Losing my mom and the journey to find myself

How a visit to a library and her encounter with books set the author on the path of inner transformation

girl reading book in library

The library has always been my favourite destination.

In the Delhi suburb where my husband Girish and I started married life, the library was a hole-in-the-wall space. When we moved to Chennai, I became a member of two libraries: Eloor, a single room that housed racks and racks of books; and, the plush British Council Library with its bright orange furniture and comfy couches.

Days after we moved to a Chicago suburb, I stepped into Schaumburg Township District Library for the first time and thought I’d stumbled into heaven. My imagination can conjure up pretty amazing stuff, but even I wasn’t prepared for anything like this: the cavernous carpeted spaces and books housed in two storeys; the adult section and the “Enchanted Forest” for tots, the music and DVD sections, ESL classrooms, computer labs and a cozy café.

Time stands still when I’m in a library; my fingers caressing the thick spines, smelling the ink and gazing at the tall shelves of books that never fail to remind me: so many books, so little time.

Books used to be my friends

It is daunting that I find no solace between the pages of a book now; something I’ve always counted on for escape. A book got me through most of life’s challenges: when Appa’s drunken binge pushed me to the fuzzy edges of sanity; when I started married life in a city without a single friend to call my own; when I missed my siblings; as a new mom doing the diaper marathon; and sitting outside the intensive care unit waiting for a white-coated doctor to show up with an update on Appa.

No book holds my attention now. When you’ve stared death in the face, trite characters and plots seem trivial. Akin to an alcoholic who gags at the sight of the amber liquid he once thirsted for.

Questions buzz non-stop in my head: Why me? Why her? Why now? Where did she go? Images recur, like a screensaver. One particular image edges the rest out, occupies centre stage: Amma’s lifeless body in a turmeric-yellow silk sari, its breath silenced. The image is accompanied by a single thought that plays over and over, a record needle stuck in its groove.

We come into this world with nothing; we leave with nothing.

Amma worked hard her whole life, but left with nothing except the one garment she was wearing.

This truth fills me with despair and dread. And if this is the truth, my entire life has been a lie. It mocks all that I’ve ever believed in: success, ambition, material comforts, basically a life of fulfilment. None of it makes any sense. I feel a void.

Trying to fit the pieces

You come into the world an innocent infant full of potential and possibility; you grow up and get an education; you get the right degrees; you get a job; you get married; have kids; they grow up and have kids; and if you’re lucky, you get to bounce your grandkids on your knee before you die an average unglorified death. Is this all there is?

Something tells me this script is incomplete; that I’m missing a vital link here.

And again, the single tormenting image. Amma’s body draped in a yellow sari, the only earthly possession she took with her—that too, only as far as the crematorium.

Where do the pieces fit, I begin to wonder. The struggle to find the perfect job, the one that makes you feel like a million bucks even if it doesn’t bring home anything close? The rented apartment which mocks you, so you obsess about finding ways to increase your real estate footprint? The scooter, the car, then the bigger car, the fancier car… and on and on, this relentless quest for ‘stuff’ we never get to take, anyway.

The answers begin to pop out

I wander around the library for hours, the questions growing louder inside my head—just so I don’t have to stay home alone and wrestle with them.

Just as I turn to head out, I come to a dead halt in the non-fiction aisle. A book screams out loud at me. A book I’ve glimpsed many times in the past, and know to be an Oprah’s Book Club selection—A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle. I don’t quite understand the urgency, but I lunge and grab it like it’s the last copy on the planet.

When I get home, and start to read, I cannot put it down. It has me hooked like a spy thriller, only it’s chock-full of philosophy that’s all new to me. Tolle refers to the ego as the false self, and illumines the need to awaken to a new consciousness from the place of one’s true self. I drink deep, waking from a long, dry thirst, as if this is the book I’ve been waiting for, the answer to life’s recent anguish.

When you die, the book proclaims, you will be judged on the basis of your true self, and how well you lived your life according to its tenets. Amma’s life flashes before my eyes. A+ all the way, I think to myself. She scores big because she had no desire to be right, to win the arguments, to walk over others. For most of my life, I had a word for it: doormat. I watched how she never let petty quarrels upset her rhythm, was rarely offended, and hardly ever blamed anyone, no matter what was going on in her life. What I’d always seen as weakness I now begin to know is strength.

My quest to understand death

Over the weeks, books on death and dying and the afterlife begin to fascinate me. Elizabeth Kubler-RossOn Life After Death explains that Amma shed her cocoon [physical body] and became a butterfly in death. I love the image of Amma as a colourful butterfly, flitting about sunlit gardens, drinking deeply to fill her soul, free and untethered in a way her earthly life could never be.

One evening, I pick up a copy of Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and flip through the pages. A friend handed me the book before I left Chennai. I skip to part two: Dying. The first words in the section speak to me: “In a hospice I know, Emily, a woman in her late sixties, was dying of breast cancer. Her daughter would visit her everyday and there seemed to be a happy relationship between the two. But when her daughter had left, Emily would nearly always sit alone and cry. After a while, it became clear that the reason for this was that her daughter had refused completely to accept the inevitability of her death…”

The words shock me in the solar plexus. It sounds so familiar to Amma’s story, and mine. A voracious appetite stoked, I read further.

Every page I turn, key concepts jump out at me: compassion, forgiveness, preparing to die, and dying well. Concepts I’ve never considered, being too busy living life. The words make me feel petty and childish. I consider the futility of the energy we invest in hanging onto grudges and offences, real and imagined. The truth: it all evaporates the instant our breath leaves the body.

The sense of urgency I experience is so powerful I stride to my desk, flip open my laptop and make a list of names. They are the people I’ve wronged and need to make amends with: a dear friend with whom I fell out over a silly argument; a business contact whose actions I’d silently questioned and blamed; a friend whose life I’d disappeared from. Dredging up incidents and names from the hidden recesses of my mind is strangely liberating.

Over the next half an hour, I compose emails to each of them, rendering an apology, resolving a conflict, taking ownership, letting go. When I’m done, my moral slate wiped clean for now, I feel a sense of deep peace in the centre of my being. So much better than the bitter acid that churned in my gut making me hold on, grasp, want to be right.

These books are my first encounters with a sliver of peace, a feeling that just maybe, there is meaning to this madness we call the earthly journey. Buried beneath the chaos and ruins of my tragic situation are treasures that I’m slowly waking up to.

This excerpt was earlier published in the June 2016 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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