Words have always carried more power than action alone for me. Perhaps it’s creative inclination, but how words are said, constructed, and chosen carries meaning. Words construct stories and convey emotions, particularly in the context of time.
But the absence of words carries meaning, too. It’s far easier to not articulate what we want. It’s far easier to let our feelings subside in the unsaid. Why do we do this? Why do we think we are so fortunate in time to delay the truth? Why does the unsaid only surface in desperation? Because in these desperate moments, we realize we are not infinite on time and immortal on second chances. These fleeting moments are our last chances, our last words. And I’ve often wondered what my last words would be.
I thought about this one day during the school year. I was on my bed, skimming through passages from Fitzgerald. I should have been catching up on readings for my class but I let it slide. I let necessity slide. I am selfish and foolishly thinking I am infinite on time. I have plenty of time to do the readings later is the lie I tell myself. Moreover, I want to indulge in words and the security of story because story has taught me more than any classroom ever has, and Fitzgerald more than any professor.
But then my phone rang. “Madre” flashed on the screen because “mom” would be too mainstream and I have some inability to let go of languages I once spoke so well. I guess it’s human nature; I guess I want to naively hold on.
I let it ring three times because three seems like a whole number, or in story it’s painted to be. Before the 4th ring could manifest, I answered, and our cliché dialogue began. Ever since I moved out and been trying to carve my own rendition of home, my mum has been coping by calling me daily. In the beginning it was novel — conversations were fluid, there was much to say. But by the third week, it became routine in a rather humorous way. Our conversations begin with the greetings, and then proceeded to trivial reports of what I’ve eaten and if I’m still sick. My mom then commences her chicken flu claims and how the local Punjabi news channel says this and that. I merely nod and give her one-worded affirmations while usually doing some activity of my own. Usually I try to be proactive while my mother rambles. Maybe I prep my next meal, start cleaning or doing homework all while putting her on speaker. You would be surprised how much an Indian mom could talk on endlessly for and how much you can accomplish in that same duration. But today, I don’t do any of these proactive measures, and simply lay on my bed with my book in front of me and my mother’s voice in my ears.
At some point, something will trigger the conclusion. Maybe it’s an urgent realization that my food is being burnt or that I’m running late for class. Today it was the latter. When I tell my mum this, I can sense a bit of hesitation and sadness in her tone. I can sense how she doesn’t want me to go, how she doesn’t want this phone call to end just yet. I can sense the yearning to see me, the motherly instinct to hold on. I can sense it all in her stuttering and inability to say goodbye so I initiate it first and end like this: I love you, mom.
I come from an Indian family that values stoicism; I come from a culture where strength was synonymous with hindering emotion. I don’t come from a world where parents whispered I love you when you left for school or before you went to bed. Because the unsaid implied it. I still listened to what my mom never said. I knew of her love, even though she could never have the courage to say it.
That was what I came from, but things have changed since I moved out. It’s funny how dynamics alter when you decide to sign a lease and the implications it can have on your relations with others. Absence in this case has done good because ever since I’ve taken the decision to end my phone calls with I love you, my mom reciprocates the same in her broken and heavily accented English. She still stutters between the words but the weight of those three simple words is unyielding.
John Green has this endless fascination with last words, particularly famous last words. It manifests in particular in his book, Looking for Alaska. Whether it is Rabelais’ “great perhaps” or Edison’s “beautiful there”, there is something powerful or haunting in the last words we speak, in what they say about us or how people will remember us. And I don’t know exactly what my last words will be, or when life perishes. But I have some personal conviction that the greatest last words are three simple words — I love you. It’s how I end my phone calls, or any in person encounter. It’s why I tell you I love you, because that’s what I want you remember if you forget all else; because love is the only antidote, to the labyrinth of life, worth spreading.