The Death of a Parent

May 23, 2017 | Madhulica Kallatt

Melanie Wasser/ Unplash

The loss of a parent can be one of the most painful things one experiences in one’s lifetime. Spoken word poets from Mumbai who have experienced this loss have channeled their inner thoughts about this experience into their poetry to produce moving pieces that give their audience a real sense of how it has affected their lives.

Shamir Reuben’s Dear Mom, Isha Joshi’s I Let My Father Go and Cece Ojany-Bekhor’s Tales that Intermediaries Tell are stellar examples of spoken word poems that embody this theme. Despite the fact that all three poems deal with the same subject, each poet has approached it differently.

A Poem of Suffering and Retrospect

In his poem, Shamir Reuben talks about his mother’s death through a memory. He transports the audience to a day three years ago: his mother’s birthday. He describes the experience of spending his mother’s birthday with her in the hospital, while she was receiving chemotherapy, which forms the foundation of his poem. His poem is one of suffering — both his own, as well as that of his mother’s — and comparison with what used to be. His suffering arises from witnessing his mother’s suffering and comparing her condition to that of the past — before cancer. Even before her death, he recalled how he and his mother would spend her birthday, and contrast it with how they did when she was in the hospital.

Reuben makes use of the antithetical ideas of life and death in his poem, by choosing to talk about his mother’s death through this memory of her birthday. The use of contrasting ideas augments the effect of each individual idea; the certainty of death makes life seem all the more precious, while the potential of life makes death seem all the more abhorrent. This example also foreshadows how Reuben would come to celebrate his mother’s birthday after her death (Three years later, I celebrate your birthday the same way you and I did back then).

The Juxtaposition of Reality and Unreality

Just as Reuben uses the memory of his mother as the foundation to express his feelings, Joshi expresses herself through dreams of her father. She uses juxtaposition to create a contrast between the concepts of reality and dreams, which form the basis of the sentiments she wishes to express. It acts as a metaphor for the dichotomy between knowing she must let go of her father and despite knowing this, being unable to do so except in her dreams. (And I want you to come back, dad/ But in my dreams, I know he’s not coming back […] So in my dreams — only in my dreams — I let my dad go).

This juxtaposition can also be seen in the lines where she narrates the conversation she had with her father about reality T.V. (We used to sit here and watch reality T.V. back when he was still there/[…]We watch good T.V. to learn how to be, and bad T.V. to learn how not to be). In these lines, “good T.V.” represents model behavior or “the ideal”, while “bad T.V.”, whose metonym is reality T.V. represents everything one mustn’t do. Once again, the unreal or “good T.V.” represents the right thing to do, while reality or “reality T.V.” seems unable to live up to the ideal.

A Poem about Death, but Really About Immortality

While these poems describe the struggle of losing a parent, with a pervading feeling of saudade, Cece Ojany-Bekhor’s Tales that Intermediaries Tell is a hopeful poem that does not see death as the final end. In fact, the only time she mentions death, is in the line, What’s it like to wait until the moment your son arrives at the hospital, and only then decide to leave your body?

Ojany-Bekhor talks about the immortality of her father through his hands, which he has passed on to her. The atmosphere of the poem is one of nostalgia, which is interesting since the main subject matter takes place in the future when Ojany-Bekhor has children.She describes how her father will be able to experience grandfatherhood and establish a connection with his grandchildren every time Cece touches them, since her hands are exactly like her father’s, and thus, symbolizes that he lives on through Ojany-Bekhor. Conversely, she hopes her children will benefit from her father’s guidance, as seen in the following lines:

These hands will touch the belly of my daughter, whom he’ll never physically meet face to face

But I hope he’ll stay close to her

Whispering words of love and encouragement and madness in her ear.

A Comparison of the Poems

While Reuben and Joshi’s poems discuss their mother and father respectively in the abstract forms of memories and dreams, Ojany-Bekhor discusses her father in the tangible, physical terms. A comparison can be made to the theme of resurrection seen in Joshi’s, however, unlike her piece which implies a final end of his physical existence, Ojany-Bekhor’s poem conveys the message of one’s immortality through one’s children.

Reuben and Joshi’s poems are told in a narrative style, with a linear sequence of events interspersed with emotional expressions and ponderings, while Ojany-Bekhor’s piece consists of sections of description of how her father will interact with his grandchildren through her, separated by a line which forms the refrain; “I have my father’s hands”. Ojany-Bekhor’s piece primarily revolves around the relationship between her father and her children, while Reuben and Joshi’s poems revolve around their own relationships with their mother and father respectively.

The afterlife becomes a very important and almost universal element in poems about death, and is used by both Joshi and Reuben in their respective poems, with Reuben hoping that his mother is treated well in heaven (I hope you have fun there, for heaven’s sake/And that God employs the best bakery to make your cake), and Joshi describing the afterlife as “bananas”. Her employment of the element of the afterlife goes beyond good wishes, however, and becomes an extended metaphor expressing her desire to feel his presence and continue to be her father even in the afterlife. This is skillfully done by using common tropes of paranormal activity such as cabinet doors slamming, as well as urban legends of calling the dead. Joshi begins the metaphor light-heartedly, apparently joking about her father’s ghostly activities. However, she builds towards him re-asserting his position in her life as he did when he was alive, and concludes with a vulnerable, heartbreaking expression of desire for her father to come back to life.

Ojany-Bekhor does not discuss the afterlife, per se, but using symbolism, establishes a connection between the earth and the heavens through her descriptions of her father’s hands (Fingers long and dark, mud brown/Nails clear crescent moons at the tip). Her poem does not really delve into the afterlife, as it asserts her father’s immortality through his progeny.

These three poems, when put together, form a timeline of how one deals with the death of a parent. Reuben’s poem symbolizes the past, as evidenced by his heavy emphasis on memory and past events; it is the stage of grieving. Joshi’s poem symbolizes the present, the process of trying to come to terms with the loss and the conflict of knowing what one must do, but not being able to. Finally, Ojany-Bekhor’s poem represents the future, the stage of looking forward and acceptance.

The poems form a picture of how different people deal with death. All three poems were performed with clarity and emotion, painting vivid mental images with highly descriptive details. As a result, an audience would able to experience each of their processes second-hand, and gain new insight.

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