Twelve. Do you remember being twelve? The cusp of teenage-hood, the big bang of physical and emotional growth.
I was twelve when my mum died. Breast Cancer. A tumour, mastectomy, a scar running across her chest. Chemo, radiation therapy, sickness. Blurred vision, pain in her head. The cancer came back, it spread. It took 10 months to kill her.
I feel like death does different things to different people.
“Has anyone got any clothes to wash? What shall we have for supper? Who’s going to take the girls to school? Shall we go for a walk?” Keep busy, keep busy, keep busy. But you know that they cry when they have a moment to themselves in their room at night.
And then others don’t say anything at all. Act as if nothing has happened but then seem to find comfort in rocking back and forth or praying.
Me? I was fine at the start. I started high school, made new friends easily, fit in well and got good marks. But as time passed, it started to hit me. 13, 14, 15, 16 years old. It felt like—you know how the umbilical cord is the life force for the foetus in the womb? It feeds it and helps it grow? Well, it felt like an emotional umbilical cord had been cut—prematurely—from me.
This feeling sat inside me as time went on. I finished high school and moved to the city and again, on paper, I was ‘fine’. Made friends easily, fit in, got good marks. But by the end of my first year of uni, when I had just turned 18, I was a mess inside. My sense of identity had completely spiralled.
I was fortunate that at this time, where I was studying offered some small scholarships to encourage students to undertake some meaningful travel over the summer holidays. I applied for one of these and was lucky enough to get one. With the money I bought tickets to Sri Lanka.
Why Sri Lanka?
When my mum was in her twenties, she was given the opportunity to travel from the U.K. to Sri Lanka. She fell in love with the country, its people and culture. She ended up staying and living there for 10 years. She learnt the local language and pursued her passion for education by working with children with disabilities.
I never really knew all this about my mum except that she had been in Sri Lanka. But there I was—some 25 years later—18 years old. I landed, alone in Colombo at night time. It was dark, so I couldn’t see much outside during the taxi ride from the airport. I arrived at the house of my mum’s good friend from back in the day and was greeted with kiribadth—rice cooked in creamy coconut cream—with chilli sambal. Mmmm, it was delicious! And then I went to sleep.
The next day, I had my first real experience of Sri Lanka. It was amazing. A bombardment of my senses. I was so intrigued. I imagined my mum hustling and bustling through the streets, bartering at the fish markets, chatting in Singhalese to her friends.
Mum’s friend took me 20 minutes out of Colombo to visit ‘Morratua Home for Differently Abled Girls’. This was one of the homes my mum had helped set up for women with disabilities. I was greeted by women of all ages with big smiles and some of the older women cried as they said I had my mum’s smile.
The matron of the home went to a cupboard and brought out a photo to show me. It was me as little baby and had my name written on the back. Mum had posted it to them in the mail after I was born in Australia.
I stayed a week at this home in the exact room my mum had lived in for so many years. A small, concrete room with a spring bed in one corner and a tap in the other for washing. I went to sleep to the sounds of crickets and woke to the sounds of birds and the women laughing and singing. Nobody spoke English there, but I was able to communicate with facial expressions and hand gestures. I was treated with such love and warmth while I was there. It was as if these women were giving me my mother’s love that she had once given them.
After this trip, I flew back to Perth to carry on with uni, and I definitely felt a bit more healed and more connected to my mum. You see, I now had a newfound sense of hope. A narrative by which I could live my life. I would use my life to celebrate my mum’s. I would use my life to honour hers and make it such that her death was not in vain and to carry on her legacy.
I developed this sort of 3D hologram of my mum’s face in my mind that seemed to be very concerned with everything I did. When meeting new people, I would think oh yes, mum would approve of this person, she would want me to friends with them, yes. I would feel extreme guilt whenever I was doing something I thought she might not approve of—like saying yes to having a boyfriend when I was 18—don’t worry mum, I ended up marrying him. And while it seemed like all my friends around me were doing everything to try not to turn into their mothers, I yearned to be told I looked like mine, to be told I reminded people of her or what features I had that were like hers.
As sweet as these sentiments were, this was no way for me to live. I could only carry on this narrative of purpose for so long, only stave off the inevitable existential questions of ‘Who am I? What is MY purpose in this world?’ for so long.
After I got married when I was 23, my husband and I would sometimes have this conversation. He wasn’t quite sure how to put it in to words, but he would try and explain how he felt like he could try and give me all the love in the world, but somehow he felt like his love couldn’t quite reach me because I didn’t have inherent love for myself.
And he was right! How could I have love for myself when I had been so busy living life for someone else, trying to live up to someone else’s expectations? I pictured myself as a future mother and felt worried about how I was going to be able to give my future children the love they would need if I was constantly still seeking my own mother’s love.
So, last year, in 2018, I went to the U.K. and spent time with my mum’s family. I spent time with her siblings and asked them all the questions I wanted: “What was she like when she was my age? What was she like as a child? Did she like being a mum? Was she happy to be pregnant?”
It was during one of these conversations that my uncle, my mum’s elder brother, turned to me and said: “You know what Asha? One thing I can tell you about your mum is that she spent a lot of her life trying to live up to her mother’s expectations. And you see, in every family, in every lineage, there are cycles and patterns. And it is up to you to choose which ones you want to break and which ones you will continue.”
In that moment, it felt like shackles had been lifted off my shoulders. I had this feeling of clarity.
By using my life to try and honour my mum’s, I had in fact been continuing a cycle of trying to live up to her expectations, or I what I thought they were. I realised my mother’s love had always been there – it is part of me, it runs inside me. If I really wanted to honour her life, I should live mine and find what potential my limbs and my mind have, how I can contribute to the world.
From that day onwards, I vowed to live whole-heartedly every day and find the person that I am, that I was always meant to be. Since then, I keep in mind a quotation I love by one of my favourite poets, Kahlil Gibran:
“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself.”