I had arrived in Washington on a bright summer day. Essentially as a pauper, for the rules then meant I couldn’t convert my savings into dollars. I had left a well-paid job, a company gifted car and a luxury apartment I owned.
In steady sequence I found a job, first with a big company and then with a UN group, and bought a home in the suburb and then in the city. It did not come easy. Long hours, demanding work, learning fast on my feet. And making do with less sleep. It is tough being a migrant in a vastly different land.
And then to receive a plaint that I wasn’t writing enough letters! How thoughtless!
Now I know I did not understand.
It makes me ashamed to think that what should have made me weep with joy only annoyed me. I was too preoccupied with my work, my new life, my quotidian cares to decipher a loving message.
It horrifies me to think of how often heartfelt messages like this are misread. We are all different people, with different ways of expressing ourselves. We are men and women, with backgrounds of many kinds and understanding at many levels. Simple words are misunderstood, words of concern cause unintended hurt.
Now that I live far away from my friends and relations, we connect through mail and talk. Do my brothers know how much I love them? Do my nephews and nieces, some very talented, realize how much I miss them? Do friends and readers who write to me, often very supportively, know how much I prize them? For a wordsmith, I feel inept in the tangled web of messages and fear I am doing a poor job. Those links are golden for a man in exile.
Even those who are near us, the people we see and talk to more easily, are often mysteriously difficult to connect with. My friends tell me how hard it is often to understand their children. They seem distant, their preferences seem incomprehensible.
My friend Deben says, “What I see as a gesture of help, my children see as a move of intrusion. What is meant as a word of friendly counsel, is heard as gratuitous and unwelcome advice.”
His wife Neera added, “When I buy things for them, those lie unused in their storage. Any suggestion I make about their home, their work or their children, is rebuffed. They seem to speak the same language, but not really.”
I have two loving and thoughtful daughters. They live in a faraway city but take pains to call and check on their strange father who seems to put a lot of value on books and papers, ideas and research, and disappears periodically in other lands. When I sit and eat alone, I remember the time Lina asked me to return home early and served me an artfully grilled salmon. I remember too when Monica invited to the small apartment she had as a student and served me poached eggs for breakfast. As I shave, I think of the time, further down, Monica asked me why she can’t shave. As I shower, I recall Lina’s curiosity about using the bathtub instead. My mind even races back to the days they ran about our home as toddlers, drew pictures and scribbled on walls with crayons.
They are grown up now, young women whose life has been quite different from their dad’s. I remind myself that they are apt to think differently and value different things. It is a pleasure still to find we have a few things in common to admire or to detest. I am not sure we understand each other fully each time. Nor are they. But I am relieved and happy that we talk and find a couple of things to agree on. I believe they know that I love them, but of course, like all children, they will never grasp the full extent what they mean to me. They may not even believe, were I to tell them, that my life would have been rather desolate without their magnetic presence.
I hope I am learning. I am trying to avoid the mistake I made with my aunt. Nothing that I ever did was more important than her affection. Little that I ever achieved was worthier than the love that anyone ever, undeservedly, bestowed on me.
Too late and too little, I miss my irritating aunt.