Monday, December 28, 2009

Maryland women bond over raising their disabled brothers

From The Washington Post. In the picture, Padma Soundararajan and Erica Moseley get the other's situation: They both lost parents and now are raising their younger brothers.

On a summer day last year, Padma Soundararajan lost most of her family in a head-on collision in India. In an instant, her parents and two teenage sisters were gone.

The only survivors of the crash -- Soundararajan hadn't joined the trip -- were two younger brothers. One has severe cerebral palsy; the other, autism.

Soundararajan, now 30, moved out of the hip D.C. apartment she shared with friends and moved back to her family's Gaithersburg house to raise Pavan, now 21, and Sairam, now 14. Even with help from close friends and the Washington area's tight-knit Indian community, she said, she suddenly felt old beyond her years -- and alone.

In March, Sairam's therapist office called. Another young woman just a few miles away in Germantown had begun grief counseling after losing her mother to kidney failure. She, too, was raising an autistic brother. She, too, felt isolated. Would Soundararajan like to meet her?

Almost immediately, Soundararajan said, she and Erica Moseley, now 27, forged a special friendship. Both appreciate what they say no one else can: How they have yet to fully grieve because they're too busy trying to get through each day. How they cringe at people saying they're "just like a mother" when they feel they can never measure up to the mothers they lost. How deeply they miss not only their loved ones but also the carefree, young life that gave way to the demands of raising disabled siblings and the responsibilities of middle-age adulthood.

"It was like I had a long-lost sister," said Soundararajan, who works at the U.S. Department of Education. Moseley "immediately understood the depth of the sadness. Without your family, you sort of lose your anchor in life. She understood."

As Moseley, an executive assistant at a Rockville financial services firm, recalled: "When I met Padma, I just kind of breathed. I felt like I'd been going so long without breathing. We were both just living our lives, and all of a sudden, it was over."

Gone are their 20-something dreams once focused on the rest of their lives.

Soundararajan left the rock band she sang with in her spare time just as it began getting paid gigs. She said she has abandoned ideas about doing humanitarian work in another country. Moseley has yet to return to the online graduate degree program she began shortly before her mother became ill.

Both said they have lost interest in dating, and they no longer ponder getting married or having children of their own.

"I have a memory of who I was before," Moseley said, "but I don't know who I'm supposed to be now."

Soundararajan has brought the more-reserved Moseley into her close circle of friends. Moseley, who is detail-oriented, keeps tabs on Soundararajan's schedule and reminds her of appointments. They'll occasionally grab a quick dinner after their two-person grief therapy sessions on Thursday evenings. Most often, however, they share the mundane details of running a family, accompanying each other to the grocery store and Back to School Night.