In my dream, I am knocking on the door. I am persistent, alternately beseeching and cajoling, sometimes whimpering, asking them to open the door. I can hear them, I know they are out there in the fog on the other side. I keep knocking on the door, persistent but gentle, hoping to seek communion with my parents. It’s getting cold, my fingers getting numb, my chest burning with the effort, weakening my will. Eventually, I fall on my knees to the ground, my hands furtively grasping for any support from the wall that won’t give.
That’s how I wake up these mornings. Always the same dream. As insane as the idea seems, I have an overwhelming desire to send a message to my long-departed Daddy and Mama. There are so many unfinished conversations with them that are hanging like loose threads. So many questions to ask. And so many harsh truths that I must admit to myself.
The need to communicate with the dead doesn’t stand to even the most pliable reasoning, but I must make amends for my days as an unmindful young man. An impossible puzzle indeed — the wheels of time keep moving mercilessly forward and will not turn back for you to make amends.
This impossible obsession also frayed my relationship with my family. I was not present entirely in the ebbs and flows of the family life. My kids, a daughter, and a son, all grown up beyond the gullible early years, questioned my absences and careless behavior that didn’t stand to reason. My wife was concerned and frustrated with my obsession, worrying about my mental health and, our future together.
Looking back, I was focusing too much on the dead at the cost of the living people.
I am on the banks of river Ganges, peering over the endless expanse of water, the fading light casting shadows and a pale moon glinting off the surface. The burning pyres crackle, their heat is radiating in circles, while the fires consume the bodies of the dead. I have followed my impossible desire to break through to the other side so that I can communicate with my dead parents, and traveled across continents to the Burning Ghats of India, through which every Hindu pass on their final journey. This is the terminal point, where I want to start my journey.
“The only way to keep living is to accept that life ends.” I heard the gentle voice and turned to see a man walking towards me, raised eyebrows questioning my presence. Yes, those eyes. Dark and unwavering. Taking a measure of your soul, but not judging.
“You can call me Swami,” he said softly. “I make it easier for the dead to transition to the other side.” His dark eyes held mine. “Somewhere in this limitless cosmos, the dead are still alive.”
I stood there silently, watching him, musing to myself, that now at least, I have a guide to take me to the other side.
“What brings you here?” Swami asked. “You are not one of the mourners.”
“True, in a way.” I was quiet for a while. “My Daddy and Mama passed long ago.”
“I barely knew my parents,” I said, my voice receding. “I want to tell them that I love them.”
“You had a lifetime to express that when they were alive,” Swami looked amused. “You missed your chance!”
“And they barely knew me,” I quickly added. “We lost the connection somewhere.”
“You are confusing grief and regret,” Swami glanced at the embers flying in the dark night and continued. “Grief for dead parents is one thing. Regret for actions you didn’t take when they were alive is another.”
“Yes,” I was silent for a while.
“You have to find a way not to have regrets,” Swami continued. “Only then can you go forward and live a meaningful life.” Swami paused, looked across the river, and continued. “The central question, my friend, is to reconcile life’s course and how you play your part. You are an actor in this drama, and you have to find your lines.”
“That’s what claws at my heart every day,” I said sadly.
“Don’t be dramatic. I didn’t mean that kind of drama,” Swami laughed. “Tell me about your Mama.”
I had been a young man living in a foreign land for a few years, and it seemed that my parents and I traveled in separate orbits, occasionally catching a glimpse of each other but never coming together. My Mama wanted me to visit her, but I was never able to extricate myself from my life. I had excuses, plenty of them, and I had become good with my excuses. And during the years my Mama was unwell and suffered one health setback after another, I always figured out a way not to go. The biggest crime that I can see now was ignoring those pleas as too emotional.
I finally went when she was dying.
The hospital room smelled of cleaning solution, body fluids, and fear. Fear of death, I guess. I entered the nearly dark room, the faint light from a lamp turned down low punctuating the darkness, and approached her wasted body, laying there all crumpled and small in the bed.
Mama tried to turn her head to me, her eyes shifting to my face, then up to the ceiling, straining to focus, and her lips moved. No words came out. I clutched her hand, felt the life draining out of her, my mind flashing back to her small hand plaintively, almost frantically waving every time I left home for my travels. I pressed harder, looking down at her ruined body, thinking about years of disease and suffering.
“You are going on a Journey,” I softly murmured as if talking to a child, just the same as she had spoken to me in her sing-song voice when I was a child. “Once you reach the light, there will be nothing but love and laughter.” I continued, all the while just wanting to hold her.
“You will all walk the lush gardens and sing all the time. There will be no fear, no malice, no pain,” I swallowed, remembering all her years of joyful singing, choking with longing to be a child again and hear her songs, rooted in my belief that her flight to the other world is all for good, my Mama finding her final freedom, “You will be happy and safe.”
She smiled. And then she was gone.
“You got a smile out of her,” Swami said, “What’s not to like about that ending?”
“My final words to her were a little shallow, as I never visited her when she was alive,” I tried to collect my thoughts. “I think I hurt them profoundly. They never complained, but it must have seemed like a rejection from their son.”
“Well, that’s something you will have to resolve and learn from,” Swami countered. “The answers lie within you. And your Daddy. Were you able to show him love? Was he proud of you?”
My Daddy and me, we didn’t agree much on anything. How to live your life, how to conduct yourself, the rules of personal engagement, and the big one, belief in GOD. He was adamant in his thinking that this life is ordained by the God above and must be lived righteously. I was equally rigid in my casual view of this random universe and its happenings, and constantly, sometimes fiercely, questioned the existence of heavenly body’s above, frequently citing the pain and chaos on this Earth. He accepted a fickle and austere God, whereas I wanted my God to have a sunny disposition.
We had a relationship, as any father and son would, and I am sure there was love, but both of us never expressed it. Not once, not ever, not in a full lifetime, and that’s what haunts me to this day. We had some good moments, but our relationship was mostly unfulfilled.
It probably didn’t occur to both of us that this was purely a philosophical conflict and need not get personal. But it did, causing silences to transform into a foreboding stillness, and small differences to turn into unyielding walls. When I last met Daddy back at the house that I was born in, his memory had faded to nothing like a blank slate, and his wasted mind had taken him to places that no man could reach. He still recognized me. His eyes lit up, and he repeated my childhood name many times.
“Look at me,” he said after a long pause. “Do you believe in God?”
“I wish I had said yes, ” I said wearily. “It would have made him happy.”
“But that wouldn’t have been honest,” Swami said with an understanding smile. “You can’t honor your Daddy by agreeing to something that you don’t believe in. But I agree, it’s complicated.”
“And now you want to send a message to the afterworld,” Swami’s smile turned a little deprecating. “That’s quite a turnaround.”
“What did he say after you told him that you don’t believe?” Swami asked
“I wish he had said something,” I said, trying to catch the memory of those last few moments through the mist. “Those were the last words he uttered before he passed. He always wanted me to climb the mountain, that led to Devi’s temple.”
“So, then go climb the mountain,” Swami said, his eyes settling on mine, commanding my attention. “Come back and tell me what you find.”
Air getting thinner with each step, I labored up the narrow high-walled passageway, with the other pilgrims keeping me company, singing hymns, accompanied by occasional exuberant chants in the name of the Devi, craning their necks upward at the distant outline of the temple sitting high above in the heavens. The temple was always visible, through the shifting light that seemed to be favoring it, bathing it in a golden glow, and it shone like a beacon, drawing the faithful to its fold.
The mood grew somber as the darkness arrived and enveloped the mountain in a sudden quiet. A steady rain started falling, quietly at first and steadily gaining in its intensity, forcing me to take shelter in a nearby covered lodging area, specifically meant for the pilgrims in transit. I felt displaced, floating in and out of sleep, the dreams coming to me, lingering and flirting, slipping away before I could catch their meaning.
It was still dark, and the rain had subsided, when I saw my Mama and Daddy walking down the path, enveloped in a small column of light that had broken through the clouds. I rushed to greet them, quickly stepping on the cobbled stones that led up to the temple. I got closer to them and saw my Mama first, smiling as always, and then my Daddy, standing perfectly erect, seemingly immovable and present in his very own realm. My Daddy spoke first.
“You’ve been trying to reach us.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Maybe you should focus on the living,” Mama and Daddy smiled benignly, only as parents would, after catching a fatal fault in their child’s reasoning.
“I was just hoping to tell you both that I should not have been hurtful,” I continued. “I should have visited you.”
“Your heart was in the right place, even if your timing was not right,” he continued. “You were young and didn’t know what you had, and how to cherish it.”
“I also wanted to tell you that I have made some progress in my relationship with God,” I said, speaking like a child hoping to make his parents happy.
“I didn’t mean God as a person,” Daddy laughed. “Believing in God means a just and purposeful life. God is about love and acceptance. God is about letting go of anger.”
“You will be judgmental, you will make mistakes, but you work past it, and you don’t walk away from life, and people you love,” Mama said, finishing Daddy’s words. “That’s your God.”
They turned and started walking, slowly and painfully, holding hands, solitary in their union, and disappeared in a sudden patch of mist.
I woke up to a dazzling morning with sunlight draping the valley in an unearthly glow, prayer flags fluttering in the strong wind, prayer bells chiming and bringing a kind of calm to my mind, which had been a volcano of activity the last few days. I started walking back, as I believed that I had reached the top and found the answers I was seeking. I quickly called my son and told him that I loved him, and I was sorry for being absent. He was a little surprised but responded with his very own, “I love you.” I called my daughter and told her that I have been too judgmental, and immediately after, called my wife and told her that we need to start anew. We talked about my quest and how it had ironically created the same fracture in our family, as I had experienced with my Mama and Daddy.
I was sure that the night’s events were just a dream. I had been holding on to some outlandish ideas, and the quest that culminated at the mountain top had dispelled all notions. I was able to understand how important my Mama and Daddy were to me, but more than that, I felt a renewed sense of purpose in protecting and nourishing my immediate family.
I headed down quickly to meet Swami. I was confident in his ability to question me and simplify the dream for me.
“How was the other side,” Swami was still out there, shepherding the dead to the realm of the light.
“There is no other side,” I laughed, partly at my own faulty reasoning, and how easily I had been able to divorce my thinking from common sense. “It’s all in our heads.
Swami grew contemplative and bowed his head in prayer and stayed still for an extended time.
“Look at me,” Swami finally looked up after the long pause. “Do you believe in God.”
“Yes, I do.”