Has it really been five years?

I opened my eyes this morning at 7, thinking, "At this time, Appa was calling Sudha." With that began a day of counting down to something that still colors everything I think and everything I do.

The sun was shining all day today.

I am so sad that this is the fifth anniversary of the day you died. But that thought also brings your voice, "Ser’daan po, are you going to sit here and think about that all day?" Of course not. I am your daughter. I have your work ethic. I can also put on my shoes and sun-glasses, pick up my keys and switch gears to go to work.

With every failure, every disappointment, every frustration, I think—irrationally, of course—that this would not have happened if you were here. But then I also think of you and your life. I think about all the times you would stare out, preoccupied, into the balcony, and I would try to distract you for some silly reason. That moment of startled annoyance. And then the swift return to the here and now of our living room. I sit alone and look at your picture and think now: was he trying to figure out how to make ends meet? Was he rationalizing some disappointment? Was he thinking about all the things he could have been? But I don’t know, because you never showed us the dark side of life if you could help it.

The Appa I think of would turn from those preoccupations to draw a floor plan, suggest a project or ask a question about an unexpected topic. Unrepentantly enthusiastic, indefatigably creative. Never saying die. So when I came back at a little past 1 in the afternoon to the message that you had collapsed, I was concerned but I never thought you would. My friend and I kept vigil, drank tea, made calls, waited—and you died. How?

Your death made me think about life. And I haven’t stopped for the last five years. So full of life and then gone all at once. It was, is, so hard for me to comprehend. War, peace, love, friendship, kindness, caring, goodness, right and wrong, work, play—all have become entangled with this terrible and yet wonderful thing that I was supposed to learn. And that you always knew, I think. There is just this moment, and the purpose of life is to live it with love and with heart and with courage and to live it big in every way. I can write that, but I still have problems with some of it. Courage, for instance.

On the flight back to India, I kept thinking: who is going to say to me now, "Don’t worry, yaar! What is there to worry about?" I haven’t stopped worrying for such a long time. I worry about everything because there is no one to tell me in your confident voice that I shouldn’t.

I used to tell people that I felt as though the ceiling, the floor, the walls had fallen out of my world. Suddenly, I felt exposed to the cold rooms in people’s hearts, the sharp edge of their thoughtlessness and the callous cut of their disregard. I was worth nothing on my own, if I was not your daughter. I was thirty-something and still in school, no immediate prospect of a job, not ‘settled’ in the conventional sense and not secure in the modern. As you yourself would add, I didn’t even drive, swim or cycle! In the last five years, I have had to figure out anew who I am. Yes, we have struggled in ways from which we were happily sheltered, but it is not the day-to-day struggle that alone has made me feel defeated. It is that feeling of abandonment, that fear that we are ultimately all alone and the ensuing insecurity that I will probably never lose.

At around 3 or 4 in the afternoon, I was convinced that it was a good idea to go to Bombay. Amma would need my help in the hospital. So I started arranging to leave—writing exams, arranging for grades, working on my documentation so I could travel. You had already left us.

A couple of months after you died, I had a chance encounter with a school-mate who asked me to look for the positive in your death. I did, and I found it. First of all, for us, death is not a negative outcome. It is a release from the debts and the bondage of this form and a passage to others. This is a good thing. Second, if you had to die, at least this was relatively quick and you did not have to endure a long illness, loss of dignity or a coma. That is also a good thing. Third, at least I got to know you for thirty-one years. We have traveled together, shopped together, had fun, planned projects, even talked. Some of those years, I knew you as a grown-up daughter. That was special. Fourth, I could have had a horrid, abusive father for thirty-one years. It was after you died that I began to realize how unusual you were. Until then, I assumed you were the norm. Fathers cooked, cleaned, hung out, cracked bad jokes, participated in the lives of their families without imposing any rules other than, "Turn off the lights when you leave a room." I realize now that the bad jokes are probably the only universal factor. Good fathers are a rare thing. So, for as long as I had you, you were a gift.

If you remember the numbers of people who showed up at your funeral, that is the fifth good thing. You did not live long enough to do everything you would have liked, but it was a good life because there was so much genuine affection in that room. In the weeks after that day, we found out all sorts of things about you. You had helped people we didn’t know you knew. You had stopped and gone out of your way over and over again. The purpose of life is giving. Figured that one out in the summer of 1995. Giving without account, giving before being asked, giving quietly and giving because it was the most natural thing in the world.

Everything makes us miss you. And that is the sixth positive thing. Music, good food, family and friends, a good movie, a great new car (or living in car-land—Michigan), good books, nice clothes, good design of any sort—aesthetic or ergonomic. You loved all these and your life celebrated them. Clean, dapper clothes, state-of-the-art music systems, new books with boarding passes tucked in them, a new snack, good creamy thayir… you relished life with all your senses and with all your heart. Now everything from Nat King Cole’s voice to Madurai Mani’s gamakams to good vadaam makes us sad, but the good thing is—you remind us to love life. And to live it fully.

I want to be like you, Appa. I want to live with heart, to dream without a one inch border, to believe that everything is in fact possible. Sometimes, I do tell myself that. Things don’t work out and I start to despair, and then I say, "Hey, I am Appa’s daughter. I can make anything happen." And as long as I focus on this, I am fine. I can write books, teach great classes, cook great paruppu usli, give generously and still have enough, go out and make world peace happen on the side, and then take the evenings and weekends off to paint or sing or write.

Now, people look at me and more than ever, they see your face in mine. I want them to see your heart, your courage, your magic. I want to fill them with confidence simply by being present, just like you did. I want them to always see your joie de vivre. One of the most amazing things about you was your ability to be quite simply and marvelously, yourself. No matter who you were talking to, you were you. I want to have the integrity and the strength to be that.

I think the most depressing thing about your dying was simply that without your magical presence, the world just seemed to close in on us. Suddenly, we were disconnected from something bigger than us and shackled to a world of limits. Effortlessly and without spouting any jargon, you seemed to straddle the world of little people and little things and the world of infinite, magical possibilities. I have hankered after that limitless canvas on which you showed us to paint, and that space without bounds. What I had as your child, I am slowly trying now to recover.

I grieved for you before you died. For a month or two before your death, I would walk through my days with tears streaming down my face. I was overwhelmed by the knowledge that my universe was changed forever. I mourned friends I had lost contact with, things about my past that I had forgotten, a life that would never come back. And then you died, and I had already finished mourning. Or so I thought.

This grief is now one of the motifs of my life. It has opened my heart in so many ways. I feel so much more emotion—the old limits are gone and everything is even more intense than ever. Every task, every project, every word seems to come from a place deep within. One of the lessons of your life for me: it is in the giving, every moment, and in caring passionately, that there is meaning and richness in life. I try in everything I do, to commit that fully.

And at 8:30 or so in the evening, I finally was told that you were gone. As you had lived, so had you died, quickly, decisively, hard at work. In the Bombay you were always threatening to leave. And there, sitting in the lovely living room you had designed, I heard your voice on the tenth day. "Seri-ya, see you." I would give anything to see you again. To hear that key in the door—‘slee-slocket’ as Sudha used to describe it. To feel your hands and the security they held. To hear your voice sing, "When you’re smiling," as you woke us up for school.

Grief is a selfish thing. I don’t care at those moments about all that you would have to endure for being still with us, in this world, in this body, in this life. I just want you back so I can be that old me again. "It is Margaret you mourn for." Hopkins was right.

Appa, when am I going to stop feeling this sad? When will the tears dry up? I do wonder whether I should still be feeling your loss this intensely. I wonder if this means I am somehow not okay. I wonder if and when and how this grief will go away. I wonder about all those things. And then I think about who you were, and what you mean to me, and how can I not?

Has it been five years already? Have we gone five years without your cooking, your laughter, your voice, your sudden phone calls and your expressive face? And yet, you would be proud of us. We have lived as you would have wanted—fully, feeling every day intensely, working as hard as we can, surviving and even thriving. We still dream the big dreams and secretly believe them possible. Slowly, we are recovering the confidence we had that we could make them possible.

But we have missed you very, very much. Every single day. For five long years.

East Lansing, 5-3-00