One day, when I was in high school, I returned home from school to find my grandma, Amama in Telugu, laying on the sofa, still.
I walked over, slowly. This was strange, I thought. She was usually out and about, or, would have woken upon hearing me enter. I looked at her chest. Was it moving? Was she breathing.
My fear slowly grew as I watched and couldn’t tell.
Instantaneously, her face burst into a smile, and out came a deep laugh. Immediately anger overtook me. Death wasn’t something to joke about. Silently, I walked upstairs.
I can’t recall every being more angry with Amama than that day. After an hour or two, I went downstairs, and we both acted like nothing had happened, and we never spoke of it again. But there was a message she was trying to tell me, one that I was too young, or too stubborn, to listen to.
That incident was one of the first ones I remembered when, years later, my Grandma passed away unexpectedly while on a trip to India. Amama’s joke, followed by other memories. How often she commented, when talking about the future, “oh, I’ll be dead soon anyway.” After funeral, I was surprise to learn that she never said that to my mom, only to my brother and I.
Amama never had any fear of death. That joke, her comments, were her unique way of telling us not to fear what was inevitable anyway.
Death was the origin of my distaste for materialism. When I was 12, my Grandpa died. Until then, I had been an avid collector of things like stamps, newspapers, souvenirs, borne out of a fear of forgetting memories, ones which, as a child often not happy where he was, I cherished.
But after this death, I immediately saw how meaningless these things were. Nostalgia is our body’s way of clinging to the emotions of the past, encoded in items that no longer have the emotional value they once did.
I prefer to remember people in another way, through the heart. Sometime, when I was young, I read about an African culture that believes there are three phases of being, as opposed to the dominant western belief of two. In our paradigm, there is life, and there is death. But in this culture’s belief, there are three. Physical life, our manifestation in the human body, is the first. The last is death as we see, eternal, final. But in-between is another phase – when are you alive partially, through the people who loved you during your life. It connected with me in a deeper level, spiritually.
To keep someone alive is to remember them, not for what you’ve lost, but for what is still there inside of you. I was my Grandma’s eldest grandson, therefore a special part of her would always be with me. It’s easy to feel pity for yourself, for having lost someone you love, but I wanted to remember and grow. I knew that Amama will still be there, perhaps not in person, but in my heart.
Why am I writing this now? It now just over a year since one of my high school friends died, a death that touched me more than I would have thought. Several of my friends have lost loved ones recently – often to tragedies and often young. This post was party in response to hearing about the tragic loss of the father of a dear friend, for whom my thought and prayers are with.
One person I met this trip, who is blessed with a loving, caring family, told me how on his birthday every year, instead of having a party for himself, in his family they visit an orphanage, and prepare dinner and give gifts to the children there. There are millions of orphans around the world, who’ve lost their parents to disease, war, or famine. They crave nothing more than what too often the rest of us, with loving, caring families, take for granted.
I understand Amama’s joke, today, seven years after her death. She wasn’t laughing at me, or my love, but at my unfounded fear. Death is a part of life, she was telling, accept it, laugh at it don’t fear it. And never take for granted what you have at any moment. Like all of life’s most valuable lessons, this is one I only understand now, after so much experience.