I don’t know why I pulled away. I had tried to get the old woman’s photo the day before, and the day before that. Right then was the perfect opportunity. She was practically inviting me to snap her portrait. “Vanga!” creaked her voice.
But I acted as though I didn’t understand her welcome. Everyone watching knew I understood. With the bowl of hot pongal in my hand, I just smiled at her and walked away, and people at the small Kali temple in the Madurai neighborhood kept looking at me. They all knew. They all knew I understood the old woman, and yet I walked away.
She was curled up on top of her cart. Unlike the previous day, when I saw her sprawled on the doorsteps asleep, she was awake and vibrant, noticing everything around her. Including me. Her lips were drawn around her toothless gums, and her wrinkled arms waved in the air.
One of her neighbors had told me all she did was eat and sleep, eat and sleep. That meant that her neighbors fed her, noticed her, looked after her. The old woman.
“How old is she?” I asked at least three people. The first flashed all her fingers many times, open closed, open closed. I couldn’t count.
“Hundred,” she said.
I asked another woman, who had just stepped around the sleeping old woman. “Is she your grandmother?”
“Yes,” she said. Then I realized that a street-dwelling woman that old was everyone’s grandmother.
“How old is she?”
“Hundred,” she said.
Obviously, no one really knew how old the woman was, therefore she was a hundred. Maybe she really was a hundred years. A century.
I wanted her photograph, but I thought it would be rude to take it while she was awake. Somehow, it seemed as if I would be taking something from her without her consent, because she probably would not understand what I wanted. It was also rude to take it while she was asleep, but I tried to get the shot anyway, the day before as she was draped on the doorsteps. I just had to make sure no one was watching me; that would somehow make it okay. But everyone noticed me. People emerged from their houses and greeted me. So I slipped my camera back in my bag, and didn’t get the photograph. I instead ended up in her neighbor’s home after being invited for tea.
I could have visited with the old woman that morning as she called her greeting. I could have sat on her cart with her, and held her hand, and listened to her talk to me. She was deaf, someone had said, so I wouldn’t be able to have a conversation with her. Maybe that’s what sent me away. Or maybe her age frightened me. I would feel uncomfortable, sitting next to this weathered woman tucked in a worn sari, who had survived all kinds of struggles: having enough to eat, raising children, an absent husband, and life on the streets.
I could have met her for a little while, and exchanged good feelings with her. But instead, I walked away, feeling a pang inside of me.
Would she be alive tomorrow? Would I see her again, all bright and aware, sitting scrunched up in her cart, watching the world, and calling vanga to passersby?
As I walked away, I hoped she would be there the next day, awake and alert. I would sit with her awhile, and pass the morning with her, and hold her hand, and smile.
I would meet this ancient woman and honor her. And honor myself.
Read more about this Madurai neighborhood and my meeting the Grandmother for the first time on a morning walk at this link to my travel blog.
I stared at the email message, feeling assaulted, punched in the gut. There was nothing gentle about those words, even though they also said my mother had not been in pain.
I guess I was in pain—gazing at my IPad, lying alone on a bed in an apartment in Taipei, a world away from the hospice in Ohio where she died.
That stark written message was not how I expected to learn of her passing. It was devoid of the warmth of an emotion-filled human voice that would then pause to welcome mine.
I had called my sister the previous evening. She said Mom was in and out of awareness, heavy with morphine to dull the pain caused by the gallstone. The words, “If she goes tomorrow” were spoken—but I didn’t believe it would happen that soon. My international flight would leave in 24 hours—I had planned to see her, to say goodbye, to be with her during her sacred time of transition.
Why hadn’t she waited just a couple more days?
The words didn’t change. My insides grew pitted and raw, and I tried not to wail because I didn’t want the Taiwanese family in the next room to hear me. I whimpered instead, gasping silently through my contorted mouth as I lay there on that bed.
After blowing empty breaths, stitching myself inside a hollow cocoon, I busied my mind, calculating what time it was in Taipei when my mother breathed her last. It had been early morning. I had awoken even earlier—when, unbeknownst to me, she was within an hour of leaving. That’s when I grabbed my IPad and looked at recent photographs of her.
Her vibrant, 96-year old face smiled, happy to be drinking a martini with me. I wrote an email to my sister, telling her to tell my mother I was thinking of her, because she could probably still hear, even though she was dying.
As I drifted back to sleep I whispered, “I’m sorry I’m not there with you, Mom. You know it’s okay to go now. I’ll tell the funny story that you wanted me to tell at your funeral services, and make everyone laugh.”
I awoke a short time later to read those final words. Died. She died. Mama died.
I never called her “Mama.”
She was Mom.
I showered and paced the room. It was my last day of my three-month journey—starting from my home in New Mexico to India for two months, then Bali for three weeks, and finally Taiwan, where I had planned to travel another two weeks.
Shut in that room crying wasn’t where I wanted to be. I left, and wandered the back streets of Taipei, watching, through a haze of sadness and dashes of moisture, the city come to life.
But I still felt restless. I needed to go somewhere. Maybe I would find a temple.
I swiped through the narrative and maps of the Taipei guidebook on my IPad, then stopped. The Maokong Cable Car: French-built, completed in 2007, and the 4-kilometer transit rose over jungle-shrouded hills to an end point among tea plantations and pleasant strolls. I would go there.
On the short walk from the apartment to the mass transit station I wondered if my light fleece would protect me from the moist air that had grown cooler from the previous day.
Not really. At the end of the train ride, rain pounded the concrete and the roof of the station. People getting on and off clutched umbrellas. I snuggled in my fleece for warmth. But the rain—the rain. My fleece was not a raincoat.
I would not walk through that downpour to reach the cable car station, a few blocks away. Sighing, I resigned myself to getting back on the train for the return trip. To the empty bedroom.
But just then a cherubic man in an orange vest waddled toward me. He carried an armful of umbrellas, all sizes and colors. He handed me a blue one. I opened it, looked at the steady rain outside, then looked at its small diameter. He gave me a larger brown one, with a hooked wooden handle.
I pranced into the sheets of rain and headed to the cable car station. My sandals splashed on the sidewalk and the bottom of my leggings grew wet. Thunder rumbled, but I was happy at my good fortune that found me clutching the perfect umbrella. I snugged that dome to my head and thought, let’s go!
Just a few people waited in line to buy tickets, even though the guidebook warned of long waits. Nothing would stop me now.
“Too dangerous,” the ticket lady said. “Thunderstorm.”
No, not on my last day, not on this day, I thought. Come on, we’ll wait in this tea shop. I didn’t want tea, I just wanted the storm to let up. After 45 minutes, I returned to the ticket counter where the same lady was all smiles.
“You have an EasyCard? Yes? Then go up.”
There was hardly anyone else around as I clutched my EasyCard, the pre-paid pass good for mass transit in Taipei. I headed up two levels where the gondolas were swinging around a platform, opening their doors to allow passengers entry.
“Come on, Mom, we’re heading up the hill.” I sat in the middle of the seat, facing the hill ahead of us. She climbed in after me, and sat on the seat opposite in the enclosed cabin.
Yes, she was there. She was smiling, her hair was smooth and perfect, a light shone in her grey eyes and her face radiated.
“We’re going on a ride, Mom.” As that car swung off the platform we hovered in space for a moment, until the giant connector on top firmly grabbed the big cable that began pulling us on our journey.
“Oh my, we’re going right up the hill. We’re riding in the air. Look how high we are! It’s raining, but we’re okay in here, we’re safe.”
Had she been there in her human form she would have been uneasy, suspended above the ground, swinging from a cable, viewing high-rise apartment buildings and roads below. The rain splattered the glass sides of our enclosure that swayed with windy puffs. I imagined her sitting directly across from me on the hard seat. As I stared and stared, I thought she would materialize before my eyes.
“Whoa, look at that, Mom, there are gardens and houses below us. And see how big Taipei is with all those buildings.”
Clunk-clunk. Every so often the car would rise up and over the connection where vertical towers supported the heavy cable that held us aloft, floating through the air.
“The wind is blowing, but we’re safe mom.” I reassured her, but she really didn’t need to be reassured. She was very calm and was just enjoying the ride.
I snapped photos, aiming at her place on the seat. I wanted to believe that later I would see her ghostlike image, or perhaps a mysterious light in the photo. I was that certain of her presence.
“You’re a cloud person now, Mom. I’m glad you’re with me, going up this hill. Look at what the French have done for the people of Taiwan! Wow.”
Raindrops streamed the windows. Cars from the opposite direction emerged from the gloom and passed us—most of them empty of passengers. We seemed to own that ride.
We came to a covered station, where the rain let up and the cable and our car turned a right angle.
“We’re turning Mom. We don’t get out here. We just keep going. Look at all the trees down there. We’re going to ride this all the way to the top. I hope you’re enjoying it, Mom. I’m glad you’re here. We’re both safe and enjoying this ride together.”
I didn’t hear her say much—I just sensed she was enjoying the time together as we rose higher and higher in the gray and the rain, in our enclosed gondola, with the silly pink and yellow cartoon-like characters smeared across the front window, obscuring the view below. She could see everything, though.
I stopped my commentary now and then to hear the quiet, punctuated by the clunk-clunk and the spray of rain. No engines, no other people, no street traffic, no bird calls. We rode the mist, higher and higher over the rich greenery. I spotted a temple along the shiny wet asphalt road below and said we would stop and see it later on the return trip. I didn’t want to halt the magic, the feeling of connection and exploration with my Mom. It seemed so easy. No fear, no resistance, no hesitation. Just gliding along, suspended in that airy world, washed by the tears spouting from the gray around us.
I warned her when we approached the end station.
“Time to get out, mom, it’s over.”
We disembarked in a covered station. I opened my umbrella and walked into the spitting rain.
She had left me. I tried to feel her in the restaurant where I drank a latte and ate an expensive bowl of tasteless squash soup, but she had left me.
Several days later, when I reached my mom’s apartment and joined my sister in the task of closing out her physical life, I spoke of the cable car ride in Taipei.
“We rode it all the way to the top.” Then I corrected myself. “I mean I rode it to the top.”
I said “we” unconsciously, which didn’t really fit with how I presented the story of what I did after I learned Mom had died.
But I was correct the first time. Mom had been there with me, just hours after she passed. I hadn’t bid her goodbye in that hospice room when her spirit left her physical body. But Mom had found me. She was the one who had taken me on that cable car, where we shared a precious 30 minutes, riding through the clouds in our silent world, she looking confident and pleased and at peace.
My thoughts have been everywhere lately. Like back in India, where I spent two months recently, just living and discovering the people and their lives in a neighborhood in Madurai. I was pulled by their words, their hands, and their eyes–into their homes with cups of tea and biscuits, and their questions about America, their stories of relationships, decisions, challenges and children and illness and what to buy next with their meager earnings. Life, that’s what it was; I was witnessing life, and their lives, and they invited me to become a part of them.
“Will you talk to him?” a young woman asked after telling me of her short-lived marriage.
“What should I do?” a mother asked, seeking advice about her daughter.
“I hope you find love.” Those are the words that still pierce my heart.
The young man astonished me, time after time. That I found him seemed to have been predestined. He started calling me “Mother.”
After meeting and talking several times, we realized we were reflecting one another. We each communicated what the other needed to hear, or see, or know–just at the right moment. It was as if a wiser self buried in me wriggled past the restraints I had wrapped around her and found a voice through him. A twist on an old perspective, an affirmation of something I had written, a nudge I needed in order to escape a stuck belief, and there she was–my reflection. Hello there. In return, I prodded and questioned him, uttered unexpected words, or smiled, or nodded, and that seemed to be what he needed, right then. He knew my words to be his.
We kept coming back for more–long talks over the telephone, a trip to his native village, a visit to the temple. We ate together–pillows of idli and coconut chutney and spicy podi and sweet pongal. I trusted him, this young/old soul, and he trusted me.
Then he said it. “I hope you find love.” His parting words to me.
My words to me.
And with those words, I had found love. Right there, looking at me, looking at him, there on the noisy street in Madurai.
Sometimes I imagine a sliver of my heart stuck to the cement wall next to us on that street. One of the streets where I became the life in India, and where my life became alive.
Read about visiting Karikalan’s native village at this link to my travel blog: Village Tales.