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Waiting to inhale: The curious incidence of tears and laughter at death

It was the call I had imagined receiving when I was in high school, in college, during the early years of my marriage. I would wake up in bed startled, sweating, scared. But when I did finally hear my mother’s fear-filled tone, in the middle of the day, there was another version of me that answered that call. I was calm, clinical. I put the phone down, booted up my desktop and began looking for flights from San Francisco to Bangalore, leaving immediately. I called my brother in Philadelphia and we talked about our travel plans. Then I dialed my husband. And, finally, I allowed myself to slump against the wall in my kitchen as I gathered my nine-year old twins on my lap and rocked back and forth with their warm breaths mingling with mine, inhaling together.

My father had been ailing for a long time. He’d had several strokes and, twice when I had visited him, he had fallen down and lost consciousness in front of me. I had spent hours at nursing homes mediating triage arguments between my brother, a pulmonologist and a critical care physician, and the unfortunate doctors who had been assigned my father’s thick medical file. Perhaps it was this that had chipped away at the terror that resided deep underneath. Or perhaps it was the fact that I’d experienced the loss so many times over in my sleep.

My brother and I met at Heathrow airport and as we were about to board our last leg to India, we were told that the two of us had been selected for an upgrade. I wanted to refuse. If the credit side of life was notching up a rung, it could mean that a substantial debit was owed. Unless I could convince myself that an upgrade was a debit. “Primitive superstition lies just below the surface of even the most tough-minded individuals, and it is precisely those who most fight against it who are the first to succumb to its suggestive effects,” I summoned up my father’s voice quoting Carl Jung.

When we landed in Bangalore, the night sky was just beginning to splinter apart and splotches of dull light cast the city in sepulchral relief. From oyster colored shop shutters to slate colored half-finished fly-overs, and heathered pavements, it was a viscera of grey. The pulse of the city — its people — was beating but faintly.

My mother greeted us and gave us a blow-by-blow of what had happened. “One minute he was walking to the bathroom, and then suddenly there was a loud noise as his leg buckled, his walking stick clattered to the floor, and he lay there unresponsive,” she related. The neighbours helped her call an ambulance. At the nursing home, the doctor had told my mother that he was in a coma, unlikely to awaken and she had brought him back home.

Two of my aunts stood silently by listening to my mother’s recollections. Both of them had come as soon as they’d heard the news. By now they’d listened to the same story multiple times, I imagined. My mother then went back to the kitchen and I could smell the sambhar boiling on the gas stove.

My father lay on his bed, in his room, and it appeared as though he was asleep, his mouth crookedly slung half open. I watched my brother pick up our father’s limp hand and I saw him dilating his half open eyes just as the strident whistle of the cooker amplified the silence in the house.

“He was waiting for you to come,” one of my aunts whispered into my ear, as she came to stand next to me. I nodded, not sure if she meant me or both my brother and I. I touched my father’s still inhaling body, willing him to know that I was there, to get up and call out my name, stretching out the first “a” the way only he could.

For the next few days, my brother and I waited for our father to take his last rattling breath. Neighbours came and went, cousins dropped by, friends showed up. My father held on. At night, my brother and I took turns sitting by his bed. I went through the books in his library, relishing that his hands had once turned the same pages, his eyes had read the same words I was reading, pausing at some, skimming past others.

One night, five days into our vigil, I was reading by his bed, when I felt a frisson of awareness. My father’s face had turned inexplicably toward me and his eyes were staring directly at me, into me. He blinked once, but kept his gaze steady. I ran to wake my brother up. When we re-entered, my father’s face was still looking at where I had been sitting. As we leaned in, tears seeped out of the corners of my father’s eyes making crooked tracks down his wonderfully familiar face. I looked at my brother, stupefied, hopeful. My brother picked up our father’s wrist and felt for his pulse. Then he moved his finger in front of his pupils. Several times. The eighty-year-old eyes that had looked at me with lambent awareness just a moment ago were now vacant, dull, unblinking. My brother shook his head sadly. “But the tears?” I asked. They continued to roll down my father’s face.

It is now almost exactly twelve years since my father died, and I’ve begun to forget a lot of things that happened before and after that day, but I still recall my father’s eyes observing me and I’m convinced that he blinked, though my brother’s rationale for the tears seemed reasonable, too. “If the eyes don’t blink for a long time, then the body sometimes reacts by forcing tears to leak out,” he explained.

Two days later, my father exhaled for the last time. His heart stopped beating on the 19th of January, exactly a month before my birthday — the number 19 was always too special, it seems.

The house rapidly burgeoned with people — kind people, sad people, commiserating people. Someone said something sweet and innocuous and unexpected laughter bubbled out and burst into life, swirling into the room, startling the guests. My mother approached quickly and said softly, “what will the neighbours think? Your father just died.”

My father was an atheist, so there were no last rites. “Why can’t I do that?” I asked watching my brother and three others balance my father’s arthi on their shoulders as they prepared to take him to the crematorium, while my mother wept noisily. Both my aunts looked kindly at me, “this is what he would have liked,” one of them said, pointing at the men.

Besides my brother, the men carrying my father were my cousin Mohan – a Hindu, a friend, Rehman – Muslim, and Raju, my father’s caretaker — Christian. She was right. I let my laughter rip one more time. Even in death he had the last word.

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Printable version | Apr 13, 2021 3:45:06 AM |

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