My father was 82 when he died and the one device he held until the end was an iPad. It was a gift on his 79th birthday and as he proudly boasted to his friends in the neighborhood park, probably the first iPad in Jalandhar (India) at the time. His generation of friends and neighbors were suitably impressed. What was even more impressive was his ease at being digitally connected to the world for someone from his generation. As a lawyer in the Indian Army, my father had had some access to a computer but this had been minimal, as legal casework was mostly handwritten.
With its ultra-sleek feel, bright screen, and smudgy fingerprints, the iPad was a new, trusted friend that my father reached for many times during his long struggle with kidney failure. The news, email, photos, and music—there was wonder in knowing that this device did it all. He was a child again. Whenever Mother requested some time on the iPad so she could learn to use it, my father just happened to be in the middle of something extremely important.
With his clumsy one-finger typing, Dad was soon posting on Facebook, emailing the latest bird pictures to the Audobon Society newsgroup he had joined, or sending birthday cards to his grandchildren in the United States. It was painful to watch him labor over an email for an hour typing with his one finger but the fact that he could listen to Beethoven or Shubha Mudgal while he did it, made it almost meditative. Most of his time was spent lying in bed or in the dialysis unit but the iPad gave him purpose and contentment despite the circumstances.
Dad was dying. It was clear to all of us. He had bravely put up with multiple procedures, needles, IVs, and dialysis treatments for two years, but the end was in sight. He asked the doctors about his options and was told that he would need dialysis every day.
On hearing this, Dad decided to do two things about it. First, he began to write his memoir on the iPad. Every day, as he recovered between dialysis treatments, Dad typed for hours on the iPad. Then he made the second decision about his condition. He decided to stop all treatments and come home. The entries became more frequent but also more reflective of the decision he had made. His last entry was two days before he died.
But this story is not about my father. It’s about my mother, his partner of five decades, who has known no other way of being other than with him. The context of Mother’s grief had shifted in a radical way, both emotionally and physically—from being surrounded by relatives pouring into the house in India, to living with her daughters and grandchildren in a small town in California. The unpacking and jetlag were barely over when she found herself alone in a house, with the family gone to work and school. The silence was unbearable. But Mother slowly found that she had a trusted friend to take her mind off her grief. The iPad—an old companion that connected her to the partner, the culture, and the country she had left behind. Sometimes the iPad case smelled of him. At times, she could even smell India.
The culture of mourning in India is tightly prescribed in terms of language, dress, rituals, food, and customs. In my mother’s generation, you typically wear simple, light-colored clothing, and don’t eat meat or drink alcohol during the mourning period. In some communities, the mourning period lasts for 40 days and in others, for a year. In more traditional communities, widows stay away from celebrations, lest they bring bad luck to a new bride or a newborn. Friends and family visit the grieving household and often bring meals and offer support. Extended family take turns so as to not leave the grieving family alone. It’s a slow arduous process and all eyes are on the mourning family.
But Mother’s mourning was different.
As she navigated the gut-wrenching aspects of her grief in a new culture, Mother embraced the digital world in all of its anonymity and distractions. The iPad became a bridge to the life left behind and a transition into the life ahead in a new country. She began to use Father’s Facebook account and, somewhat to our unease, began to post comments from his account on birthdays and anniversaries. They had shared everything on that device. There had been no reason to hide passwords or the other minutiae of life from a partner of 52 years.
It felt strange to see my father’s name pop up in our news feeds but we kept silent. For brief moments we could pretend that he was still around. It may be that Mother also felt closer to my father by posting on his behalf or reading news updates that he would have normally shared with her in conversation. She visited it as one would a bricks and stones memorial.
There was lightness too. She was finding that playing scrabble with strangers on the iPad helped fill up time, watching NDTV news for the political happenings in India connected her to the country she had left behind, and emailing to her friends and family in India took her mind off the grief.
The comfort in digital mindlessness helped keep her sanity in these first few months of being uprooted. She struggled to navigate the transition from being part of the “parental unit,” as we sometimes teased my parents, to a houseguest? A reluctant immigrant? Widow? A digital citizen? Or, all of these?
Ten months later and there has been a turning point. Grief comes and goes like the deep, dark waves of the ocean. But mother now knows that she is here to stay in her new life in the U.S. She steps out to find diversion in the company of others at the Senior Center in our town. Often, culture and language are no barriers because grief and solace are recognized and received in the eyes. She comes home sharing stories of others in her age group who are suffering from loss, illness, or displacement. Knitting and scrabble are beginning to interest her again. She has even decided not to use my father’s Facebook account and has finally got her own account.
Every morning she gets up with a tiny glow in her heart, knowing that new friends await her at the Senior Center, while an old friend waits at home for her return.
Pushpinder Pelia Lubana is a content strategist/consultant living in Menlo Park, CA. She’s interested in the connections between gender, culture, politics, and health. Connect with her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @PushpinderL