By Yena Sharma Purmasir.
Here is a memory: I come home from school and the apartment is dark. My father’s wheelchair is empty, facing his bed. He is on the floor. His forehead is bleeding. I am six years old. I help him up, which involves putting my arms around him and repeatedly saying that he is okay, that everything is okay. My father is strong. I know this because there is no way I have the strength to lift him back into his wheelchair. But he does. I am just a beam supporting the house.
I get a damp paper towel and wipe his forehead. He is quiet, his whole body slumped down. I call my mom at work, tell her that I got home from school and Daddy fell down but he’s okay and I helped him and I only have spelling homework tonight, so I’m going to go watch some TV now.
As a young child, I was incredibly close to my father. I loved spending time with him, especially when it was just the two of us. Those few hours after school — when my mom was at work and my brother was at daycare — brought me tremendous joy. My father would watch Sailor Moon with me, a plate of cookies between us. He would show me how to use the computer. I would tell him about my day.
Those were on the good days. On the bad days, my father would be at the hospital, sometimes for weeks on end. I would think about him all day at school. I would imagine his loneliness, his dislike of hospital food, and his total loss of control. On those afternoons, I would go to a friend’s house, do my homework, and wait for my mother to pick me up.
The day my father was in the car accident, I was at a friend’s house, eating healthy after-school snacks and fiddling with his Sega game console. When my mother came to get me, she was crying — a vulnerability I had never seen from her before.
I was terrified on the way to the hospital for that first time. I was five years old — everything I knew about hospitals and accidents and broken bodies came from glimpses of TV dramas, the kind of shows I should have been too young to watch. But my father was fine. Or, he wasn’t fine — his body was a series of breaks, wrapped in plaster, stitched up and swollen. He looked hurt, but he also seemed happy. He joked with us. He made me laugh. My father could always make me laugh.
I saw him cry exactly once, in the middle of the night. He was talking to my mom -- it was a tender moment between the two of them. I remember climbing onto his lap, and I told him to be brave. He wiped his face and hugged me.
According to my mother, I’ve always had a pleasant disposition. Apparently, as a toddler, I only had a tantrum once. After seeing a friend of mine fling herself on the floor, kicking and screaming, tears running down her face, I thought about adopting her dramatic insistence for myself. It worked for her. It did not work for me. I never tried again.
I was a happy child, quiet but friendly. I never broke down in school, I didn’t sulk, I wasn’t envious of other children. There was no reason to be angry — life was complicated, but it was also good.
Every week, my family would share a Cadbury chocolate bar, rationing four square pieces. I remember this tradition as the sweetest, purest thing. In the evenings, I would rub my father’s back. My little hands worked on his knots — he seemed to bend like the letter C, all curvature. I used to rub lotion on his leg, paying special attention to the bolts of his metal brace embedded in his skin.
A few years later, that leg would be amputated. When we saw him after that surgery, my father asked us what kind of animal his stump looked like. I thought a dog. My little brother thought maybe a pony.
A few months later, he had an operation that involved removing skin from his chest to take out his decade old pacemaker, completely irrelevant to the plethora of issues that came from the accident, but even more serious. It was one of the more invasive surgeries that he endured. The scar was huge, the size of a steak, with the pink and white layers exposed. My mom couldn’t bear to look at it. Neither could my father’s sister.
I was seven years old. I said I could do it. One of our neighbors, a lovely nurse, came to check on my father daily. I was her assistant, changing his dressing and cleaning the wound. He winced through the whole process. Once, he tried to tell me that I had already cleaned it. It started off as a joke, but then he became irritable. He wheeled himself away from me. I had to coax him to sit still, to let me peel off the medical tape and gauze. It hurt him, the wound, and maybe the fact that I was the one looking at it.
The day my father died was the second time I saw my mother cry. In the days and weeks and months that followed that moment, when the strongest force of nature in my life suddenly lost steam, everything changed. The kids in my class had written sympathy cards to me and my brother, and every single one of them insisted that I had to take care of my mother, because she needed me, and because she could die too.
I don’t remember the exact point in time when I became so close to my mother. Just that one day, she was the person who knew me best, the voice on the phone when I came home, the body on the sofa as I watched Seinfeld reruns, a bag of jalapeño chips sitting between us. And I worried about her just as I had worried about my father, imagining her developing loneliness and unfurling nightmare. While my mother never asked me to rub her back and I never found her crumpled on our living room floor, I still felt that same overwhelming responsibility.
It’s wonderful to be needed, to be given a sense of purpose. In the adult world, where young people so often become background noise, and living metaphors for innocence void of personhood, I was given the space and agency to participate in my family tragedy. I had a role and a function. But, in taking care of my father, and later my mother, I also gave up the ability to be more than caring — to be anything else but happy.
The truth is, after my father died, I was furious and sad and scared. My entire world had shifted, as though the roof caved in. I was eight years old — it should’ve been okay for me to feel those things. Someone should have seen that storm growing inside me and asked me to let it out. But no one did, and I locked a lot of those thoughts away. In fact, writing was the only space that allowed me total freedom of expression, serving as powerful medium in my life. But it has limits. Creative autobiographical content is still treated as content, still seen as separate from reality. When I first started writing, teachers thought I was innovative and resilient, not lonely or unhappy.
Here is another memory: I break my arm and it hurts. It’s a hairline fracture, so on a scale of pain, it’s not the worst. I have no reference point because this is my first big injury. But I’m afraid to talk about how it aches, how it itches in the cast. My father recognizes this. He tells me that my pain is real. And that it’s okay to say that it hurts. That it doesn’t make him feel bad. My arm is broken and it’s supposed to hurt. Just because he has more broken bones than I do, it doesn’t change the fact that my arm is broken. He tells me this. When he’s done, I say, Daddy, my arm hurts.
Loss is complicated. Sometimes, I mourn my father’s life because there is so much he didn’t get to do. Towards the end of his life, he talked about going back home to South Africa. But he couldn’t travel, not in his precarious condition. He never saw his children graduate from elementary school or high school or college. He never got to celebrate his 20 year wedding anniversary. I mourn these never’s from his perspective, because he once had a perspective — because he was a person with hopes and dreams and goals, so many of which were never realized.
But sometimes, I mourn the loss of these things from the other perspective — from mine, from my brother’s, from my mother’s. There are things we each lost, parts of our lives that will always be incomplete. For the three of us, some of these things are the same. We all lost the simplicity of splitting a Cadbury bar four ways. But some of our pains are more specific, and they go unshared. My mother lost her life partner. I lost my favorite grown-up.
If pain and suffering are essential parts of life, then love and care help us endure. Loving my parents has changed me, has made me stronger. Maybe I did lift up my father that day, I don't know. My mother has changed, too. In the years of my father’s absence, she has begun to take life less seriously. Now, her laughter inspires my laughter.
We’ve adopted parts of my father — his strengths and weaknesses, his easy sense of humor, his overpowering obstinance. We give up these roles and then reclaim them as our own. Not all is lost. Some part of our old family, our old time, is still here. Some part of us survived.
Yena Sharma Purmasir
Yena Sharma Purmasir is a poet, author, and essayist from New York City. Her first book of poetry, Until I Learned What It Meant, was published by Where Are You Press in 2013. In 2015, she published her second book of poetry, When I’m Not There, in the voice of and addressing the absence of her deceased father. A graduate from Swarthmore College, Purmasir majored in Psychology and double minored in English Literature and Religion Studies. She has held the title of Queens Teen Poet Laureate. Her work has appeared on Thought Catalog, Mask Magazine, and The Rising Phoenix Review. She believes in the power of hard work, second chances, and, above all, love. You can keep up with her work on Tumblr, and you can follow her on Instagram @yenasharmapurmasir.