Friday, January 25, 2013

A Death in Due Time

In Shobha and Suresh's lovely house in Bangalore, my mother gasps her last. She is in agony. The days have gone by very slowly. I reached here on 13th January morning, unannounced, because I had this gut feeling that my mother was hurrying to her death. I arrived by the Island Express, a name no longer used for a train, which tragically broke over a bridge many years ago, killing many people. My friends in Pallakad had got me an unreserved ticket since I had communicated incessant panic, and then managed to get me a reservation on it as well. Before catching the train to Bengaluru I spent one day calming down at my father's brother's house, and he and my aunt took me to Thalavadi, where my father's cousin had died. So I attended a funeral in an obscure village before leaving for Bangalore. I had not anticipated my mother's death, but I was being propelled to her bedside by a magnetic call which could have been the vestiges of the umbilical cord. She was 95 when she died, and I am 55.

When the end came, her breath started to rattle. It was like a gurgling sound in the lungs. For three days, I had kept her company. It was slow time. I would wipe her face and put cold cream. When On the last afternoon, I put Lacto Calamine, she became pleased, like a cat, for she had always used it in Delhi. I put her on the phone with my children and my son in law, and with a few of her friends. She could not speak with them as she used to even two weeks before her death, but she said "I am so happy to hear your voice." She said each of their names clearly. In the end, the unbearable pain was the only thing that was evident, the person, whom we knew had gone. My mother was tall, strong, vibrant and beautiful. Age made her cranky and autocratic occasionally. When she became bed ridden for two months, her desire to live dwindled completely. My sister and brother in law kept her very clean, and focussed their total attention on her, for her the physicality of the body was very important. She could not bear to be untidy or dirty. With the maids and my sister cleaning her and changing her, she felt her life had ended. She used to scrunch her eyes with the humiliation of it all, changing sheets, clothes, adult diapers. You could sense the anxiety and the tension twice a day when this was happening: powder, cream, ointment. Once the cleaning was done, everyone would rest, relieved it was over for a few hours. My sister would rush to school after the changing was done, for she is a principal of a school, then at 4 pm she would return and clean and change my mother again. Radhika, a Nepalese woman would massage my mother, and that calmed her and made her sleep during the day. She had in the last week started to refuse food and water, and when my sister called the Doctor, he told her that she would have to eat and drink as long as she was alive. She obediently ate half an ethika (those long yellow bannanas that Malayalis boil for breakfast) and mashed potato for milk for lunch, but it was too much of an effort.

When the end came her breath started to rattle. It was like a gurgling sound in the lungs.She was in pain. It was terrible. It was slow time.  Just two months ago after a fall she had been checked at the hospital, and all the tests showed she was normal, no damage to brain or bones...but she had never walked after that. The Director of the clinic came to see her the evening before she died. He took her pulse, checked her blood pressure, everything was normal, but he told Shobha that the end was nearing. We could see that, her bones were jutting out, her face was taking on the mask of death. How we remembered the mother who had brought us such love and comfort when we were small children. We used to wait for her and when she would return from office, she would have a cup of coffee and lie down and read a novel, before cooking the evening meal. Often when we were small, we would cuddle up with her. As we grew older, she would try to throw us out, saying "Girls of marriageable age!" but my sister's and my adulation of her was total.

At quarter to seven blood and  mucus started to flow from her mouth and nose. It was beyond us, we called the ambulance. She sat up in bed, quite alert, quite cool and with eyes oddly ablaze, she  said "Bye Bye!'. She seemed happy, not at all regretful, that she was dying. Her skin was warm and soft, decades of using cold cream and oils had kept it that way...even as death circled her, it was as if being anointed was important for her - a full life, a life without betrayals, or so she said.
The person who lay there dying was she really my mother? I had begun the process of detachment by staying away for a year, I had too many duties and obligations in Delhi. Yet, when the end came I could only appreciate the courage with which my sister and brother in law had met every physical need that my mother had, giving her food that she was used to, and enabling her to keep in touch with her clan members by telephone, and providing her with books and clean sheets and a constantly running tv.
The driver of the ambulance arrived at 7 pm, we were at Koshy's clinic in fifteen minutes, and with the oxygen mask on, my mother was rushed to the ICU. My sister and I waited downstairs. Then at 8 pm, they invited my sister and me to say goodbye. They had laid her out like Da Vinci's perfect human. Those bones which had become crooked with age and arthritis were now straight, her beautiful face in the oxygen mask, her chest expanded and contracted with every breath, her eyes open. We had hoped that she would die at home peacefully, but the last rattling breath went on and on, and I knew I wouldn't be able to handle it, witnessing this last bloody hour, as the lungs began to collapse and fluid began to pour out of her body. My mother knew what was happening to her, and she was aware that my sister's and my adoration was sufficient to tide her across to the next stage, called the afterlife. She had planned it all, to the last detail, including the  metabolic synchronisation, which had got me to Bangalore in  a second class sleeper coach from Kerala five days before  I was due to arrive. She had left a kashava sari, with incredible motifs of flowers woven in gold ( I have never seen a kashava so beautiful) and two lengths of separate gold bordered cloth) in her cupboard and these we gave to the Superintendant who promised to drape her in them for her funeral.
So we said goodbye to her on the 15th evening at 8 pm. It was Pongal the harvest festival, she was always a person who we associated with nature. Everything about her communicated a rurality, a vibrance, a great sense of order. When she was dying, those three days that I kept her company, she always had the clock with her. My sister says that the clock, the torch, the white handkerchief were her constant companions. When on the 14th night, I went to check on her at 2 pm, she had the light on, and the clock held close upto her eyes. The clock (Demeter and Chronos) meant everything to her. It was as if the Real lay in Time as measured. How much longer? She needed to know the time of her death, and yes, she needed to go to hospital, to die in comfort to hear the nurses running about, a doctor who understand that metabolism was a measurable thing, to  be able to give the final verdict. It was as if that chronometric world gave to her the sense that she was human and rational at the same time. Ofcourse the priest had given her final benediction the previous week, and my father's clan members with a newly married couple had sung prayers and hymns, so the last days of her life were completely clear of fear or anxiety.
At the hospital, she continually breathed in steady energetic lung pulling gasps till she died at 10.45. The hospital called us at 11 pm. I felt only gratitude that her suffering had ended. When I told her nephew in Kerala that she had suffered four hours, he said gently, "Four hours is nothing when it comes to suffering." My cousin had served his bedridden wife for twenty five years without a moment's regret.
When we reached home, after leaving her in the ICU at 8 pm, my brother in law was aghast when he saw we came without her. He wept for all of us, on behalf of all of us, since he had kept guard over her for three and a half year, both of them reading books from the same circulating library, and eating their meals together. For him it was the loss of a serene and constant presence in the house. Chippy the dog, wept and didn't eat for two days. After the funeral, which happened a day later, since my father's brother was insistent that he wished to be present with the other clan members in Bangalore, my sister went back to work and I went to Ramanasram for three days to recover.