catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 24 :: 2007.12.28 — 2008.01.11


A Christmas reflection on an extraordinary life

The Das family 

I was talking to a friend the other day and told her that I could
not remember whether my mother was a sensitive person when it came to
figuring out how people might be feeling and ministering to their
emotional needs or not. I do know that she certainly quickly came to
know what sort of physical needs that people had, and if it was within
her power to meet them in a way that would be beneficial to them, she
would readily do so, often sacrificially.

That does not have much to do with the picture above, but it was
interesting for me to think about, nonetheless, and the impetus for me
to borrow the picture from my father and reproduce it first on my blog
and now here. I believe this picture was taken at Christmas in 1982
when my brother Virgil, back from college in America, was visiting our
family, who lived in Pakistan, where our father is from and where my
brothers and I each grew up save for some furloughs to America. We each
gave my mother a rosebush for Christmas that year, which is what she
really wanted, as you can see in the delight in her face. And, OK, in
planting these, my mother did express one of her more unconventional
theories. She brought some placentas home from the hospital, where she
worked as a nurse and was the principal of the school of nursing, and
had our gardener place them next to the roots of bushes as he planted
them, American Indian fashion, only they used dead fish with corn. She
must have either read that this was a tradition in some places or just
thought scientifically that it would work as fertilizer. It is a bit
weird to write that out, but it was not nearly as weird as it seems, if
you knew my mother. “If you knew my mother,” now there is a phrase that
could bear a book’s worth of unpacking. The verb is in past tense
because on August 3rd, 1986, when I was a very young 16 years of age,
my mother, Norma Lee (Bodenbach) Das, died in an accident at our home
in Pakistan.

Talking to my Aunt Carolyn, my mom's sister-in-law, at Thanksgiving
this year, I noted that it is hard to talk to people about a relative
who was rather extraordinary, because they will be like, “Yeah, right,
she was your mother.” Yet, nonetheless, she was extraordinary. In the
1950s, she took a Pakistani man home to meet her Southern Illinois
relatives, became engaged to him, and, in spite of at least one bout of
cold feet, packed all her worldly goods and wedding bower into metal
barrels of the kind that they used to use to ship goods to places like
the Antarctic, crossed two oceans in a boat, and within three weeks of
arriving was married. Within the next twenty-four years she was able to
accomplish some remarkable things, including extensively practicing all
types of nursing and training hundreds of Pakistani nurses. And, in
many ways, though she was an American, she became the lynchpin of my
father’s family, deeply loving and being loved by all.  

Her life testified to the understanding that all people were important.
She worked countless hours at the hospital, but sill managed to teach
me through third grade and my brothers through fifth and seventh grades
at home, to provide a quality English education for us. She walked to
work, an unthinkable action for even middle class people in Pakistan.
Her route took her through often squalid streets, sodden with backed up
rain water, and past the walls of houses patterned with drying buffalo
chips, the fuel of the indigent. And when she saw need or a woman who
would greet her, she would stop and talk, often bringing much needed
medicines back later, to the effusive thanks of those who received

After she died, she received an award from the Pakistani government,
presented to my father by the President of Pakistan, for her service to
the country in delivering over a thousand babies, or something like
that. At any rate, she delivered a lot of babies, and sometimes when
the babies were unwanted, she tried to hook up couples who wanted
babies with babies who needed parents. Sometimes when she was assisting
in the OR and when a patient’s relatives were not being cooperative she
would step out to give her own blood. Having type O positive blood, she
was nearly a universal donor, a metaphor captured in platelets and
cells which never is lost upon me.

Pakistani mourning, though wonderfully communal and free, with people
flooding the grieving family’s home for days to openly wail and
commiserate, can also sometimes become rather dramatic and showy at
times. In the mourning for my mother, though, I do not believe any
false affectation was required. The house was full for a week, with
hundreds of people coming to sit anywhere they could find room and
weep, many with stories of her kindness. She would fairly often pay a
patient’s bills on her own if they could not, completely unbeknownst to
my father. In one story that was particularly a bit of a wonder, an
anonymous but persistent mourner made a point trying to speak to my
father, even cutting across social classes and norms to do so. When
asked why she was making such a scene, she held up a child, stating
rather dramatically that she had my mother’s blood in her veins; that
that the child was there only because of her gift. Later at her
funeral, according to newspaper reports, some 3,000 people came.*

I could go on with more dramatic stories of her alarming charity, with
numbers of examples of the people whom she touched, but two small
incidents are more meaningful to me by far. About a week after she
died, we were in the back room of our house with the window open. In
the back yard our elderly cook squatted, while working a sickle in the
lush, tall grass, putting it into a huge cloth bundle on the back of
his bicycle to take home to his water buffalo. He came into the bedroom
where my family was and sat with us for the first time since after Mom
had died and wept and wept and wept. Sobs racked the frame of the small
Punjabi man with a turban, who used to share a hookah with my nanny,
who would travel with us to the mountains in the summer for several
months. He wept for his Midwestern, German American, mem-sahib who
spoke such a funny mixture of Urdu and Punjabi and who worked with him
as he cooked things such as stew and roast potatoes and cauliflower
with hollandaise sauce, along with the curries at which he was so
proficient. In time, he would not need her guidance with the western
dishes, but she never would fail to help when another hand was needed
in the kitchen.

In another incident several weeks after the funeral, in another quiet
room in the back of the house—those are the quietest, loneliest sort of
rooms—my brother Virgil who was then in medical school was found
weeping as perhaps he had not done until that point. I do not remember
much about that conversation, except for the phrase, “But, she was my
mother,” burbled out in response, I believe, to the press of people who
also so keenly felt the loss themselves or sought almost to canonize
her as a modern day saint. No matter what she meant to so many others,
it was certainly not selfishness to acknowledge that, though he might
indeed be proud of who she was, he missed her for reasons far more
intimate, for the ache of having a piece of his very own self ripped
away. When a loved one dies, infinite small details that pixelate lives
shared together are simply be erased, like when one color, a main and
vibrant one, is completely edited out of a picture. Alternately, the
conversation of living that you have with a loved one is simply over,
and there will be nothing that will exactly fill that silence.

A vivid color, the words of a conversation, I could go on with the
metaphors in an attempt to grasp what my mother meant to our family,
nest, lap, glue. Growing up in two separate cultures, in two very
different families, the influences of East and West flowed into my mind
as naturally as the tides and sought to mix into some common level. It
was Mom, really, who made of these disparate parts a consistent whole.
She worked creatively to maintain the American side of our heritage,
giving Christmas and other holidays their traditional American flavor,
while at the same time celebrating them with vigor in their Pakistani
settings as well. Christmas meant stockings and stories and Christmas
dinner and singing carols around the glow of the Advent wreath as we
contemplated the meaning of the season. Christmas also meant going to a
plethora of dramas at local institutions; greeting the local carolers
with traditional oranges and peanuts; watching the midnight procession
to the church with its camels—real camels—and candlelight; going to
church the next morning, burgeoning with a perennial influx of members;
then going home to have dinner with our extended family, with spicy
curry and meatballs and rice. The differences were less like the two
sides of a coin, than the separate threads of a tapestry, woven
together into a whole, mainly because of the influence of Mom.

I have only recently begun to come to a realization, strengthened even
with the writing of this essay, that there is currently a significant
disconnect between the two parts of me. The influences of my Pakistani
heritage are largely buried deep within a carefully guarded, even
rather carefully crafted, though no less organically derived for all of
that, understanding and expression of myself as a Midwesterner,
occupying a place in mostly white, small town and small city culture.
One of the thousands of questions whose answers are simply nonexistent
and not helpful to conjure up is how I might have factored the equation
of my identity if my mother were alive. As Aslan, C.S. Lewis’ glorious
depiction of Christ in leonine form, is wont to say, we are never told
“what might have happened.” I am not sure how the presence of my mother
would have helped with that integration, but I do believe that the
divide would not have become as stark.

More than cross-cultural dynamics, though, I would have loved to have
talked to her as one adult to another about so many things. I would
love to have some understanding of the topography of her internal
landscape, whether she pondered similar questions to the ones I do. Did
she think about her acts of charity and kindness, either before or
after she did them? Or did they simply grow out who she was without
much reflection? Did she struggle with pride? What did she think about
God? About theology? What would she tell me about relationships? About
love?  Did she have epiphanies on her journey from growing up as a
conservative Baptist to finally becoming an official missionary for the
Presbyterian Church USA only months before she died? What was it that
was appealing to her that one Christmas Eve on furlough when she took
us boys off to a Lutheran service on a cold winter’s evening?
I believe that when you lose someone key moments can become iconic,
touchstones imbued with even more meaning than perhaps they should
bear, yet I cherish several conversations with Mom because in them I
knew some of the dynamics of her adult mind. In one, when I was
fourteen or so, somewhere along Highway 67 in the middle of rural,
western Illinois on the way to deputation at a church, it was just my
mother and me in our 1976 yellow-green Ford Maverick. She had just
learned to drive a few years earlier in her late forties. Deputation
was that traveling road show that career missionaries were compelled to
perform to raise support, a show which ironically seemed to call for
humility amidst a retelling of one’s accomplishments, and which worked
best when spiced with cross-cultural anecdotes and colored by fancy
dress and displays, to become like a sort of animated missionary prayer
letter. Mom was a great one for color and anecdotes, but not so much
for the self-aggrandizement. She pretty much was straightforward, and
the nature of her work as a nurse and nurse educator and her person
itself did the talking.

On the drive through the furrowed fields and trees which I still love
so much, she was telling me about her quiet times, about how she had
been reading about King David and how God would not allow him to build
the temple because he had been a warrior and shed so much blood.
Reading the pertinent passages since, I think she was more or less
right. She went on to detail the see-saw pattern of wicked kings and
righteous kings in the history of Israel. More than the content of what
she said though was simply listening to her talk to me almost as a
peer. In another incident, when I was younger, while walking to work
with her in Pakistan, she told me about the novel The Midwich Cuckoos.
In that instance she might have shown a bit more discretion as I
remember that the story rather creeped me out a bit, but how I would
love to pick apart a book with her now, especially a science fiction
novel like that.

In this holiday blitz of movies, one of the movies, P.S., I Love You,
is about a deceased husband who sends letters to his wife after he has
died to help her emerge from grief, to reengage with life and love. I
could not get myself beyond the girlfriend bonding moments in the
trailer—high jinks in a boat in Ireland, singing karaoke, checking the
sexual preference of male prospects—to get myself into the theater.
Yet, nonetheless, the theme of seeing what it means to hear from
someone who is gone is certainly an appealing one, even if such
contacts are expressly forbidden in Scripture…a great chasm has been
fixed. This potentiality is even more affecting when children are the
ones left bereft. In the movies, Ponette and Millions, respectively, a
beautiful little French girl who fills the screen with her expressive,
sad eyes and a generous, little boy who is wont to see visions of the
saints of the church, both are only really able to move on with life
after visitations from their mothers. I do not resent these deus ex
machina moments as you might suppose, neither for their implausibility
nor impermissibility, though they can create a bit of an ache at times.
I see them as symbols of the realizations which must happen before the
reconstruction of life into a meaningful whole can even begin to occur.
These touching moments in these movies lie to us only in as much as all
symbols lie, in telescoping, crystallizing, epiphanizing realizations
and processes that, in truth, take a lifetime to be completed, but they
are no less true for such condensation.

At times having felt very much like the little children in those
movies, I plan to continue my own processes of reintegration, perhaps
even with renewed intensity, to keep re-coloring the parts of the
picture that have been left colorless. Indeed, I plan to try to even
make the picture more detailed by talking more to those who did know my
mother as an adult, to my brothers, to my aunts and my remaining uncle
in America, to my other relatives here and, yes, in a long overdue trip
to Pakistan one day, and finally to the man behind the camera for the
picture above, to my father. As he approaches his eightieth birthday
this March, with twenty-one years passed since the woman who made his
life a whole even more than she did mine left, as the bitterness of
that loss for finally begins to be tasted less than the sweetness of
good memories, I believe that the conversations we might now have with
one another have ever greater potential for revelation and balm.

Finally, getting back to the photo that began this long ramble, a
little note on our attire. I do not think that the stain on my brother
Adrian's oh-so-sexily-opened shirt is a stain from the meatball curry
we invariably would have eaten that day, curry of the same type I will
eat as leftovers from Christmas dinner as soon as I finish this
article, but rather is a flaw in the photograph. I would dearly like to
show this picture to his congregation over in Illinois someday. Stud
pastor. Oh, and my shirt, with the poufy sleeves and long collar? I
loved that shirt. I bet I could get some money for that shirt at the
local hipster boutique. Or maybe not. My Mom’s trippy dress might be a
winner, though.

  • - This number is very likely exaggerated, and yet
    including the procession to the church of the men who carried my
    mother's coffin, those inside the church, and those outside the church
    in the large courtyard, the number was at least several thousand. I was
    reminded about my mother's funeral today on what is a very sad day for
    the nation of Pakistan as I watched men thronging to the carry the
    coffin of Benazir Bhutto. If you are of praying sort, please pray for
    the nation of Pakistan.

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