I grew up in Bylakuppe, a huge Tibetan settlement in India. When I was in 10th grade, my class was assigned to volunteer at the nursing home. We visited every Sunday for a whole year, even though Sunday was our only free day out of the week, since we had school Monday to Saturday.
My classmates and I looked forward to volunteering for several reasons. It was exciting to go to town every week, since we didn’t have many opportunities to leave our campus.
We were also thrilled to help the elders. As Tibetan refugees, many of us had few relatives in India. Spending time with the elders meant we could shower them with the love and care we couldn’t show our own relatives, who were far away.
In addition, many of the elders had a long history of working to uplift our people. Volunteering at the nursing home was our opportunity to thank them for building schools and roads in our refugee settlement.
Meeting Momo Phurbu
On our first day, our teacher told us to choose the Popo or Momo (grandfather and grandmother in Tibetan) that we wanted to look after. I chose Momo Phurbu. I don’t know why, but I instantly felt a connection to her.
She was a short Momo with even shorter hair. She wore chupa, a traditional Tibetan women’s dress, and a brown beanie. It was a weird combination since we didn’t normally wear traditional clothes with Western ones, but it suited her perfectly. At first, I was shy and awkward around her. However, as the weeks went by, I became more comfortable and started looking forward to our Sundays together. She was stubborn, sarcastic, and self-reliant. She was special.
She was special in the way her entire face lit up at the sight of her favorite dish, boiled pork with tsampa. She was special in the way she was patient with me when I was inexperienced at doing the chores. She shared what little she had with me, like fruits from gift bags that were donated to the nursing home. She treated me like her own granddaughter.
A Day at the Nursing Home
Every Sunday morning, Momo Phurbu eagerly waited for me on her chair near the balcony.
“Momoooooo,” I said when I saw a glimpse of her face, dragging the “o.”
“Aaooooooo,”(Yessssssss), she would reply, doing the same.
Then we went to her room. I’d start by giving her a bath. She sat on a stool in the public bathroom, smiling adorably. I rubbed her skin with water and soap, creating bubbles, and then I used a loofah to scrub her clean. Afterwards, I tidied her room, dusting every surface and sweeping the floor.
Next was doing her laundry. Outside, we had water taps lined up along large cement blocks, where we washed the laundry by hand. It was a laborious task. Sometimes, we had to scrub thick fur blankets. Other times, the clothes had stubborn stains that were difficult to get rid of. I soaked the dirty clothes in bubbly water for a while. Then, I placed the clothes one by one on the block and brushed away all the dirt.
Sometimes, I got distracted and chatted with my classmates who were doing the laundry too. When that happened, Momo Phurbu often showed up out of nowhere and told me to hurry up and get back to her. I smiled at her and did just that.
My Two Momos
After I was done with my chores, we talked and caught up. I told her about what was happening at school and home. She told me about small dramas at the nursing home, like when some of her belongings were stolen, and how she didn’t get along with some of the other elders.
We often talked about my own Momo who was at home. I have a soft spot for elders, as I was raised by my grandmother ever since I was a baby. And then, when I was 12, my parents and siblings left me and my Momo behind in Bylakuppe to migrate to New York, which left the two of us feeling abandoned. This made the bond between me and my Momo even stronger, since we only had each other in India.
Being with one Momo reminded me of the other. They had similar personalities: kind and loving, yet feisty and sarcastic. They also seemed lonely: Momo Phurbu in the nursing home, because her family was too busy to spend much time with her, and my grandmother alone in Bylakuppe with her family abroad. I wanted to take care of them both.
I thought they could be long-lost best friends. I wished they could meet each other.
Tragedy at the Nursing Home
When the year came to an end, I felt melancholic for all the elders and my classmates, because we created amazing memories together. The elders treated us like their own grandchildren, giving us snacks even though they didn’t have much for themselves.
As upset as I was about the change, I knew that we had to move on with our lives. I also knew I could visit Momo Phurbu anytime.
A few months passed by. I had wanted to visit her but I had been busy studying. I told myself that I’d meet Momo Phurbu right after my exams were over. That decision made me feel a little less guilty.
One day, while I was on my way back home after an exam, one of my schoolmates stopped me. She said, “If I am not wrong, your grandmother from the old age home passed away earlier today. I heard there was an ambulance.”
I was stunned.
“No, that is not possible!” I said.
Surely she made a mistake, I thought. Even as I tried to comfort myself with this thought, an unsettling feeling slowly crept up on me, and I hoped it would go away. I immediately rushed to the nursing home. When I got there, that feeling grew tenfold. It was as if I was in the world of Harry Potter and a Dementor was feeding on me and taking away all of my happiness and hope.
Whenever I visited Momo Phurbu, she normally greeted me, smiling, from her chair on the balcony on the first floor. But today, when I walked up to the balcony, all I saw was an empty chair. The nursing home was so eerily calm that I felt the hair rise on the back of my neck. I kept walking because I was desperately hoping that it was all a horrible dream. Every step I took felt heavy and all I wanted to do was turn back and run away.
I eventually got to the balcony and stood there, frozen. I could not process what was happening. Then, I asked other elders where my Momo was, hoping they would say she was in her room.
A Popo, with teary eyes, said: “Bhumo (girl in Tibetan), she killed herself. She’s no more.”
When I heard those words, I could hardly breathe. I finally let the dam of tears flow free.
“Don’t cry,” he said.
How could I not? So many thoughts ran wild in my mind. Why? Was she unhappy? If I had gone to visit her, would she have told me about her concerns?
I went back home that day and cried in the arms of one Momo and grieved for the other. My heart hurt so much that it physically pained me.
Making Sense of Loss
This was the first time I had lost someone so dear to my heart. Not only was Momo Phurbu’s death the first loss I experienced, I had to come to terms with the fact that she decided to end her own life. I never got to say goodbye, and I never got to ask her why she planned such a drastic step. Momo Phurbu had seemed happy most of the time, so it never occurred to me that she might have been going through difficulties that she couldn’t talk about with others. It scared me to think that someone dear to me had felt so helpless.
To add to the misery, my loved ones didn’t fully appreciate the extent of my loss. They were generally sympathetic but didn’t ask too many questions about Momo Phurbu’s death or how I was handling it. Because no one asked me how she had died, I never told anyone that it was by suicide.
The next few months were filled with sadness and guilt. I started to feel responsible for what happened. The tiny voices inside my head were constantly fighting with each other. While some of these voices were kind and gentle, the rest were cruel and resentful.
If you had gone to meet her, you could’ve prevented this from happening, You could’ve helped her, the vicious voice said.
No. This is not your fault. Please don’t blame yourself, said another voice tenderly.
However, a few months ago when I started working on a school project about regret, I had a lot of time to think about these feelings. After frequent crying and reasoning, I finally realized why I had been blaming myself: I desperately wanted to hold on to the tiny ounce of power that came with feeling responsible for her death. Blaming myself and feeling like I failed at helping Momo Phurbu was preferable to feeling completely helpless for something that happened so abruptly.
Momo Phurbu’s death was not my fault, and I couldn’t have prevented it. With this realization, a heavy weight was lifted from me.
It’s been four years since I last saw Momo Phurbu. I miss her endearing smile and strong personality. I mourn the years she could have lived and the relationship I had with her. From her death, I have learned that love and relationships can come in different forms. A bond formed in a year with an elderly stranger can be as significant and powerful as ones formed in 10 years with friends my own age.
If you ever have thoughts of suicide or need someone to talk to, call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing the numbers 9-8-8.