"Want me to read your palm?"
On a sofa in a gloomy college lounge, my study partner Nancy immediately stuck out a hand to be examined by Sasha, our new friend and, apparently, fortune-teller.
"Look, right here — this is your lifeline," Sasha explained, tracing its pathway down the proffered palm, then doling out dubious information about Nancy's prospects for wealth and romance.
Only half-listening, I examined my own hands. Except for a small cleft at the top, the lifeline of my right palm forged distinctly down to my wrist. But by contrast, my left lifeline meandered and strayed, unspooling into wisps that disappeared into the reservoir of my palm.
Looking up, I noticed Sasha smiling at me. "Your turn."
"Right hand or left?"
She shrugged. "Doesn't matter."
I don't remember which palm I showed her.
Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash
Drought and Dengue
Visiting my grandparents' home during a summer of intense Indian drought, I immediately noticed the chombus. Rows and rows of these storage pots — large and small, steel and clay — lined the kitchens and washrooms, all waiting to be filled with water whenever the taps happened to be running.
Woven through that remembered image is the sound of my mother's voice, explaining the concept of scarcity to my seven-year-old self and attempting to loosen my already-embedded American perception of never-ending abundance. Water doesn't appear by magic, she remonstrated gently, teaching me how a few handfuls of water were sufficient to rinse my mouth after brushing, and one bucket-full, adequate for bathing.
That summer, those chombus comprised the backdrop for a fateful encounter between my immune system and a member of Aedes Aegypti, a mosquito species inordinately attracted to the stored water vessels necessitated by drought. I contracted a severe form of dengue fever and suffered internal hemorrhaging, profuse vomiting, high fevers, and eventually, shock and organ failure. The doctors deemed my survival unlikely.
The illness resulted in a significant gap in my memories of that summer, but, throughout my life, images have escaped the gravity of that black hole: thrashing in a paranoid rage at my nurses, screaming as my nerves and muscles convulsed, battling an unknown enemy for my breath. Whether these are my own memories exclusively, or a fusion between my recollections and my family's, I can't be sure.
But one memory is crystal clear — that of my mother, anchored at the head of my hospital bed during my weeks of dengue fever. Sometimes that memory emerges as a voice speaking, singing, reading to me through my haze. At other times, the memory manifests as a thrumming energy, like a steady heartbeat felt from the womb. And sometimes, it's a physical presence — the silken thread that tethered me to a world slipping from my grip.
I think she guided me home.
Direction and Diagnosis
Home usually refers to a place, but for me, it also refers to a knowingness — a deep, internal cognizance of what's real and right and true. My mother has unfailingly pointed me there, to the meeting place of conscience and integrity and compassion.
From her actions, I learned that the most important part of one's life is the people who populate it, that they deserve the lion's share of our time and attention. I learned that a life full of accolades does not necessarily signify a life full of meaning. I learned that living kindly and gently is a tremendous gift to this chaotic world — and requires immense strength and steadfastness.
Though I've strayed from her example innumerable times, her mere presence in the world always pulled me back. Somehow, I never imagined life without that compass, never considered that an outside force could — and would — subvert it.
Less than a year ago, my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the most aggressive cancer in existence. As the months unfolded, I witnessed not just an illness, but a devouring of her tissues, organs, and formerly unflagging energy, vigor, and enthusiasm.
I visualized the compass needle wavering and spinning, unsure where to point as our acts of mothering alternated. By turns, we gave each other comfort, her head on my lap, and then mine on hers. By turns, we helped each other delve for courage — for her to accept the inevitable, and for me to continue life without her, unthinkable as it seemed.
Soon, activity and conversation were no longer possible. She opened her eyes less often and slowly lost her ability to perceive the people and world around her. I could only sit and witness her pain, hoping she felt the same mother-energy that I'd felt decades ago — fierce, protective, unconditional, unflappable.
When she died, I held her hands, turning her palms upward and looking at them for a moment. The shape of her fingers, the texture of the skin, and yes, even the lines on her palms, seemed oddly like my own.
Long ago, she'd guided me back from the brink, but I wasn't able to do the same for her. I could only hope that my voice and presence had eased her journey onward.
A Force Between Poles
Now, one month later, I am trying to emerge from the fog of disbelief. As I cast around for meaning and hope, as I seek a way forward, I often think about the contrasting lifelines on my palms, to which my erstwhile palmist drew my attention long ago.
One palm seems to hold my uncertainty, while the other holds the courage of my convictions. One palm seems to reflect my difficulty identifying my path, and the other, the clarity with which I see it. One palm seems shackled to people's opinions and judgments, while the other follows profoundly personal standards and ideals.
My mother was always the force between those two poles, acknowledging who and where I was without judgment, yet guiding me toward a much better version of myself.
During one of our last conversations, she pressed me to tell her my "five-year plan." Implicit in that demand, I think, was her urging me to leave childhood and confusion behind, to share freely how I see the world, to state honestly and sincerely what needs to be stated.
I know that, inevitably, the weeks and months and years will pass. My time without my mother will elongate and lengthen. But she will still be the voice and the presence, the heartbeat and the drumbeat, inhabiting my words, directing my light, and guiding me home.