The company we keep

 photo by  Jessica Neuwerth

She sits ten feet from me. In her black t-shirt, a scarf wrapped loosely around her torso, and a makeup-less glowing face, she sits apart from the eight other women with her. They all assemble in a circle, eating their café lunch and chatting happily, their eyes wide, their voices swirling against each other’s, their clothes casually chic, their hair perfect. They’re all women in their late twenties or early thirties, and they are obviously at a lunch gathering, perhaps friends, or colleagues, or both. She sits calmly among them, biting into her salad, sipping her water, looking away, looking in, sometimes twirling her shoulder-length curly black hair around a finger. Her rootedness is awe-inspiring, it’s like she knows exactly how much and how well she belongs in her world, in this group. Her comfort is palpable, even as she shifts in her place a few times, adjusting her position, stooping once to pick up a napkin that glided from the table onto her lap and then stuck to her knees on its way to the floor. She laughs confidently as she catches it in flight, and places it on the table.

The group soon disperses temporarily. Some women keep eating, one leaning on to her, her eyebrows shooting up as she throws her head back and laughs. Some others have left the table to get dessert, or take bathroom breaks. One woman is still eating, and gently nods while the other two speak.

The smoothness in the scene is jarring, the tranquility almost surreal. The camaraderie between the women disturbs me, sitting at the next table, my hair a mess, my recent weight gain bothering me, my eyes on the watch on this impulsive lunch date with my husband, since we have to get groceries before the bus drops Aahir home. I am not jealous, I am curious. How is it possible for friendship to flow so seamlessly from one through another, how can there be so much convergence, so much perfection? How can one’s easy laugh hit a note that another’s seems so precisely to take over from? How long have these women known each other, I wonder. Their conversations seem crisscrossing into a pattern they naturally must have cultivated for years, or maybe they are so instinctive they sow words into each other? Their pause is blissfully orchestrated too; as if on cue, almost as soon as one stops, the other begins. The overlaps are distinct as well, there is no muddled chatter. No, this is not chatter. It's a coordinated chorus, a choir of friendship, a scripted enactment of friendship I am witnessing. It bothers me how they all seem to have sprouted from the same seeds, seem to have had the same experiences, seem to have the same world views, even the same sense in fashion.

The woman who first drew me to them stands up slowly, smiling her zen smile. Her black t-shirt now stretches across a swollen belly, and the angle, the shadows, the gently draped scarf all belie her goddess-like aura of pregnancy. The others start to gather their things as well, fawning over her, as she tells them about her older daughter’s excitement about the baby. They help her pack her stuff, and the group saunters out into the mellow January sun. The movie is over, the credits roll. My salad is untouched, and Som is done eating. He gently tells me to stop thinking about them, or about her pregnancy. I can tell he is worried about the way my soul is corroded every day by the world and the effortlessness of life sprouting around me.

But I am not thinking about them. In fact, in a moment after they leave, their thought just evaporates from my mind. And in my almost-four years of having and losing Raahi and my almost-three years of struggle with infertility, I have seen too many casual and confident pregnant women to feel sad anymore. I am actually thinking about the camaraderie and shared comfort I just witnessed among a large group of women, a synchronous bond I know I will never form with women again. Or men. That familiarity that common experiences, and common struggles bring – the daily struggles of parenting, of busy careers, of ageing parents, of dominant bosses, manipulative colleagues and nosey mothers-in-law. The balancing act, the woeful balancing act of a full life. I know I will never ever be fully present in a discussion about the rise in the cost of college tuition, or engage completely in an exchange of notes about the many activities and volunteering opportunities available for kids nowadays. I envision myself easily starting a conversation about our recent vacation, and then my mind drifting away into that moment I stood at the edge of an active volcano and wanted the mineralized smoke to never leave my lungs. Because I do not like breathing after my daughter stopped breathing in sleep. That would surely be a screeching conversation stopper.

Is it because I don’t have friends? No. I do have some, I have retained some from the earthquake that shook my life four years ago, and rearranged the mindscape of my relationships. I don’t get to spend as much time with them since I work from home and they are scattered all over the world. But it’s no longer about not being able to get coffee together. It’s about smokes that one wants to inhale and settle down with. The burning smoke reeling with the smell of hot sulfuric acid. How can there be seamless bonds when that is my comfort zone now, while my friends complain about rainy days? No, it is not about not meeting often. It’s about the redefining of what is comfortable, what is communicable, what is comprehensible.

In the past years I have read and heard how as bereaved parents it feels like we inhabit a different planet, speak a different language. Sometimes it sure does. But increasingly I’m feeling that we do live on the same planet, but we have our own parallel space outside or above or below the level at which the rest of the world, and our friends in it, stand. We speak the same language too, but we hold our breaths, or let them go in guttural sighs, within that language, or are on a parallel pitch than the one the world and our friends speak in. Sometimes my bereaved parent identity is watching from outside as I, the parent of a living child, speak animatedly about the recent math curriculum with another parent. And always, our bereaved parent soul is looming like a shadow over us, the smiling men and women, who cannot display their bereaved identity in public, because it is uncomfortable, or irrelevant, or untimely. We are holding 'normal' conversations, doing 'normal' things, nodding feverishly to 'normal' complaints, even as we are splitting in halves, breaking in pieces, screaming our heads off inside.

And no matter how lucidly we speak or joke or laugh, somehow there is more between the lines than on them. More that is invisible to even those who know us and know of our loss.

We’re stuck in between. In between worlds and in between words. And while our friends live in their whole worlds and speak in their whole languages, and we take part and play along, our fragmented lives and fractured words cannot fit or interact perfectly. 

Company there is. Comfort there is not.

How have your friendships and bonds changed post loss? Imagine yourself out with your group, maybe one you’ve known for years. The usual place, the usual talk. How comfortable are you these days? How are these interactions? Have your criteria for friendships changed since your loss(es)? Have you made any new friends post loss? How has that been?