In the weeks before my mother’s death
she didn’t speak of her adopted land, Canada.
She hadn’t chosen to come here. Had never really acclimatized
to the cold and the four seasons marking the passage of time.
In her final days, as she drifted in and out of the present and the past,
far from the cold and snow that covered the ground outside
the frosted up window of her room where
she lay quietly inhaling and exhaling her final breaths
in the too hot air she preferred, as if in keeping
the room so hot she was once again walking the beaches
of her childhood, she smiled often, contentedly.
And I wondered...
was she seeing again the places of her childhood where once she’d told me
she'd only ever known true happiness?
When she spoke and waved her hands in the air around her face
like a moth fluttering around a light on a dark night
spent sitting on the veranda of her childhood home in Pondicherry, India
as barefoot servants wrapped in cotton saris
dyed the colours of bougainvillea, jasmine and marigold,
serving food and lemonade to the family spread out
on wicker divans and settees set beneath giant
fans twirling and spinning in the air above,
her eyes sparkled like the jewels her mother gave her
when she left so long ago to travel south, then west, then north
across a vast ocean separating her from the life she’d always known.
Pondicherry was her Shrangri-la she once told me while reciting
her life story into my tiny Dictaphone that I would later leave behind in a taxi in New York City along with the tape of her words.
As she spoke, tears floated down her cheeks like a veil
of woven jasmine flowers lining the walkways of her journey
from young maiden to married woman, a journey only remembered now
in the corridors of her mind seen through the veil of memory.
There was family, and servants and her Amah,
ah yes, her Amah who took care of her every need.
There were journeys into the hills near Bangalore when the monsoons came
and rickshaw rides through the colonial inspired streets of the city
her father had helped design.
There were picnics on the beach and visits to the cathedral
where she knelt and prayed with the nuns every day.
The nuns she prayed to join one day in their devotion
as Brides of Christ.
The war was far away in those long ago days.
Sadness. Fear. Loneliness. Grief. They were yet to come
just as leaving the land of her birth was a story waiting to unfold
with the arrival of a soldier boy travelling on a train, looking for a place to spend two weeks furlough far from the guns and war
that had trapped the world in its grasp until he landed here,
in Pondicherry, she said, where there was only
laughter, and singing and dancing and voices chanting in Hindi and Tamil
and French. In Pondicherry there were only sunny days and sultry nights
lit with fireflies and redolent with the smell of jasmine and romance.
Ah yes. Romance.
She was 22 when they married, 25 when she left India after the guns had stopped and peace was declared and he returned to claim his bride.
For three quarters of a century she travelled the world with her soldier boy returning only once to Pondicherry
when she was in her fifties and her mother lay dying.
Three quarters of a century spent missing
the Shangri-la of her childhood until she lay dying,
remembering the streets of Pondicherry, her hands grasping the rosary
her father had given her those many years ago when she left to follow
the soldier boy who had captured her heart and returned at war’s end
to take her away from everything she knew.
Canada never felt like home, she’d told me that time
she recited her life story through her tears,
marriage and having children were never her dream, she said,
they just happened.
Life mostly does that, she often said. It just happens
and we have to find a way to let God’s will be done.
She’d touched the feet of Jesus on the crucifix that stood on the mantel after she said that. The crucifix that had been with her those almost 75 years since leaving India.
And to be safe, she’d also touched the belly of the Buddha that sat on the windowsill. She never saw the irony of her hands fluttering from feet to belly.
And as she lay on her bed in those final days
reciting her prayers and gripping her rosary tight,
her eyes opened briefly and she looked straight at the wall
somewhere far beyond the end of the bed.
“Je viens, mon cher”, she whispered into the dark night where outside her over-heated room snow fell silently to the ground.
And she gave a little gasp of joy as she saw them all waiting for her.
Her Louis and mother and father and all her ancestors gone before her.
They were standing at the doorway of No. 7 Rue Suffren.
Waiting to welcome her home.
It was then that I knew, she had never really left India behind.
Just as India had never really let her go.
She had just been letting life happen until it was time
for her to return home.
Let God's will be done, she whispered into the night as she stepped lightly across the threshold into her home.