Mother's Day is awkward for those of us whose mothers have passed away.
A day that is meant to be one of joy brings with it the poignant memory of loss. A morning of anticipation to make a telephone call across the ocean, reminds us of silence on the other side. Joyful memories are colored by the grief of absence.
The loss of a parent is a unique one that expresses the special character of the relationship between parent and child. The grief is like no other because the relationship is like no other. We have no memories of a time when our parents are not part of our lives. We cannot deal with their passing by returning to such a time.
In this sense, the experience of losing a parent is one, even when we expect it, for which we will always be unprepared; it is not an experience that one has had before or will have again. We can imagine and may even succeed in replacing other relationships in life; parents cannot be replaced or acquired anew.
There is an irreplaceable fact that belongs to the parent-child relationship that we use often as the norm to measure the meaning and value of other relationships. Acquired relationships that have grown in time and depth take on the character of being irreplaceable. The death of a parent is the death also of our own identities as children. We cease truly to be children only when our parents die.
One of the obligations of Hindu life is the daily act of remembering and honoring and one of the special modes of remembering is identifying the role of our parents as our teachers.
The Hindu tradition regards the mother as our first teacher, but the truth of this becomes clear only in our own searching acknowledgement of lessons learned. A teacher is never truly one until acknowledged by a student.
My mother taught more by example than by words. I absorbed the example and only now I search for the words. I remember and honor her for the special way that she embodied and taught three values that matter deeply to me.
The first is the value for family. My mother came from a large joint family and married, at the age of thirteen, into another one. Family, for her, was not merely nuclear, but extended to embrace uncles and aunts, grand uncles and grand aunts, cousins and the children of cousins, nephews and nieces, grand nephews and grand nieces.
She embraced my father's extended family as her own and knew them much better than he did. She never used generic titles, but knew each one by the special Hindi name that designated his or her specific place in the family tree. I see clearly now the special affection that they felt in her presence, knowing that in her heart they had a special place as family.
Family is biology, but family, especially an extended one, is memory, recognition, and caring. My mother never forgot family; she was the repository of the complex details of family connectedness, lost now to members of my own generation, for whom the meaning of family has shrunk and who are deprived of the richness of what it means to be embedded and known in an extended family.
Today, when an extended family member recognizes me with joy and love, after years of being away, I do not take it for granted. I know that her value for family is what still makes this possible.
The second is her value for preserving memories. Whenever, I visited my mother, I always felt that her home was cluttered and I would argue with her, now regretfully, about the need to get rid of things. She did not disagree with me, but also never took my advice!
In the days and months following her sudden passing, I had the painful duty, with my wife and children, of sorting and packing her belongings. While there is much that she should have thrown out, I am grateful that she erred on the side of preservation.
In overflowing draws, I found long-forgotten letters that I wrote to her from India and England, barely legible notes of love from grandchildren, the earliest pictures of our childhood, and even the scrap of paper on which my grandfather wrote the name by which I am called today.
She never tore up or threw away a card sent to her on her birthday or a note of affection. I understand now that she saw the object, letter, card or gift, as preciously and tangibly embodying the love of the sender and giver.
She could not bring herself to destroy the forms that love took in these objects. She expressed love by preserving everything that was given in love. I am sure that my mother never imagined that the third grade report card she kept from her last term in primary school, before she was taken out of school to be married, would inspire and be displayed with pride on the walls of an Oxford University dormitory by her granddaughter.
Today, when I read a letter from the long past, gaze on a faded photograph, or feel a baby's first golden wristband, I am flooded with gratitude that she instinctively did not allow these embodiments of precious memories to disappear.
The third is her sensitivity and value for life. My mother surrounded herself with an assorted variety of pets. These included dogs, parrots, macaws, and a Capuchin monkey. Each animal had a personal name and a distinct personality with which she was intimately familiar and to which she responded appropriately.
She clearly thought of them as members of her extended family, drawn to her through mysterious ties of karma. Her care for them had the character of a religious obligation. Her love for animals stretched to the wild birds that she fed daily from a continuously replenished tray of fruits and vegetables and the strays that lingered at her gate for a morsel.
She mourned their deaths and accorded them the dignity and ceremony of funeral rituals. In the case of her pet macaw, her bird companion for almost thirty years, she challenged orthodox religious authority for the right to cremate her pet at a public crematorium, citing the example of Jatayu's cremation the Ramayana. It does not surprise that she prevailed.
Today, when I hesitate to dispose the last slice of a loaf of bread and I open the freezing door of my Minnesota home to scatter it on ice for the hungry squirrels and ravens in my backyard, I recognize the source of my own mindfulness and value for life in all its forms.
My mother was not, by any means, perfect and perfection is not a requirement of motherhood, even though it comes quite close to being one. She shared, with all of us, the weaknesses that we associate with being human. But, just as perfection is not a requirement of motherhood, it is not also a requirement for a child's love. Death does not extinguish that love and my understanding of my mother's humanity infuses my love and grief with the peace of gratitude.