Like millions of other people around the country last week, I jetted off to be with my family for Thanksgiving. Five hours, three airports and one missed flight later, I reached my destination—my sister’s new home in the secluded woods of southern Maryland, where she, her husband and their eight-month-old baby had settled comfortably two months ago.
The experience was a new one, as Thanksgiving has rarely been a holiday my immigrant Indian family celebrates. It usually comes and goes with little fanfare; a side of Stove Top stuffing in addition to our usual dinner of rice and curry is our nod to the festivities. Little changed for me after I came to Harvard. When other students were home savoring traditional Thanksgiving dinner spreads my first year, I spent the holiday with my sister and brother-in-law disappointed by the Indian takeout food we ate instead of turkey and fixings. After that, I stayed at school or tagged along to a friend’s house, soaking in the American tradition of watching football and stuffing oneself silly.
But this year was different. My mother passed away less than two months ago from complications related to diabetes and high blood pressure. For me, coming to terms with her death also meant coming to terms with the difficulty of her life. In the mid-’70s, my mother moved with my sister from India to West Texas, where my father had gone after their marriage to finish up his college degree and start his own restaurant. After my brother and I were born, my mother developed post-partum depression, which turned into psychosis by the time I was five. Much of it was related to her homesickness and desire to return to India, compounded by the deaths of her parents and older brother all in the span of a few years. By the time I was in elementary school, my mother was severely depressed and schizophrenic; she rarely ate, never left bed and constantly yelled at voices only she could hear.
My mother’s mental illnesses kept me from knowing her in any meaningful way when I was a child. Days often passed without my glimpsing her as she stayed secluded in her bedroom while my brother and I kept to our routine of going to school, cooking our own meals and finishing our homework. By the time I was in middle school, the most interaction I had with her each day was giving her insulin shots in the morning before going to school and in the evening after dinner. With my older sister already out of the house for medical school, and my dad working 60-hour weeks at gas stations, restaurants and grocery stores to support us, what most people would call a normal family life was, for me, a distant dream.
I sometimes resented my mother during those years for not being the mom that my friends had—one that helped with homework, or cooked a favorite meal, or came to watch me at football games or orchestra concerts. Other times I just didn’t care, as I went along with life as if she didn’t exist at all. I tried to do what I could to help her as I grew older and started to understand the depths of her health problems, but I recognized that it would never be the relationship I wanted and needed. While my mother was healthier the last few years thanks to strong medications and regular doctor’s visits, they did little to erase the scars left by those long years of mental illness.
When my sister called with the news of my mother’s death this October, my siblings and I rushed to our home in Texas to be with my father and grandparents, shocked by our sudden loss. While it was extremely difficult to accept, my family took some comfort in knowing that she passed away peacefully, no longer suffering from all the sicknesses that she had lived with for so many years. And my mother’s death had a profound effect on my family that I hadn’t expected. As we exchanged hugs, shed tears and shared memories while flipping through old family albums I felt closer to my family than I ever had.
Before my brother, sister and I left home a few days after my mother’s funeral, my older sister decided that from now on, my family would always come to her house for Thanksgiving. So last week, my father flew up from Texas, my older brother braved Amtrak to come down from Yale, and I flew in from Cambridge to be with my family. Granted, it wasn’t your traditional Thanksgiving meal—a 20-pound turkey at the center of the table was replaced by two small roasted chickens, slathered in tikka masala, while my brother-in-law pondered the cranberry concoction my sister invented in lieu of cranberry sauce. We didn’t start the meal until well after 8 p.m., since my Muslim family was all fasting for the month of Ramadan, and we hadn’t started cooking until after breaking our fast with traditional Indian foods. But when we did all sit down together, and passed the stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy around the table, for the first time Thanksgiving did seem more like a real holiday.
And as I held my baby niece Hena throughout the weekend, watching her innocently play with anything she could get her hands on, I thought about my mother again. I thought about how she must have done the same with me and my siblings many years ago, back when taking care of us was her only priority before she was bogged down with the illnesses that came to define her life. When I saw my father hold his only grandchild, I saw a look of unconditional love and happiness on his face—a love of his family that has guided him to work selflessly for so many years.
Since my mother’s death, I’ve tried to settle back into a normal life as quickly as possible, hoping that keeping myself busy and surrounded by friends will make getting by a bit easier. But as I expected, it hasn’t been easy. I’ve spent nights lying in bed thinking about my mother—wondering why life unfolded the way it did for her, pondering everything she wasn’t able to do in her past and what she would miss in the future. I’ve thought about my father—a man who has dedicated his life to his children’s well-being, regardless of the long hours of thankless toil it required. I still think about the pain he goes through having lost the person he had shared the last 35 years of his life with. I know neither my mother or father thought when they came to the United States from India that life would be easy. Still, I doubt they imagined that it would be quite as hard as it has been. But they sacrificed themselves so that their children would have the opportunities they never had, giving up their personal dreams and ambitions so that we would be able to achieve ours.
Despite the difficulty of dealing with the loss, there’s a certain growth that comes from losing a parent, as the importance of family becomes clear and the bonds between loved ones grow stronger. This year, for the first time in years, my family came together on Thanksgiving. My mother was not at the table and she never will be. But while she is gone, I feel her love and the love of my family more strongly than ever. And for that I am truly thankful.
Imtiyaz H. Delawala ’03 is a government concentrator in Eliot House. He is president of The Crimson.