BY SUPRIYA SRIDHAR, JMC3023
Walking into my childhood home after school was like entering a secret clubhouse. Quirky characters with wrinkly fingers greeted me with snacks, laughs and “The Sound of Music” on repeat.
Chuckles too big for 70-year old-lungs filled the air. They were followed by coughs and then smiles.
I was raised by three grandparents and a great grandma. My parents, who had married young, were usually working, building a life in Norman after years of attempting to acclimate to a foreign country.
Mamay, my mother’s mother, exhibited the impact of British colonialism on Indian culture. She drank British tea in white china, tended to her garden and let sarcasm fly faster than her victims could register her remarks. She loved mangos and taught me to love them, too, as we grazed our teeth along the giant pits, peeling off any excess juicy goodness we could.
Raj, my mother’s father and my own personal stylist, wore foundation he insisted was moisturizer. He fashioned three-piece suits with his hair slicked back, everyday. The most casual I ever saw him was in a polo on the weekend. When my tween self came back from the mall, he’d patiently critique my purchases. We’d compare notes about who had the best sales and new products. We’d end our days with tiramisu from Olive Garden.
Kamaliamma, my dad’s mom, was loud. She was the original feminist. She let me do whatever I wanted, even when my dad said no, always answering my timid fears with, “Eh, we’ll deal with him later.” She was the queen of pineapple pizza, slipping me $20 bills to order in.
Alu, my great grandmother, did crossword puzzles well into her 90s. She knew more than any encyclopedia, and ate riotous amounts of popcorn. Late at night, when I’d help her into bed, she’d tell me about the adventures she had as a youth in Burma. She taught me to have some of my own.
As I grew, they remained the same. They were constants, living snow globe lives. Their 70-year-old lungs would always be full of laughter. They existed in a tiny familiar world that would always be home to me.
When I left for college, things changed.
I began to deal with health issues. My anxiety, which turned into depression, which turned into something resembling a bipolar disorder, began to consume my life.
My childhood clubhouse became quieter. Chuckles shrank. “The Sound of Music” stopped.
Mamay began to eat fewer mangos, her diabetic blood begging her to slow down.
Raj began wearing polos more often, easier to get dressed in each morning than his full suits.
Kamaliamma began to spend more time at my aunt’s in Chicago. At first I thought she liked my cousins better. Then I realized it was because my aunt was a doctor.
Alu’s encyclopedia brain began to forget things — starting with the Pythagorean theorem and ending with my name.
My health began to take a turn for the worse. Autoimmune issues, neurological dilemmas, medical mysteries took over my life. As my days filled with scans and blood tests, so did theirs.
Mamay developed breast cancer, Alu passed away, Raj was consumed with stress and Kamalamma kept postponing her surgeries.
Going home, nostalgia stings my heart. As I walk into the living room I see Raj, Niru and Kamaliamma in the kitchen. Niru, bald, smiles at me while she sneaks a mango onto her plate. “Touch my head,” she says, laughing. “Your cousins say it’s really soft.”
Raj rolls his eyes, “You look good,” he says. “Want to go to Dillard’s with me later?”
Kamaliamma feigns false annoyance. “Have you forgotten me?” she says, before breaking into a toothy grin.
They smile, happy, talking about chemo, surgeries and blood sugar. They don’t exist in a snow globe. Neither do I. Their 70-year-old lungs will fall apart, their laughs will shrink. I will change. My ideas of familiarity, of home, will also change.
It’s the secret of the elderly — the no bullshit acceptance of reality.
When Niru was first diagnosed, I asked how she felt. She said that she was scared for the pain, but nothing else. She had a career, a family, friends. She got to paint, drink tea, watch Audrey Hepburn movies.
“I’ve lived my life,” she said.
Now as my head rolls into a whizzing MRI machine, “Doe a dear, a female dear…” begins to play in my head. I smile, closing my eyes.
Tomorrow I will watch the sunrise. Get coffee with an old friend. I will read the book on my nightstand. I will book a plane ticket to visit my brother, plan a camping trip with friends. And someday, when my fingers are covered with wrinkles and a big-eyed, curly-haired girl looks up at me and asks how I am, I know exactly what I will say.
“I’m good. I’ve lived.”