As is my norm, I woke up a little while ago. Around 4.00am. It is a Wednesday morning. My two mugs of chai ready and at peace with the sound of silence. The silence will last a while longer, by when I hope to wrap this dispatch up. How it ends up, whether I actually send it out, or whether it will even be written, I don’t know. As things are, a rather grim picture was conveyed to me by my friend and family physician around midday yesterday.
The first time I had attempted a dispatch like this was around 18 months ago, from the intensive care unit where dad had been taken after a stroke. The prognosis sounded grim and the physician attending to him as unambiguous.
That said, for all my philosophical differences with dad, it compelled me to step back and look at life from his perspective and the times he lived in. When looked at from there, I felt grateful for all of what he gave me.
Then there was this once when he had to be wheeled in again. The story was much the same. And despite the hospital being unwilling to let him go, all of us at home were clear that the sterile environs of a hospital would not do.
Much water has passed under the bridge over these months. An ecosystem of sorts has come to breathe around this semi-comatose man who lingers in Bardo as articulated by the Tibetans, or in Purgatory as his Catholic faith defines it. I am no authority in theology and can be challenged. But this is my limited understanding of where he now lies.
My intent is not to delve on the philosophical moorings, but on the ecosystem. Every morning, on the dot at 8.00am, the doorbell rings and a nurse walks in. Come hell or high water, festival or domestic problem, she’s there. My little girls are comfortable with her, and over time, she has grown to be fiercely protective about them.
She is now as much part of our home as any member of the family is. She spends most of her waking hours with us. She is the one who knows most about dad’s physical condition; the one mum has gotten used talking to most often because they are more or less of the same age; and perhaps share the same set of concerns.
When in doubt about what her son ought to do, she sends him to me. When in distress, she shares it in confidence with my wife.
Yesterday morning, though, I thought I spotted a tear run down her cheek when she walked in and started talking about her routine of checking dad’s vitals. She called my wife and me aside and told us quietly that his time has come. I asked of her what is to be done next.
“Nothing,” she said in the quiet Marathi we talk to each other in. “You can call the doctor if you want to an opinion,” she added.
“Hmmm…” I muttered. I had more pressing things to handle. Like calls to make for a complex story I have been obsessed with for a while now, potential contracts to be signed, fine print to be pored over. Life, after all, has to go on. And death is a part of it.
A little later, my wife called me aside and asked me if I’m doing okay or in denial. Because a little before the nurse walked in, the attendant who spends his nights at home, from the time dad had been admitted to the hospital, told me first thing in the morning was that dad’s time to go had come.
“And how do you know?” I asked him.
“I’m not a doctor,” he told me. “But I’ve worked at a hospital all my life. And I know when a man is dying. Good thing if he dies. His misery will be over,” he said as a matter of fact. I reported the conversation to my wife and brother.
Over the past 18 months, dad’s night attendant and I have come to bond in a rather interesting way. The first thing I do when I wake up is brew the both of us chai. Two mugs for me. A small cup for him. He tells me I make lovely chai.
But he likes black tea first thing. And every morning I tell him “Screw you, either you have my chai or make yourself black tea the way you want it.” The both of us laugh a bit, crack a few jokes, and get on with our routines.
Each night, a little after the nurse leaves, he comes home to spend the night. Like her, he has become a part of this ecosystem.
My younger one waits for him because she likes what his wife cooks. And he makes it a point to bring a little portion of his dinner for her. It’s pretty much part of her daily routine and they seem to enjoy it.
Yesterday morning, though, things were different. He looked different. Even as I started my routine, he walked into the kitchen and, the devout Catholic that he is, asked me to call in the parish priest to administer the Last Sacrament. That triggered the earlier conversation I articulated.
I muttered “not again” and asked him whether it’ll be my chai or he’ll make his black tea. He didn’t argue. “Whatever,” he said. “But call the priest.”
A little after the nurse walked in and, based on her observations and jottings, confirmed what he said. Albeit in more technical terms. “If you want to call in the doctor, call him in. Your call.”
“What do you think?” I asked my wife. Our family physician spends the first half of the day at a hospital and is unavailable during those hours. “Let’s wait for him to get free,” she suggested.
“In any case he’s had a few close brushes in the past,” she added. “This could be another one. Maybe these guys are being a little too careful. Let’s wait for a more informed opinion.”
A little later, after he was done at the hospital, the doctor came in to take a look, and his prognosis followed. It was in line with what the attendant and the nurse thought. But explained well.
“It’s going to be slow. But this looks like it.”
“You’ve always maintained that. What do you mean this time?”
“He’s pretty much gone. Practically brain dead. He is now in coma. The pupils aren’t dilating in response to light. The urine output is negligible and the swollen body means his renal system has begun to fail. But he can’t feel pain.”
“I still don’t get it. What do you mean slow?”
“I’d say 72 hours on the outside. Stop all medications. His kidney’s cannot process anything, any more. Reduce his liquid feeds from 2,500ml to 2,000ml. Let the nurse take a call depending on what she thinks is right.”
“It’s happened before. He’s come out. What’s different now?”
“I’m just a doctor. I can only tell you what I can see. If I were you, I’d let him go. To be a vegetable for as long as he has been is not worth it. Let go.”
“Can you drop me back to the clinic? I’ve got a few patients waiting.”
“Sure thing. Not a problem.”
How could he be so sure it would be 72 hours on the outside I wondered?
I eventually managed to connect with Dr Rajat Chauhan, a close friend and a columnist at Mint. He put things in perspective: “It is a physician’s assessment basis his diagnosis and the statistical evidence that supports the diagnosis. He may be on or off the mark by some time. But accept it and move on.”
I got the point.
My brother and sister-in-law dropped everything and got on their way to Mumbai. I thought it only appropriate that my dad and mum’s siblings know. I texted a few close friends that if help may be needed, I’ll call them.
I told my driver and man Friday not to switch his phone off and to be on call if I need him at any hour and to go home. He declined. I insisted. I couldn’t see the point of him hanging around when nothing was needed of him. He might as well go home and rest in much the same way I need to get back to work. Oftentimes, I can get good at compartmentalizing, and got down to doing what I have to do.
The way I look at it, the only person who needed to be cared for was mum. She needed to be prepared the fact that her spouse with whom she had spent all of her best years was on his way out. And it was best if my brother and I had a conversation with her. But I guess she intuitively knew.
Until out of no place a steady stream of visitors started pouring in. To put it bluntly, a farcical affair. All of them looked horribly solemn. I suspect mum may have called some friends and, unwittingly, they may have called everybody else.
In spite of pleadings by everyone at home to be nice to all of those who came calling, I declined to participate in what I thought a farce.
The way I saw them, they were doing what is seen as the “right thing” to do.
To my mind the right thing was the ecosystem that had evolved around our family over the 18 or so months.
The domestic help at home, for instance, dropped everything they had planned for Dussehra and stayed put. Over the 10-odd years they have been at home with us, they are as much part of our family as any member is.
My closest friends and colleagues were in the loop and didn’t insist on paying a visit to look solemn. But I know I can count on them when push comes to shove. I don’t need anybody to look solemn and “offer support”.
But our traditions are such, it insists tributes ought to be paid to a departing or departed soul. I can’t care less. Like I said, I had a story to investigate, calls to make, emails to answer and much fine print to go over.
Life has to go on. Death is part of it. And an imminent one at that. Why make a big deal of it?
My wife told me late in the night that the nurse attending to dad is the only earning member of her family. I’ve known that for a long time. But over the many months that she’s been the primary caregiver to dad, she confessed to my wife, she has gotten emotionally attached to him and our family.
So, in spite, of her economic compulsions, and in spite of knowing what medical evidence tells her, she does not intend to take up another assignment. It turns out that she needs time to get over her bonding with dad, my kids and her being part of what is my home. It isn’t only the money that keeps her going.
For a man who starts his days at 4am, 11pm is a late hour. The eyes were beginning to droop. But my younger girl, who is now four and a half, wouldn’t let me be until we had shared our secrets for the day and exchanged notes.
“Dada, can we take daddy (my girls call dad that) for a picnic when he is fine? Daddy looks so tired.”
I didn’t know what to tell a girl as little as that daddy will never be fine again.
The best answer an atheist could come up with was “Some angels want to take daddy for a picnic baby. So we’ll have to wait.”
“Oh! Dada, can I talk to them? I’ll give them my chocolates if they let me be with daddy for some more time and take him out.”
“They’ve been waiting for a long time baby. They’re friends of his, you know.”
“Angels don’t like chocolates?”
“I don’t know. Maybe they do.”
“I’ll give them my chocolates if they let daddy stay.”
My eyes drooped as she snuggled close to me. For the first time I felt a tear run down my cheek. And the lines from a song I’d almost forgotten existed started to play in my head.
I’m sittin’ here with my kids and my wifeAnd everything that I hold dear in my lifeWe say grace and thank the LordGot so much to be thankful for
Then it’s up the stairs and off to bed and my little girl says “I haven’t had my story yet.” And everything weighin’ on my mind disappears just like that When she lifts her head off her pillow and says, “I Love You Dad”
I don’t know why they say grown men don’t cry I don’t know why they say grown men don’t cry
Dad died on Friday morning. Life goes on.
Charles Assisi is co-founder of Founding Fuel Publishing.
His Twitter handle is @c_assisi
Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org