Think of your childhood,” he said to me. “Think of the difficulties. How did you survive? How did you solve your problems?”
I thought to myself. I lied. Sometimes I stole. I cheated in school. My deep dark secret was that I was a bad child. I remembered the fantasies I’d narrate to friends. A family with a Russian lineage, an imaginary mother, friend, dog, even a VCR when we didn’t have one. The lies to my parents about my life outside home and vice versa.
“I started reading. I found role models in books and comics, in Reader’s Digest condensed anthologies,” I said.
He knew the rest of the story. “You are a born succeeder,” he said to me. You can innovate again.
“SUCCEEDER.” I find this word written in capital letters in my notebook.
“We don’t come here to get sympathy,” he would say. “This is a training session for self-therapy. We come here to succeed. It’s a bad parent that does not allow the child to enjoy her victories.”
I sighed as I sat down. I had taken a cab, dropped the children at my Mum’s, nursed the baby one last time and then skidded in for a group meeting.
“How are you doing today?” he said.
“Oh well,” I said. “I’m the mother of three small children.”
“Have you read about the woman who had eight babies recently?”
“Oh yes,” I laughed. “Octomom.”
Just like that. No more self-pity. A little laughter, some directed at oneself, some just a celebration. That I am here, we are here. All is well.
“Have you solved your problem?”
“No,” I said.
“Have you done your duty?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Then you have solved your problem,” he would say.
How could such simple words change my life? Why should this person care for me so deeply? I remember the love in his eyes when he listened to people I would have been impatient with.
Rebuild the child who may have been shattered in your childhood. The one who may not have been allowed to be herself. Make-believe the childhood that you wanted.
His patience put my faith back in me. His creativity made it seem so easy. He would cut through the smog of our pretensions, expectations and fears. My inner whirl would calm down.
“Maybe you like to feel bad,” he said one day.
“No, I don’t.”
“Kids sometimes like to feel bad so that they can go complaining and sobbing and get their share of Mummy. Think of why you would like to feel bad. What are you hoping to get?”
I knew whose attention I was desperate for.
“If I know him well enough,” said my teacher, “he will sprint in 5 seconds if he gets that impression.”
I laughed. “Yes, he does!”
“Don’t be a needy child and your partner won’t be a rejecting parent with you. Don’t try to please him and you won’t resent him,” he said.
From these conversations, I learnt to say no without feeling guilty or deprived. Saying no to something else is a way of saying yes to more urgent, perhaps less visible, priorities.
I still had a few hours of uninterrupted work to do to meet a project deadline when the phone rang. Father Os, my greatest teacher, had died. I had kept the next morning free to meet him.
I put the phone down. I saw his face with his crinkly smile, his eyes shining at me. “You know what you have to do,” he said with a tilt of his head. I put my feelings in a box and kept them aside. I stayed with work.
When the submissions were sent and the papers packed away, I put my head down on my pillow and cried. I fell asleep. As soon as day broke, I went to meet him as I had planned. There were others, who had lived and worked with him. We hugged. I began to clean the meeting room. Chairs, diwans, bookshelves and noticeboards. The TV and DVDs. The spaces between the buttons on the remote.
I sat down on a chair and sobbed. When I opened my eyes again, there was a splash of morning light where he would have been sitting. I took a photo. Our best teachers can never leave us.
I play back a video in which I am sharing at a memorial meeting in honour of Father Oswald Summerton. “I would feel as if tight knots were becoming untied in me. It was like spreading the pieces of a large jigsaw puzzle on the floor. From memories, feelings, experiences and new perspectives, we’d create a whole self. I began to recover my ability to be loving towards the people I love.”
[This was first published in Mint Lounge here: Our Teachers Live Forever ]