In the stillness that follows grief

For as long as I knew her, my maternal grandmother spent her days sitting cross-legged on her bed, her primary identity being her husband’s widow. She would occasionally rise to bestow us with the sublime pleasure of her cooking or to wrap herself in a pastel-colored sari and attend a birthday party, but over the years, she sat for longer and longer. Eventually, she stopped leaving the house, stopped even coming to the table for lunch, nodding off in the afternoons with her chin to her chest, the bedroom television blaring. Towards the end of her life, she got up only to grasp her way to the bathroom a couple times a day.

As a young adult, I used to find her choice a criminal waste—sitting like that, day after day, refusing the invitation of the world, inhabiting a grief that grew more ancient by the day. When she died after a brief illness, and my mother and aunt set fire to her funeral pyre, I was more irritated than sad.

Since then, though, while enduring my own difficult life transitions, I have thought of my darling grandmother more and more in the stillness that follows grief, realizing just how much actually happens in that space.

When I would sleep over in her room, as a child, I would wake to find her in that signature seated position, having been up for hours already, her thin hair covered with her chunni, her head bowed in deep meditation. Now a student of meditation myself, just scratching the surface, it occurs to me that my grandmother may have had a richer inner life than any of us, that she wasn’t losing much at all putting (to use a phrase from featured poet Melissa Cundieff-Pexa) “a curtain over that bright cage” that is the world and its invitation.

When picking through the bones and the teeth of the cremated, Hindus search for the aatmaram, a piece of the sternum believed to be the seat of the soul and pretty near impossible to find among the ashes. We found my grandmother’s perfectly intact. It resembles a figure in meditation.

Like the speaker in Theresa Lola’s “Unveiling the Vow,” there’s so much “I want to ask my grandmother” that I won’t have a chance to. But I do know that, from that bed, she maintained a dazzling cabinet of toiletries, foisting jars of cold cream upon my mother whenever she visited. She softened a once severe relationship with her daughters. She adored me, her little boy-cat, and taught me the stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata that still color my perspective. She enjoyed a new and depthless tenderness with her great-grandchildren who loved to run into her room and jump on her bed. Perhaps sitting is its own kind of engagement. And perhaps “silence is an archive,” as Momtaza Mehri’s poem reflects. She’s not here for my questions, but as I go through my life, her answers occasionally find me.

No one really used it in her final years, but my grandmother’s name was Manorama—an old-fashioned, elegant name full of memory, the name for a brave princess, I imagine, in a period piece, a supporting character, maybe, in a forgotten chapter of the Ramayana. Hardly anyone has that name anymore, but when I consider what I would call a future daughter, it is high on the shortlist. My grandmother’s name is a reminder that “the end does not stand still // but rises all around the place where it falls.”