I stood anxiously inside the ICU while my brother spoke to the doctor on duty to confirm that his report explicitly stated that our mom’s death was non-COVID related. Without that report, we had been told that we would run into issues with the city. My brother scrambled to get the report of the COVID-19 test that was taken a few days ago while our spouses tried to book the earliest slot in the crematorium to minimize contact with other mourners. My mom had just died after a five-week struggle in the hospital but dealing with the pandemic took precedence over our grieving process.
As condolence messages started pouring in, a common thread ran through them: “How fortunate that you got to spend the last five months with your mom!” “You must be so grateful!” “The COVID-19 lockdown was a blessing in disguise for you.” “You’re so lucky.” I thought I heard a note of jealousy in one octogenarian’s voice but soon I realized it was just fear: “Your mother was so blessed. How lucky she was surrounded by her family!” Another message sounded very bizarre when I first heard. “You must be thankful that she did not die during the lockdown. We could not scatter the ashes of my father in the river Cauvery because of travel restrictions.” Rarely, these messages and conversations dwelt on my loss or my grief.
In February, when the Coronavirus infections were still in single digits in Silicon Valley, my mom was hospitalized in Bangalore and I left for India. My mom came home after a few days. I had a return ticket for a date in March but my instincts were against returning to the US. Then India went into a countrywide lockdown, and all international flights got canceled. I got to spend the next five months with my mom, taking care of her, listening to her desires, her fears and her view of how her life had fared. We played cards, listened to music and discussed recipes.
During this pandemic, some of my friends in the US lost their loved ones in India and were unable to attend the funeral in India. Some in India were also unable to travel to the funeral of their loved ones. There are so many obstacles: lack of flights, travel restrictions and quarantine rules. One friend had to ask a neighbor to take care of the funeral of a loved one. The most harrowing ones I heard were from people who lost their loved ones to COVID-19 and did not get to say their final goodbyes. There were sons who could not perform the last rites. A friend, sobbing uncontrollably, told me that she did not get to bathe and dress her mother, a daughter’s duty after the mother’s death. This coronavirus has not only killed people and financially ruined many but also has left survivors suffering from guilt and having trouble getting closure. Hence, I do understand the significance of the condolence messages I received. Besides getting time to spend with our mom, my brother and I got to do our last duties, which have become increasingly challenging during this pandemic.
It has been a few weeks and I am home now. Some nights I wake up in a state of panic, struck by the finality of my mom’s death and it feels like someone is sitting on my chest. The other day, when I was sitting at the dining table, I thought my mom would have liked to know who brought us food on the day of her funeral, since cooking is not allowed in the house. That is the kind of question she would have asked me and I would have told her that someone whom she cared about deeply brought us food. As days pass by, often I find something I would have shared with her – a recipe or a song by a rising young singer or a visit by a friend or a relative — on our regular weekly phone calls and I grasp the impossibility of communicating with her and have trouble breathing. I feel the vacuum in my life. None of the positive things people said comfort me. Grief does not care about logic and reason. I have lost a relationship, the longest one of my life, and I do not feel fortunate.
Anandi Lakshmikanthan is a retired software engineer. She is a co-founder of Sevalaya USA. She tutors refugee women and children. She has written short stories and reviews.