I cannot say, and I will not say
That he is dead. He is just away.
With a cheery smile, and a wave of the hand,
He has wandered into an unknown land
And left us dreaming how very fair
It needs must be, since he lingers there.
And you—oh you, who the wildest yearn
For an old-time step, and the glad return,
Think of him faring on, as dear
In the love of There as the love of Here.
Think of him still as the same. I say,
He is not dead—he is just away.
Away by James Whitcomb Riley via ma.tt
I must say that at first I could not believe that you had left us this week. In fact, if I had to believe that it would have to be one of us who had been in such a hurry to leave, it wouldn’t have been you.
Somehow, you had seemed so stable, so very well grounded than the rest of us that I wouldn’t have thought that of you at all. And I doubt that if you’d been here with us today, sitting across a table perhaps at a restaurant or on your couch in your solid, suburban house that I could have been so candid with you.
For wasn’t that how it was that last time we met, all us girls, about how fun and carefree it was, how girlish, us in that very sleek, very grownup Manhattan apartment and fancy Thai restaurant, ducking our heads loaded into that taxicab rushing along Holland tunnel, giggling in our headiness at having defied those silly rules, as though we were still in our maroon and white school uniforms tarrying a bit too long at the water cooler missing Subbu’s Chemistry class?
We had kept our grownup selves at bay for a few hours to relive our girlhood once again after what was more than a decade of separation. Yet, you were the one who had insisted on trying to eat the unexpected dish that arrived, an entire fried fish, huge, with eyes staring and all, when the rest of us had been doubtful about touching it. You were the one that had wanted to take the train as the sensible way to cross the river that night. You were the sensible one, even more than me in our little group and that is why it is so much harder to believe that you would leave first and even harder to think that you might have known about the journey that was inevitably coming, which would be so much longer than simply crossing the Hudson that night.
The usual baggage of life, the cache that does not get cleared, the burden we live to carry on in our adult lives had separately been on each separate minds as we had played at schoolgirls that evening. I knew we hadn’t shared all like we did in our schooldays but I never thought that the play itself was coming to an end for one of us so soon. That your missive for your mission was already here while the rest of us were still struggling with the prologue.
It was mid-afternoon late on Thursday when I saw your obituary. It was clear as clear could be and very professional. It said it had been all over on Wednesday, which means it may have been Thursday where I am already. It is the miracle of social media that carries news so fast across a twelve hours’ time difference that it makes the shock as fresh and as acute as though I was right there in New Brunswick with you. Hence, while you were in deep sleep, even deeper than those in your part of our earthly abode, I was in the workplace at mid-day, suddenly seeing your face against some text on Facebook, knowing the inevitable, even while voices around me discussed schedules and curriculum and meeting times and the card readers on doors kept beeping as a reminder of place and time and context impinging on my dumb comprehension of those facts on the page.
Things clicked in my brain in quick succession then, why you were so unusually striking the way you were for the past three years and the difference between what I had seen and understood and what you were really trying to do. While it would sound like a cliché, I cannot believe you were so brave, fast forwarding life in so many spectacular ways to raise awareness and make memories for others that will have to carry on in your absence.
It wasn’t until I got home that day that I cried a bit. That puzzled me for truth be told, I wasn’t as close to you as that act would suggest in the last many years of our lives. It was only the second time I’ve cried in the last year and the first time was about something as banal as harsh detergent and peeling hands in a tiny shower. After that one cry, I continued on as usual, on my Skype chat later that night, my meetings the next day and my weekend date with Shakespeare in the park.
WhatsApp and Facebook exploded with updates, your Wall filled up with shocked comments by those who did not know this was coming and strangely, questions from those who, perhaps, still thought you could provide answers on your wall. Generally very voluble on social media, I could not find anything to say, not even on your funeral website made by your Funeral home in the style of your adopted country that you had made your own. The cacophony on all our online homes was distressing though, like loud voices at the end of a somber play or the harsh jangle of a bagful of coins falling to the floor during a moment of silence.
A story had unequivocally ended and had closed off a part of the story of my life with it. Perhaps that was it—the real source of my distress.
I don’t quite remember the start of that story in third grade but I do remember the moment when your smart, older cousin (much admired by me) had brought you over to my place. “My cousin from England,” she had said proudly and I knew you were something better than us, and by a quirk of fate, by that act of moving from England to Calcutta you had created the lucky chance for me to get a seat in the school that had set the tone for the rest of my life by making the school admit a few students out of season in the middle of a term.
Over the period of the next nine years, we’d be growing into a comfortable closeness simply based on proximity and the shared experience of a bunch of girls growing to almost womanhood in a closed environment. Because we never grew overly close, our lives, to me, always seemed parallel, growing in different directions, making different choices within the limited ones available to us those days, similar enough to warrant comparisons in my head and different enough to lend meaning to the narrative of my own life. That narrative of your life, which was always present in my peripheral vision alongside mine is rounded off and closed now and I am at a loss.
Just wanted you to know that I shall miss you and I shall miss that.
Yet, there’s been more pain than this account would suggest.
That afternoon two young faces flashed in front of my mind. The youngest is only as old as my nephew. At that age, I remember, my mother would be so very careful of me even spending a single night away from her watchful eyes at home. I wondered how you must have felt knowing that you would have to embark on this long journey leaving such young children behind. I could only grasp at what strength of mind you had summoned in the last few years to lead such a full life knowing what you did doing your utmost to leave behind memories for them.
I doubt that I could have been so candid about how I felt were you really here sitting across a restaurant or a cafe in Edison or on a plastic chair holding a plastic cup next to me just keeping our voices audible over the evening programs at a Durga Puja hall in New Jersey. Then we would have exchanged the facts of our lives with some censorship, talked about some common friends in an attempt to keep the past alive. We would have taken pictures, uploaded the best ones on WhatsApp, talked about whether we were taking a cab or the train home or whether someone was picking us up letting the banalities of the everyday swallow what I really should have said to you.
But since that will never happen now, not in a Thai restaurant in Manhattan, not at a bus stop on Lindsay St. in Calcutta, not at Durga Puja in that Ukranian Church in New Jersey, I thought I would just say what I wanted to say in a letter and let this go into the chaos of the internet, which, for some reason, seems like another world to me, as though I could reach you there.
I have spent three rather sleepless nights since you left, I really don’t know why, and that while you may not have been aware of it, you shaped my life in some ways just by choosing to be you in your parallel life. But this early twist in the tale and the sudden exit is something that I hadn’t anticipated and so I wasn’t prepared for it. So since you left, I’ve been thinking about my own life a lot, what matters and what doesn’t and how short everything is.
I have to say I am very proud of you for having lived the way you did, so gracefully, knowing what you did and I hope I can find the same strength to live in style against all adversity so long as I have to continue on this journey until, perhaps, we meet again.
Goodbye until then and rest in peace.