The sky in Tulum Mexico is endless and blue. The air sticks to my skin like sugar. Our white stucco room smells of lime and salt. In the corner, a large mirror leans against the wall, and often I imagine my daughter India standing in front of it admiring herself in her bikini.
Before India died, I thought it would be teenage girls that would most upset me, but it’s not. I frequently watch them strolling on the beach. Instead, it’s the little girls that make me cry.
In Canada, they seem to follow me everywhere I go: in the line-up at the grocery store, sitting next to me at the movies. If I go to a restaurant, no matter where I sit, I always end up across from one.
In Mexico, it’s no different. I can’t take my eyes off the six-year-old Mayan girl with broad cheekbones and black eyes, who trudges every day along the beach selling bracelets, or the three blond Norwegian sisters giggling as they race around the hotel pool on Christmas Day.
But hardest of all is the little English-speaking girl of about three, whose family has moved in next door. In the mornings I hear her calling her mummy through the thin walls.
Nobody will ever call me that again. It’s the kind of thing that a person takes for granted until it no longer happens.
Long before India died, I began imagining her death, trying to figure out how I could live without her. I thought I’d want to run away: drive through the States, escape to Peru, move to the Sunshine Coast.
But everything I imagined was wrong.
Grief is visceral; it inhabits the space between the ribs. There’s no way to plan for it. It changes from minute by minute. I had no idea how it would feel.
I certainly never pictured myself sitting on her bed burying my face in her pillow desperate for her scent, or rifling through her drawers hoping to find a t-shirt that might fit me so I could feel near her, or feeling panicked because I’ve misplaced her hairbrush.
The night before we left for Mexico, I started to cry imaging her urn all alone in the house. It wasn’t until some friends agreed to visit India that I felt I could leave.
I had no clue this would upset me until hours before our departure.
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This kind of thing frequently happens nowadays. I can feel fine for hours, talk to friends, tell jokes, and then once alone in my car I cry all the way home.
Even crying feels different than it used to. My heart throbs and I feel as though the blood pulsing through my body will rupture my veins. There’s no separation between flesh and emotion.
The only time I’ve ever felt such a physical connection to my emotions was when I was pregnant, and, India would stir inside me.
The irony of this is startling.
During the last months, I’ve been reading lots of books about grief. Some offered good advice about the physiology of the state, but mainly, I’ve found myself incredibly frustrated with the style of writing.
They read like new age self-help books. Paragraphs are rife with words like divinity, self-love, infinite and of course, the ever-present journey euphemism.
Mourning is a condition of being. It’s not the same as conquering self-defeating habits or discovering how to love yourself. It’s not possible to find a cure for it any more than it’s possible for a person to learn how to live without sleep.
When I went looking in the East End Chapters for books about grief, I, found only twelve. Conversely, the shelves were teaming with diet books.
Ours is a culture afraid of death and those who mourn. Incredible, after all, we’re all going to die, and chances are high at some point we will all lose somebody we love.
Naturally, it’s hard to watch someone we love struggle, especially when we know we’re powerless to change their feelings. But, being unhappy when bad things happen is inevitable.
No matter what success I have in the future or whatever lessons I learn from this experience—if any—I won’t ever get over India’s death, nor will anything make it better.
I accept this because I recognize that this sadness is the cost of loving my daughter and I wouldn’t change that for anything.
Imagine you own one of those antique Delft Blue china plates, and it hangs in your kitchen on the wall. It’s decorated with the illustration of a Chinese court scene: a bird in a gilded cage, fawning courtiers, an empress in a flowing gown.
The lip of the plate is chipped, fine lines run through the well, and the paint is fading. Still, this plate is a prized possession.
Suddenly one day the wire snaps, and, it falls off the wall. It survives, but the corner where the empress sat is gone. You can glue it in place, but the illustration is forever obscured.
The empress will never be as regal.
This is how I view myself now. The trick is learning to live like this.
I’m still me. I like all the same things: good beer, expensive shoes, red wool, a well-written book of short stories. At the same time, I’m not.
Some days I feel as if I’m in my late nineties, on others I feel as if ten-years-old again.
How can I be so old and young at the same time?
Not long ago I was in the Giant Tiger, and I spotted some funky purple socks, and I thought, oh I should get those for Indy’s Christmas stocking.
Then I remembered she was dead.
I felt so old, standing there under the fluorescent lights reliving her death.
Why do I feel so young? The simple answer is a massive part of my identity was invested in being her mother. It’s not just that I lost the person I loved the most in the world, it’s also that I’ve forgotten who I became when I was with her.
I don’t know who I am if I’m not mothering her.
Of course, I remain India’s mother, but her death has put an end to my ability to mother her.
Grief is isolating. Often I feel as if I’m on one side of a river and everyone I know is on the other side.
My side of the river is not without beauty, there are almond trees and olives, but it’s a hard hilly country with little shade whereas the other side has plenty of shady trees and cool green spaces to lie on.
People may come over and visit my side of the river, but they know they don’t have to stay. I’m here forever.
I can appreciate the nuances of my new landscape, but I can’t help looking across the river and remembering my life over there. This hurts much more than what anyone says or does.
Furthermore, I can see how people live on the other side and how many of them take it for granted.
I remember when India was dying, I was in a local coffee shop and I overheard a neighbour talking about her daughter who I know and like.
For forty-five minutes I listened as this woman moaned about all her child’s inadequacies to her companion: she’ll never have any money, she dresses like a slut, she has no common sense, blah, blah, blah.
I shouldn’t have been listening, but I couldn’t stop.
This was more than a woman letting off steam about a teenager, this woman’s voice was thick with contempt.
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People worry all the time about saying the wrong thing or bringing up India in case it upsets me or the timing is wrong. What they don’t understand is that I’m never without her, so they’re just giving voice to my thoughts.
What does affect me is listening to conversations like that one.
Don’t get me wrong, everybody including myself loses it with their children.
But there’s a difference between frustration and scorn — more than anything I’d like to teach my neighbour how lucky she is.
I still talk to India all the time. I tell I her about the bone-coloured sand crabs that scurry across our beach, Eduardo, the Mayan cabdriver who teaches her dad how to count in Maya, and the black and white spotted cat called Pancho, who joined us for dinner one night when I couldn’t stop crying and how he looked like an anthropomorphized version of her.
I don’t know if talking to India helps or if she hears, I only know I’ve talked to her for sixteen years and I won’t ever stop.
From time-to-time, I feel she sends me signs that she can hear, strange moments of serendipity when the world seems brighter than usual.
At these times I find her favourite quote in the book I’m reading or as just as my thoughts turn to her, a tiny bird with a yellow belly arrives suddenly on the window sill and begins to sing.