How My Mother and I Became Friends… After My Father Died

Modern Family

How My Mother and I Became Friends… After My Father Died

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

It was the morning of Ganesh Chaturthi last year, a day that marked the beginning of a week of Maharashtrian festivities and family reunions. Mumma was gearing up for the puja, having just finished her chores. After draping herself in the brightest blue saree, she put a rose in her freshly dyed hair, walked up to my unusually quiet father, twirled, and asked, “Mi kashi diste (How do I look?)” I vividly remember Papa’s pensive face transforming almost instantly; he flashed a grin and replied, “Ekdum mast (Very nice!)”  

If you’d looked at them that morning, you wouldn’t be able to discern that three hours later, my mother would be stripped off the luxury of donning that bright blue saree.

The ensuing weeks after my father’s untimely death were full of endless rituals, exhaustive paperwork, and frequent breakdowns. Very few moments in life are as infuriating as being forced to adapt to circumstances beyond your control. In the beginning, Mumma and I struggled to make peace with our loss. She had to learn to live without a partner and I had to be the mature adult whose life would now be devoid of a mentor. If that weren’t bad enough, everyone around us kept repeatedly reminding us of the one thing we were trying hard to forget: “It’s only going to be the two of you now.”

Mumma didn’t just lose a husband and I a father. We’d also lost the bridge that connected the two of us. My mother and I had practically lived like strangers all our lives.

Unlike my calm father, Mumma is an anxious person. Papa was the filter between my mother and the world. He was great with people and took all the big decisions. He understood my mother and shielded her from all things that made her uncomfortable. With him gone, her already low self-esteem took a further hit. This was a time when it was imperative then that she and I were on the same page every day. Except we had no idea how to be a team.

It started off slow – we’d spend hours talking about Papa, unwilling to breach our existing boundaries.

Growing up, my mother and I’ve constantly been on opposite sides, whether it was my academic choices or my unconventional career path. We’d bicker frequently — whenever I wanted to travel with friends unknown to her or stay up late to watch a TV show. It was Papa who would always step in and make us see reason. He would urge her to let go; explaining that as long as I was going to take responsibility for my actions, it was okay. But he’d also ensure that I didn’t just dismiss my mother’s concerns. He was our perpetual referee.

In the initial weeks after his death, Mumma and I just tiptoed around each other, communicating via the relatives who kept us company. But that changed once everyone around us returned to their own lives. Not only were we left to pick up the pieces, but also to learn to connect with each other. For the last 25 years, it seemed like the only thing both of us had in common was our mutual love toward my father, but now we had a common enemy: loneliness. And for the first time in two decades, Mumma and I had to be each other’s glue.

It started off slow – we’d spend hours talking about Papa, unwilling to breach our existing boundaries. But someone had to change at a faster pace and it had to be me. After all, my mother’s grief was more profound.

I decided to take a month-long break from work and spend time with her. We went out frequently, traded secrets, and started a tradition of rewarding ourselves with an impromptu meal or a late-night movie every time we ticked something off our never-ending to-do list. Before we knew it, we had begun enjoying each other’s company.

I still remember the pained look in her eyes on the first day I returned to work – it articulated just how much she feared being left on her own, all over again. Even though, resuming work helped me cope, it made my mother more restless.

And so, I went from never calling my mother amid work to calling her thrice a day. I pushed her to cook, eat, sleep, and even wake up through these conversations. I also realised it was time my mother, who had depended on someone her entire life, learnt to be self-reliant. Now she does bank transactions and documentation on her own. With every hurdle we crossed, my mother started slowly regaining her confidence. Around the same time, our arguing resumed but this time around, it was accompanied by an undertone of understanding.

A lot has changed in the past year. My mother and I aren’t great friends yet, but we’re also no longer strangers in each other’s lives. Every night, we spend a few minutes updating each other about our day. No decisions are made without confiding in each other and we now tend to differ less and support each other more.  

I’ve also hung out more with Mumma in the past year than in all my teenage years put together. Recently, she and my aunt took a short course in voice modulation. In one of their classes, they were required to talk on their preferred subject for five minutes. Mumma pestered me for a whole week to help her come up with possible topics but didn’t seem quite convinced with my ideas. A few days after their session, my aunt happened to call, informing me that Mumma ended up talking about me… for 10 minutes. At that point, I knew we’d be okay.

The thing about loss is that it exposes how unprepared you really are. One year ago, Mumma and I couldn’t imagine a life without Papa or one with just each other. But grief has the tendency to make you look at the bigger picture. Death compels you to re-evaluate life and see our families with a fresh eye. Difficult as the past year was, it also pushed the two of us to not give up on each other because of our differences.  

When you’re thrown into the deep end of the sea, you either swim or sink. My mother and I are midway – we’ve managed to stay afloat.