He had written across the top, “A parent can only be as happy as their saddest child.” I had read this before, but I felt my heart shatter into a million little pieces. The date on the little notepaper was May 2009. Unbeknownst to anyone, including him, that would be his last year.
Both, my brother and I, had immigrated and carved out our present in America. Still, Dada’s eyes looked west, following our progress and trying to guide us. Like most young adults, we found this cloying and were exasperated by his advice. We tried to explain it to him, my brother in his gentle, circuitous way, and me as direct as a rhino. Dada listened, but as always, stayed true to his beliefs. We tried to shed him, like skin, yet he stayed so close like an essence.
Then came the phone call that one dreads. In June 2010, a neighbor called to say that Dada had been hospitalized and was really sick. Our lives began to unravel at the seams. My brother and I flitted between the United States and India, as regularly as if it were a work commute. Playing tag team and coping.
This was not how we had imagined this eventuality. Dada was so particular about his walking, balanced diet, and perfect schedule. In contrast my mother, Aai, always ailed, hounded by her hydrocephaly. Like a willful child, she ate, drank and slept erratically. We chanted these thoughts helplessly, like a mantra, and watched the disease grip and alter him. In the privacy of his room, he sat sad, lost, and diffident. But in the presence of visitors, he hauled out his big personality.
Indeed, he was so persuasive that everyone was convinced that he was “fine.” Only then I understood how Dada’s personality always eclipsed everything else, filling the space around him with his energy. So much so that no one, including my brother who left home at 17, saw how much Aai’s hydrocephaly affected our mother’s life.
Dada’s decline was sudden and gave us no time to come to terms with it. I don’t think Dada had come to terms with it either —he was always so positive that I can almost describe him as ebullient. But in those last six months, my brother or I would catch him despondent, and pained. He had lost what he did best—taking hard decisions and standing by them.
We realized, quickly, the difficulty of managing two ill parents from another continent, so we moved them into a senior facility in Pune. For our fiercely independent Dada, and diehard Mumbaikar Aai this was emotionally unacceptable. We were criticized by family, friends, and even servants. We don’t blame them. Perhaps this is also a form of love … But given our circumstances, my brother and I had little choice …
Dada stayed in the apartment for two days, before he moved back into the hospital. By the time the hematologist confirmed the disease, organs had begun to fail. My brother and I signed the DNR (Do Not Resuscitate), knowing that Dada would not want any invasive procedures. This is the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life. Ever. I suspect it is the same for my brother.
After Dada passed away, we got down to the business of caring for Aai. Initially she resisted staying in the senior community, but little by little she made it hers simply by her presence. It took her almost three years, and when she stopped talking about her “real home” and gave up railing against the senior apartment, we sensed that she was letting go of everything. It was one step at a time, slow and steady, very much in keeping with the rhythm of her own life through the years. She passed away without a ripple, gently and calmly. The memory of her sitting on her favorite couch is etched into our minds.
It was only after she passed away last year, that my brother and I have had the respite to mourn them both. I suspect that almost all of us who live abroad share similar experiences. Since our parents’ passing, we have shed their stuff little by little, step by step. And then, just as one thinks that all physical connections no longer remain, one stumbles upon a mini notepad paper … This connection I will preserve. Maybe I’ll read it out to my brother on Father’s Day and we’ll smile.
Vrinda Kirloskar has been a lecturer, tech writer, and fitness instructor. She currently runs her own Pilates Reformer studio in Cupertino. She is interested in people, their perspectives, and in fostering compassion and kindness.