The author can’t help seeing the death of her father as wilful desertion.
My dad is a self-made man. A strong, active, rational person who lives for others. This is true except for the tense; the “is” is now “was”. After 10 wordless days on ventilator following a massive stroke, he left an early a.m. in September.
Those 10 days and nights, my brother and I often escaped to the hospital canteen for tea. “Too sweet,” we kept saying, not once mentioning the ICU. When docs asked about brain surgery or dialysis for dad we would start off by saying “no” and end up nodding, for the alternative of losing him right away was unthinkable. The idea was to keep him going despite the laboured breathing and resolutely shut eyes.
The first time we saw him like that was not easy. But that day he also squeezed our hands with his right functional hand, so that hope flew high. It didn’t matter what the doctors said — they were bound to be cynical. We shooed away a priest; “If he sees you, he will think he is dying or something.”
A minute in the morning, a minute in the evening was all we got with dad. Two minutes in 24 hours. And we could go in only one at a time. If I saw him one morning, then my brother saw him that evening and mother saw him next morning, I saw him only next evening. Sixty seconds to get him to show some sign he was still with us. “He moved his foot,” I would say, “he moved his toe.” But in their records, this patient never tossed, never turned.
It rained continuously those days so that visitors landed up drenched and frowning. Most felt we should go for a second opinion, shift him to another hospital, take him abroad. One said: “If it was my father I’d take him home.”They thought we were doing nothing.
Meanwhile, my brother and I strategised the daily monologue for his bedside, knowing he would be worried over where he was, what was happening to him, mom’s state of mind... We peppered the speech with cheery plans, downplaying his condition. “They are running some tests as you felt dizzy. You are sedated so don’t try to talk.”
I’d joke, hoping he was laughing inside, and then I’d sing into his right, working, ear a song he loved. This was tough as his favourite songs were old Malayalam ones with lyrics we had to Google. In the hushed atmosphere of the ICU, surrounded by the semi-conscious or comatose, to sing badly a song you’ve never sung before, hoping your dad is listening… at the time it seemed the most natural thing to do.
We blinked moronically when told dad had five more minutes left. He was the most fighting-fit 79-year-old ex-military man we knew. Five? We stared at him blankly, sure we could reach him if only we knew how. That’s all we were missing, a mode of communication. Of course, we still hoped. His palm had paled and intubation dipped his chest but any minute we expected him to jump up smiling. We thought how he would apologise for the scare he gave us. This was just grown-up peek-a-boo.
The man who showed us the same movie twice so we could study the extras or a minor character. Had a barber come home first Sunday every month to give us a crew-cut. Long hair, jewellery, talcum, kohl, posh clothes — he had declared war on these. As a family, we were vain about not being vain.
Then he came off the ventilator. Dad was demoted to dead and there was not a thing we could do about it.
A funeral manager whisked dad off for a shave and bath. The hour we waited for dad to be beautified we were back at the canteen for tea, thinking about what a doctor had said. That the day he was brought in, dad had pleaded not to be hooked on to anything that would prolong his life artificially.
I travelled with dad in the ambulance. We both maintained silence, a deeply offended one on my part. I was thinking about my funeral phobia; I had managed to evade every funeral until then. My best friend at the age of five, three grandparents, an aunt and sundry friends and neighbours; none had me condoling live at the burial. So this was my first funeral. Also, all the ones I had seen were in Bollywood films, where pristine white covers the corpse and the bereaved, a haunting melody plays and a cute little pot is tipped delicately into the Ganges. Most of all, one knew the dear departed would get up and die in another film. A Syrian Christian funeral in Kerala does not play out like that.
The mobile mortuary kept dad fresh in our drawing room, ready to greet guests. Nuns placed roses on his chest and head. Since the funeral was next noon, the whole night was spent praying by his side. The front door was open (it can be locked only after the funeral) and no tea was boiled at home. There was a continuous stream of visitors, including strangers who wandered in out of curiosity and pointed at dad like tourists would at artifacts. Neighbours pitched in seamlessly, used to the rhythm of departures. I could see what dad meant when he’d once said why he wouldn’t move out of Kochi to live with me in Bangalore or my brother in Auckland: “We know how to help each other. I am too old to set up home elsewhere and begin this lovely circle of friendships again. It takes a lifetime.”
From the moment he froze on his chair that fateful morning to the last splash of earth on his coffin, there was no dearth of those who wanted to be there for him.
After the third-day service in the church, we slept. For two days straight we slumbered as if drugged. And woke to the implacable hard fact of his disappearance. I hated and still hate to pick up the phone and have someone commiserate because that makes his going that much more unyielding. We can’t see his death as anything less than wilful desertion. We made a little collage of his happy snapshots, too tired to swap stories. We throw the collage an angry look now and then.
I know how life works. I understand why a man almost 80 can drop dead. But I also need to know how is he, where is he. I want to tell him everything about the funeral: who came, what they said about him and the haunting naval bugle. And how there is no one in my corner now.