Even in his late sixties, my father made trips on his bike from Bangalore to his home town 70kms outside the city almost every month to see his aging mother.
Being a rough-and-tumble sort of guy, he often overlooked his diabetes, blood pressure and diet. A self-made man with a passion for education, travel and religion, he wasn’t going to let age get in the way of bike rides, temples, conferences and tours. If meeting interesting people and places required traveling long distances, so be it.
His last much enjoyed solo trip in December 2016 was to the Andamans just days before the islands were hit by cyclone Vardah. Close shave! After all, traveling didn’t wear him out. It rejuvenated him. My late mother had predicted, “When he dies, he’ll die on the move.”
On the morning of May 23rd, 2017, at the age of sixty eight, my dad was sweeping the stairs outside his home with a broom, a thin cotton towel over his shoulders and a white vest and panche (sarong) around his waist, inspite of having been advised to avoid any physical activity after his heart attack a few weeks before. Feeling tired and breathless, he went indoors before he could finish, and later that night someone had to call an ambulance to drive him to the hospital, just a stone’s throw away. But dad never made it. Opening the ambulance door for him after the ride, the doctors found that he was no longer alive.
To lose a family member or friend unexpectedly is always a shock. True, it can also be a blessing, if he or she is elderly, and has lived a fulfilled life.
Surely most people, if they were allowed to choose, would elect to die as dad did – quickly. But few go that way. For most, the end comes gradually.
Dying almost always involves a hard struggle. Part of it is fear, which is often rooted in uncertainty of the unknown and unknowable future. Part of it may be the urge to fulfill unmet obligations or to be relieved of past regrets or guilt. But part of it is also our natural resistance to the thought that everything we know is coming to an end. Call it survival instinct, the will to live, or whatever – it is a powerful primal force.
Savitha, my late cousin, had a stroke when she was 12 due to a simple tonsillitis op gone wrong. She lost her sight, ability to talk, was bedridden, and confined to one room most of the time. Still, this “tough little bird” who liked to shock visitors by recognizing their voice and laughing out loud had more sparkle than many people with all their faculties intact. In resisting death with every fiber of her being, and her loving parents by her side, she literally kept herself alive till she was 32 years old.
Then there was my mom, the fourth of six siblings, who was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 55 and an aggressive metastasized cancer when she was 59. The first time around, she got back on her feet quickly. The second time was somewhat different.
Within days this lively cracker of a person who loved to walk, dress up, go to the laughter club, socialize, play, sing, act and travel with her lady friends found herself confined to a bed. Soon afterward, she lost her appetite, a lot of weight, her beautiful hair and needed help to get up and walk to the bathroom. My mom wept, then pulled herself together and asked for a supportive railing to be fitted in the loo so she could get up on her own. “I’ll be walking by November – just wait and see,” she promised me. Later she went too weak to get out of bed. Again she refused to be cowed, and continued to force herself to eat healthy and get strong, attend social events, listen to her favorite music and pray anyway.
Determined and plucky, my mom didn’t die of cancer so much as fight it until the end.
With the will to live, a person can overcome unbelievable odds. But death cannot be forestalled forever, and eventually physical life must draw to a close. Strangely, most cultures resists this truth. My dad was a member of Dignity Foundation in Bangalore, where hundreds of senior citizens congregate regularly to talk, share, sing, travel, dance, date, marry, practice yoga, exercise, and laugh – old age need not be a curse after all.
I would never begrudge the aged a chance to have fun or “live life to the full.” I encouraged my widower dad to meet ladies and even set up matrimonial accounts for him – he missed my mom too much and really craved for companionship more than anything else.
My mom and dad always did things together and having put their life on hold till retirement to travel and enjoy life – my dad just couldn’t accept the blow dealt to him by fate. My mom passed away at 60, just when my parents had finally started to relax, travel and enjoy themselves. I remember their last trip together to see the Taj Mahal on Valentine’s Day in 2010 – like two snap-happy, love-struck, much-in-love teenagers wanting to see, wear, eat and experience as much as they could on their short trip to the monument of love.
My mom often spoke about death because in her childhood famine and disease decimated whole villages and towns, and sooner or later every family was touched. Babies routinely died in infancy, and sometimes their mothers were lost with them. She never lived as if death did not exist.
Nowadays, thanks to modern medicine, improved nutrition, public sanitation, and greater life expectancy, death no longer seems such an unavoidable reality. And when we can’t avoid it, we try to hide it. Health clubs are a booming industry, as are nutrition and health food stores. We treat physical health like a religion. Meanwhile we wall off death’s blunt reminders – mortuaries, intensive care units, cemeteries.
My mom had shielded me from hospitals and any deaths in the family – I wish she hadn’t. The first time I ever saw a person ill or pass away was her.
I had to read so much on how to comfort the terminally ill when she was ill. She was talkative and nervous one minute, but quiet and sullen another, and completely distraught the next. She got depressed, tried to bargain with God to let her live another year or two. These were all normal responses, and none of them was right or wrong. After all, dying is a complex process and involves the entire tangled spectrum of human emotions – dread, anxiety and exhaustion; hope and relief. And these feelings affected not just her, but me too. Beyond a certain point my mom’s struggle to live became about prolonging dying, instead of extending life. The line between the two was often very fine.
My mom soon felt lonely, because people didn’t visit. She had chosen not to disclose to anyone that she had cancer, not even her siblings. She thought it was like accepting defeat if she did – she wanted to get better and then tell them. Her world shrank, narrowing to a few important relationships – my dad, me, my brother and the progress of her illness. When she couldn’t talk about what’s happening to her, she became lonely, even amid loving, concerned people. She even said she felt isolated and abandoned, and in turn became resentful and angry – saying things like, ‘you are all just waiting for me to die.’
I’ve learned that when adult children live/gather at the home of a dying parent, they just as often clash as harmonize. And when wills and inheritances are involved, even carefully hidden tensions may explode into the open. I feel very sad and hurtful to live through the manipulation and the things my brother said and did during both my parents illness/death.
The only good thing about her terminal illness was that I had a chance to hear her tell me how much she loved me, and wished me well for my future. She told me about the things I should do, how she wants me to live, how she wants me to take care of myself, stuff I must focus on, people I must avoid and so on. Months later she was gone. During the last few days of her life, my mom’s breathing became more labored and she was asleep on a morphine drip. About three days later, she took her last breath.
My dad, on the other hand, was unable to say goodbye. When he had fallen ill a month before his passing, I didn’t even know. When the end came, however, it came so quickly. I was deeply disappointed, and even felt guilty for not checking on him earlier.
When my parents’ lives drew to a close, everything – no matter how important it once seemed to be – fell away. And when they were gone, nothing mattered.
I cannot look into my parents’ hearts; nor is it my place to worry about how they stand before God. But in opening my eyes and ears to what they went through, I could share their suffering by letting it become mine, and I can pray that they find each other and peace. I looked at them…and gave them hope; I held their hands in mine. And I trust and hope that mightier arms than ours will receive them and give them the peace and joy they desire.
Till we meet again Mummy and Daddy! Lots of love.