The Stone Blanket
© Copyright 2022 by Nimisha Kantharia
Photo courtesy of the author.
I was a child, I felt as though I had access to an
inexplicable, exclusive sense of my father. I still have some part of
that child in me, even as an adult daughter whose relationship to her
father is fraught. I have wanted to write about this since long. Now
as I finally get down it, I am surrounded by the chirrups of my
toddler playing with my husband. “Baba, baba!” she calls
out to him in her high, sweet voice, and I am filled with a yearning
for the father-daughter relationship they share. I had once believed
my ‘special sense’ would grant me the closeness to my
father that I longed for. I have had to un-tether my ‘understanding’
of him from the wish to be close to him, and to accept our bond as a
frayed gift, with hidden beauty nevertheless.
The late afternoon light slanted into the room as the sun moved lower in the summer sky. The girl was about eight years old. She knelt beside the bed, tongue sticking out to aid focus. She carefully glued an A4 sheet of white printer paper on a similar sized piece of cardboard, then laboriously scored faint lines across the sheet with a pencil and ruler. When she wrote without straight lines to guide her, her hand-writing had a tendency to slant upwards. She copied out the poem she had found, “Footprints in the Sand,” trying her best to write neatly and evenly. Still, she got the spacing wrong on some lines, and had to cramp up the words at the end of those sentences, making her writing tinier to squeeze them all in. Once done, she cut four strips of red ribbon, one short pair and one long, and stuck them around the edge of the paper to form a border. She finished just in time, for her father would soon be home from work and this was his birthday gift. As she erased those initial guiding lines, she surveyed the result with a critical eye. Despite the effort she had taken, globs of Camlin glue dotted the paper, the ribbon ends were frayed and she knew her handwriting could have been neater. The hollowness of sheer disappointment throbbed in her chest. She so much wanted to give her father something beautiful, to make him a gift with her own hands. But then she consoled herself, at least the poem she had chosen was lovely.
Have you read it? It is a conversation between God and a man who is looking back at the course of his life. God points to two sets of footprints in the sand, proof that He had always been present in the man’s life. But the man counters it by saying that during his hardest times, his lowest moments, there was just one set of footprints. God smiles gently, “Those were the times I carried you, my child.”
Something about this poem, especially that last line, tugs at the little girl and makes her want to give those words to her father. Even though he doesn’t believe in God, she just knows he needs to hear these words. She knows it because like many children she can slip easily under her father’s skin, wandering unseen among those secret childhood places of wounded-ness. Then, merging with him, she can sense all the hurt and pain he has ever felt, wordlessly.
So she tells herself, The poem is the important bit, it doesn’t matter if I haven’t been that neat. Then, her father is home, and there is no time to worry anymore. He enters the bedroom where she sits, her gift in her hands, her heart on her sleeve. As he towers over her, she hands him the poem, saying shyly,
“Happy birthday dada, I made this for you.”
He glances at the gift, and something flashes across his face so quickly that even his daughter, so practiced at reading his moods, can’t quite decipher it. But the brusqueness of his ‘Thank you!’, the speed with which he exits the room and the fact that she never sees her handiwork again, all add up to imbue that fleeting expression with a dire meaning. She thinks, My gift was terrible, dada didn’t like it. And the disappointment that had flared within her, then flickered in the wake of her breezy self-consolation, flared once again and melted a little deeper into her bones.
Years later that child grew into the teenage me. Swapping stories with my friends, I realised that fathers, perhaps especially Indian fathers, don’t find it easy to accept gifts from their children, perhaps especially from their daughters. That flash across his face must have been embarrassment, I concluded and basis that conclusion, I didn’t gift my father anything for the next three decades.
Then thirty years after that first gift, and a parent myself, I once again had an almost uncontrollable urge to gift my father a weighted blanket for his birthday. You know what one is right? I first heard about them from parenting and trauma support groups on Facebook. After that, in that sneaky subliminal way that the internet has of reading one’s mind, advertisements for weighted blankets flooded my social media feed. I try to resist being manipulated, so I fought the impulse to buy dada one and when that failed, I considered buying one for myself instead. But the inner directive to give my father a weighted blanket was too compelling, the urge too strong to fight. So I surrendered and ordered one online, a blue one, lined with linen, weighing seven kilograms.
A year of therapy had made me more aware, curious even, about the probable ‘whys’ behind my decisions. Then again, as a mother, I had spent so many hours of my child’s life carrying her around, baby-wearing her, sitting on a rocking chair while holding her for naps. I became viscerally aware that in the fourth trimester, that is the first nine months of the infant’s life, the parent is nearly a literal physical container for their child. But as the child grows, the immature prefrontal cortex in her brain makes her prone to impulsiveness, temper tantrums and meltdowns. The parent now has to ‘hold space,’ providing a psychological container that can carry the force of her emotions and not fall apart. My choices (if I can call them that, they were not clear-headed decisions, more intuitive imperatives!) of ‘gifts’ to my father, my angry aggressive father, with his uncontrollable explosions of rage and even violence, made sense in this context. As a child, I had given him a poem about being carried, being held by God, and now all these years later, the gift was a weighted blanket, a personal ‘holding device’ of sorts. Did I imagine the blanket would help contain his life-time of anger and grief?
At any rate, when the parcel arrived, my parents were bewildered. They didn’t know what it was, or what to do with it. My mother nagged at me for buying such an expensive quilt. I mumbled something about ‘sales’ and ‘discounts,’ lying through my teeth.
“And it’s not a quilt, mum! It’s a blanket that helps with sound sleep.” Not a lie this time, as that is, in fact, one of its purported uses.
My brother was doubtful. “Isn’t it too heavy? Isn’t it too hot in Bombay for a blanket like this?”
I shrugged. How can you answer common sense questions with whimsies that arise from the subconscious? Instead, I described the ‘breathable’ fabric and delivered a mini-lecture on the mechanics of a weighted blanket.
My father’s response was the same brusque thanks. The blanket lay unopened until I visited their house and took it out of its plastic cover. As I lay beneath it, luxuriating in its softness and heft, my mother tried to convince me to take it for myself, assuring me that my father would never end up using it. Again, I lied and said that I already had one.
But so as not to lie to my mother for too long, I, in short order, bought myself one. Tucked beneath its velvety heaviness, I lay cocooned, feeling comforted and safe. This was the crux of the matter, wasn’t it? The gift was not so much the actual blanket itself, but the experience of being held.
A couple of months later, my parents came for a brief holiday to my house in another city. No sooner had my father entered the house than he announced he was tired after the long journey and wanted to sleep. Post-retirement, with his vision rapidly deteriorating, he spent large swathes of the day in bed, ostensibly sleeping, but often I suspect mulling over the un-change-ables of his life. As he headed to the bedroom, he mumbled something to my mother, and she came to me with a request for my ‘stone blanket.’ When I looked confused, she impatiently explained.
“Don’t be so dense! That heavy blanket you bought for dada? He calls it his stone blanket. You have one as well, right? He can’t sleep without it anymore, but it was too heavy for us to carry while traveling and we knew you had one, so….”
My heart was singing as I handed over my weighted blanket, and it continued humming a content tune the whole fortnight that he stayed with me. He really used the blanket every time he slept! Gleefully, I gave the eight-year-old me a high-five. She wasn’t bad at gifting at all! She was spot-on, wasn’t she, even if it took thirty years for him to accept a gift from her, to accept, even if tacitly, that he needed to be held? While the ‘success’ of gifting the weighted blanket soothed the disappointment I had felt as a child, that other impulse remained unfulfilled, the impulse to create something beautiful for him with my own hands.
Towards the end of that year, a year spent scribbling and colouring with my toddler, I found myself interested in art. I tried to sketch daily, observing those around me, scribbling their features free hand. And when what I sketched looked nothing like the person it was supposed to be, I learned a more accurate technique, the grid method. One works from a photograph of the subject, etching a grid on the reference image. With a similar grid on the drawing paper, it is easier to achieve accuracy by filling in one square at a time. I had just the photograph I wanted to draw of my father! It was one that I had clicked myself; his head bent forwards, mouth open mid-speech, mid-meal. I used a ruler and pencil to create the perfect grid in my sketch-book, then spent long hours filling the grid in, copying the outline of his face, drawing in each wrinkle on his furrowed brow and the hangdog appearance of his down-turned lips. His expression in that moment was earnest, innocent, strangely vulnerable for such an emotionally volatile man.
As I drew, it occurred to me that to trace every line of a person’s face like this was such an intimate thing to do. My pencil peeled back the years and I could see the bewildered boy who was punished harshly and unceasingly, the eldest of four siblings, the only one subjected to unquestioned physical abuse. I could see the bright young man at his first job, devoted to work, the very epitome of sincerity and then, as the years passed and the success he deserved passed him by, the disappointment leaching in. I could see the hopeful, joyous tears in his eyes when he surveyed my newborn face, a fresh start that did not materialise. To draw so closely is to see truly.
I sent a photograph of the portrait to my husband, my mother, my brother, even to my father, who was by now nearing blindness. “A fair likeness,” pronounced my mother, the artist in the family. My brother concurred, and he’s honest, so I believed him. But I dearly wanted to hear what my father himself thought of it.
“I can’t see.” he claimed. This was true, but only partly. At this point on the road to legal blindness, he could sometimes suddenly see quite well.
“Just glance at it!” I wheedled. “You may get an impression, and that would be enough for me.” I pushed my agenda as an adult in a way I never would have dared to as a child. Was it cruel of me to nag at an almost blind man to see? Perhaps it was. In my meagre defence, I can only offer that it didn’t feel that way in the context of that moment in our lifetime as father and daughter.
At any rate, my father first adamantly refused, then capitulated and agreed but never followed through. He hasn’t looked at it in front of me and I have received no feedback from him about it. But the sum of all the expressions that chanced upon his features in these interactions, combined with my experience in tracing every groove of his face on a piece of paper, served me well. I finally knew what that un-nameable look was, the look that had flashed across his face when I was a child. It was not disappointment in a wrong gift, nor was it mere embarrassment.
It was the deep discomfort of being seen. Hadn’t I experienced this myself in therapy when, defences stripped, I looked into my therapist’s eyes and saw myself reflected there, naked and vulnerable? This, despite the kindness, the unconditional positivity of her regard! How uncomfortable it must have been for my father to be seen in this way by me, his eight-year-old daughter? How acutely discomfiting an experience to realise that his child sensed his emotional needs! Needs that were unseen by his own care-givers! Needs that, growing up, he had wrapped away in layers of anger and aggression, hostile defences that kept them even from his own gaze! Now, all these years later, to look at my portrait of him would be to see his own face through my eyes. It would perhaps have been too painful, too vulnerable, amounting to an acknowledgement that what I had sensed as a child was the truth.
The need to be held is a primal primate one, and we humans ignore at our own peril. As a mother I know, based on all the research I’ve read, and from the deepest fonts of my mothering instincts, that holding my child, as much as I can, as much as she needs to be held, both physically and psychologically, is essential. The security that this 'holding' engenders will form the cornerstone of her future mental health. As a daughter, I believe, certainly yet wistfully, that if only my father had, as a child, been held as much as he needed, as much as he should have been, the course of his life, and therefore mine, would have been very different, gentler, more open, with greater trust and tenderness.
Kantharia is a mother, a surgeon, and a writer from Mumbi, India. She
has recently had
a piece of Creative non fiction published in The Lunch Ticket, for
which she was awarded the Diana Woods Memorial Award.
An inveterate bookworm with a love for words, she only found the Muse after the birth of her child. The absence of child care during the pandemic resulted in her staying home, inadvertently freeing up (some!) time to write. She spends all day reading to her toddler, writing (or thinking about it!), and painting (or buying art supplies!). She can be found on Instagram as @unbearable.joy.