Dear Son: A Note from the Past
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I got a letter in the mail from my father the other day. Except it's now been almost five years since he died in Calcutta. One day last month, rummaging through old closets and drawers, my mother found a pad in which he had written several long, undated letters to her and me, preparing us for a life without him. That letter arrived in my mailbox in San Francisco this week.
As an immigrant, I fear that every passing year draws me further and further away from everything I have known and loved. The faces of my cousins fade, their names blur, it's harder and harder to care about their weddings and children. Even their deaths seem hard to comprehend, occurring half a world away. It makes me worry that I am losing the ability to care, to mourn, that the essence of what used to be me is leaking away into my American life.
When my father died in India, I was in America. A soft-spoken dignified man of few words, he left little trace of himself behind. He never wrote long letters. He usually scribbled a couple of lines at the end of my mother's letters. I sensed he wrote them under duress. "Write to your son," she would demand. He'd oblige. "Happy Birthday," he would write. "We are well. Take care of yourself." Reading them, it was hard to know what he was thinking.
By the time I changed two airplanes and reached India he was just a framed photograph on the table. He had already been cremated. Though tradition demanded that as a son I light the funeral pyre, it was my sister who had to do that long before I managed to get there.
The passing of a parent is probably the final initiation into adulthood. But I never really experienced it. In a sense, immigration insulated me from the rawness and finality of that experience. On the other hand, it left me feeling forever incomplete.
Though the logical part of me knew he was gone, I hadn't seen him in the hospital, I hadn't seen the nurse, I hadn't seen his body wreathed in flowers before they took him away. His death was something I had only heard about.
Now, sitting with photocopies of pages from his notepad, I can hear him talking in a way he never really did when he was alive. Perhaps he never thought we would listen. Perhaps he always thought we were too busy. Or perhaps that was just his unassuming style. "I am no body so important that when I am gone, I will be really missed by anyone other than you," he wrote in his letter. "Don't worry about doing elaborate funeral ceremonies for me. Don't shave your head. Don't follow all those rules and rituals."
We didn't find out in time. I shaved my head and we followed all the rituals. Five years later, his angular handwriting makes me mourn him in a way I never could when I was actually grappling with the shock of his passing. He tells us about his wonder that he has seen men go to the moon and the atom bomb. He wrestles with his agnosticism even as he senses his time is winding down. He hopes he has taken care of things so that we will never need for anything if we live simply. He thinks he has raised his children to be able to stand on their own feet and be independent.
Though I have no idea where he wrote those letters, I can now see him in his office downstairs. The old wooden desk, the top stained from countless leaky pens. I can see the yellow and pink manila folders where he carefully filed away investment information. I can see him sitting in the chair that belonged to my grandfather, in front of a pristine, ruled pad, writing a letter that he was never going to post. "What are you doing down there?" my mother would grumble. "Oh, nothing," he would reply.
Long after he died, while driving through San Francisco I would try and imagine our bedroom in Calcutta on the morning of his passing. I would try and remember my mother and sister's stories and stealthily insert myself into that scene. That was my way of holding on to my father, even as time and distance slowly ate away at the memory.
Now I feel like I don't need to do that anymore. I am glad it took us this long to find these letters. Finally I hear his voice again after a very long time, and I feel that at last I get to say goodbye.
Sandip Roy is associate editor at Pacific News Service