002: Reimagining

The Nine Lives of My Mother

Sukhpreet Kaur Purewal is a writer, photographer, holistic practitioner, and community organizer based in Los Angeles, California. 

She never married my father. She received news of the proposal and said no—a hot slap to the face of her relatives. Her family shut their lips and iced their shoulders, she surged on as an exile. Studying, living, and devoting herself to teaching in Delhi. She stumbled across her parents’ home after many moons, as if she arrived in a stupor, as if she returned to a lost time. They were waiting for this homecoming but still performed reluctance out of learned necessity. Forgiveness followed after the initial emotions of separation wore off, and all that was left underneath was love. She never fantasized about America. She never knew America. She knew me in passing, a stranger in the mandi, a student that could’ve been but transferred unexpectedly, a breeze in the wind, an ajeeb dastan. She knew me, but she never named the unknown. 

She married my father. She received news of the proposal and obliged without resistance. They arrived in California and settled into the Bay Area. By this time, she knew she was pregnant with my eldest sister Baljeet. Her great grandmother visited her dream one evening and told her to learn the foreign language in secrecy, pack her bags and leave. She began consuming English on her own. Sneaking it in every second her husband was gone, finding fragments of the language from discarded Fleetwood Mac CDs and Laverne & Shirley on cable television. Each day began with her reciting the Japji Sahib; this never changed in all nine lives. She never told him about her daughter. She set a marker for two months from the conception. Before a bump made itself known from her womb she had collected enough change plus gathered the courage to leave. She set off to Vancouver, BC from Hayward, CA. She made it to her sister’s home and settled in suburbia as a small restaurant owner. Her societal-spoken shamelessness trailed behind but she also lived for herself. She only interacted with her daughter’s father to arrange visitations, she never remarried and only found me in glimpses: her daughter’s laugh, her own eyes in the gaze of a mirror and the bliss that filled her heart as she meditated on bravery. 

She married my father. She received news of the proposal and nodded her yes in silent disapproval. You already know Baljeet’s story. Yes, she was born. Yes, my father knew. Then came Harpreet. Then came Sundeep. Then came the Johnnie Walker on the rocks in a cut glass every evening. Then came the polarities. My mother, the pious. My father, the provocateur. A polarized pairing, an experiment on extremes. The yearning for a son to continue the family legacy seeped into any intimacy they shared. Where had the faith in the matrilineal gone? Lost along the way. A boy came, three and a half years after the third daughter. I had no utility in this life. Still, my mother called for me in her sleep; she couldn’t place this desire, for that which she couldn’t embrace but could feel brewing within her. “We will merge in time,” I whispered to her in each astral encounter before she blinked awake. 

She married my father. She received news of the proposal and life proceeded as it naturally does under obligation and familial duty. Marriage, immigration, and children. She resisted assimilation and remained persistent in her Sikhi. She drew her roots out and repotted them across this new region. She passed on as much as she could through word, dishes, ritual, remembrance, and mannerisms. She had no longing in this life; simply a grave knowing that her daughters had to absorb her wisdom. She dedicated her life to this passage. It was a warm suburban summer day around 6 PM, my cries into this world and my mother’s cries out of this world merged into one synonymous, singular shriek. She sacrificed her life to ensure I would survive. We finally made it to one another. She brought no man into this world, but she left bearing the truth that she lived through all her daughters. 

She married my father. She received news of the proposal and agreed despite the inquiries in her mind. What’s the difference between the Immigrant Dream, the American Dream, and a dream in general? Equality and how it is granted. My mother dreamt of equity instead. Equality required a hierarchy of morals. She imagined a duffel bag across her shoulder, her four daughters by her side, leaving her husband, and America behind. She never did because she knew most of her family was scattered across the Americas and returning “home” wouldn’t be the same after so many years. She melted her cravings into a life in California instead. Physically, it mirrored Punjab enough for her to make-believe. Eyes closed, fingers drawn to the wind, lips casting a call for the dirt she was made of. It would do for now. Somehow she maintained this existence — with her spirit suspended in the sky, settling itself between Lahore, Hoshiarpur, Delhi, Sacramento and Hayward. She felt little weight from her issues in waking life because the majority of her emotion was stored in the lives she traversed out of her body. She didn’t succumb to the strain that was pushed onto her from relatives that named her worth on her ability to birth a son — she ended this life without ever doing so. 

She married my father. She received news of the proposal and agreed, in spite of feeling a strange synchronicity. Sikhi was made to eradicate caste, gender, and all the labels that uphold discrimination based on distinction. My mother rubbed her pregnant stomach and wondered why bearing a son held so much value. Intrinsically, she sketched out the differences between men and women in her life. She witnessed women who could play the role of mother and father, but saw them sent off to their husbands home regardless of this. She had her first child at 24; he was met with relief, validation and immense love from most of the relatives that held his tender frame. Her soul saw what happened to her daughters across the other lifetimes. She didn’t want a daughter to suffer under the imbalance she grew accustomed to, so she never wished for one to come. 

This wish didn’t have the strength to sustain itself into this next life. She got married, she landed in the states, she had three daughters and was preparing for the fourth. The family pressured, prayed, and pressed her for a male heir. She felt me stirring in her womb under distress. How could such a task be fulfilled without the anatomy they hoped for? I didn’t want to disappoint them so I never swallowed my first breath. My mother held my still body with bloody hands, pressing her tear-streaked cheeks against my chest to scavenge a heartbeat. Silence. Apathy streamed into each step and lack of words my mother uttered from then on. Her three daughters lost her to the ghost of Death and called for her spirit to come home. She floated along, unable to be human many days, being a mother only when she could muster the drive to be in her body. This continued on for most of this life. 

My mother lives in stone, in stream, in soil, in the sky, in the sun (en el sol) in the soul of all that encompasses (Mother) Earth. My mother finds flesh, finds bone, finds blood and makes a temporary home. My mother is infinite. My mother is my mother’s womb’s mother’s womb. My mother bore me; my mother bears all that exists. Infinite. Aad Such Jugaad Such Hai Bhee Such Nanak Hosee Bhee Such. 

My mother said her final words to her mother today. Tears, reaching for hands, and relatives enclosing a hospital bed. Birth and death carry their own form of grief and celebration. I remember how I entered this world through my mother, a burst of life in her boundless body after enduring three miscarriages, two stillborns, and one abortion. A miracle in the flesh but still a rebellion to expectation. I never revealed my gender when they searched through ultrasound. A trickster, a chameleon, a shapeshifter, a magician from the start, a child not quite boy or girl. My mother and I always meet at the intersection of worlds and will continue to do so as boundaries dissolve and binaries dissipate. 

The myth that cats have nine lives is attributed to their resilience — their uncanny ability to always land on their feet. Many goddesses come in the form of nine. Nine is the last stage of a cycle before completion; this is a practice on pattern-breaking and pattern-weaving. This is for the strongest women I know: my mother Tajinder, my grandmother Parkash, and for all the womb-carriers and womb-igniters that will follow us.