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Passages Of Life, Place And Time

We took risks, we did crazy things; we pretty much did what we liked.

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A phone call in the middle of the night is never good news, especially for an immigrant. In June 2001, we got such a call from back home: one of my brother-in-laws had died tragically. He was 45 years old. My husband desperately wanted to make it back for the funeral, but the cost of purchasing an air ticket was astronomical, even with the hardship concession. He never got to say goodbye to his brother.
All of us immigrants have something in us that inspires us to leave the safe confines of our home country and seek to make our lives elsewhere. Whether it is an urge to make money or a name for ourselves, or even just wanderlust, we are compelled to experiment with what foreign lands offer.

When we do leave our safety circle of our close family, relatives and friends, initially we are faced with loneliness and homesickness when we think our past life, and uncertainty when we contemplate the future. In my case, it happened when I came to the U.S. for my studies, 17 years ago. During my master's program, I was homesick. Two months after I got here, when it dawned on me that I was totally alone, I just wanted to leave. Life can be scary without the safety net of financial security.

Gradually, however, we make it, with new friends, jobs, money and a piece of the American dream, and it is then that we begin to truly enjoy life abroad. Once we had a decent pay-check, my husband and I began to have a ball. Both of us didn't have any family here and very few friends. Without any obligations to anyone and without anyone to impose stultifying conventions on us, life was so much easier. We took risks, we did crazy things; we pretty much did what we liked. If one of our schemes worked out, we told family about it on our biannual visits. If it didn't, we just didn't mention it. If a festival fell on a weekday and we couldn't do anything special for it, we postponed it to the weekend. If we were unable to manage even that, we just said a prayer and went on. On our visits back home, we congratulated relatives and friends on their weddings at the same time as we admired their first-born. Often, we couldn't recognize youngsters.
"How you've grown!" we exclaimed often. They said the same to us too; only, it wasn't complimentary, since all our extra inches were on the equatorial plane.

All this time, there was something else going on. Along with the congratulatory trips, there were condolence visits too. Familiar, beloved faces began to disappear from family gatherings. Grandparents, uncles and aunts who were in their 60s and 70s, and whom we loved too much to let go; cousin sisters and brothers, who were way too young to die, who we hoped to grow old with; friends to whom we had said good-bye on our last trip, not knowing that it would be final. These visits were sometimes a year to a year-and-a-half after the passage of the loved one, and were sometimes almost embarrassing for being so delayed.

The relevance of expressing our sorrow at a time when the family had moved past the worst of their grief and carried on was sometime questionable. My worst moment was when I had to condole a cousin's wife on the loss of her husband ... at a wedding of all places. We had tried to visit her, but she wasn't home. Even with this excuse on my side, I felt horrible.

But even these tardy visits were very valuable to us, because it was the only way to achieve some measure of closure. Being so far away from the family circle, we cried alone, with only strangers to console us. When my grandmother died, I was at work. A friend held me when I cried, for which I was grateful, but I wished I were with my own family that knew how much she meant to me.

This event in particular, made me realize that we were living Life Lite, as it were. We had all the perks of adulthood, like unlimited bedtime and no curfew, but none of the responsibilities, like having to be with our own family during happy and more importantly, in sad times. In Tamil, they have a saying: if you don't go to a wedding, it's okay, but you shouldn't miss a funeral. I began to understand its ramifications and truth.

Something occurred in December 2004 that brought this realization chillingly close to me when my mother had a heart attack. I received a phone call the next day from my father, who broke the news gently to me. He said that he didn't call until her condition had stabilized, because he didn't want me to worry. I was upset at the delay until I finally comprehended the truth.

"What an idiot I am! Of course calling me wasn't top priority; they were busy saving her life! That was far more important than keeping me informed."

Hard on the heels of this thought, came the guilt: I couldn't do anything to help out my parents at that time, or the days following it, when she had a relapse. My sister heroically bore the sole responsibility. Luckily, my mother made it, but I will never forget my helplessness in that situation.

Previously, I used to often be miffed when I felt sidelined by family decisions. I would fume that I had not been given my due as a member of the family. However, that event put an end to that. When I couldn't be a part of their daily hardships and sorrows, I really had no right or say in their lives or decisions.

When one of my friends living here lost her father in India, she said she couldn't go to the funeral and that it was a "sacrifice" she had to make for living abroad. I agreed at the time, but I didn't see the flip side of this argument until much later. What about the "sacrifice" our family members make, because we are away at the time of tragedy? A family is, after all, a sum of its members. Doesn't our absence matter? Reminiscing about loved ones is one outlet for grief. But in today's society where neighbors remain strangers, isn't the one other person who knew and loved the departed so exceedingly important?

I find myself asking these uncomfortable questions every time I get news of a loved one's passing. As I sit and cry alone, I wait for answers that can reconcile my need to live the life I want, with fulfilling my responsibilities as a real, not phantom, member of a family of loving individuals, who are part of my history, who know me and care about me, that who can at times be infuriating, but will always be an integral part of me. 

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angyal lama December 21, 2008 at 3:34 AM
Dear, Lakshmi Palecanda!!!
First of all I would like to thank you for such a heart touching article. You have wrote this article whice relates to all the immigrants, including myself. During this last 10 years in America, I have been through all you have wrote. When I read your article, it is as if you wrote about me. Thank you.
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Commentary | Magazine | June 2008

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