Each time I come and go from Houston, I cry.
There’s that Ides of March in 2002 when my godfather passed in a car accident and I flew back to Houston. I sobbed in sheer shock from take-off to landing while a gentleman with rough hands reached across the empty middle seat and, in silence, held my trembling hand. I never asked for his name.
There’s also the time after college when I spent a few months in Texas with my mother, before moving to London. My move coincided with the ending of a significant relationship. And as the London-bound Virgin Atlantic flight took off, I gobbled the gourmet chocolates he (Joseph) had left on my doorknob as a peace offering and sobbed.
* * *
Houston’s delivered me three significant losses in the last 10 years. The third and most recent being the passing of my youngest uncle, my mother’s younger brother; his passing raising deep-rooted dilemmas for me. Dilemmas I have answered for 15+ years by estrangement. This uncle was my legal guardian when I was a child and had a relationship of equal resentment and equal love with my mother. For my little sister Nistha and myself, years of extreme sexual and physical abuse left us with only one feeling for him: disgust and hatred. I left it all behind as early as I could, confident that my childhood was not the best it was going to get for me. Carefully I looped Nistha into my choices and offered my mother my care and love as long as she cut our uncle out. She chose her brother over us.
Despite her gigantic love and compassion for us, she found my actions unacceptable, bold, disobedient. I just wanted to smile, laugh, pursue stability, get an education, be happy, be physically safe, be grateful, find some normality – but could never get her to see it from my point of view. After I left, I often came back to care for her through physical illnesses and spiraling depression, finding creative ways to honor my relationship with her independent of my uncle’s actions and presence. Her want was for us to unconditionally accept our uncle as an absolute father-figure (as our own father was not present), complete with the ugliness and dysfunction. I flat-out refused.
* * *
En route to Houston for my uncle’s funeral, I sat in the airport texting my best friends’ David, Sahil, Elena, Hugh, Carlton. “How do I mourn/appreciate someone who was our guardian but also inflicted years of harm and pain? Why am I even going to this funeral? What the fuck am I doing?”
There’s really no answer, maybe the closest is something about transcendence and spirituality and in rising above. For me, the “fuck-it, there’s nothing I can do” type of rhetoric, sex, sports, art and other distractive elements usually do the trick.
The ironies of my uncle’s passing sucker-punched me in the gut. My uncle passed 10 feet from where my mother did, at the same age as her, of the same cause of death – heart failure. His funeral was held on her birthday, February 4th (would have been her 62nd), in the same funeral home as my mother’s funeral, same crematorium, same casket, same hall even. She chose him in life and death, even.
Yeap, it’s like that, these chapters of our narratives that are sometimes just out of our hand. My sister and I, as we drove the last six miles to the funeral on one of the ugliest streets in Houston, took some comfort in knowing that that my mother and uncle’s stories are now done, edited in their own way. Maybe the chapters could stop being written now, like the character of Quinn in Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. Quinn ceases to exist, in a gloriously post-modern way, when there is no more room to write his life story in his red notebook. No more white space. So maybe our narrative in that conservative state of Texas, halfway between the East Coast and the proclaimed City of Angels, where conservative red-neck values meet with the “keep it at home,” preserve Indian-values above all, “America has no morals” attitude of Indian refugees from 1947, finally stopped spinning.
* * *
During the funeral I kept my cool, despite the heaviness from the de-ja-vu of my mother’s passing and funeral. Afterwards, as his body was cremated, it was a freezing cold January day in Houston as the degrees on the crematorium display started rising. I stood far behind the crowd of mourners that were gathering around the crematorium and chanting final rite mantras and prayers. I stood, separate from even Nistha, in a puddle of water on the concrete, watching this narrative write itself, hugging my white woolen coat, balancing in beige heels and gasping as I had a flashback and finally began to lose my cool.
I had a flashback to standing in the same spot three years prior, in unbearable Texas heat, watching the temperature rise on the digital display at my mother’s cremation. The ends of my white sari were wet from puddles of rainwater from earlier in the day. Others had walked away after offering their final respects except my now-late uncle, who stood outside that crematorium and watched the degrees just rise and rise. It was slow-motion: his silent tears, the ticking of the degrees, the narrative he had entered and was witnessing being written. The Texas heat and our history became irrelevant. The only palpable thing, the only thing alive in that place of death was the humanity of that moment, of my uncle’s tears for his older sister. I was so confused by his pain and stood behind him, wishing I could zoom as far away from the moment as I could, watching. I suddenly told him we had to walk away, right at that moment. “Now,” I said, “we have to leave now.” And that’s what he did, walking away from a history that was less-than-perfect.
This flashback, this memory, blanketed over me as I watched the temperature of the crematorium rise at my uncle’s crematorium. That’s why I lost my cool. I went with it, just cried and cried, and all around me an explosion of arms of friends, random auntie’s, random uncle’s, hugs, kisses, hands wiping my tears, someone pulling my curly hair out of my eyes, my sister reaching for a hug, someone hugging her. . . .boom, boom, boom. I zoomed out, mentally removed myself from the moment, placed myself on a mental map of the U.S., in a spot between the East Coast and the City of Angels, visualized the end of Quinn’s red notebook, so extremely grateful I had ceased from being in this narrative.