It is fitting that I write romance. Creating heroes isn’t hard for me. Loyal successful solid men aren’t imaginary in my world. Like all red-blooded females, of course I male-bash, more so because I know that all men are NOT dogs, so the ones who are deserve all the claws they get. But truth be told, I’ve been blessed with the gift of real life heroes, an abundance of them. My husband, my dad, my brother, my brother’s-in-law, my nephews, my male friends—much as they are riddled with the oddities inflicted upon them by their Y-chromosomes—are men I’m incredibly proud to know.
This week I lost one of my most precious heroes. My father-in-law. A man who would give all the heroes on my very long list a run for their money. A man so unconventional, it’s impossible to ever describe him fully, or to describe what he meant to me. A patriarch into whose home I came sixteen years ago, wide-eyed and full of hope. A new bride. From the moment I crossed that threshold to this moment when he is the warmest of memories, there was one overriding emotion that defined our relationship. Acceptance.
He took me into his home and his heart with such unquestioning acceptance, I was utterly humbled by his generosity of spirit. Now I’m not necessarily a freak, but no one who knows me would use the word conventional or traditional while describing me. On the other hand, the family I married into is for all appearances the very essence of tradition, from my soft-spoken, nurturing mother-in-law to my husband’s very respectful relationship with his parents and his siblings. And yet that me with my need to hug and bounce around and generally do and say whatever the heck I think is right, that me, made his heart whoop and high-five. And I know this because he let me know this. Not in words, but in every interaction I ever shared with him.
Every time we visited each other, we sat at the dining table long after our meals were done, talking until the food on our fingers dried and crusted, often arguing our hearts out while my husband and his mother yawned, their fingers washed, their plates put away, their eyes glazed over as a result of our unending sparring. But the two of us knew we loved it. We loved to disagree, to poke and prod at ideology until both our points of view became absurd. I never had to agree with him. It was a beautiful thing. And he rarely gave me the satisfaction of agreeing with me. Another beautiful thing. It left wide open spaces for questions and memories shared without judgment or shame.
And it gave me a glimpse into a life that was complex and courageous and incredibly inspiring. An artistic child who forever carried the pain of being essentially motherless and a burden of an uber-successful father. And yet who never took the easy way out by bowing to convention and letting go of his art. He followed his dream, went to art school and then melded it with the practical part of his nature to fulfill another dream by becoming an ad-man. A free spirit who lived within the confines of traditional Indian family life without ever accepting the conventions of the culture as absolute. A voice of reason, a sharp cynical wit, whose sardonic view of the world remains frozen in time in the caricatures he constantly drew until the day he could no longer discern ink on paper.
An anchor to his nieces and nephews who shared his heart on equal footing with his children. A grandfather who took more joy in his grandchildren’s mischief—even when they bounced on his belly and played the tabla on his bald head—than he took in their academic achievements or good behavior. ‘Let them be,’ he said when I tried to discipline my babies. ‘Let them be kids.’
It wasn’t advice I heeded and maybe he never expected me to. But he gave me other pieces of wisdom that were more private, that I will forever hold close to my heart and try to live up to. Because his advice always came from the heart and from the years of analysis and curiosity that were his nature and it was always more credible because it was never tainted with hypocrisy. He abhorred whining, and despite the slow long battle he fought in the end, never for one day did he lose his spirit or his sense of humor. He died as I’d seen him live, chanting his wife’s name, proud of his grandchildren, and leaving his children with no baggage, no bitterness and no regrets. All his affairs in order and only the purest of memories left for us to cherish.