A phone call from India gives me the news: a road accident has killed my cousin’s young wife in Bangalore, India. Later, in another phone conversation I hear of a dear friend losing her husband and yet another phone call informs me about a childhood friend losing her mother. Each time, the phone rings and the message is delivered. And grief paralyzes me.
At 8 a.m., on a bright spring morning, as I sit in my bedroom with the covers pulled up to my chin, I am not in the least bit interested in engaging with the world or doing any semblance of work during the day. Tears streak down my cheeks. I cannot bring myself to eat. The sight of food serves as a reminder of meals enjoyed in years past with the departed. At night, I sit on my living room couch through the wee hours of the morning, staring into the blackness outside my front window, waiting and willing for someone or something to give me solace. All I can see is the reflection of my puffed up face.
When I speak to grieving friends and family members in India, my words feel inadequate. I wish I could clasp their hands in mine. Words might not have been necessary if I’d been in India, I think. I could have just gone into their homes and sat down quietly to grieve in a corner. Instead, I say, “How are you? I am so sorry—I feel terrible.” Words that tumble out through the tether of the phone line leave me exhausted.
How does one even find the words to articulate and share in the grief experienced a thousand miles away?
All I have is my American suburbia, where a lone car plies once every hour. This is the canvas in which I experience my grief.
The silence and loneliness that is a lasting feature of suburbia had always bothered me. I’ve always wished for signs of life outside my suburban home. I grew up in a middle-class home on a busy street in Chennai. Just watching human beings on their motorbikes, cars, and on foot at all times of the day and night was a reassuring sight through my childhood. If I was sad and moody, the busy street scene helped me as the emotions churned within. Ironically enough, even though my state of mind was unknown to every one in the street below, the feeling of being a small part of humanity was one that enveloped my psyche, eventually calming my mind.
Removed from this sea of humanity in my time of grief felt alienating. I wanted to go somewhere where I could feel the physical presence of people.
And, where did I go? To that behemoth of a store that is another American suburban fixture—Costco.
I walked up and down the aisles, pushing my cart, looking with no particular interest at the shelves of stuff. I looked at the shoppers around me and wondered about the meaning of life and death. I remembered the departed, snatches of conversations and images of their life flitted through my mind.
I started to feel a little better as I walked out of Costco. Unbeknownst to them, shoppers at the local Costco had made me feel that I was part of a group—that I was not alone.
As the summer melts into fall, I think of that Costco shopping trip and wonder at how I found comfort among strangers.
Should I, as an amateur psychoanalyst, opine and say that the crowded aisles of Costco simulated the streets that I had once experienced as a child? I certainly don’t have an answer to that question.
But I used one suburban fixture—Costco—to solve the ever-prevalent problem of silence in American suburbia, when that silence threatened to pull me into a vortex of loneliness.
Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is a dancer, writer, and dance teacher who tries to make sense of the human experience through movement and words. When she is not involved in this lofty pursuit, you can find her in her garden.