What if learning to grieve was like learning to ride a bicycle? A hoisting, balancing, circular act.
What if it came with a bell and spokes and a majang chain that kept slipping off and jamming up the pedals, so you had to stop, and carefully clink it back into place, then climb back on with your grease stained fingers? What if the bony seat that you occasionally lift off of as you plod over potholes was like sitting back down on grief? And the rush of wind in your hair, the moment you stop pedaling, tears streaming down your face – go careening downhill – what if this is grief?
My first memory of riding a bike is the sting of falling off. If I started on training wheels, I didn’t stay on them for too long. I wanted to ride a big bike, like my brother, and our gravelly driveway provided the training grounds. Our home in Sri Lanka sat at the end of a vast garden, replete with patchy grass hills, stern old Jak trees, bougainvillea hedges and flying cricket balls. Growing up, it seemed like everyone was playing cricket all the time – in our garden, down the lane, over the walls of our nextdoor neighbours – we lived in a tangle of raining sixes and crisscrossing boundaries.
I don’t remember how old I was when I first fell off my bike, but I do remember feeling the sting of cold water, followed by Dettol if it was just a scrape, or Spirit where the cuts ran deeper. I remember the Dettol came in a clear, plastic bottle with a green cap, whereas the Spirit was contained in a glass bottle, cold and heavy in my little palm, topped with a fierce red cap. Perhaps I remember it so well because I fell that many times. Or perhaps it is because of the routine we developed. Each time someone fell, my gaggle of cousins, my brother and I took ourselves to our grandfather, who cleaned and tended to our wounds. He would blow gently, while dabbing patiently with endless pinches of cotton wool.
My grandfather’s death, three months before we were to leave Sri Lanka and immigrate to Australia, was also my first experience of grieving. It was certainly not my first-time seeing death. At age thirteen, like most Lankan kids, I’d been to plenty of funerals, passed by gates and streets decked in white mourning flags, been startled and then soothed by the wailing of mourners and dulled by a steady assail of news about war and death. Death was a fact. An unassuming fact that walked ordinarily amongst the colourful throngs of Colombo people.
In turn, grief, when it slipped in at 5am that September morning, felt familiar. Our rituals for grieving – the prayers and hymns, the lightness of white clothing, the salty food, the murmuring mirth just outside on the porch and in the garden, where people come to pay their respects would stay. For hours. These rituals made grief less pointy. And grieving my grandfather became the prelude to grieving home. The migrant grieving.
In 2008, migrating was common talk in Colombo. Everyone we knew was leaving, or had left, or was talking about leaving, or talking about who was leaving. You couldn’t escape it. Even as we talked about leaving, the conversations centred not on the places we were going to, but the place we were leaving behind. A dilapidated yet indignant, young country. The burning paradise.
Our tongues were coated in violence, crime, corruption and death, while our eyes remained glazed by the luminosity of the island. We who carried giggling streams in our language and tumbling waterfalls in our laughter. Her bold colours springing out of our clothing. The magic of her myths and legends sparkling in our eyes. This is how we talked about leaving. This is how I, an upper middle-class Sinhalese girl from Colombo, remember us talking about leaving.
And on the night we left, two suitcases each packed with rupee-rupee life that we didn’t realise would disintegrate in just a few months – on that night, we were not the grieving. We hugged and kissed and comforted everyone who had come to say goodbye. The gaggle of cousins, the aunties, uncles, neighbours and old friends, the rustling Jak trees.
I carried my guilt like coins in my pocket. The thin metal jangling occasionally against my breast. And at some point, grief and guilt and memory became inseparable. I couldn’t reach for home without stirring up the metal. The vastness of the new country we found ourselves in – the openness of its cold skies, a giant moon rising slowly from its edges and the fragrance of its bush – all tinged in sadness. My own sadness, I thought at first. My own sense of missing and grief creeping into every conversation, quietening my laugh and hardening my handshakes.
In this impersonal sort of country, I learned to grieve with my head down. Tucking away the ends of my sentences, swallowing my questions, drawing uncertain smiles and uneasy eyes, and wrapping the intimacy of my family around me in a way that I had never needed before.
In this impersonal sort of culture, I learned we don’t have the time or the space, not just for my grief, but for anyone to grieve. Even whilst we sit and sleep on top of grief. What might happen, I wonder, if we faced our sadness and dared to connect all the different strands of grieving in this nation – the Noongar Nation, where I now reside in South-Western Australia, and the many nations of this continent. How are we connected in our grief across the many histories of this planet? What might happen if we were encouraged to grieve in the same way that we are taught to ride bicycles? What might we remember? Where might we go?
Shenali Perera is a creative writer, storyteller, artist, boxer, occasional academic and full-time food-lover. Born in Sri Lanka, she moved to Boorloo/ Perth with her family at the age of thirteen. She is a contributing writer to Write to Reconcile III: an anthology by young writers of Sri Lankan heritage about post-war Sri Lanka, and is passionate about making art that connects people.