“Life is for the living,” my father used to say.
I never really understood what he meant.
Oh, I was familiar with death. I was never shielded from it and as a young teen, often accompanied my father on his occasional trips to the crematorium or graveyard. Later, on the way home, I would I would bombard him with questions and he would answer the best he could. The rituals baffled me. Sometimes he would also talk about his death. I would be appropriately offended and upset and he would wait for my tirade to be over before he would gently explain that EVERYONE has to go someday. I should get used to the idea, however dismal it sounded.
I made peace with that. In my mind, that day was a distant eventuality.
I was naive. I never imagined that day would come so early in my life. A day when I was barely an adult in my years and certainly an unruly child in my heart. Predictably, I fell apart. I hung on to my tears for as long as I was home only to cry myself a river as soon as I returned to college. It’s a wound that still bleeds at the most unexpected moments, a grief that does not let go.
Unfortunately, the date of my father’s death also marked my cousin’s birthday. For the longest time I refused to wish her. For me the world ended on the 13th of May. Nothing good could happen, nothing shone brightly, no celebration was possible.
Two years later, a very close friend got married. On the 13th of May. I think that was when I first really got a taste of what my father meant when he said life was for the living. I attended the wedding, I clearly remember that day. It was a lunch invitation, I was in a borrowed red sari and I drove those ten odd miles like a maniac back from the wedding to my apartment near the Film Institute in tears. I think I felt I had betrayed my father somehow, that I had dared to go out and have fun on what was, obviously, a black day.
Looking back, I wish I could hug that young girl once. I wish I could stem her tears and explain that life, truly, is for the living and she had done nothing wrong by living.
And my father never went away. I find him everyday, in mundane everyday things, in a phrase someone says, in a song he used to hum, in a blazing sunset, in a starless night, in “a violet by a mossy stone, half hidden from the eye.”
Some years later, I had another father-figure in my life. My father-in-law. He took it upon himself to be a father to me, considering I had none of my own. I did not welcome it. But he wore me down with his love, his affection, his paternal pride at my achievements, however small. I found myself listening, talking, arguing back, airing my opinions, even bullying him on occasion. I’d like to think that he too found the daughter he had never had in me.
I started wishing the cousin on her birthday again. I learned to laugh and live, even on the 13th of May. It was not such a bleak day after all. I could raise a toast to my father and celebrate the years we had together. Life was easier.
My father-in-law passed away after a long fifty day battle with a cerebral stroke. As I sat by his side I hurled all my love and angst and frustration and joy at him, in the hope that he would respond, that he would smile at me once again and I would bring him home. On the fifty-first day I did for him what I could not/did not do for my own father: I sat by his side (along with my husband) as he slipped away silently into the good night. It was the 5th of November. Losing a father was bad enough, I always thought. But losing two? I thought I could never smile again.
But the years go by. Just as I was writing this I went outside where my husband is passing time flicking through TV channels. A dialogue by Mithun Chakraborty in some random Bengali movie I had watched on TV and laughed at with my father-in-law caught my attention, “marbo ekhane laash porbe shoshane..” I had to laugh and I know he laughs with me somewhere.
You see, tomorrow is the 5th of November. I know, like on most Saturdays, I will go to the market. I will buy vegetables and fish and fruits and I will cook for the family. Maybe the menu will verge on food that I know he loved, specially when I made it for him, but it will be a normal day. I will do all my household chores, I will smile and greet people I meet, pass my trademark comments in the bazaar and live my day laughing with my daughters, smiling at the sunlight streaming in the windows and no one will know that I still miss my fathers. And I still talk to them. Everyday.
You see, life, is for the living.
(The dead only wait in the wings, for us to call upon when we need them.)