by Sudha Balagopal

When Seeta’s phone rings in the United States with the message of Amma’s decline, she leaves for India carrying an assortment of useless things in her suitcase and a cluster of pebbles in her throat.

On the plane, she gears herself for outward expressions of deep, rending grief from Appa. Instead, after Amma’s body leaves the earthly plane to merge with the universe, he retreats into the hollowness of an inner cave and sits in stony silence in the living room.

Unkempt salt and pepper hair covers his ears; his beard is long. Clearly, he hasn’t seen a barber for weeks. The veshti tied around his waist and the angavastram draped over his left shoulder, once white, have morphed into a speckled gray.

Any moment, Seeta expects Amma’s voice to ring from the kitchen. “Seetu, come and get your coffee.”

Amma’s voice is gone.

Guilt cascades through Seeta and she yearns to apologize to Appa for not being around the last few months, for not being able to help take care of Amma.

He’s shuttered.

A jangle of glass bangles jars the quiet. Tall, thin Lopa, their neighbor, walks in with an irksome familiarity—no knock, no request to enter.

Her sari is wrapped around her angular frame, as precise as the sheet on a hotel room bed. Seeta wants to tell her some dishevelment would be appropriate in a house of mourning.

Yesterday, after Seeta agonized over the perfect clothing for Amma’s final journey―she chose a blue-and-maroon sari―she left the pile on the floor, each artistic length a paean to fabric and workmanship.

“I told your Amma I like this one when she showed it to me.” Lopa holds up a sari in sunshine yellow, rectangular price tag still glued to the silken material.

Seeta grabs the garment from her. “Please, don’t . . .” she says.

When she visited last year, Seeta went shopping with her parents for Amma’s seventy-fourth birthday. Her parents, as was their wont, argued in the store. Appa disliked the sunshine-yellow sari, urged Amma to buy a more expensive gray one. Amma laughed. “You think I’m too old to wear this bright color?” She took ill soon after.

Lopa presses her lips together. “Your Amma thought you lived too far away. She was such a nice person.”

Was. As in the past tense. After one day.

Like Appa, Seeta wants to wallow, to dwell, to curl up and sink into the comforting arms of retreat. But many things need attention. This house. Her eighty-three-year-old father’s care. He could move in with her family―a challenge since he hates air travel. He wouldn’t adjust to their suburban lifestyle. Yet, how can he live in this house now, without Amma, without their constant bickering to keep him going?

Lopa’s interference abrades like sandpaper against skin. “I told the priest to talk to you about the rituals,” she says.

“I want to simplify things,” Seeta says.

“But what would your mother want? And, your father? Think about that.”

Seeta puffs out her cheeks. She almost tells Lopa such decisions should be a private family matter, then remembers the neighbor made that last call to the United States as Amma’s life ebbed.

Appa is fastened to his chair. He appears to be asleep.

Seeta settles on the sofa and rests her head in her hands. The pebbles sitting at the base of her aching throat, jostle, threaten.

Twelve days later, Appa continues to huddle inside his blanket of silence.

Oh, Amma, how should I take care of him?

As father and daughter, they are together, yet distant, in this sorrow.

Lopa bursts in, says, “Family members must wear new clothing on the thirteenth day after a demise.” She holds up the sunshine-yellow sari. “Your Amma said I could have this. I’ll wear the sari in her memory.”

Seeta looks away from the bold print on the fabric. Amma wouldn’t have parted with a favorite sari. Besides, Lopa is not family.

“It’s my mother’s,” she says.

“But she won’t need it anymore, right?”

Amma will not wear it. Ever.

The time has come to let go.

On day thirteen, loud voices from the living room splinter the silence. Seeta finds Lopa arguing with Appa.

“Listen to me,” Lopa yells as if Appa is hard of hearing.

Appa, his face flushed, shouts, “This coffee burned my tongue.” He holds a cup and saucer in his hands.

“It’ll cool.”

“But first I have to burn my tongue?”

Appa has returned?

Lopa complains to Seeta, “He started this whole tirade. All I did is warm up the coffee in your kitchen.”

“You burn me. Every time.”

Every time? Lopa doesn’t brew his coffee.

Amma did.

Seconds pulse. Lopa purses her lips and places the coffee on the table. The cup tilts, sloshing the beverage over the tablecloth. The flowery print of Amma’s sunshine-yellow sari softens Lopa’s sharp angles today.

Appa’s confused eyes blink rapidly. “That’s not her?” His voice shakes.

Lopa pivots, slams the door behind her.

Emotions shuffle through Appa’s face. He swallows, then swallows again. His mouth opens and closes as he lifts an arm.

“Appa?” Seeta’s heart wobbles.

She takes his hand, settles next to him.

When he puts an arm around her to draw her close, the pebbles at the base of her throat dislodge.

Originally published in Khabar Magazine. Click here to read Sudha Balagopal’s reflection on writing about caregiving.

Sudha Balagopal is honored to have her writing in many fine journals including CRAFT, Split Lip, and Smokelong Quarterly. Her novella-in-flash, Things I Can’t Tell Amma, was published by Ad Hoc Fiction in 2021. She has stories included in both Best Microfiction and Best Small Fictions, 2022.

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