Healing and the wheel of life
Life ends when you have learned everything you are supposed to learn, wrote Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
Growing up means that there isn’t always time to pause when you need to cry desperately. You learn to postpone tears. The tears get stored up and come at unexpected moments. Safe moments. I welled up at an award ceremony last week and a friend who saw me from the stage sent me a text message to ask what was wrong. Through my tears I was amused at the idea that he was both hosting the show and sending texts to people in the front row.
“You multitask like a woman,” I was tempted to bait him, but I didn’t. “Just pent-up tears,” I texted back, hoping to make sense.
I went home to meet my mother on my way back from work one day and told her that I had come to cry.
“Can’t cry at home,” I told her. “No time, no space.”
She seemed to understand. She fed me first. Food that I once used to find ordinary is now the most reassuring, nurturing taste in the world for me.
“You don’t get old and die, okay,” I said to her.
“Of course I will,” she said, almost laughing. “Beta, this is going to happen to everyone.” She was so calm about it. Like it was some great new phase or something. Her serenity pacified me.
At home, my husband and I are taking care of his father as he recovers from a spinal fracture and other assorted age-related illnesses. In the last two months we have become mini-experts—visiting specialists, reading online, balancing alternative and mainstream therapies, listening to everyone and taking decisions with our fingers crossed.
While we juggle hospital, school and work schedules, our lives are being micro-managed by Kanta and Taslimun at home. Kanta speaks the rough Gujjar dialect of west Uttar Pradesh (UP) and lives in a village near our home. Taslimun speaks the Bhojpuri of east UP and has travelled with Papa to take care of him. Often we hear peals of laughter as the women bond over tea and share stories from each other’s families and villages.
It amuses me that most of Papa’s super-specialized doctors are either my age or younger. I hadn’t quite noticed before that the world around us has gotten much younger than us.
Despite his discomfort, Papa is a model patient. Even when he is extremely irritated, his language remains polite. As soon as his pain subsides, he jokes with us, completely putting everyone at ease. He obsesses over everyone’s schedules, reminding us about all the appointments and commitments of the day. I remember that he continues to play both his own and his late wife’s role in our lives.
Then there are Papa’s visitors. It’s like a whole cross-section of India has been walking in and out of our home, pausing to advise Papa and us in their own unique way. As we host visitors who have come from far away, our home has become a hub of get-togethers. There are poets and politicians, family and other well-wishers. Papa misses being at home in our village in Ghazipur, and a house full of people reassures him.
Despite your reluctance, you are well on the way to becoming the family matriarch, I laugh at myself. I send photos of Papa to all his children. Papa drinking tea from a cup without assistance. Papa sitting outside in the courtyard in the evening. Papa at the dining table with everyone. It may last for 20 minutes but each milestone asks to be celebrated.
The outside world continues to bring in its regular doses of tragic news. Photographs of a man bloodied from beatings begging for his life before he is lynched in the presence of policemen in Jharkhand. A bomb blast at a concert in Manchester. Even though his eye infection is healed and he has new glasses, Papa has refused to resume reading the newspapers.
In the midst of it all, our daughters left for week-long school trips. We patted ourselves on the back for the minor achievement of being able to drop them off in time to catch their early morning Shatabdi trains with their schoolmates.
I have pulled out my copy of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ memoir, The Wheel Of Life, and carry it everywhere with me. I read it when I am waiting outside the physiotherapy room in the hospital where Papa is learning to get back on his feet again. Within weeks, he has moved from being on the stretcher to the wheelchair to using a walker for support.
Life ends when you have learned everything you are supposed to learn, wrote Kübler-Ross as she tried to find meaning in the suffering her mother endured when she was paralysed in her last few years.
Chapter 30 in Kübler-Ross’ memoir of living and dying is titled “Death Does Not Exist”. Just the title consoles me. I have announced to my family that for my birthday, I want all of Kübler-Ross’ other books—especially her groundbreaking On Death And Dying, in which she first talked about the five stages of grief.
This stage in our adult life when we are the parents of young children and the children of ageing parents is fascinating. As we slip from one role into another, I would have imagined that we would be totally stressed out and exhausted and sometimes we are, but I must admit that I also feel calm and in control. I feel important. It’s a privilege and I am grateful.
Last week, Papa’s son decided to resume his work-related travels.
“Papa, who will you prefer that I hand over charge to? Should I give the responsibility of taking care of your needs to Naseem or Natasha?” he asked Papa. Naseem is our nine-year-old youngest daughter.
“You are asking me as if there is a difference between Naseem and Natasha,” said Papa in his slow morning voice. “Naseem is Natasha and Natasha is Naseem.”
“Yay for Papa,” I said, marvelling at his wisdom. This is really all I need to keep going. One line at a time that hits the bull’s eye.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three. She tweets at @natashabadhwar