Sunday, March 20, 2016

I'm dying to talk to you ...

"my dad passed away today after a long stay in ICU
Funeral on Monday"

It has been a month since my old high school pal's sister sent me that message about their father.  A couple of days ago, another classmate from the high school days lost her father whose last days were in the hospital.

We are in that stage in our lives when our parents--if we are lucky enough to have them around until now--are beginning to remind us that we are mortals.  Mere mortals.

After they are gone, we can no longer ask them questions.  We perhaps continue to ask them--in our minds--and wonder what their responses might be.  Or, worse, we begin to think about the questions that we never asked and then regret the very fact that we always knew we had those those questions but never asked them.

My father was a forty-day infant when his father died.  Throughout his life, father apparently wanted to know about grandfather.  But, growing up in a culture in which one did not ask questions, especially about one who died young, father did not engage in conversations with grandfather's cohort of family and friends in order to understand his own father.  Over the past few years, he has often wondered aloud about having missed the opportunities.

The author of this New York Times essay writes about not having had the opportunity for conversations with her father, who suddenly died of a heart attack:
Part of the problem is that some silences are too wide to narrate. Words, even if the right ones miraculously presented themselves, would not be enough. 
Why is it that when we are so eager to talk about politics and sports--and even the weather, over which we have no influence--we shy away from having conversations about things that really matter to us?

As one who has always been interested in old family stories, I cannot imagine there is anything more for me to ask my father or mother or the few remaining ones from their generation.  I suppose I have been lucky in this, too.

It is only a matter of time before all of us from the old school in the old country become orphaned.  We would move to take the places that were vacated by our parents.  Perhaps we will wonder not only about the conversations that we did not have with our parents and grandparents but also about the conversations that we did not have with our children and grandchildren.  I suppose such strange practices, too, are very much part of what it means to be human.


Anne in Salem said...

I wonder how distance will affect this. With families living further apart, is it easier to ask questions over the phone, when the questioner doesn't have to see the discomfort of the questionee? Or does email help? My grandmother is 99 so has been the kids' connection to all things historical - WWII questions, depression questions, etc. She tells such wonderful stories. Email makes this much easier. It is difficult for her to write all the answers, and transcribing when on the phone is slow. Email has been a godsend for this communication.

Is not asking questions a sign of respect? As in, the child assumes the parent had a reason for doing X and doesn't want to appear disrespectful by questioning the past. Maybe not asking questions depends on the seriousness of the question or its consequences. I would hope that my children and grandchildren and greatgrandchildren feel comfortable asking me about my life, my family, my travels, my hobbies, though there are certain things I would never share, like reasons for my divorce.

Ramesh said...

A touching post embellished by a very sensitive comment from Anne. Everything you say resonates loudly.

By the way, was it somebody I knew ?

Sriram Khé said...

Ramesh, you perhaps knew of A. Natarajan, whose daughter N. Sudha was my classmate. He was the latest to exit. The previous was my friend Srikumar's father.

Anne, the relationship is not merely about asking questions one day. We understand on a daily basis, on a regular basis. For me, it has been a cumulative and lifelong process of accumulating those stories. I am not sure if proxy (emails and the like) can make up for the real thing. Because, it is not merely about the facts alone, but getting a feel for the emotions involved ...
As in a classroom, in life too asking questions and sharing responses depends on the level of trust that we build and the respect we have for each other. Just because one is related to another as parent/child or grandparent, I don't think the other will want to engage in deep and meaningful conversations.
But then I wonder if the days of such relationships are now a part of history. After all, modern life is rapidly redefining relationships in completely new and unimaginable ways ... :(

mahesh said...

This is a very poignant post Sriram sir.

Every single day, I am worried about my Amma, she is old, plagued by a 100 problems and I wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night fearing the worst. It takes me some time to see the rhythmic breathing and ascertain that she is fine.

For someone like me, for whom a father - was just a 'kaarana-kartha' to be born into this world. I have often wondered why do we all fear death so much when we know it will grant release from pain and suffering?

Alas, we are mere mortals right? If we could remain detached from everything would we not all be saints?

Thanks sir,

Indu said...

A poignant post indeed! at a time when i am missing my brother (both my parents are no more) - the questions that were never asked and the silences that didnt really need to be filled. For some incredible reason, some questions come up for which i will never know the answer. I wish i had asked him in the last few weeks we had together. But as Anne pointed out, some sense of respect and sensitivity to his state, i didnt feel like asking those questions... On a lighter note, may be it would be worthwhile to ask the older relatives anyway if there's something they'd like to talk to you about in a casual way, without making them feel they are closer to the doorway than other younger members... You never know what interesting secrets are hiding in their chest ;-)

Sriram Khé said...

A mother with "a 100 problems" ... "missing my brother (both my parents are no more)" ...
I wish you both well

The complex--even if unnecessarily complex--dynamics that you folks write about are, I am convinced, part of what makes us human. But, yes, I believe that life gets easier when we remove the layers of unnecessary complexities