Never Unheard

My mom talked to my grandmother every day. Now I’m trying to do the same with her.

Family photo of Meera and her grandmother.
Meera and her grandmother. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Meera Navlakha, Thinkstock.

This morning, while walking to class, I took the longer route, walking around my dorm through the grassier, winding parts of my college town. I wanted a little more time to speak with my mother. With the awkward six-hour time difference (I’m in the United Kingdom, she’s in Singapore), there is only a small window for these phone calls to occur. But they do almost every day.

Today, the conversation was trivial: when my sister is coming home from school, what I’m doing for dinner tonight. Other days, though, we speak about my new life, her current life, my desire to come home, her urge to travel. At first, we spoke so often because I was so homesick. I felt frighteningly far from my family and the life I knew back home. My mother, thousands of miles away, seemed a little closer when I called her. It seemed natural, in the first few months, that we would speak every day. At least until I settle in, I said. But those months went by. I settled in, with those feelings of isolation passing. Now, nearing the end of my first year, our ritual remains in place.

Many of my friends are surprised at this constant stream of communication. When my phone rings, and I walk away for a 20-minute chat, they wonder what I’m telling her. “How can you talk to her so often?” they ask. They seem both impressed and perplexed. “Why do you tell her so much?” Most of them are used to calls from their parents once or twice a week, at the most. When I mentioned this to my mother, she responded simply that she and her own mother had done the same. Every day of their lives before my grandmother’s illness, my mother would call her mother.

Author's mom and grandmother.
Meera’s mother and grandmother. Photo by Meera Navlakha

In April, my grandmother passed away after a 10-year illness. Diagnosed with aphasia, she gradually lost her ability to form words as her motor skills shut down. For many years I have been struck with sadness that my mother and her mother were not able to speak to each other anymore, this mother-daughter duo that thrived on communication. When my parents first moved from Kolkata, India, to New York City at the height of my mother’s loneliness, her mother’s voice on the phone offered solace. When she had me—her first child—two years later, it was even more necessary. That was 20 years ago. And the growing silence between them made me worry that all those hours of conversation couldn’t keep them connected at the end.

We all faced this pain, of course. As a teenager, I desperately wanted to know what my grandmother had to say. I wanted to know what she thought of my clothes, of my writing, of my thoughts. Though she never lost her ability to express affection or her inherent warmth, she could never express what the rest of us could with words.

The author and her mother.
Meera and her mother. Photo by Meera Navlakha

During these past 10 years, my mother spent almost every day taking care of my grandmother. This entailed everything from the string of hospital visits to the day-to-day nuances of helping another person live. Along the way, I realized that my mother and my grandmother were still learning how to speak to each other. On a basic level, they developed a system: using hand gestures and sounds to show what she couldn’t say. It became their own language. I watched as this arrangement evolved once my grandmother lost the ability to move her hands. Then, it became as if they could speak with their eyes. Even with just a smile.

I began to see a different side of my mother, a side of her that I didn’t see simply from speaking with her every day. I discovered the qualities in her which manifested themselves most when she cared for her mother: her tenacity, her devotion, and her capability to put her family above all else. My mother knew which flowers my grandmother would want to buy. She understood which clothes she’d choose to wear. She knew that a crooked picture frame, even slightly so, would irk my perfectionist grandmother to no end. And my mother would would fix it. It was uncanny how she knew exactly what her mom needed, even though fewer and fewer words were shared between them. What my mother did, above all, was to never let her mother go unheard, even if she had no way of speaking herself.

If anything, their connection to each other seemed to grow. Perhaps because of those daily calls, spanning so many decades, they had reached this state of true transparency. It was just that, in the last few years of my grandmother’s life, it was all unspoken.

Perhaps I’ll call my mother tomorrow. We’ll spend the time laughing, or arguing, or even speaking to other people—each letting the other overhear her daily life. We have grown to share more than I ever thought we could. But when a day or two goes by without a call, I no longer feel nervous. I’ve learned that certain things go without being said.