Dated Sept. 2016
When I was younger, I used to be jealous of my friends that spent their weekends at their grandparents’ house. They would talk about the Padres games they went to and the cookies they baked and the card games they played. All I could contribute to these conversations were my wistful nods. With my grandparents living halfway across the world in a small village in India, getting to know them was a luxury I never grew up with.
I’m not close with my grandparents, and my brother even less so. Every Saturday night, my dad FaceTimes them with eager anticipation, trying to get Sujan and me to talk to them. We don’t try very hard. Instead, we play Hot Potato with the phone. My conversation often sounds something like: “Hi, how’ve you been? Did you eat breakfast? That’s good to hear. I’ll give it to Sujan now.” Sujan always beats me though — his record-time is fifteen seconds.
For a long time, I thought it was the physical distance that was keeping me from having a normal relationship with my grandparents. The only time I get to see them in person is when we visit India every other summer. And every time we visit, I make the same mistake of thinking that staying at their house for a week will sort everything out. I’ll love going out and playing tag with my cousins on the street. I’ll love walking to each of their houses and gossiping with my aunts and uncles. But at the end of the day, it’ll always be time to go back to my grandparents’ house. Naanamma will be asleep on her bed, and Thathayya will be watching a TV soap. Sujan and I will silently tiptoe past them, trying not to disturb them from their nightly routine. Even though we’re only ten feet apart from them, it feels like we’re still on opposite sides of the globe. It’s a distance we grow accustomed to.
Naanamma has ovarian cancer that’s been spreading slowly and viciously for the past 14 years. Only now are the effects starting to show. Our FaceTime conversations get shorter and shorter as she runs out of breath more quickly. Her thick black hair fell out last week. I almost couldn’t recognize her.
A couple of days before Winter Break, my dad decides to go to India. Her condition is worsening. He lands in Hyderabad on Monday and arrives at Movva on Tuesday night. He spends Wednesday morning with her.
It’s late Tuesday night, and I am sitting in my room, typing up the physiology research paper that’s due tomorrow. After twenty minutes and two sentences into my paper, my mom cracks open the door and peeks in. Her face is red and splotchy. She’s holding her glasses in one hand, the phone in the other. Her eyes are wet. I look up at her, confused.
I stop typing. My mind blanks. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. No one I know has ever died before. I don’t know how to react. I don’t know how to feel.
Sujan pokes his head into my room and yells “Boo!” He sees my blank face staring at the empty wall behind Amma. He has no clue. He looks up at Amma to see what’s wrong with me. He sees her tears.
I go up to Amma and hug her. I hold her tightly so that she doesn’t fall. I just hold on to her, as solidly as a rock. Rocks don’t cry. I don’t cry. I don’t feel sad. I don’t feel anything.
For the rest of the night, Amma is on the phone with my dad and his brother, trying to make last-minute travel arrangements to India. To go to India on such short notice, a flight ticket costs about $4000 per person. The next flight is tomorrow morning. Sujan has to miss his Pep Band concert, the Christmas Jam. It’s the biggest concert of the year. He pales when Amma tells him to pack his suitcase, but he doesn’t say anything. I feel bad for him. He’d been practicing his “Carol of the Bells” solo for weeks now.
I follow him to pack my things too, but Amma stops me. She says that I have to stay behind. “Daddy wants you to stay here and finish your college essays. If you come, you won’t be able to submit your apps online. The network there is weak. You have to stay here, okay?”
I stay up till 1am. I finally finish my paper on Raynaud’s Disease. I’m scared. I’ve never stayed alone at home before, not even for a day. I was never allowed. I was “too young” to stay home alone. And now, suddenly, I’m being asked to look after the house for three whole weeks, for all of winter break, all on my own. For the first time, I cry.
Sujan and Amma leave at 4am the next morning for the airport. I kiss them goodbye. I drive to school for the first time that morning. I was never allowed to drive to school before. I’m in a daze, partly from the lack of sleep and partly from everything else. My legs carry me to my classes. I drive home after school. I unlock the door, half expecting the house to be filled with the warm spicy smell of my mom’s cooking on the stove. It’s dark and cold.
I turn the lights on and adjust the thermostat, then I settle on the couch with a blanket. I sit there in silence, shivering slightly. I think of all the things I have to do. I have to buy some milk. I have to refill the gas tank. I have to finish writing my English paper that’s due the next morning. And I can’t forget that I have to work on my college apps. I don’t move from my seat.
I feel empty, devoid of sadness. I have to feel something, right? I’m human. I try to cry. I contort my face into a frown, and I squeeze my eyes as hard as I can. My eyes are dry. A hacking cough escapes my throat instead of the slow sob I was hoping for.
I’ve never experienced death up close before. Much of what I know about death and grief comes from books I’ve read, and movies I’ve watched, and people I’ve talked to. They all say the same thing. They all talk about a “whirlwind of emotions” that leaves them sad, or confused, or shocked, or angry, or all of the above. They say it hits everyone, even the people you’d least expect to get hit. I would find out later that my dad cried for the first time. He’s the toughest person I know. I’ve never seen him cry. But for some reason, the whirlwind never hits me. I never once feel sad about Naanamma’s death. I feel guilty that my dad has to cry for the first time. I feel sorry that Sujan has to miss his concert. I feel scared that I have to look after the house on my own. But I never feel sad.
I aimlessly flip through the TV channels. My backpack lies on the kitchen floor, its contents untouched. Why doesn’t the whirlwind hit me? I’m the most emotional person I know. The last time I cried was two days ago because my favorite pair of uniform pants was still in the laundry. That whirlwind should’ve swept me off the ground and tossed me into the ocean by now. Is it because I’m a psychopath that’s devoid of basic human empathy? Maybe that’s why I didn’t put up a fight when Amma asked me to stay behind. If I truly felt sad about Naanamma’s death, I would’ve argued my way until they let me come along to India with them. But I didn’t feel anything. That’s what frustrates me. How could I not have felt anything? My very own grandmother died last night, and I don’t feel sad. What a pathetic granddaughter I am.
It’s been harder on my dad. He FaceTimes my grandpa a lot. He scolds him for staying cooped up in the house. Sujan and I still play Hot Potato with the phone. The only difference is that our conversations are shorter because Naanamma’s no longer here. I keep forgetting that.
I wonder what it would be like if I had been a bit closer with Naanamma. What would it be like if she lived a block away from me, like my friends’ grandparents? I probably wouldn’t be playing Hot Potato. I’d probably visit her every weekend or so. I’d probably bake sweets and watch movies and go to the zoo with her. I’d probably have something substantial to contribute to those conversations with my friends. And now, I’d probably be feeling more empty and sad than I do now. I’d probably be a better granddaughter.