My mother’s driving licence expired sometime in 2020. It was the height of the pandemic and with all that time spent at home, it was no surprise that she didn’t notice the deadline come and go. To be perfectly accurate, mum had already stopped driving about a year before, after the last and most brutal of the four debulking surgeries she had. The first in 2012 left her hobbled for a time, but the last seemed to have wrenched her stomach for the fight almost entirely. Not to mention my own.

I think she came to see the expiration of her driving licence as something of a metaphor. You can’t do this anymore, it said. Might as well park it. Not sure you’re nimble enough to drive anyway so why bother? The timing of it was highly suspect at a cosmic level as well. She discovered that her licence was no longer valid around the time that her latest medical tests revealed a spread of the disease and pointed to the inevitable.

The list of treatments we had employed over the last decade had been shrinking. An allergic reaction to carboplatin took chemotherapy off the table; the benign hormonal pills she took thereafter to slow progression became less effective; the monthly injections – also mercifully benign – were gone too. What was left then? Some parp inhibitors and an expired driving licence. My mother was having neither.

I’ve always thought that the only thing worse than being a driver in Bombay is being a pedestrian. Ma didn’t seem to share this opinion. Something about getting behind the wheel in her hatchback left her feeling fresh and zippy and fun. So in those days that seemed to stretch, albeit to a certain end, she decided that she would renew her licence. It didn’t really matter how long she had left, this inertia would simply not do. That she may have had to go to the driving centre and take a driving test at the age of 75 didn’t seem to deter her.

Early in June last year, she came to me waving a small card. She’d got it done. She seemed cautiously optimistic. She had always been a great driver, subverting every sexist cliché. Now all she had to do was get dressed and actually drive that car.

A few weeks passed. My mother showed no signs of wanting to step out of the house. Nagging aches and pains left her feeling somewhat hesitant. And, truth be told, after so many months of wearing pajamas, she really didn’t want to slip out of them just to spin the car around for a half hour or so. Not worth it. And yet still – but I need to do this, I need to do it, I can do it.

Then one Saturday, she suddenly said, “I’m heading out for a drive.”

“Okay,” I said nervously. “I’ll get the driver to bring the car around.”

“No, I’ll just walk to the car, it’s fine. I’m fine.”

“Okay, I’ll ask him to walk you downstairs, I’ll just…”

Before I could say another word, my mother had slipped out the door.

Courtesy Gulnar Mistry.

​​More words would mean more hesitation, more of all these things she wanted no more of. This was not the first time mum made a decision that she was having none of it. Even though hemming and hawing was always a burden she shared with my father, at some later point in her life, well into her 60s, my mother set herself loose from the tyranny of the endless back-and-forth, the many what-ifs and but-thens and perhapses.

Another set of what-ifs occupied her mind. What if I – for once – put myself first? What if I untether myself from constantly caring for everyone around me? What if I toss the parp inhibitors and live out my days without endless medical tests and then hopefully, quietly, slip away, like I was just taking the car out for a spin?

Often I feel like I am living the life I borrowed (stole?) from my mother. Which is to say a life with myself at its centre. In truth, I’m not sure she was ever cut out to be a mother. For the first three decades of my life, this seemed the pivot upon which our relationship turned – her inability to accept that she had chosen a role she didn’t quite want and my inability to just let the damned thing be.

Small arguments turned into wars; minor miscommunications bore the weight of other things said when I was so little my mother seemed surprised I’d remembered. You said this. You didn’t say that. “What do you want from me now,” she’d say, looking defeated. “What can I change?” And sometimes, “I’m sorry.”

Even with all this baggage from my childhood, there are moments laced with joy. Mum walking to pick me up from school, her sari fluttering like a flag. Mum racing down Marine Drive with the wind in her short hair. And then when I was an adult, mum telling me to “fuck off” because “I’ve been watching Succession!” And, closer to the end, telling me that my anticipatory grief and sense of impending doom was absurd because “it is not impending… and it is not doom”.

Courtesy Gulnar Mistry.

In the months preceding her death, everything became about my mother – at least in my head. She was largely confined to her room, alternating between the bed and her favourite chair, and yet I saw her everywhere. Walking to court, I would feel her on my back, equal parts shadow and sunshine. I would feel her in the cool breeze on a hot day and in the green of new leaves. Even while alive, she was incarnated in unseasonal rain showers. She was in the music I listened to. When Nina Simone sang, “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free”, it was my mother singing.

Is it simply a rite of passage to watch your parents diminish before your very eyes? Or is it a trial? In those weeks, it felt like both. It felt like time itself had stopped. All I could do was take one breath, then another; put one foot forward and then the other.

My relationship with my mother was a complex one and complicated too, hard one moment and easy the next, layered with so many triumphs and so many disappointments that I did not know where to begin. In the end, the best I could do was look for ways to describe what I was feeling. So that the telling of it may ease this deep and cavernous sense of loss, yearning and regret. That it may make way to laughter and warmth for all that was good and forgiveness and acceptance for all that was bad.

Now that she’s no longer with me, she has become the things she reveled in. My mother is a moment of quiet solitude. She is a glass of German Reisling. She is a ’50s Hindi film song. She lives on in old photographs, where her essence seems magically distilled. And in the many intangibles that defined her – that calm, unruffled exterior; the ability to laugh at herself; her quiet resolve that made light the many things too heavy to bear.

It is these things about her that stay with me now that she is gone. Neither ashes nor dust but stardust – a thing of wonder, in a zippy hatchback on a road without end.

Gulnar Mistry is a civil litigator and lives in Bombay.