I've never written about this before. I'm not really sure if I've ever talked about it, either.
My mom tried to leave us when I was 4 years old. I stopped her.
Truth be told, this is might be my earliest vivid memory. One of the few that I know has not been re-constructed from photographs or oral recountings at annual family get-togethers…because we never talk about it. Ever. Finding words to describe the event is difficult, as I didn't live in words then. I lived in images. And sounds. And tastes. And smells.
I sat crouched, unseen under counter top, playing with Legos as she spat anger and rage towards my father. I couldn't make out the words; they were in Kannada—the language my parents publicly wished I'd learn, but privately horded for their own personal use in such "adult" conversations. His voice sounded the same way it did when he talked about his day or evaluated our report cards or threatened to discipline: loud enough to silence, and steady enough to let us know that he could not be riled, rattled, or shaken.
It was that immovability that broke her. The complete ease with which he deflected; he could not be bothered enough by her issues to take his hands out of his pockets and get mad, hurt, sad—anything more than condescending. And so she reached for things to throw as I plucked the final 2x2 square from the brown carpet and snapped it into place. She grabbed the Yellow Pages from a stack of his clutter and hurled it over the counter top towards him through screams and gasps. And he was called to action enough to sidestep the flying book as it dropped squarely on my head, forcing me to smash my freshly-constructed Lego truck in the process.
Then, he used me as leverage. As a way to turn her pain back onto herself. As a sort of "now look what you've done in the irrationality of your anger" silent statement. He played me strategically, and I sat silent and searching the floor for lost wheels and headlights.
And then she left. Grabbed her purse, her keys, a bag and left, slamming the door with a force that shook the heirlooms in the cabinet three rooms over. Legos still clenched in fist, my legs propelled me after her. Slowly at first, then picking up speed as my voice crescendoed with urgency, "mom…Mom…MOM???" I opened the door to the garage as she started the engine.
"MOM??" She turned to me and burst into tears.
That was the first time I saw her cry. One of five times I can recall in 23 years. And it's always a burst. Always an explosion. She doesn't get the privilege of letting it out slowly, and almost always, she must force herself to suck it back in before shit gets too messy.
I jumped from the doorway of the house and opened the driver's door to the Camry—an unconscious yet meticulous move that forced her to stop the car, slumping across the steering wheel to hold her sobs. "Mom, where are you going? Are you leaving? Where are you going?" I didn't know the right question to ask, just felt compelled by fear to say something. "Mom, don't go!"
She lifted her head from the steering wheel, and I saw the shift. I watched something get put away. Compartmentalized. Stuffed back. Beaten down. "No. No, I'm not going." She scooped me onto her lap and I sat with her, taking in the "ding, ding, ding" of the door ajar warning and the faint scent of gasoline until she was ready to go back inside.
Walking with her through the doorway from garage to kitchen, I was so sure that I had saved our family from something bad that day. Today, I write because I am less sure. So much happened in those moments between opened doors. An Indian woman stepped out to carve space for herself in the gaps between America and the Motherland, only to be tripped up by the tethers of familial obligation.
The really tough part is that I've spent the years since fighting my own battles at the edges of my family, constantly standing with one foot in and one foot out, weighing whether I will be good to myself or to my Indian roots. To be my own man or a woman of the family—that’s the constant struggle. More and more, I’m choosing to be me.
It's selfish as fuck.
And yet I plow forward, holding my intentions as clearly as possible so that she might see that I’m doing this for both of us, that I’m doing this to be happy, and, most of all, that I’m not abandoning her in my process.