we’d exchange notes on the day.

Once you asked me to read an essay you’d written for school – if I remember right, for English class. I said it was very good, you had a lot of original ideas and you wrote well – but you really should read through your work, Aftab, and clean up the careless mistakes. You grinned sheepishly and said your English teacher back home said almost exactly the same thing to you!

That was so you – brilliant, but not one for routine, mundane stuff; full of fun, full of life, not one to take yourself or life too seriously. An ideas man. And a raconteur – oh were you ever that! At Christmas dinner that year you entertained us with a wonderful and exotic tale. Raju and I enjoyed it thoroughly, exaggeration and all, but one of our friends sat there with her mouth hanging open in amazement, believing every single word. And you, hogging the limelight with your tall tale, fantastically well told. Oddly, I never saw one of your plays – but I know you were a fabulous actor.

Five years later, in December 2000, we celebrated Christmas with you and your parents in Manila. You gave me a small, delicate glass snowman as my Xmas gift. Raju got a pair of beer coolers – is that what they are called? Those things you slip your mug into so the beer doesn’t get warm.

Two weeks later you were gone. Except you weren’t really, were you? Every time I think of you, there you are. The first time I clearly encountered this invisible you was the day I looked at “you” in the funeral home and thought: “there’s no-one there; he really is gone.” I went into the washroom to cry by myself. I remember so clearly sobbing over the washbasin, looking at my own face in the mirror, and seeing myself laugh through the tears. You were now an energy moving inside me, making me laugh.

There were so many meetings after that, many in my dreams and so many in my wakeful hours. Moving me to laugh and dance in our living room in Manila just as I started to cry on Raju’s shoulders. Wrapping me in a bear hug in my dream as you said: “It’s been a while since we hugged.”

And then, in 2008, in the beautiful old church at a wedding in Manila. The large, Spanish-style church was filled with the relatives and friends of the young couple. Raju and I were sitting with a group of our friends several pews up from the altar, with an open space between us and the pew in front of us. We had all settled down for what we knew would be a rather long ceremony.

Then suddenly everyone in the church seemed to fade into the background and you and your Dadi (paternal grandmother) – who had recently passed – were standing before me in that clear space between the two pews. You were chatting and laughing together, happy and carefree. I felt such a clear sense of happiness and togetherness between the two of you. Both of you, large as life, standing right there in the church in the middle of a wedding ceremony, ignoring the ceremony, visible only to me.

“Aftab, what are you showing me?” I asked you (in my mind). “Are you showing me that you are both together now?” Immediate surge of energy within me, as if to say yes. “And that Ammi (your Dadi) is free now? Happy where she is?” Yes, said the energy. “And that you are together?” Affirmative energy again. I wanted to make sure I’d understood, so I summed up in another question: “So essentially, are you showing me that you are together now, that you are both happy, and that Ammi is free of the limiting ailments she had?” Yes, yes, yes, said the energy.

I knew you were saying yes, but I wanted something more. An affirmation I could understand not just with the heart and soul, but also with the mind – the mind, that is never satisfied. So I said to you: “OK, if this is what it is, if this is what you are showing me, then give me a clear sign.” And then, without thinking, I added: “Make the priest come up and talk to me after the ceremony.”

As soon as I’d said this, I realized how stupid this was. It was a huge ceremony in a very Catholic, very Filipino community, conducted by a priest who was much in demand for weddings, in a fashionable church that was booked ahead for months for such ceremonies. What would possess the priest to seek out one of only two non-Catholics in the entire congregation, someone who barely knew the bride, and come over for a chat?

So I apologized for making such an outrageous demand and “withdrew” it. How silly of me to ask for confirmation when the vision was so clear, so real, so obvious. It was so good to know that your Dadi, who had suffered such a lot of illness in her last years, was free, and happy, and with you. I already knew, from earlier encounters, that you were in a happy place.

As the vision slowly faded, I became aware of Raju’s gentle touch on my arm. He was reacting no doubt to my look of wonder and happiness. I squeezed his hand to tell him all was well and slowly came back to the ceremony in the church. By the time the ceremony was finally over and we regrouped in a hall upstairs for dinner, I had forgotten all about my foolish demand. The vision and the energies were still with me, but I was back in this world, chatting with my friends.

I sat between Raju and our friend Carmel. And almost at once, the priest arrived at our table and sat down beside Raju. Carmel whispered her surprise to me. The table was clearly assigned to the bride’s colleagues, with the company name written in bold, very visible letters. If the priest was going to have dinner with the wedding party, surely he would be seated with the couple or at least with their families or close friends.

But the priest sat there, chatting only to Raju and me, ignoring the six or seven other people at the table. Chatting of such inane matters that I can’t remember a word of the conversation. Carmel tried to engage him in conversation about the Church in her native Ireland, but he just nodded politely and returned to his very mundane conversation with us. Carmel whispered again: Is he going to eat with us? Will we have to be on our best behaviour throughout dinner? I shrugged “no idea.”

After 20 minutes or so, we were asked to go stand with the bride and groom for the wedding photographs. The priest stayed behind at our table. As we returned, I saw him walking out of the dining hall. We commented on his strange presence at our table – he didn’t go to any other table or talk to anyone else in the dinner hall. We wondered idly why we had been singled out for this honour.

It was only when Raju and I were back home and I started to tell him about the vision that I remembered asking you to send the priest over to talk to me after the ceremony!

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