I sit by my grandmother in the hospital room. She’s out of the ICU, finally. But she is weak and in pain.
She raises a shaking hand, motions for my aunt.
“I want to go,” she says in Hindi. For some reason, I can fully understand her. Anybody else in that language, no.
I reach over and hold her hands in mine. Her skin, always so soft. Those very hands that welcomed me into this world. That held me close. The hands that raised me when I was a little boy.
“Barimummy,” I say, using the name I gave to her as a child. Literally translated, it means: Big Mom.
She turns her face to me slowly. My Big Mom. Her body so tiny in the hospital bed.
“Where do you want to go?” I ask in English.
“Bhagwan ke ghar,” she says. God’s house.
She wants to go be with God. The word Bhagwan, said with such tenderness and reverence, it makes me think of love and creation and the very Universe itself wrapped into one.
“Mummy,” my aunt says, stroking my grandmother’s forehead. “You will get better and we will take you home and I will wash your hair.”
As far back as I can remember, her hair was always white and long and flowing. She, the wise one. The one everyone loved. The one the neighbors came to for advice. The one everyone trusted.
“Guess what?” I point to my head and grin for effect. “Our hair is similar.”
Last time she saw me, I had short hair, reminiscent of the high and tight from my Army days. This time, it’s a big shock of white everywhere. She laughs, taking my aunt by surprise. It’s the first time she has laughed in the hospital.
The next day, when I return to the hospital, my mother and aunt are in the room, both reading out loud from a book in Sanskrit. My Grandmother seems to be sleeping.
I motion to my mother. “Shouldn’t we be quiet, let her rest?”
“We are reading the Gita,” my aunt says. “It is what we are supposed to do for her.”
“It’s tradition, beta,” my mother says. She looks so tired. “When a person is dying, it is important to do this.”
I nod, feeling foolish, and sit and listen. When they finish, a thought occurs to me.
“Can I read it to her?”
“Of course,” my mother says. “I’ll buy an English version for you tonight.”
I smile. In my pocket is the world’s largest library. I pull out my iPhone, fire up Safari, and a minute later, have an English version ready to go. My aunt reviews it, then satisfied, tells me to read Chapter eighteen. The title: Final Revelations of the Ultimate Truth.
I go and stand by my grandmother’s bed. She raises a shaking hand up to me. She is ready. My first time ever with this ancient text. I start fast, my voice stumbling.
“Asked Arjuna, I want to know the truth,
and also about sacrifice.”
My grandmother closes her eyes softly.
“All of these acts should be performed
renouncing the attachment to the fruit of actions.”
I don’t have to look up from my phone. I can feel her listening.
“Without aversion to unpleasant work
and without attachment to pleasant work,
the renouncer is intelligent and free
from all doubts.”
I slow down and find my pace. I’m no longer stumbling. I read out loud. When I finish, her eyes are still closed. Her face, calm. And I am in awe. I’ve just read fundamental human truths on happiness, on right action, on giving one’s all to their task without attachment to outcome. It’s also about letting go and giving up to something greater than yourself.
This is a gift I’ve been given, I realize, to take part in an ancient ritual of helping a loved one cross to the other side. I read it to her one more time the day I leave.
My last memory of her is the darkened hospital room. The rhythmic beep of the heart monitor, the white sheets over her tiny body, the oxygen mask on her face. I stand by her side. She knows I’m leaving. She raises a hand and places it over my head, blessing me. The effort tires her out. Hand drops, eyes close.
I kiss her forehead, walk to the door and watch her for a long time. My mind is a numb echo. Then I walk back and kiss her forehead again. I think I repeat this twice.
“It’s time to go,” my aunt says gently. “Your flight will leave.”
I nod and give her a hug, then walk out the room, take the elevator down to the ground floor, past the sleepy guard, and on to the waiting car, then the hotel, a glass of white wine by the garden in the musty Delhi air, and off to the airport, and on to the plane, seatbelts, wheels up, and as I stare out the window to the night, I think of my grandmother taking in her remaining breaths on this planet. A sudden exhaustion sucks me in and I fall asleep.
She passes away two days after I return to the U.S. For the first several weeks, I wake up from dreams of her, crying. There was one point in the hospital room, when it was just her and I, me standing by her side and holding her hand, and I felt her drop.
Something in her started to go. The oxygen saturation monitor started beeping. I held tighter. There was nothing to do. We’d spoken with the doctors, it was her time, and no measures would be taken.
I held and she dropped and I held tighter and she dropped and I felt my chest squeeze from the inside. The monitor beeped louder. And then, just as fast as it’d happened, it stopped. Her breathing became regular. She started to rise. But my heart squeezed and squeezed.
I’d wake up to that memory, crying. Wishing I could have done something to take away her pain. You hold a hand, you hold it tight, you give it all the love you got. Everything. But sometimes, that is not enough.
Sometimes, life has its own plan and it has run its course. Do we hold on for ourselves or for the one whose time has come? Ourselves, I suspect.
It’s been over a month. I don’t wake up crying anymore. Besides, if she saw me this way, she’d lovingly smack me upside the head and tell me to stop being silly and find a great girl and get married. Thinking of her doing that always makes me laugh.
I remember her, this amazing human being who was such an influence in my life, and I smile, and I feel, for lack of better words, a depth of gratitude.
And that’s what love transforms into when the person is gone. Gratitude.
Redeye to New York from San Francisco. Somewhere over the midwest, I pull the window shade down and stare at the constellations. A bright clear night, slight patch of clouds. Below, pockets of scattered lights.
The moon is just out of sight, ahead of the plane. I press my face into the glass, nose bending sideways, and squint until I can see it. It is a half moon. From this angle, it looks like the moon with a face, like you see in children’s books. He smiles at me.
I nod, then look out past the wing and up to the stars.
“It is,” I breathe out loudly. “It is.”
We stay that way for a while. The man on the moon, stars, earth, the hum of the jet engines, me. My mind wanders, thoughts upon thoughts. Things I wish weren’t so. Things I wish I could change.
I feel the moon watching me. I look at him again. He’s smiling. An ever knowing smile.
“It’s still beautiful,” he says.
I watch my thoughts disappear into wisps. Only the stars remain.
“Yeah,” I say silently in my head. “Yeah.”
I press my face harder into the glass until I can see him better. He glows bright, lighting up the sky.
“It’s not my light,” he says. “I’m just open to it. So I receive it. The brightness you see from me, it’s because of that.”
So I don’t need to create light, I think. It already exists. I just have to open to it. The rest happens naturally.
I can feel him smile.
“Like a Lotus,” he says. “Receive the light, you will bloom.”
A Lotus blooming. I love that image.
“Go to sleep,” he says gently. “You’ve learned enough for one night.”
I nod, whisper a thank you, pull up the shade, and lie back in my seat. The jet engines lull me to sleep.
Hey Kamal. Nice post, man.
So, how many Facebook likes for your life to be validated?
Let’s try this.
How many zeros after a one in your bank account for you to have mattered?
Come on, really?
I’m getting bored.
Child’s play, buddy.
I’m falling asleep.
“A million. Wait, a billion zeros.”
“All right, I get it. What?”
A golf ball, compressed. Aflame. Inside, hotter than the center of the sun.
It explodes outwards, creating an entire Universe in its wake. Dimensions form and ripple. Galaxies spin together. Planets cool into orbits. Asteroids, comets, black holes. Gas clusters. More stars than all the zeroes in all your bank accounts.
And somewhere in that quantum wake, carbon, oxygen, and atoms from the original furnace fold into helixlike bonds to form your DNA to express itself into you.
You. This amazing construct of hopes, dreams, desires, and fears that has stared at the moon at night and pondered his own existence.
You, the conscious manifestation of the Big Bang.
And one day, this construct will cease to exist. The essence returning to whatever the greater essence is. But you, this unbelievably complex yet stupidly simple being, gone.
That you exist, it is validation enough. That one day you won’t, even more.
But hey, what do I know? I’m just stardust.
We walk up the stairs to my fourth story apartment in the East Village. Late summer, I’m here for a few months. Always wanted to live in NYC, a little change in my pocket, experience what the fuss was about.
Floor below mine, she sees something, yelps with excitement, and bolts past. My neighbor has a multi-colored pinwheel above his doorbell. She stops in front, pauses, and breathes into it. The pinwheel spins, sparkles of color.
She blows on it again. Spin spin spin.
I must have passed that pinwheel a hundred times. Never once did my brain register that I should make it move. And the way it would sprinkle light around the narrow stairwell, making the moment come alive.
For the rest of the summer, whenever I pass it, I stop and breathe into the pinwheel, watch it spin, and I smile. I discovered this simple joy because she was there.
One fall evening, a friend takes me to the highline in the meatpacking district. We walk along the old train tracks.
“Stop,” she says, removing her sandles, then asks me to take off my boots and socks.
We stand and watch the sun slide over the Hudson and dip behind New Jersey. The buildings in New York City come alive, light by light. Grass tickles our bare feet.
When I visit my mother, I love how she sits in her kitchen and watches hummingbirds hover above her feeder. The gentle way she describes her lemon tree. The smells, the juiciness. The color.
The way that women move through the world, experiencing the sensuality of it all. Such magic.
I was recently in Tikal, Guatemala. Home to ancient Mayan ruins, the ones you’ve seen in movies. Imagine pyramids jutting out of the jungle. Monkeys howling at sunrise. That’s the place. Had a rather magical experience I want to share.
I hope it serves you well.
“What’s it like being a nine year old girl?” I ask.
We’re in a Sushi joint in downtown Sebastabol. More Organic you-name-it stores per square foot than anywhere I’ve been. When you drive into town, a sign: Nuclear Free zone. This is the Vermont of California.
Her little brother gnaws happily on his chopsticks. She thinks for a moment, shrugs.
“I don’t know.”
I’m genuinely curious. I have zero frame of reference on the inner life of a little girl.
“Ok,” I say. “Is it different than when you were six?”
“Oh yes.” She smiles. “Definitely.”
No hesitation. “You’re taller and you know more stuff.”
Her mom looks at her, then at me. Kinda proud.
“Are you better off knowing more stuff?” I ask.
I’m not sure what my question actually means. Two glasses of wine with dinner will do that. To her credit, she noodles on it.
“Well,” she says, “I’m more scared of the monkey bars. I wasn’t when I was six.”
Her mom and I both stare at her.
“Why’s that?” I ask.
“I didn’t think back then. I just did it.”
“So being afraid, it comes from thinking?”
“I suppose,” she says. A pause. “Yes. Thinking too much.”
In Chemistry, you learn about electrons. The orbits they inhabit. But the most fascinating part is how they jump orbits when excited. One moment – excuse the blatant simplicity – happily circling at one level, doing their thing. Then instantaneously, a level above.
Poof. Disappear. Appear.
How it really happens, no one knows. But it happens. That is the important thing.
I think love is the most powerful force in nature. Quantum, molecular, human. It is the God particle. Just as light excites electrons to a new level, love does the same for us. It makes us better. Makes us shine. To focus on love for ourselves is the greatest thing we can do.
There is another level. An orbit we cannot reach on our own. One that only comes when we truly love and are loved by someone. No ego. Fear flung aside. Eye to eye, breath to breath, chest to chest, heartbeat to heartbeat. That, I think, is when we jump levels we didn’t even know existed.
Ah, but the fears we’ve spun around love. Of hearts being broken. Of giving up something. Of risk. The truth: yes, we do give up something. The irony: what we give up are the cords that tie us down.
Something I’ve learned: life is magic. But to experience magic, we must step up. Life requires it. And that is not a bad thing. It is the moment of commitment – and then surrendering to a love greater – that forges us. The energy for the jump, that is where it is born.
Take the risk.