How does one deal with the unexpected death of a parent?
It’s something you never think about. You don’t plan for. I loved my mother. She was everything to me. I lost my father at the young age of 18. I was still finding myself. It was sad and devastating. But losing my mother, at the age I am now, it was profound.
Ironically, the survival skills I learned from my mother helped me get through these past three years without her. It’s almost as though she was prepping me for the inevitable – life without her. After all, she had to raise two kids when my father passed away 31 years ago and keep everything together. She could not have done a better job. Things turned out pretty alright. No, they turned out exceptionally well.
My mother was an active person. She would never sit still. Nor would she spend time on frivolous things. Never one to gossip, she chose to spend her time educating herself and being philanthropic. She even helped create the Onesha Library in our 150 apartment gated community in Dhaka. The library grew to the point that it was featured in an article in Prothom Alo, one of the leading dailies . My mother was featured in the newspaper. Her creation, the library was in the newspaper – a newspaper in a country of 180 million people. This was a big deal. A few months later she passed away. There are so many things like this that she accomplished before her unexpected passing. She spent three months with me in California five months before she left us. It was a blessing. We got to spend a quiet Eid together without much fanfare but we took in each other’s company fully satisfied. We got to spend my birthday together. Little did I know that this would be the last time we’d celebrate such things together.
The emotional toll of losing my mother was huge. I flew to Bangladesh the very day I got the call. It was during final exams and I still had finals to grade and administer. I slogged through two sets of exams that morning before my flight. I don’t know how. Like a zombie. My colleagues Jeff and Drew took care of the one remaining final. Bless their hearts. There was also some unforeseen drama. I was supposed to go to China as a Visiting Professor for a couple of weeks. So my passport was at the Chinese embassy for a visa. Luckily it had arrived back that very morning.
With the heaviest of hearts I took a plane journey like no other. Once in Dhaka I was going through the motions, the funereal processes, like a robot. Overcome with shock and grief, I was following my mom’s lead. When the going gets tough you put on your game face and march ahead. I did just that.
This was all happening in May 2017. Almost three years ago. Then began the process of dealing with her property and the ensuing paperwork. We were able to get some initial basic paperwork done. This paperwork was essential to everything. Basic court documents showing that my sister and I were her descendants. After doing the bare minimum necessary I left Dhaka having stayed for 2 weeks. Leaving was essential for my mental health. After much deliberation I decided to continue my summer plans. I went to Colombia for the first time and fell in love with it. I did an amazing bike ride up the Patios outside Bogota with Edgar, the cousin of my friend Carol. Looking back it was incredible that I had ridden in the footsteps of 2019 Tour de France winner Egan Bernal.
An explosive victory – the first South American to win the Tour! I hiked to La Ciudád Perdida (The Lost City) – it was one of the most challenging hikes I’ve done mainly due to the elements. Crossing rivers waist deep in torrential rain, getting soaked to the bone and hiking up mud and clay to reach ancient terraces and home of the ancient Tayrona, older than the Inca civilization of Machu Pichu – all these experiences were timely. I saw beauty like no other and everywhere I went, I felt my mother. As though she had never left and was all around, watching over me. The group I was with asked me to teach a yoga class and the moment I saw the principal terrace, I knew that this was the place. It was one of the best classes I ever taught. I found peace like no other.
After Colombia I went to Argentina, my adopted home away from home for the last couple of years. It was also a good trip. I always feel a connection there and have formed some of my most meaningful friendships there. And the year before I had started to teach yoga there. Mysteriously, teaching yoga took on a different meaning for me in Buenos Aires and I cannot imagine my stays there without teaching yoga there.
As I continue this story – I will shorten aspects of my travels, but know that I needed four more trips to Bangladesh to sort out the paperwork and ensuing property. When I say sort out, I literally mean sell. I even had to manage tenants in Bangladesh for a whole year. It was grueling. This was all taking a toll on me. I decided to sell. And then there was a piece of land, the easiest of things for crooks to steal. Several trips later (one in the middle of the semester!) I had managed to sell off these properties.
Then came the last property – the apartment where my mom lived. How do I take care of that? Managing an apartment and dealing with the costs associated with it, travel time and property maintenance were all taking a toll on me. My life was literally on hold. I couldn’t move forward with my other projects while this liability was looming over my head.
I was also noticing I was getting more tired than usual. I would sometimes come back from teaching and lie in bed. Sometimes as early as 3:30 pm. The stress and the uncertainty and the shackles were getting to me. Unfortunately those who could have shared part of this pain and responsibility chose not to do so. So I was the only one dealing with phone calls at odd hours, flying to Bangladesh to make arrangements for the land sale, and paying for and doing the apartment maintenance. My mental health was deteriorating fast.
Again I took a page out of my mom’s book. I marched forward. I devised a simple plan. Like a robot I would pack my mountain bike into my GMC truck two or three times a week. And after I was done teaching at Ohlone College, I would change into my bike clothes and grind up Mission Peak, at the base of which is my office. It’s a hard ride, not for the faint of heart. But that’s precisely what I needed – a challenge that requires utter focus, to stay upright, to breath regulated and ultimately show me that I could do anything. Some days I would ride to the last ridge and some days I would make it to the summit. The views would be spectacular. And again I would feel my mother all around, especially in Spring when the California poppies started blooming.
Anyone who knows me knows that traveling is my life blood. I took two crazy trips over two separate Spring Breaks. The first in March 2018 to South Africa. Again there was a Latin American connection. I went to visit my friend Kirsten who lives in Cape Town. We had met in Buenos Aires through my yoga studio there at the time. But the whole trip was amazing! And the highlight wasn’t even in South Africa. It was a whirlwind 24 hours in Zambia and Zimbabwe seeing Victoria Falls from both sides and a sunset dinner cruise down the Zambezi River.
Spring Break 2019 was totally Michael’s fault. Almost as crazy a traveler as I am, Michael is a theater professor at my college and one of my best friends. Math and Theater right? Go figure! We were even on each others evaluation teams for tenure. Michael had crafted a 9 day tour of Australia. That’s not the crazy part. It entailed seeing Sydney, Cairnes, Great Barrier Reef, Uluru and Melbourne. I was crazy enough to join him! But it was unbelievable.
In between these trips in December 2018 I went to my favorite city Buenos Aires and explored Patagonia and went all the way south to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. In January, a spur of the moment decision and some good luck took me to the Antarctic Peninsula. This was not a trip in so much a life-changing experience. Having climbed many tall mountains around the world, I thought that very little would awe me, but the scale and savageness of Antarctica was in a league of its own & I stood on the deck of the MS Expedition, many a time just staring at the magnificence of the icy continent and the sheer scale of the mountains and glaciers.
Being disconnected from civilization, opting out of the 50 Euro internet package was probably one of the best decions I had made. I got to experience Antartica noise-free.
For a moment, my troubles took a back seat. They did not compare, not even close to the nature here. Even the human connections were cultivated to a deeper extent. I had two cabin mates. Things could have gone terribly wrong. A Frenchman, a Californian and a New Yorker confined to a small cabin. But we bonded and found brothers in each other. So much so we met up again in France and had a fun reunion in September.
This was all part of the medicine. In the background I was not in good shape. I did these things to stay afloat.
I came to the realization that I would have to take care of the last bit of property/liability/responsibility to be fully ok.
I decided to take a year off from work. The goal would be two fold. Number one, take care of myself. Come back from the slump I was in. Number two, sell my mom’s apartment, so that I could be free and could continue with my life. But I couldn’t do it in a rush like I did the other things. I needed at least 4 or 5 months in Bangladesh. There was still undone paperwork and based on the timing, this meant that I would be straddling both Fall and Spring semesters. That settled it. I would be taking a year off to take care of myself, find proper closure and sell the apartment. In June 2019 I embarked on this Mission. Keep an eye out for the next article to see how the Mission went!
Peace and love