Your death certificate came in the mail the other day. It was the first time I was seeing it. And I’m thirty-nine. That is how long you have been gone.
It is hard to describe how I felt. You lived only a few hours after I was born. My father never talks about that day. He does not talk about you. Once he is gone, I will never know. I will spend the rest of my days on earth tortured by aching questions to which I will not have answers.
You are my mother. But I have no memory of you. I have no memory of your voice, of your smell, of your warmth. Sometimes I close my eyes and try to remember what it felt like to be in your womb, wafting in a cocoon of amniotic fluid. I pray that, by some miracle, I will recall those precious moments when I was one with you. I am special, I imagine. I can recollect what others cannot.
I can’t, though. I do not remember any of it.
You existed. By writing about you—for the first time in my life—I want to honour that undeniable fact. I was young when someone told me in anger that my paternal aunt was not my mother and that my mother was dead. I asked my father if it was true. “Yes,” he said, next to tears.
I had to find out. It was inevitable. But my world shook a bit. Not much. I was too young. I spent the next few years trying to analyse how I felt about this earth-shattering revelation. Nobody else seemed to care that you had lived; and that you didn’t anymore.
In moments of sadness, when I felt abandoned by the world, I imagined that you were alive. Or, I imagined that you had left me siblings. We would stand up for each other and not be alone. I’ll be honest. I did not spend the major part of my childhood wishing you back. There were other battles to fight.
Without contact with my father’s or your relatives, the puzzle was hard to piece together. I had no photos, no date of birth, not even a name. I did not know your wedding anniversary. I do not know whether you were buried or cremated and at which cemetery. I have no clothes you wore, not anything. Not even your wedding ring or some other trinket that had once touched your skin.
Nobody ever realized these things would be important to me. My father does not see it even now. I need to know. I may not ever get you back. But it will complete a part of me that is still missing. Fill a gaping hole.
Every time I think of you, my chest tightens. I want to know what you looked like, how long your hair was and how short—because you were short—you really were. I want to know your personality, whether you were a good lawyer and if you made friends easily. Did you cook better than I do? Did you know to bake? Did you sew? Were you neat and tidy? Did you read? Were you compassionate? Where you kind? Were you short-tempered?
And how did you die? My aunt told me you haemorrhaged. She said there was another surgery in the operating theatre of the private hospital at the time so they could not take you in immediately. She said my father and she looked for blood so you could receive a transfusion. That is all I know.
You were just 31. And I was your first and only child. I’m sorry.
This is one story I haven’t written. I just don’t have the information and my sources are not forthcoming. I have tried to find your friends but the memories of the few I know are so distant. They are also too general. They’d say you were bubbly or kind or friendly. But people usually say that of the deceased, don’t they?
Your relations got in touch with me after many years but they don’t seem to remember much either. Your parents are gone. Your father once cried so much when he saw me after a long absence. And he wrote me letters. I wish I had visited him more.
Your niece, Anusha, said you were wonderful. She said you would bring her chocolates after work and call for her often. That is not much to go on.
So I’m faced with the unpalatable reality that I may never know anything more about my mother than I do now. I will never see anything of her but a handful of photographs and the tiny handwriting on a field notebook given by her employer, a bank, to record developments related to her cases.
The last entry is on September 4, 1976—a month you before died. It says: “Left Colombo by 6.05 train to Kurunegala to reach Kurunegala by 9.30 am.” On the 20th of September you have signed your name. That is all.
I want to tell you this, Amma. I acknowledge your existence. I accept that you once lived and breathed. Whoever else might have forgotten you, I have not. I yearn to know more about you. I am tired of suppressing all this in order not to hurt somebody else. Because you matter. You matter to me.
As I grow older, I spend even more time wondering about you, perhaps because time is running out. But till I die, I will never stop thinking about you. You are important to me. Nobody can change what we mean to each other. And I hope you are at peace, wherever you are.
(My mother, Sri Suddha Sinharatna Bandara Dona Nandaprema Jayawardena, died on October 25, 1976. She was a lawyer. Her parents were from Ja Ela. At the time of her death, she was working for the Kurunegala branch of People’s Bank).