My earliest impression of my mother was that I wasn't her favorite; my sister Jyothi was, and everyone knew it. Mom had no patience for an inquisitive, strong-willed daddy's girl like me. And though I wanted to fault her for her bias, I couldn't, because the truth was, I didn't like her, either. My father was an aerospace engineer and Ph.D. candidate in nuclear physics; my mother hadn't graduated high school. I judged her for that, just like I judged her for not knowing how to balance a checkbook, pump gas or understand my desire to be the Indian-American Barbara Walters. When my father had a heart attack and died soon after I turned 14, I asked God why I was left to live with the parent who couldn't be further from who I wanted to be.
One morning not long after my father's death, I walked into my mother's room and watched her meticulously change the sheets on the bed she'd shared with him for 21 years, even though she'd spent the previous night on the living room couch. I soon realized she was crashing on the couch every night. "I must have fallen asleep watching television," she would say each morning. She continued to say this for the next eight years.
What no one tells you about death and grief is that you never get over it. All you can do is try to share it, so you feel a little less alone. I think that's what happened with my mother and me: Without knowing it, we became bonded by our pain. During my sophomore year of high school, when my sister was consumed with college and my brother was struggling to find his career path, Mom began luring me into spending time with her by proposing dinner at my favorite Mexican restaurant, and I willingly obliged. The woman I couldn't seem to please before was now sated by my presence alone -- I was enough. And now that she'd stopped comparing me to my sister, so was she.
It wasn't long before we were sharing shopping dates and rom-com nights. ("Three Men and a Baby" was a favorite -- few things delighted my traditional Indian mother more than watching men try to raise children.) Then junior year, when I ran for student body president, Mom helped my friends and me paint signs and make buttons. Until then, she had never expressed an interest in my school world. The day I won the election, life finally started to feel a little more fair.
When it came time to apply for college, I realized that I didn't want to escape home. I may not have been a gifted athlete or a skilled dancer, but one thing I knew for sure: I was an excellent daughter. So I postponed my dream of living on the East Coast and accepted a scholarship locally. And in my early 20s, when I was laid off from my first "real" job and decided to soul-search in Italy, I invited my mother to join me. When a friend asked why, I said, "Because if I don't bring her, she'll never go." My mother had given me a sense of purpose. Without giving it much thought, I'd happily become the cruise director of her life.
* * * * *
Hymavathi Atluri was born in an American hospital in Vijayawada, India. She was married at 16, a mother by 18. Soon after my sister was born, she and my father relocated to America. Once, when I asked if she'd been excited to move to California, she flatly said no. This didn't surprise me. Nothing really excited Mom.
Unbeknownst to everyone, she battled depression. Her life had been defined by loss: The youngest of nine, she grew up in a middle-class family that had three servants but no running water or electricity; all but one of her siblings died, from causes ranging from typhoid fever to complications from childbirth. By the time Hyma turned 41, she was a widow whose parents were gone, raising three children on her own. When it came to happiness, she always spoke in the future tense. At family celebrations, she'd lift her glass and toast, "Good days are coming," unaware that she'd just had one.
As a teenager, I resented my mother for being unhappy, unaware that the feelings weighing her down were largely out of her control. When I was in college, I suggested therapy, but she refused, so I stepped into the role of counselor. But buoying Hyma's spirits was an uphill battle. She had no social life -- nobody in the Indian community wanted a widow blessing their daughter at a wedding. Hurt and embarrassed, she'd often tell me how lucky my father was to have died first.
As Mom waited impatiently to join him, my fear of being orphaned -- a terror that trumped free-falling, rodents and never finding my soulmate -- was born. I was reminded of this terror each October, the anniversary of my father's passing, when high blood pressure would land Mom in the ER. I started saving her voicemail messages, recording her recipes, diagramming the family tree. Mom was my primary link to my history -- the only living person who could recount my near-death experience from whooping cough as an infant, and the complaints from my kindergarten teacher about my bossy streak. Without realizing it, I was banking holidays and memories. Every day I had with her, I was preparing for life without her.
Years later, when she was suffering from severe headaches, a neurologist found a mass on my mother's brain, and I was convinced that my worst fear was about to be realized. But then tests revealed a benign tumor. Even better: Mom's treatment included taking an antidepressant. Almost immediately, she began stepping out of the habitual role of victim and started believing that dreams, even if they were mostly for her children, could come true. I was amazed. If a tumor could make my mother happy, anything was possible.
* * * * *
On Mother's Day 2005, I took my mother to the emergency room with heart palpations. The ER resident reassured us that Mom's heart would be fine. He simply wanted to keep her for observation. And he was right: Mom's heart returned to its original rhythm. But just before she was to be released, a blood clot dislodged from her heart and traveled to her brain. Within seconds she suffered a massive embolic stroke and, in an instant, lost all of her motor skills and the use of the left side of her body.
I don't remember much of what happened after I arrived back at the hospital, just in time to see her arm fall limp. As she stared ahead, eyes vacant, I whispered, "It's Padma, Mom." Nothing. The same nausea that had hit me 20 years before, when I saw my father swollen beyond recognition after his heart attack, ravaged me once again. Back then, I'd thrown up all over the floor and myself, barely missing the white sheet that would soon cover his face for good. This time, thanks to a vigilant nurse, I made it to the bathroom.
When they carted my mother off for tests, I called my childhood best friend. She later told me that although we were on the phone for more than 10 minutes, I could only say, "I'm all alone, I have no one," over and over again.
Jyothi cut short her vacation in Mexico. She and I spent the following weeks alternating nights at the rehabilitation facility, before our brother arrived from the East Coast. In India, ailing elderly usually die at home, surrounded by their families, not in convalescent hospitals. If Mom woke up with her faculties intact, we wanted to be there to reassure her that we hadn't abandoned her.
And for the next six months, we didn't. I was given leave from my television job, the latest rung in a high-pressure career whose demands had never allowed me more than five days off at a time, let alone a vacation at Christmas or during the summer. I packed some clothes, asked a friend to collect the mail from my one-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood, and left behind my career -- and friends, travel plans, any semblance of a social life -- for my old home, an hour away. I moved back into my childhood bedroom, with its photo collages, leadership trophies, and the four dated outfits I'd start rotating when summer arrived, and set about "raising" my mother.
* * * * *
I have a great memory. I dial most phone numbers without the help of my address book. I can remember outfits my friends wore to school in second grade. So you can imagine how painful it was when, after the stroke, my mother no longer remembered all the good times we'd shared. Even though my name was the first she uttered aloud, it quickly lost meaning when she proceeded to call everyone else Padma as well.
But she made progress, regaining movement in her arm, recalling some distinct family moments. A speech therapist named Sheila worked with her for months, to stimulate her brain and counter the major memory loss she'd suffered. One day Sheila held up flashcards, and my mother studied the pictures intently before tentatively answering.
"Chair?" Mom asked. Sheila nodded. "Telephone?" Yes. Mom was on a roll, and she knew it. For the first time in a long time, she smiled. I smiled. Then Sheila flashed a staircase. Mom paused. And fidgeted. I watched as the frustration crept back in.
Sheila was undaunted. "It's okay, Hyma. Describe what you see, whatever comes to mind."
Mom nodded. "She says I can't come down by myself. But sometimes I stand there. I wait and wait and call for her to help me. But she doesn't come. I don't know what to do..."
Sheila was confused -- what "she" Mom was referring to?
I knew. And I was mortified. My mother was describing a scene that had taken place between us. I shouted, "Mom! That was one time! I didn't hear you!"
Sheila interrupted. "It's okay," she said in her soothing voice. "This isn't about you." I took a breath. She was right: My life wasn't about me. I was 32 and my friends were juggling Match.com dates or PTA meetings while I was managing pill charts and lab tests.
I started to resent being clipped when I brought my mother the banana she asked for, because she'd really wanted a spoon. And she resented being scolded for not following directions. "Listen to me," I'd beg her daily, well aware that she just couldn't.
I knew I was mourning the loss of the mother I'd come to cherish. But after a summer of nonstop caregiving, I was anxious to get back to my 30-something life of sushi bars, comedy shows and coffee houses -- my L.A. staples. I didn't want to be the parent. I didn't want to have to hound her to take her medication. The day I caught her lying about having taken it, I went nuts. "Your one job is to stay alive!" I bellowed. "Why can't you do that for me?"
She stared at me blankly for a moment, then said, "Do you want to hit me? Would that make you feel better?" I was stunned. Though my mother didn't understand the danger of skipping a dose, she completely got that I wanted her to hurt as much I did.
* * * * *
Two years ago, on a vacation to India, I learned that the television show I'd been working on had been cancelled. I agonized over whether to extend my trip or not. Should I go back and look for work or should I stay and take advantage of this time with my mother? I wanted so badly for Mom to tell me what to do. Instead, she said, "I'm giving up rice until you're happy." Though this sort of cosmic bartering is common in India, I would have preferred a simple "Stay" or "Go." Not to mention, I knew eating rice gave my mother pleasure. Now she'd be tabling her own joy until I found mine.
I told her I didn't think this was a good idea. "Besides, I don't know how you're going to measure my happiness," I said. She looked me straight in the eyes and said, "Don't worry. A mother knows her daughter." I felt guilty and loved at the same time -- and extremely grateful. So what if I was sometimes forced to play mom? I was lucky to have such an amazing one, even if she only surfaced now and then.
My mother's lucidity varies daily now, five years after her stroke, and so does my patience. Recently, when I was home for a weekend, she stayed out on her evening walk long past dusk. I panicked when I couldn't reach her because she'd left her phone in the house. "I can't believe this!" I snapped as she walked in the door. "You don't remember anything!"
She stopped and stared at me for a moment, before calmly shaking her head. "That's not true," she said. "I remember I love you."
* * * * *
Padma Atluri wrote this piece shortly before she was diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer. She died Jan. 8, 2011, at 39. Her final 10 days were spent in an ICU on life support, and her mother rarely left her side, let go of her hand or stopped telling her over and over how much she loved her.
Padma, right, with her mother Hymavathi, center, and her sister Jyothi, left