Death makes the heart grow softer

When he was two, or three, going away needed his large assortment of trucks and trains, cars, and even boats. In a colorful book titled Away we go, there were vivid pictures of all forms of vehicles, and I remember appreciating that they had been sensible enough to include a wheelchair. We read that book very often, and he squealed as he saw happy people moving about on the pages of a book.

Then he would orchestrate his own moving world. His mouth gaped and made sounds as he pushed the toy vehicles, his eyes wide with wonder. “Go, go-h,” he would sometimes urge. The emphasis on the word denoted how far he wanted his ‘choo-choo’ or his ‘tuck’ to travel. Back when the farthest anything could travel, was the edge of the carpet. People sometimes went farther, to another room maybe. His father lived away from us, but he did not know how far that was, or even that he traveled. For him, Baba disappeared on Sunday nights, and reappeared on Friday mornings.

Then when he was three-and-half years old, his sister died. She went away on a summer morning, and never reappeared.

And the word away started meaning much more than travel. Suddenly from the edge of the carpet, someone could leap to the end of the universe, to a place no one has seen, and no one ever comes back from. He did not understand what death was, or how far it took our little baby. But he loved trains, so his sister, who was the little El train running parallel to him, the bigger Metra, just “went ahead to the next station.” He knew that the sky was expansive, so she might have “flown away,” he surmised.

Over the past five years, Raahi’s older brother has had to navigate the edges of distance, and the degrees and depth of separation that being away truly brings. As his understanding of the world has developed, he has learned that his extended family lives half a world away, and he only sees them once in several years. Most of his favorite people live in different parts of the country too, and when a visit ends, he rarely knows when he will see them again. He aches when Baba travels occasionally for work, and never, ever wants me to be away from him. His home is his refuge, our family of three his greatest security. Goodbyes are never temporary in his hurt mind, his universe forever hanging precariously, threatening to disappear at every turn, around every corner.

A few days back, I broke the news to him that I would have to travel to India for three weeks. It was sudden, and will be the first time in five years that I will be back in my hometown. It will also be the first time I will be going without him, since he’s been around. Our last visit was two months after Raahi died, and his happy and supportive presence was the only cushion I had against the insensitive behavior of my extended family. I returned from that trip like a bird caught in a wildfire — dazed, broken, ravaged. I vowed never to go back on my own again. I didn’t.

Over five years, I have settled in my home, our lives, and our grief. I have gained a confidence and a composure that make me turn away from people who talk through or down to me. Silence or tone-deaf words still hurt, but I have learned to fiercely protect our life and our emotions, and our daughter’s place in that life and those emotions. I am therefore exposing myself again to the cacophonous rigors of a world, where daily existence claws and clamors recklessly over a gaping wound, marauding it with judgmental words, or mauling it with indifferent silence. I can traverse the physical distance between my quiet, pristine life in suburban United States, and the crowded and chaotic one in my hometown in India. But I cannot prepare myself enough to even fathom, let alone overcome, the mental differences.

For my young son, the physical distance is daunting enough. He imagines not seeing me when he returns from school, and starts whimpering. He cannot grasp the literal, and metaphorical, day and night difference between his mother’s existence and his, over three weeks. He does not want to. He just does not want this ripple in our closeness, this little tear in the rough but secure way we have been sewed up at the seams around a gaping hole.

Lying next to me at bedtime, he tells me, again, how lucky his friends are, that they have siblings to play with. “Why do they think their brothers and sisters are annoying, Maani? I wish my sister were here to even annoy me. They are so lucky, and they don’t know it.” I hold him tight against my chest. We go through our nightly exercise of imagining the brother and sister together, skiing, playing, running, biking, living the lives he sees around himself every day. He wonders every night what she would have been like, what she would have liked, what she might have enjoyed, how she might have looked up to him. He asks me why she left, and why we don’t know the reason.

But he does not ever wonder how far she went. He wonders instead if we have become, “soft-hearted after she died.” I tell him that our love and grief for her bind us closely together, adding another, rather exclusive, layer to our togetherness. We are a unit, a unit that is perhaps closer now than ever, because it is missing a member. He tells me that he does not like this way of being special. I fumble in the dark, looking for his hand. I stumble in my choking voice, losing words. He gives me his little hand. He does not want to. He says he doesn’t. But he gets it.

He then says, “I will miss you so much Maani. But I will miss you for twenty-one days. Imagine how long I will miss my little sister. My whole life. My whole, entire life. I will miss her forever. That is so much.” The emphasis on *entire* and *so* denote the weight of time, the weight of a life he will live missing her and wishing she were here. The weight of life as it settles into the mind of a nine-year-old.

It is the first time since Raahi died, that any member of our family will be traveling alone so far, and for such a long time. Having a universe of darkness between us and her, this distance seems negligible. Looking ahead at a lifetime without her, three weeks without each other seem possible.

But having plunged – bound together and headlong – into a black hole of unpredictable danger and complete destruction, our sense of proportion, comparison, and reference have been eroded forever. We cannot measure anymore. Being away is being too far. Being away for any length of time is being away for too long.

No, distance, or absence, has not made our hearts grow fonder. We have been spared such profound assurances that make risks seem sweet and desirable. Our hearts have been hammered and softened instead. And they are bracing for a fearsome and uncertain battle ahead.

How do you reconcile the concept of ‘away’ and ‘present’ among your family, immediate or otherwise, after loss? If you have living children, how are they navigating the aftermath of losing their sibling(s)?