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What We Carry by Maya Shanbagh Lang is a memoir about mothers and daughters, lies and truths, receiving and giving care, and how we cannot grow up until we fully understand the people who raised us.
My mother is my best friend, although, our friendship really blossomed only after I got married and moved away from her. I guess the distance made the heart grow fonder! But, it’s only in my forties, that I feel like I really started to understand her better; understand the person within her that I wasn’t well-acquainted with earlier.
What We Carry by Maya Shanbagh Lang felt special for precisely this reason. It’s a story about a mother and a daughter, their life together, their history, the equation they share with each other, and how the dynamics of their relationship change after the author comes to understand the person her mother really is. A person vastly different from the image she has carried in her mind all her life.
It is also a book about caregivers. Maya Shanbagh Lang looked after her mother after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The story is about how this change in her mother’s condition affected Maya’s life, her understanding of life, and of the people in her life.
As I read this book, a few questions arose in my mind:
How well do we know our mothers? Do we know the real person who exists behind that loving, nurturing exterior? A person, who might have a completely different story than the one we think we know? A person, who, if they were to let go of their identity, would be a completely different individual from the one we have known all our lives!?
For us, our mothers are the epitome of kindness, love, compassion, self-sacrifice. They are the only ones in our lives who will put aside everything to come to our rescue if and when we find ourselves in trouble, however old we may grow.
But, rarely do we think about the ‘what-ifs’! What if they do not come to our rescue? What if they expect us to stumble over the obstacles on our way, and find our way through the dark? What if they don’t have the answers to our many questions? And, finally, what if they decide to choose themselves over us? We may never really know the reason behind these what-ifs, but it would be a bitter pill to swallow, isn’t it?
Maya recounts, how, after she gave birth to her daughter, she needed her mother by her side. With depression rearing its ugly head and taking away the joy of being a new mother from her, the one person who could help her was her mother–a brilliant psychiatrist–the one who had always been there to rescue her. And, it was precisely at this time that she didn’t get the help she desperately needed.
Our instant reaction would be to attach labels to the mother who decided to choose herself over her daughter. Judging comes so naturally to us! But, amidst the pages of the book lay the answers about why the mother did what she did; the reasons she couldn’t get herself to help her daughter as she herself had begun a battle she was quite unaware of when it started.
To be heard is a basic human need–a need that is mostly fulfilled by our mothers, who listen when we speak, or even when we are just thinking aloud. But, how often is it that we give our mothers the attention they deserve? It’s only after we become mothers, I guess, that we begin to listen, pay attention to the details–the tiny, insignificant details wherein lie a lot of secrets, dreams, fantasies and also some ugly truths of life.
Maya talks about how she learned from just observing her mother interact with her daughter. How she learned to be a better person, a better listener from not just her mother but also her daughter who was too small to understand the gravity of the situation, but old enough in her mind to know her grandmother needed a patient ear and a loving heart.
The chapters recounting the time Maya’s mother spent in her care, how she bonded with Maya’s daughter and Maya, herself, are so beautifully narrated.
There are happy memories as well as ugly spats between mother and daughter. Instances that are unabashedly honest and raw; that reveal the emotions we usually hide from the world, but which are very much a part of our psyche. Instances that show you that this is life, the kind we wouldn’t generally share with the world.
Caregiving is tough. Putting yourself at the end of your priority list and putting the patient at the top is tough. Doing it each day, every day, patiently, while holding it all in when you are ready to burst, is tough. And, if the patient is your mother suffering from a disease like Alzheimer’s, it’s a high wire act. One misstep and you have to make a fresh new beginning.
Maya decided to look after her mother, herself, instead of moving her into an assisted living facility. Although she wasn’t prepared for the complexities involved, she wasn’t prepared to leave her mother alone in her time of need, either.
The way Alzheimer’s plays havoc with a person is unimaginable. Maya has an apt definition for this disease.
“Alzheimer’s is devastating because it annihilates one’s story. It vacuums it up. Even the name feels greedy to me. What gets me is the apostrophe, that possessive little hook. It drags your loved one away from you. My mom no longer belongs to me. She belongs to the illness.”
The transformation in her mother and in her life reminded me of the time I cared for my mother-in-law. An illness changes a person. It’s like living with a whole new person every day, who displays a multitude of moods and persona. You are never well-prepared. You never know what mood will come to the surface, which personality will prevail and how you will tackle it.
The patient is like the sun around which you and your world revolves. You don’t even realise how your life changes. An illness can do so much and a lot more to not just the patient but the equation they share with their family.
Just like Maya’s mother, whose Alzheimer’s affected her memory, my mother-in-law would forget about the things she said or did, too. I still remember the numerous instances when I was at the receiving end of her reprimands and complaints for being “careless, unkind, unsympathetic”.
However, there were also instances, like in the book, when all would be well and we would share a happy moment, or two, making conversations that brought to the surface the real person from behind the gloomy shroud of the disease.
That’s what caregiving is all about. It’s about giving in to the chaos over which we have no control. But, it also is a beautiful thing that sheds light on us, our strength, our boundless capacity to care for the person, and finally emerge as a whole new person. Something that gives us a chance to be happy and proud that we stuck through it all.
The language, the narrative style and the atmosphere of What We Carry by Maya Shanbagh Lang makes it a must read for every mother and daughter. Especially daughters.
I know how much the book changed me. It’s made me want to be a better person, a better, more grateful daughter, and definitely a better listener to my mother.
Do read this really moving memoir. I am sure it will have a similar impact on you, the kind it had on me.
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