Some life questions like “Why do we need toilet tissue?” or “Why must you brush your teeth every morning?” don’t come up at all in daily conversation because the answers are self-evident. The subject of why anyone needs a social life came up somewhat unexpectedly in the context of my children and even though the process of addressing such rhetoric makes me sound juvenile, I ended up pondering over why I, my daughter, my son, my husband, my aging father or anybody, for that matter, needed a social life.
I thought about my dad in India and his contemporaries, many of whom, he says are tipping over, dead, like wickets in a game of cricket. But dad still has friends, a bunch of younger cronies with whom he walks daily at sunrise. Jeeva park in the T. Nagar suburb of India’s Chennai is really not the kind of place anyone would want to walk in. A cracked concrete walkway contours the park, bridged in places by gnarly weeds. The rest of the park is lackluster. The few gray benches that aren’t painted pastel by crow droppings are warmed by intense lovers who meet at the worst park in town because it’s one of the few successful venues at which to conduct a clandestine affair in Chennai without being found out right away. The city’s municipal corporation sends out its men to spruce up the place twice a year but year after year the cleaning committee finds that there are too many hangers-on to get any work done, and, anyway, the traffic is so heavy in this place nothing’s going to grow. So the plan to plant canna, jasmine and hibiscus flanking the walkway is put off again until next June when the monsoons conveniently postpone all plans.
In such a park, my old father has found friendships–lasting over 20 years–to sustain and nourish him in the twilight hours of his life. Since the morning that my mother passed away (just about five minutes before he was to depart for his morning walk), dad’s walking friends have fussed over him. If dad doesn’t turn up for his morning walk two days in a row, one of the walking friends will call. Some may drop by just to make sure all is well. A few months ago, the walking gang organized a three-day trip to a resort three hundred miles away. When dad made much ado about going because he was ‘too old’ to travel by a tour bus and thus would be a burden to the younger gang of 60-somethings and 70-somethings, he was dragged, kicking and screaming, into the bus. It must have been a trip of a lifetime. Dad laughed a lot that weekend because he forgot to say, “I wish your mom had been there.” Every January 1st, Dad, being the Octagenarian of Jeeva Park, gets to give away a token gift, as a blessing, to all the walkers and hangers-on. When dad talks about his walking gang of loudmouths (with strong opinions on American power politics and Indian bureaucracy), he’ll shake his head and smile at their aggressive tactics. “But I feel needed, somehow, and I enjoy their company,” he says.
I reflect on my own friendships over the years. One goes back four decades to a time when we lusted after each other’s lunches in kindergarten. We talk everyday. We badmouth our husbands (rarely). She tells me to deal more gently with my teenage daughter whom she loves like she were her own daughter, adding that just because the visiting daughter hasn’t made the bed for the last ninety-one days of summer doesn’t really make her irresponsible or insensitive. When my friend’s arthritis–an early onset because she and I are still on the tender, soft side of forty–squeezes the last bit of energy out of her, I try to remember to call and find out how she’s doing. On our bad days, a brown bag of food waits outside either of our front doors. Then I have other friends, from high school in Tanzania, who never forgive me for not calling enough but visit me often even if I haven’t visited them back. One of them keeps saying she has written me off because I’ve never once visited her at her home in Toronto but she’s so mad about me she wants me go with her somewhere exotic and cheap on her silver wedding anniversary. She’s crazy because she doesn’t understand that exotic and cheap are oxymorons but she is a bit of a frogface and that’s how frogfaces think.
Then I have my friends of the last two decades, those with whom I shared stories of dirty diapers, engorged breasts, violin lessons and college admissions. Last week, after dinner, I visited one of those friends, with a dozen others, and a small group of us stayed back to talk about our mothers and what they have meant in our lives and how our children will never quite comprehend, until they experience it for themselves, the tragedy of the slow vanishing act of their parents.
I came home that night feeling that, in some small way, I had made a difference in the life of a friend who is watching her mother bend and buckle to cancer. I came home feeling that, on the worst day, the best (and even the not so best) of your friends will make you reckon with your fears, will tell you it’s perfectly fine if you’re average because they stink anyway, will beat you at a game of Pictionary and then tell you that you’d have won if only your donkey had looked a little less like a turtle on Galapagos Islands.
I came home that night to a daughter who, for the millionth time that day, was chatting on Google Talk with the same friend. Her face clouded over as soon as it saw Me, The Enemy with Botox-Raised Eyebrows, hovering outside the room. She slammed the door shut. I lingered by the door for a few seconds and then shuffled away, letting a friendship grow.