I got married at 22. A month into my marriage, my husband and I were on a plane, Texas bound. Everything felt new, looked new, smelt new. If there’s a feeling that’s a perfect mix of apprehension, excitement, and fear, that’s exactly what I felt. And then, just like I had read in books or seen in movies, we were sucked into the American way of life. Neither I nor my husband had any family in the US, but we toiled on as all first-generation immigrants do, “all alone” but with a sense of purpose.
We moved from state to state, apartment to apartment, had kids and bought our first home. 16 years later, as I looked around my living room, I saw my husband working on his favorite couch, my oldest – a high schooler, my 9-year-old, and our big German shepherd who seemed to take up most of the space in our home. I thought of how we had done it. Just the two of us, starting from scratch, in this far away land. By American standards, my initiation was complete, and everything seemed perfect.
– I could fold fitted sheets perfectly!
– I was the best classroom mom there was!
– I could talk into a customer service call without having to spell everything!
– And I could also parallel park like a boss!
Until one night; I got the dreaded call from India that I had lost my little sister to her long battle with Leukemia. I can’t write much about the days that followed because they were mostly a blur. My flight back to India, the rituals that followed, the enormous and overwhelming grief support from family — I can barely remember any of them.
We grieved together.
Much sooner than I would have wanted, it was time for me to come back to America. Even before my flight landed, my duties were waiting for me. My son’s grades were dropping, my teenage daughter needed me, and my husband couldn’t work from home any longer. I came back and doused myself in my duties with an empty heart. I did (overdid!) everything that was required of me. It was like there was a scream stuck inside me which I couldn’t let out.
And then it struck me. Like a good “first-generation immigrant student,” I had learned and mastered everything in the American manual but had completely forgotten that I didn’t learn anything about “grieving alone.” I went down a spiral because this was new for me. I needed family, I needed my parents, I needed chaos – to forget. And I couldn’t find it.
A few months later, I was emotionally exhausted. I was sitting at the dining table with a cup of cold coffee just staring at my sister’s number on my phone, yearning for it to ring. As if on purpose, a pretty insistent bird started pecking on the glass window next to me. I tried to shoo it away, but it wasn’t quite interested in going anywhere. The bird decided to shift gears and move on to my kitchen window and then the living room window – the same constant pecking. The bird decided to visit every single day for a week until finally, it struck me: it was her! It was my sister, Amy! She left us before she could ever visit me in the U.S. but decided to take this one final trip to tell me she’s okay and I needed to be okay too. I needed to learn to remember her, to love her but still be happy.
I needed to learn to “grieve alone.”
Interestingly enough, after the day I had this thought, she never came back.
It’s like she wanted me to know – she wanted to tell me that if she could brave the seven seas to tell me she’s okay, I could do it too.