The Soundtrack To My Life

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I sway uninhibited to Ed Sheeran’s Shape of you as the twins wave bye and leave the house, their linked hands and matching pink boots making me emotional. Laddu is on the high chair drinking milk out of a straw grooving to the song herself. The rest of the morning is a blur as the radio spits out popular numbers interrupted by inane conversations.

My mind however is way back in the past trying to recollect the kind of music I listened to over the years. The earliest I remember is Andhi Mazhai Pozhigaradhu straining through the small National Panasonic tape player sitting on the built in shelf of our dining room of a less than 700 sq ft home. The green print laminate on the dining table. The rickety chairs. The bottles of Benadryl and the strips of Saridon and Dart sitting right next to the the player. The miniature collection of Hindi songs from the likes of Aradhana and Abhiman my amma listened to in the early evenings as she brushed her hair or mine. The memories are stuffed deep inside only to shuffle and resettle each time I hear those notes somewhere.

I remember the melodious voice of M. S. Subbulakshmi as a staple chanting the Hanuman Chalisa or Vishnu Sahasranamam. I remember Nama Ramayanam and the haunting Kurai Ondrum Illai. Most of all I remember the sense of peace I associate with her voice and the feeling that I am home.

As I grew and developed a musical taste of my own, I remember the many TTK cassettes that joined my Amma’s recorded ones. I remember the young Salman and Anil Kapoor gracing their covers. I remember sitting crosslegged on the floor in anticipation of Chitrahaar to listen as much as see. To note down and buy blank cassettes in a dingy room in the heart of T. Nagar and go back to collect my own tape mix a week later.

If Revati jumped and twirled in the rain in Mouna Ragam, I did my version of dancing to the Megham song in my head. I imagined being grown up, older and in love with life. If Madhuri joined Salman in a car ride and sang and danced her way home, I did too imagining a love larger than life and a prince in an open top car. Most of all I realized all these dreams were just that – dreams that disappear when you open your eyes. If my school years were all about Hindi songs, college life was about A. R. Rahman and friendship. My college years would probably be set to Mustafa Mustafa more than any other song. If the notion of romance in school was over the top dreamy, in college it morphed into all about grazing hands and smoke and mirrors. The haunting music of Roja and the arrival of Arvind Swamy gave birth to newer notions of romance. Of soulful looks and occasional words. Of searing angst and blurring lines in relationships.

English music arrived as I did in the cosmopolitan city of Bangalore. My trusty walkman and ear phones were as much a staple as Backstreet Boys, George Michael and Byran Adams. Then there are the songs I listened to on loop as I dealt with romantic rejection and the stark possibility of the single life. Affirmation (Savage Garden), Careless Whispers, Total Eclipse of my heart and other numbers that even today makes me wistful for the girl I once was.

Marriage brought with it Ilayaraaja and the glorious mixtape of the 80s and 90s tamizh music. Music I once sidestepped in favor of Hindi and English. I listened with the thirst of one who has waited too long. I drank in the music, fell in love with Vairamuthu’s lyrics and declared that a life without music was not worth living. The Aiwa system with the double speakers belted out Nee Azhagiya Theeyae and I was transported back to the darkened cinema halls and fresh romance.  Over time the affair with Ilayaraaja’s music gave way to Shankar Ehsaan Loy and the newer crop of music directors. The Aiwa was replaced with the Bose Wave system and streaming through my phone. If I had a falling out with someone close to me Gotye’s Somebody I Used To Know got me through it. If I was down and out because of a failed adoption, it was carnatic instrumental to the rescue, the soulful violin connected with me where words failed. If I held back sharing great personal news, I took to the company of the uplifting lyrics and songs that mirrored my feelings.

These days I sway to Ed Sheeran and Justin Timberlake. I sometimes stay in the car wrapped in the music washing over me long after I have parked. I hum as I do my chores and dance with laddu as she smiles in the open toothed way only a child can. Most of all I watch my children take to music in a way I never had the chance to.

In Limbo

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It is past 9:30 AM. Kids are in school, the kitchen is as clean as I can muster energy for, the laundry is done and I am showered and ready with nowhere to go. I walk around the home mentally going over the list of people I could call. I give up and put the cordless away. I calculate the time I have before I have to pick Laddu up. I could watch a movie (English because Indian ones would take too long). I could start a new show on Netflix. I could read the thriller I started late last night (Presumed, Innocent by Scott Turow) or I could actually dig my old manuscript out and work on it.

I do none of the above.

I walk instead. I pass the sofa, make a turn that takes me into the foyer, turn into the dining room, head back to the kitchen and back into the living room. I do it for a good thirty minutes mulling on the malaise that has taken over. The kind of heaviness that comes from knowing that there is a lot to do but you just can’t seem to find it in you to actually do it. I mull over the stories I have been reading lately. On adoption, on marital infidelity, on first loves. I reluctantly go back to the one thought I have been holding back. Going back to work. It has been on my mind. It pops up every now and then. A stray idea that lingers a little longer each day. I install LinkedIn on my phone. I am loathe to actually put my resume back up.

I reach out to old contacts but hold off on follow ups. I browse through open positions diligently filtering for distance and skill sets. Nothing calls out to me. I long for the days when I applied without thought, walked into interviews with nothing but confidence and came home knowing I gave my best.

I look around the room. The framed MBA sits on top of my book shelf. Old reference manuals are folders on my laptop. I am reluctant to open them. I list the things I am looking for. A job that involves social media, people and writing. How hard could it be? Turns out plenty hard.

I close my eyes and relive the drop-off at school this morning. The plaintive cries soothed by me sitting in class reading to Laddu only to feel the press of little bodies as they all leaned on me to listen. The absolute lack of pressure to be at some place in some time. The happy drive home knowing that sometimes that is all that takes to make an ordinary day into an extraordinary one.

I am in limbo, torn between wanting to make an effort to get back working and wanting to luxuriate in this suspended state of bliss. The pull on either side is balanced as of now. Until it tips over, I remain in place, musing.

Interwoven

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I am in the bathroom, putting away hairbands, picking hair out of brushes and generally attempting to bring order to what seems chaos in front of me. My phone otherwise mute, dings with the telltale sign of a message. Positive it is from a friend I am expecting that evening I turn it on and navigate to the messages app. My face lights up as I realize it is from my daughters’ great grandparent instead. We chit chat a bit and then she signs off with a string of red hearts. I put the phone down but my mood has shifted going from ambivalence about the day to something that borders on happy.

Amid the pieces I put away I notice barrettes that were a gift one Valentine’s day from their Gigi and Grandpa. I walk down and stumble on now naked baby dolls that were sent one February to my daughters as they anticipated a baby sister. Their presence is a living, breathing thing in our home lining our closets, lying on carpeted floors, adorning fine blond hair and joining us as memories when we eat chile rellenos at our local Mexican joint. They peek at us from photos in matching red shirts. They come up in conversations about various ways to say I-Love-You.

Late in the night as I lie next to Laddu waiting, watching as she eases into sleep, my thoughts go back to a book I read this week. Where We Belong by Emily Giffin, a simple tale of an adoptee seeking out her birth parents. I say simple though there is nothing simple about it because of the way the story flows bubbling and moving along with rarely a hiccup in the writing style. The story handles complicated feelings head on with a sensitivity that surprised me. Most storylines dealing with adoption often stumble getting some part of the triad wrong. This one felt stark and realistic.

“So if it wasn’t her miraculous conception, her looks, her brains, or her athletic ability, I wondered why I was jealous, sometimes even wishing to be her. I wasn’t sure, but had the feeling it had something to do with the way Charlotte felt on the inside. She genuinely seemed to like who she was—or at least had the luxury of giving it no thought whatsoever, all of which translated to massive popularity. Everyone knew her and loved her regardless of clique—the jocks, geeks, burnouts, and hoosiers—while I felt downright invisible most of the time.”

It also hit a little too close to home. Adopted child followed by a biological sibling. I held my breath as I read, some parts resonating more than others. When the protagonist, also an adoptee wonders why her sibling is so put together, I wondered along with her. As she navigates her convoluted relationship with her birth mother and later birth father, I was with her in spirit sensing the awkward, tentative nature of the journey she was embarking on. Somewhere as she asked questions I am mentally gearing for my children to ask someday, I realize we are farther along the journey than most families.

Their origins are interwoven in our home, physically by being part of their wardrobe, on their person, in pictures and in conversations. The aching, gaping holes are partially filled by effort from both sides in claiming them, owning them and celebrating them. While they may not wonder where they get their specific traits from, they will always wonder about things none of us have any control over.

In the end I can only hope that they, like Kirby the protagonist of Where We Belong feel at home.

“It’s the feeling of belonging. Right here where I am. In this house. With my parents and Charlotte. The people who know all my stories, from the beginning. The people who know me.”

The Hamster Wheel That Is Parenting

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I watch the wet grinder turn, the steel drum distorting my image as it moves. I watch mesmerized, catching a break in what has been an exhausting day. I take a moment to wonder why I feel like this almost all days and realize it is not one thing or one day. It is the constancy of it, the hamster wheel that is parenting.

It is when you reluctantly step into boots, wrap a scarf, wear a hat and shrug into those long woolen coats as your children run ahead of you into the fluffy clouds of snow at your doorstep. It is when you make snow balls and wonder if it is time to make lunch yet. It is in watching your kids agree happily to eating bread for breakfast and watching them lose momentum after taking two bites. It is when you wish you had gone ahead and made them dosa instead. It is when the clock shows 11:00 AM and you are busy chopping and sautéing and simmering just so the almost three-year old doesn’t have a meltdown after a tiring morning in the snow.

It is in the grueling weight of expectations, in the endless piles of laundry, in the never-ending school work, in the dishes that pile up even when you decide to order in. It is in the alarm that goes off each morning in the pre-dawn hours, in the pressure you feel behind your neck as your child decides she must find that unicorn before school and you can almost hear the bus trundle in one of the roads behind yours. It is the pain in your back as you sit in a stiff backed chair as you coax your toddler to chew and remind your older children to take bigger bites. It is in the inevitability that food rules your life.

It is in the moments you scream before you click the camera, demanding that your child pose or look into the camera or stop pulling at her glove. In the moments before each picture you archive, the angst and disappointments that evaporate into thin air each day filling the pores of your skin and forming a shiny patina in the walls of your house. It is in those raised voices, the muted grief, the underplayed disappointment, the barely restrained anger. All those little things that you bury deep inside just to make space for the happy moments, the gap toothed smiles, the impromptu hugs, the rare flowers, the scribbled notes, the infrequent happy days.

This exhaustion is permanent, etching itself in lines on my skin, in folds of fat, in bags under my eyes. In the constant yearning for sleep, for absence of physical contact, for that elusive moment of silence in which I watch my distorted image on the wet grinder.

Musings On Biology

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Late Sunday morning I found myself on a pretty patterned couch across from two women and a child I was meeting for the first time at my friend’s home. We were there for lunch and a Valentine card making get-together. My posture was stiff, I sat at the edge of the sofa, my back erect. The three were on bar stools sipping herbal tea as they awaited the call for lunch. The introductions were crisp just names and where we lived. The thaw was gradual. We spoke of the neighborhood, we spoke of the bank I worked at fifteen years ago. One that was adjacent to the bistro the ladies ran, both of which were shuttered now. We spoke of changes and steered clear of all things political.

Ammu ran to me, impulsively kissing and hugging me before she ran off. The conversation veered to children and how it was like raising twins.

“Do twins run in your family?” one lady asked. I answered before I could process the question. “Yes, it does but we adopted our children a few years back.” The lady seemed surprised and we deftly moved from there to cultural differences.

The rest of the afternoon was pleasant and we left clutching packs of homemade chocolate, ink stains on our palms and a bag full of hearts and love. As I hugged my host, I poured myself into the hug thanking her not just for the afternoon but for the constant presence she has been in my life and opening up her home to us.

Late at night as is typical of heavy thoughts, I lay in bed reliving parts of the morning. The surprise on the lady’s face at learning our children were adopted both delighted and made me think. Given the difference in race, I never thought it would be a question. The fact that sometimes adoption is not at the forefront when we meet new people is heartening.

I scrolled through unread posts on my blog reader. Of the many adoption blogs I follow TAO’s blog is always educative. The views expressed by the author and the comment section always make me think. Yesterday was no exception. On the latest post this quote by Nara from the comments section caught my attention.

“They are my parents. They brought me up. We are close, and we love each other. But we aren’t biologically related and we never will be, and no amount of pretending will make it so. And that’s okay.”

This is something I think about a lot. Nature and Nurture. Biology and Family. With Ammu and Pattu, the love has intensified over time. I know and they know we are family. We are bound until the end of time. We also know that we are not related by biology. While that is not a big deal now, it will be at times. Like when we visit their family or when they go on to have families of their own. It will raise its head at quiet times, in the dead of the night when unanswered questions roam our heads. It will rear its presence when emotions are at a fever pitch. I fully expect it to be a constant presence as my children grapple with surging hormones and the see-saw that adolescence can be. Most of these thoughts are usually contained in my head. I do not bring it up for fear that it may be misconstrued. When I cuddle with my youngest in bed every afternoon and I am swept with a feeling so primal I cannot express it in words, my thoughts make a beeline to my children’s other mother.

So, when I stumbled on this thought from an adoptee a lot of things clicked in place. It was as if I was given permission to bring it into the open, to mull over it. To reassure myself that it is okay. To reassure my children it is okay. It always will be okay.

Paying Tributes Over Time and Space

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I eye the phone longingly. My fingers itch to dial Amma’s cell phone number but I desist. I can picture my family this morning. All of my dad’s siblings and their spouses gathered to observe the yearly anniversary of my Thatha’s passing. I imagine the kitchen busy, bustling. I can almost see my aunts and Amma with wet hair, towels wrapped around their head, wearing freshly washed and dried sarees. I imagine that the cook employed for the occasion having different dishes in various stages of preparation. I also suspect that there will be reminiscences of the kind of person my thatha was.

My mind is far away in the quaint city of Coimbatore, in the small house with ample space around it. I am wandering the alleys of my memories remembering guava trees and pomegranates. I am thinking of my thatha, a cloud of white hair, lean body and a peace that emanates from his being. I remember light-colored shirts preferably with vertical stripes and a black pant or a crisp white veshti. I remember the way he would sail through the road that lead to our home in his bicycle and arrive in style from whatever errand it was he was running. I remember his voice soft, calm and in control. I remember his long fingers as they held mine on the rare occasions we sat on the thinnai watching cars, bikes and cyclists go past our house. Most of all I remember how much I loved him and took him for granted.

Most of my childhood had him as an ambient presence, hovering watchfully never once interrupting what I was doing. Even as the rest of the family encouraged me to run and play and lose that baby fat, he watched approvingly as I read and swatted mosquitos sitting by my side. Sometimes in the morning as I sat on the sofa before my morning coffee, I would watch him, his black glasses on his face, his back erect, eyes tracking every word in the center page of The Hindu. He would lean back, let the words sink in and move on to the next article, next page until he had devoured it cover to cover.

Sometimes as I snuck into the kitchen in the dead of the night to finish just one more chapter remembering to close the heavy wooden doors behind me, he would appear waif like, gently take the book from me and herd me back to bed. Some early mornings I would wake to the feeling of his fingers scratching my face in the dark and reluctantly would head to the outhouse, a small three roomed building at the back of the house to study for exams. He or Paati would bring me hot tea and sometimes stay by my side to wake me as I fell over my notes and bound books.

Then there were the days when friends from college would ask us before they entered the house if Thatha was around. His preference for speaking in English intimidated them even as he would sit with us a bunch of twenty year olds gossiping about class and people.

I remember our last conversation sometime before I was married. I was young, earning and living the single life in Bangalore. He broached the topic of mortality and spoke of the Gita and held my hand as he explained how he was ready to leave his mortal coil. I remember the lump at the base of my throat, the tears that I held back. We held hands for a long time when he made an abrupt, almost prescient turn to talk about marriage and kids. “You’ll probably have twins” he said referring to the fact that he had twin siblings.

I was at my desk at work when I received word that he had passed on. I do not remember much of what happened after. I missed him like I would miss a dear friend. One who was not in touch but would always be there when I needed them. On the day I married Saathi, I missed him acutely, in a way that was visceral. The sight of his maternal uncle nearing a hundred years was a sign. A way of reminding me that he was around in spirit. As mama thatha placed his hands on my head and blessed me, I imagined Thatha hands in his.

Today as my family invoke our ancestors and pay tribute, I sit a few thousand miles away doing the same.

You were loved. You are missed Thatha.

The Very Many Firsts

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The window over my sink lets in a mottled mix of sun and clouds. A grey sky putting up a good resistance to the Sun. I stand there rooting for the Sun and smiling a goofy smile. I sip on my coffee and reach for my phone. I scroll through my pictures selecting randomly. Each picture is a throwback to the years gone past. My smile widens as I remember the very many firsts.

Saathi is sitting by our back patio, the kids gathered around him as he flips through the pictures I have collated. There are squeals of “That is Ammu, that is Pattu” and plaintive cries of “Where is Laddu?” The next half hour is punctuated by very many “Do you remember?”

The hurried rolling of suitcases into a dusk. The feeling that something momentous was about to happen. The knowledge that there was no turning back. The tentative first steps toward our children. The years it took for us to feel whole, complete and one. The first time we affixed a car seat to a car. The first fall jackets at Kohls. The very first time we bought diapers and formula. Our very first night together as we fell into a deep exhausted sleep, the girls on us. Our very first breakfast, waffles and cereal from the complimentary breakfast bar. Our first visit to a park. The very first time we travelled as parents, kids, strollers and diaper bags. The big smiles we sported as families with children were invited to board first.

First teeth, first steps, first night diaper free, first India trip, first day of school, first time I was called Amma, first words in Tamil, first Halloween costume, first Christmas together, first birthdays, Ayushahomam, first haircut, first Navarathri, hand prints, foot prints, mothers day notes.

The memories come thick and fast filling up our home with nostalgia for the past seven years. Ammu and Pattu chime in using the pictures as reference. They ask about the first home we lived in, about the toys that are in the pictures now somewhere in some other home. They ask about high chairs, car seats, diaper bags and pretty paavadais.

In the shared reminiscing, I realize none of us remember first boo boos or the first time I yelled at them. I do not remember and they do not remember the first time I gave them a time out. We struggle to remember the days we walked around with chips on our shoulder waiting for apologies or sorrys. They exist alright but they are not etched in our collective memories. They do not live on in pictures or videos. Our curated list is all things happy. All things memorable.

The soundtrack to our life as parents is joyous, loud and vibrant. There is chaos, soaring interludes and very few pauses.As the years pass, the albums will get bigger, memories will be lost and replaced. Amid the happy memories, the sad ones will intersperse. They will mark our lives as much as the happier ones do. We will remember sorry and I-hate-yous as much as the love and hugs and kisses.

There will be times the children will disavow these memories. They will be conflicted as they reconcile their two disparate identities unsure which ones are worth celebrating. As a parent, I will grieve with them, standing mute as they navigate these uncharted territories. It terrifies me as much as the past offers hope.

If there is one thing anniversaries remind me, it is that we have survived yet another year of the tumultuous, eventful thing that is this parenting. One more year of pockmarks on the wall, notches on our memory logs and pictures in the album. They tell a story. The story of our lives as we now know it. They trace the arch, the evolution of us as people and parents. They show our children that change is the only constant. The changing homes, the changing things, how material most of it is. They also show the other constant. Love, laughs and family.

Embracing The Otherness

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I sit on a chair Ammu on my lap, her cheek pressed to mine, nuzzling as if in want of reassurance. I squirm and hug her tight before trying to dislodge her from me. We are in front of the twins’ class. Over twenty children and two teachers are looking at me expectantly.

I clear my throat and read a couple of books Pattu selected the night before. The books are based on India and Indian mythology. The illustrations are vivid, vibrant and very different from what is usually found in the school library.

I finish reading and look at the class expectantly. The teachers nod approvingly. I put the books down and wait for each student in the class to take turns to voice compliments and concerns. Laddu has most of them giggling. I feel like I should discipline my wards but the lead teacher gives me a head shake effectively stopping me.

I follow the girls’ out of their class turning one last time to say bye. “You are blessed,” the teacher says, her face a study in earnestness. I nod in acquiescence and reiterate what I know a thousand times over. I am blessed.

The drive home is uneventful. Laddu is engaging her sisters in animated conversation while I am still ruminating over the ‘blessed’ comment. I realize that our family is unique. Even if the children and teachers have seen us many times, we stand as a poster child for ‘different’ kinds of families. I volunteer to talk about adoption. I am open with my children’s teachers about our family circumstances if I feel it is in the best interests of my children to do so. I also realize this is something we will grapple with each school year, with each new class, with every new family we make friends with. For most parts I am OK with it.

Today however, I felt different. I did not resent being marked. I felt a whole new world open up. By embracing that we will forever be the outlier, I did not feel the necessity to linger, to explain, to validate what others were feeling. There is nothing normal about our circumstance. Our reality will always include multiple families, struggles with identity and a need for reassurance. We will go through life being a poster child for adoption. We will also be the target of well-meaning comments and misdirected anger.

We could choose to do so by ignoring the differences and pretending we are just like any other family or we could do it by embracing our differences.

It makes us pioneers. It makes us uniquely us.

Like A Boss: Mind Over Matter

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Just like fire, burning up the way

If I can light the world up for just one day

Watch this madness, colorful charade

No one can be just like me any way

I heard the words as I crooned along waiting to make a right on to the highway. I felt cheerful. Scratch that. I felt accomplished. A few minutes earlier I had stood in a corner of the gas station wrangling with a long tube that pumped air into my car tires. I had set the PSI, removed the hub caps and gone around filling each tire with air until the machine beeped. Then I had gotten in the car and felt a high rush over me.

Not a big deal you think? It was until it wasn’t. Most of my life I have watched my Appa handle the wrench, use the spanner, use teflon tape and suction out water to remove air from our water pump at home. I’d stand by handing out tools and on rare occasions help pour water until the bubbles were out and then run to start the motor. I learned to use the drill in my late thirties. I still will pay someone to hang up my decor and stain my fence. Most of it has been fear. Fear of mastering something unknown. Fear of hitting a power line. Fear of making things worse.

Then there were the little things. Like being unable to drive with foot wear on. I learned to drive using bare feet and rued the loss of feeling when I had my shoes on. I loved feeling the accelerator respond to tiny changes in pressure from my feet. I loved hearing that thrum, the subtle shifts in power. Yet, this fall, I set myself a challenge. I made myself wear my shoes each day I dropped Laddu at school. Now it is second nature. The wins are insignificant. Yet, they matter.

Five years ago, I saw the TPMS (Tire pressure) indicator light up on my way to vote for the first time as an American citizen. The roads were slick from ice and snow. I had just left home when the indicator came on. I pulled over and googled. Nightmarish scenarios were described in graphic detail on the woes of driving with less than optimum tire pressure. I turned around and drove back home. I waited until the weekend before the spouse went and got the tires filled. Each time the indicator turned on, I felt the jitters. Then it happened when he was away in India. I drove around from gas station to gas station trying to find one with a working air pressure machine. The high that came from getting such a simple thing done lasted the whole week. This morning, I was tempted to drive home, to shelve it for another day, another person. Instead I ploughed on and returned home humming and smiling.

Hanging up my jacket my eyes fell on a pair of rain boots. On impulse I slid them on and went and jumped in the puddles in our driveway. I watched earlier in the morning as my children splashed and laughed. I felt too grown up to join in the fun. I felt the reticence I feel when I watch other people dance, make strides in their career and win over new friends. As the water sloshed around my shoes and the ripples bent my reflection out of shape I realized all that prevented me from doing what I want is my head.

Mind over matter. Small wins matter. One fear at a time.

I shall conquer. Like a boss.