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Remembering Usha Subrahmanyam With 'Don't Know Why'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

More than a half-million people have died in the U.S. from COVID-19 since the pandemic hit this country last year. To remember some of those who lost their lives, NPR's sharing the music that moved them and hearing stories from their friends and families. We're calling our tribute Songs of Remembrance. This one comes from Uttara Marti, remembering her mother, Usha Subrahmanyam, who loved the song "Don't Know Why" by Norah Jones.

UTTARA MARTI: I had her iPad. She had her iPhone. And I realized, like, a few days into her being in the hospital that I could just see what she was listening to. Like you said, a little bit of spying so I could feel like I was there sort of with her and know when she was awake and stuff. And so she kept coming back to the song and really the whole - that whole first album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T KNOW WHY")

NORAH JONES: (Singing) I waited till I saw the sun. I don't know why I didn't come.

MARTI: There's some sort of nostalgia in her voice. You know, sometimes when you hear a song, it might be the first time you hear it, but you have a feeling of nostalgia, even though you've never heard the song before. It probably tied her not just to the song but also, I'd like to think, to me in some way, so - because I couldn't be there with her, at least, you know, sort of there with her.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T KNOW WHY")

JONES: (Singing) I wished that I could fly away.

MARTI: When I got there, you could see she was tired, but she was sitting and looking out the window because she had - you know, she was near the river. She's always loved the night sky. She sort of shooed me away a little bit because she was so worried. And then she wrote to me on WhatsApp, saying, like, please don't risk anything and come again type of thing. And I saw her after that, but she was sedated, so she couldn't, like, respond to me. So that's the last sort of real interaction I had.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T KNOW WHY")

JONES: (Singing) You'll be on my mind forever.

MARTI: On WhatsApp - this sounds very silly to say now - but I was writing to my Amma even when she was intubated. Obviously, she couldn't respond at that point, but I continued to write her on WhatsApp. And I got the phone call from the hospital at, you know, 2 in the morning or something. And then she passed at 3 in the morning. So I wrote - I don't know why I did this, but I wrote to her at 2 a.m.

(Reading) My Amma, my idol, my mentor, my teacher, my best friend, how I admire your strength, your smile, your wisdom, your judgment, your resilience and your selflessness, how much you give without the expectation of anything in return. How do I become more like you? How can I absorb all that you know to know it for myself and share it as carefully as you do? What do I do next without your thoughtful guidance for both the big and small decisions? How do I celebrate my victories, mundane and mighty? Are you proud of me? How do I grant you your greatest wishes? What stories do you still need to tell me? I'm listening now and forever.

CHANG: Uttara Marti talking about her mother, Usha Subrahmanyam, who died in January from COVID-19.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T KNOW WHY")

JONES: (Singing) Drenched in wine. But you'll be on my mind forever. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.