The year 2021 started with high hopes that COVID-19 will vanish as it came. Vaccines were found with competing forces by various multi-national companies. A few failed to take off, a few of them showed some promising hope and some are still on the drawing board stage of development. Ultimately, we are now gripped with new variants of the Virus trying to show its ugly head, shutting the people indoors. Our grandchildren used to sing, “Rain, rain go away….Come again another day.” With COVID, they have slightly modified it with their creative ingenuity and sing, “Pandemic go away…Never come another day.”
Here, I share two life stories of Desi Americans coming to terms with the reality of their lives. The names of the people associated with my story have been changed.
My family friend has fixed the wedding of his daughter, Seetha, a professional doctor in Boston. Earlier, the family wanted to conduct the wedding during 2020 and had made all the arrangements including fixing a marriage hall, catering, etc. and paid an advance to each of the suppliers of these services. But, alas, March 2020 and COVID-19 came as a blow to the wedding. They had to cancel all the arrangements planned. They waited with the hope that things would ease before long. Till the end of December 2020, there was no respite from the severity of the pandemic.
January 2021 brought some hope and travel restrictions eased between India and various countries including the US and European countries. So, my friend has now rescheduled the wedding date to February 28, 2021. But, the bride and groom were stuck in the US, with their flight to reach India only on 21st or 22nd February. A couple of days before boarding their flight to India, they had to get themselves tested for COVID and get a negative report. Again, on arrival, they had to clear the COVID test and they were quarantined for a period of two weeks. The wedding was a virtual one with just a few family members from both sides attending. Zoom link was provided to the friends and family members who viewed the event from the comfort of their homes. Unfortunately, the groom’s brother, who was stuck in Singapore, could not attend it.
Of course, adversity like this has come as a blessing in disguise for most of us. It became an excuse for not being able to attend such events. No gifts were also received from the friends and relatives who could not attend it. For the first time, what would have been two and half days, took just a few hours. Soon after the kanyadhan and the tying of the mangal sutra, the wedding ended and in less than an hour, the wedding hall was vacated. This is the long and short of a pandemic wedding that actually happened.
Another story is more disturbing…
My relative, Suppuni, aged 80 years old, was living in a single-bedroom flat in Mandaveli, Chennai. Suppuni’s daughter was married to a gentleman in the US and moved there. Luckily, his son Bebu had relocated to Chennai to take care of his parents. A few years back, Suppuni’s wife passed away and since then, Suppuni was staying in his single bedroom flat while his son stayed in another apartment with his family in the neighborhood. Suppuni used to spend his time between his own home and his son Bebu’s.
Last month, after staying with his son, Suppuni returned to his flat in Mandaveli. After he returned, he had a heart attack and collapsed while having his dinner. He called his son to come, who rushed, but it was too late and Suppuni had passed before any first aid could be given to him. Frantic efforts were made by Bebu to reach his sister in the US but they soon realized that her chances of coming before the cremation would be impossible. So, without waiting for her return to India, the last rites were performed by the son.
Surely, these two stories are not unique. Yet, they are agonizing and painful for the families, whether it is the time for celebration or mourning. COVID misery does not seem to end soon. Oh God, please show mercy on this Mother Earth and listen to the prayers of our little grandchildren and make the COVID go away forever.
Dr. S Santhanam is a writer, a blogger, and a retired General Manager of the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development. Born (1948) in Kumbakonam, the temple town of South India, he studied in the popular Town High School (Where Great Mathematician Shri Ramanujam also was born and did his schooling) and graduated in Mathematics from the Government College.
I wrote this piece of fiction in honor of victims of acid attacks — especially in India. It was developed at EnActe Arts as part of the WEFT (“women enacting for themselves”) program. It is a humble and probably inadequate attempt to depict the victims’ plight, written with deep humility for unless we walk in their shoes we cannot know the unimaginable pain they bear. I offer it with empathy for their suffering, and admiration for their courage in the face of such heinous crimes. India Today Data Intelligence Unit (DIU) has found that between 2014 and 2018, there have been 1,483 victims of acid attacks in the country, according to data released by the National Crime Records Bureau. Many more go unreported or unrecorded.
In my dreams I am whole, with my easy laughs, ready quips, fleeting annoyances, steady love of ice cream. I am walking, happy. But I shiver. I walk towards the sun. I don’t see the gaping pit ahead. I wake up shaking, sweating, hot and cold. Then my hands are on my face, and… I feel the scars, the craters, the hardness — Your gift.
Your gift erased so much of me, my face, my one window to the world. They say we are nothing without memories. We are also nothing without a face. This visage, this countenance, this mirror where the world sees itself reflected and knows its place. How do I tell the world who I am? I look in the mirror and my one watery eye sees a stranger, a horror story with no end. This thing that used to be a face, a recognition, a mirror is now a dark hole where all light ends and nothing reflects. Where there used to be me, my signature smile, my left cheek’s dimple – it’s all gone. I remain a nameless, faceless ghost visible only in my misfortune. Your branding iron left a seething script.
When it first happened, they wanted me to utter your name. I wouldn’t defile my mouth. The neighbors, the relatives, even the police came asking. They came to condole, to comfort my father, my mother, my brother who seethes in daily rage. But I know they just came to see me – the remains of me. Curiosity beats empathy but sometimes that’s the only vehicle to my door. I wrote your name down only once and gave it to the police. My mother took a photo of that piece of paper with my brother’s phone. When did she learn to take photos with a phone? She knew I wouldn’t utter it again, so she kept the “evidence” she said. But I know she keeps this paper to rekindle vengeful fires in her heart. My gentle, god-fearing Kali, who quietly tolerated harsh words from her mother and mother-in-law, is ready to kill for me today.
My father does not look at me. I miss how he used to cup my face, kiss my forehead every morning. Proud Papa. Now he won’t touch my face, just puts a hand on my head looking away. Sometimes I hear him crying when he thinks I can’t hear. My mother hardly cries. Instead she asks him harshly, “What’s the point of crying now?! Have you called the lawyer?” She is hard. So hard I fear her brittleness will break her. She only softens when she brings me food. Patiently lets me eat, gently wiping the drool from my mouth. My lips’ bare remains, mere lines relearn how to contain food. Grateful I can still taste, I tell her how much I love it. She won’t even acknowledge this joy. She keeps her vengeance alive.
I can’t recall the particulars, only the horrific pain of your carnage. Or why? Later they said it was because “you could not bear an unrequited love”. “Love”? Yes Love! Love? I want to laugh! I have forgotten that sordid history. Somehow the acid erased that too; clean, flat, blank like the contours of my face. Perhaps best this way or I may join those that blame me. “She could have said yes…”, “She could have married him…”, “Girls these days think they are better than anyone…”. Your signature devastation demands justice and there will be none. Blaming me helps the onlookers feel better. Perhaps safer. Some relief for their miserable, beaten souls.
When I came home after the first 23 surgeries, I heard them in my stupor from all the painkillers. I hated them then. All of them who said, who still say I could have alleviated your hate, who think I should now be traded off to someone even lesser, to “free” my parents. Perhaps free them of any hint of guilt. They know they are who made you possible. They supplied the fodder for the kind of anger you thrive in. When I first heard them I would scream but no sound emerged. Only violent, bruising tears. But then my mother – my gentle Kali – took care of them and their solicitousness. That makes me smile – only on the inside. The skin on my face borrowed from my thighs, my stomach stretches too thin to bridge a smile. I’ve tried it in the mirror – a contortion for a smile. I cringe with my eyes without eyelashes, even as I marvel at my perfect painted eyebrows. I often marvel at how well I saw all the flaws in my reflection before this annihilation of me. Maybe now I will learn to accept what I see. Maybe that is how I win.
It’s been over two years since I came home. I must have nightmares because my mother shakes me awake, often caressing my forehead, trying to calm me. But all I remember are dreams where I am whole. At first I prayed for a merciful death. But now I don’t want to die. I listen for the birds singing in the morning. My good eye loves the sun. I still marvel at how well my mother sings. I cook with her, I learn to sew with her, little things. Soon my hands will be steady. I put my head on my father’s knee when he comes home every evening. His blessing stalls the night.
This week I step out for the first time. I shake so hard that my Kali grips my hand tight as I accompany her to the market. I cover the side of my face. I want to keep my old face. I don’t let go of her hand. Soon I know I will bare my whole face and let them all see — and let you see. Maybe when I see you in court. I will look and point at you – steady, unselfconscious, straight. Maybe you can relish what you wrought. Your hatred manifesto. I will let you flinch at my ugly erasure. And when you flinch I will laugh. You gave me unutterable pain, you scarred me for life, almost erased me. Almost. The me that your acid cannot erase, is here. Still here. I win because I will make YOU look away.
Reena Kapoor is a writer and photographer. Her poems take the reader on journeys through a multitude of places, time periods, and emotions. ‘Arrivals & Departures‘ is her debut poetry collection.
(Featured Image from left to right: Harjeet, Asha (sister), Avtar (brother))
Harjeet Singh Zhim was born on May 17, 1983, in Panama, Central America. His family migration to Panama dates back to the early 1900s, originating with work in the Panama Canal construction. His parents, Parkash and Sushila Singh Zhim raised him as a man of good, who valued his cultural and international heritage.
Harjeet moved to the United States in 1998 and resided in San Jose, CA with his elder sister, Ashinder. He graduated from Silver Creek High School in 2000 and Heald College in 2003. Affectionately, he was also known as Panama to family and friends because of his interesting background. His ethnicity was Indian but he was born and raised in Panama. He was fluent in Spanish, Punjabi, and English and enjoyed the blend of Latin, Indian, and American cultures, including different music genres, among his favorites: Reggaeton, Bhangra, and Hip-hop, as well as, movies from Hollywood and Bollywood, and Punjabi and Spanish movies too. He adopted religious views from both oriental and occidental cultures, visiting Christian churches, Sikh gurdwara, and Hindu temples.
He was an entrepreneur, frequently trying new business ideas. His last initiative in the US was Oh Pizza & Wings in Dublin, CA, a restaurant he opened and managed with his cousin from 2015 through 2018 with original recipes starting from the dough and pizza sauce through the creation of many customers’ favorite pizzas, such as: chicken tikka, oh siracha, turken, and hot smokey chicken. Always providing the best customer service such that customers felt welcomed and enjoyed hosting events at the restaurant.
In 2018, he went to India, got engaged, and married to Sonia Chumber, following the Indian tradition of an arranged marriage. They had a beautiful baby girl, Gracie, in 2020. He temporarily moved back to Panama in 2019, where he was also loved and welcomed by family and friends and he continued to expand his network through his entrepreneurship. With his elder brother, Avtar, he managed a family-owned restaurant, Salsa Parrilla, sharing delicious Panamanian dishes with customers.
He was a kind and gentle soul who brought joy, laughter, and warmth to all those around him. He was happy to babysit his nieces and nephews, as well as, family and friends’ pets, spending quality time with them and quickly becoming their favorite uncle and babysitter. He enjoyed hobbies such as installing music systems and being a DJ. He contributed to society by donating his time and resources to charitable organizations. During his life, Harjeet lived life to the fullest by traveling the world, befriending those he met, and creating amazing memories with all those he knew. He visited many countries following his passion to travel the world: Canada, Colombia, Dubai, Germany, India, Mexico, Dominican Republic, South Africa, and more.
He passed on January 15, 2021, due to COVID complications. Harjeet’s good-hearted spirit and presence will live on through his wife and their daughter, who will turn one on February 20. If you wish support them, please visit: www.gofundme.com/panamasgracie
Ashinder Singh Zhim earned an A.A. from Florida State University, Panama Canal Branch, and a B.S. in Business with an emphasis in Accounting from San Jose State University. She is a CPA licensed in the state of California and works for a big four accounting firm in the Bay Area.
Monday, December 1, 1967, 4:21 AM. Bombayites were rudely awoken from their slumbers as the world around them shook.
It was the devastating Koyna earthquake.
My mother recalled being panicked at the steel “Godrej” cupboards rattling together. “Aiyayo, what is happening?”, she screamed (I am guessing that is what she said since I was not born yet). My father (without opening his eyes), replied, “It is just an earthquake. Go back to sleep.”
I have heard this anecdote repeated with a mix of mirth and pride by my mother when she wanted to poke fun at my father.
Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I know that one is not supposed to roll over and sleep if an earthquake were to hit. Having said that, I have to admit feeling awe at my father’s stoicism. I cannot recall a single instance in my life when I have seen my father panic about anything. He faced family, medical, career, and financial challenges (with my mother’s firm support) without alarming his family. I wonder what it was about my father, he always made life look so easy.
Was it his disciplined lifestyle?
Was it his matter-of-fact attitude to life?
Was it his firm belief in God and his daily prayers?
I do not know where he draws his strength. But, I know his family draws strength from him. On Wednesday, October 9th, 2013, when his wife of 56 years passed away, he walked into the hospital room, stroked her head, turned around to his children, and calmly instructed them to start making phone calls to get “the body” home and make arrangements for the funeral. I remember that day being one of extreme sadness. However, there was no panic about how we would get through it. If a man who had lost his beloved partner could think clearly and behave with dignity, it automatically meant that his family could as well.
My version of the Koyna earthquake moment came on January 2015, when my father’s prostate cancer, that had been slow-growing until then, entered Stage 3, and the doctor, in a very worried tone, told my father that it was time to start treatment. I was scared. My father told the doctor calmly, “It is only a little bit of cancer, there is no need to make such a fuss”.
The look of disbelief on the doctor’s face was amusing. I knew my dad well and would not have expected any other reaction from him. My father underwent radiation treatment for 9 weeks, 5 days a week. The radiation center was a good 20 minutes away from our home. We would drive back and forth listening to my father’s favorite old Hindi songs. The weeks flew by and as we reached the final stretch of the treatment, my father wistfully talked about how much he enjoyed the drives, the music, and the company of the lovely nurses who took quite a liking to my father. On his suggestion, we gave a cake as a thank you gesture to the medical staff on the last day of radiation. My father posed for photos with them, and I felt like a proud parent of a high school graduate. We got through it.
Today, in the era of the pandemic and political, social, and economic uncertainty, I realize that my children are probably looking to me to get hints about how to react. I do not possess my father’s courage. But, I simply recall all the incidents in my life when my father must have been concerned but did not show it. Just like my father did through his actions, I try to convey to my children that this will also pass and I hope that they will remember to pass on that message to their children.
Shailaja Venkatsubramanyan has taught information systems at San Jose State. She volunteers with the Plant-Based Advocates of Los Gatos.
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.
Ever so often I’m caught off guard by a question posed by my child. It has the quality of a zap to my system – like that of a rusty car battery being jump started out of its cold slumber. This was one of those moments.
Coming off of a hectic few weeks spent witnessing my father-in-law’s slow and steady decline in general health, and his subsequent passing, had left us all dealing – or trying our best to deal – with a whiplash of emotions. The one thing we all agreed upon was that nothing ever prepares you for the absence of a loved one. So when confronted with this question, “Amma, is Thatha a ghost now?” my mind stuttered to a halt, while it tried to figure out how to formulate an answer. Sensing there was more to the question, I resorted to the time-honored trick of parenting, and answered her question with a question of my own. “What gave you that idea?” I asked her, trying to buy time. My 6 year old pointed to the wall where her Pati’s (grandmother) picture hung with a garland draped over its edge. “You said he is now with God, but I don’t see him there,” she responded.
A young child’s mind is inventive, curious and eternally imaginative, but they also take things literally. This was ample proof of that fact. She understood that when people die, their heart stops. This much was clear. She had been told that they are with God after this moment. And she almost always saw their pictures hanging on walls and home shrines – so she was sure they were with the Gods. Simple. Elementary. When she came to pay her last respects to her grandfather, I saw her pause, unprepared for the sight of her Thatha laid out on a straw mat, as the priest did the needful. And I remember thinking how woefully inept the human condition is at dealing with death. Because despite having attended several final viewings and funerals, I was having a hard time of it myself.
Condolence messages came in a variety of flavors – “He had a full life… and a good death,”“At least he did not suffer,”“Oh he lived to a ripe old age…”. There were the quiz style delivery of questions, designed to extract every little factoid and nugget of detail leading up to his last breath. Then there were those who offered comfort without uttering a single word – just by their presence alone. All of them were well intentioned.
For those like us, Non Resident Indians (NRIs), there is one phone call we dread receiving – that of a parent who is critically ill, or worse. The memory of one such call when my mother-in-law passed is still fresh in my mind. I kept reminding myself that we were fortunate to have had some time with my father-in-law during his final weeks. We were able to offer marginal comfort through our presence, and help in whatever little way we could. He enjoyed the antics of his grand daughter and great grandsons. I am sure that brought him joy. In this, we were truly blessed.
The role of rituals:
An individual’s passing does two things to those they leave behind. It renders them numb to most emotions. And it also leaves them with a void that seems impossible to fill. This is the juncture where rituals take center stage. In almost all the cultures of the world, death rituals are an important part of life. I suspect they have been devised to keep the living firmly rooted in the present. We began the rituals almost immediately under the guidance of the priest. And they lasted 13 days. Metaphysical facts and beliefs aside, they served the unquestioned purpose of bringing a family, and a community together. Most forgot their differences and joined us. Others were present on the fringes, but were nevertheless there. Death was indeed the ‘Great Leveler.’
Once the communal meal on the 13th day was done, our immediate family gathered to reminisce about the lives of two individuals who were deeply mourned. It was our own version of a memorial service. A family elder suggested we eulogize the parents who had given so much to see us all happy and content as we were today. And so we did just that. Remembered. Laughed. Cried. And most importantly – found strength in each other. To my mind, this was the single most cathartic ritual we experienced since that fateful Sunday morning when death came calling at our door. It was needed. It was welcomed. And we were all the better for having shared in its unified strength.
But once this was done, I was left searching for a way to help my child deal with her sense of the events. In her young life, she had interacted with her grandfather on her annual visits to India. Aside from this, their tenuous bond was established through gadgets; iPads, WhatsApp, FaceTime… and others of their ilk. There was no question that he was part of what she considered her family unit. And as such, she did feel his loss. Equating his suddenly empty home with the lack of his physical presence, she was trying to express her loss through her limited vocabulary. Her favorite question being ‘Why’?! “Why did he have to die Amma?”, was followed by “Is he with Pati now?” And then came the one I knew was waiting its turn. “Will you die one day and leave me behind?” I must admit that one took my insides on a cringe-worthy roller coaster ride.
So I was back to the pressing question – how do I help my little girl deal with loss? Or is it better to shelter a child from such truths?
Dr. Ujwala Agharkar – Child Psychiatrist with Kaiser Permanente, Fremont – cautions parents against shielding children from loss. “Sometimes adults, parents, do not want to talk about it, in the interest of protecting their children. Often it is because they have to internalize and come to terms with their own loss”, she says. She has found that while it is good to present a strong example in the face of grief, there is no need to appear stoic at all times. This is true especially of men. “It is normal, and totally acceptable to model vulnerability. Our kids should see and understand our soft spots! They will also understand that no matter what you go through, you will be there for them,” says Dr. Agharkar. Letting children know that you can handle things together, with mutual help and consideration is the best way to deal with such situations.
Having said this, Dr. Agharkar admits you cannot generalize dealing with grief. “With children, you have to take their individual mental development into consideration first and foremost. The quality of their relationship with their departed loved one is also important,” she states. Oftentimes,children can present behavioral problems when they are not able to deal with their emotions. Such problems vary from pretending nothing has happened, withdrawing from social contact, or emotional upheavals and defiance. While it is not possible to generalize, working through grief and loss is different with younger children. A child of six for example, has no abstract concept of a ‘soul.’ To them, this is not a tangible idea and they cannot visualize it. In the absence of a gravesite, younger children need more of a concrete physical form – like a picture on the wall or shrine – to help with their healing, in addition to talking them through their emotions.
Just as rituals, religious or otherwise, help adults deal with death and grief, formulating a set of rituals with a younger child gives them something tangible to relate to.
The Memory Box:
Turning to the all-knowing Google Gods, I found a wonderful resource in my search for ideas on coming up with my own version of rituals to help my child. Titled “The Memory Box” – A book about grief, it is written by Joanna Rowland who is a kindergarten teacher and children’s book author. The book is beautifully illustrated by Thea Baker who is known internationally as a children’s illustrator.
The story line revolves around a little girl who loses her favorite red balloon while walking in a park, and this event reminds her that nothing can compare to the a recent loss of someone she loves. Detailing her sadness and emotions, she takes us through the many ways she tries to hold on to her memories by making a Memory Box, filling it with sand and sea shells from a favorite beach, pictures from trips, and collecting memories from family and friends to add to her own. In addition to helping her come to terms with her loss, it also helps her make peace with a fear that she might one day in the future, forget her loved one. The Memory Box gives her a tangible sense of holding on to her memories. And this helps her heal and grow.
My daughter has been keenly aware of the loss of her grandfather with the recent festival season. As a mark of respect to the departed, we refrained from celebrating Dussera and Diwali this year. It is our period of mourning. Instead, we started to work on our Memory Box. Naturally, she kept up an unending stream of questions as we began our project. But I gently introduced her to the idea that maybe we should consider her grandparents as ‘spirits‘ now. It is our memories that keep them alive in our hearts and minds. And since she still believes in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, maybe it is ok to let her associate the word ‘ghost‘ with the ones we see during Halloween.
At least until I have a better answer to her more esoteric questions about life and death.
Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. Her new avatar requires creative juggling with the pen and the brush.
Just three months have passed since you slipped away leaving Ashok and me behind; yet it feels like an eternity. I recall that summer evening vividly and with disbelief. Sitting at your bedside, holding your hand and watching as your breaths got weaker and further apart. Then with that last breath – a small sigh – you were gone from our midst. Your face turned ever so slightly and the rays of the evening sun streamed through the bedroom window gently lighting you in peaceful repose. No more pain. No more suffering. No more medication. In the lap of Mother Nature and the Almighty for eternity. We are left behind to bear your loss, mourn your passing. We struggle to live on and cope without you, without your strength, your grace, your spirit, and your love to hold us all together.
These three months have been surreal. I’m sure I will wake up from a dream any minute now to a sound you’ve made, and check if it’s time for your morphine, monitor the oxygen flow, give you a sip of water, and adjust your pillows. But that’s the dream – that you are still here, with us a while longer, smiling through your pain and discomfort; a tower of strength, showering us with your love, the gentle touch of your hand in mine and peace in your heart.
The first few weeks were a blur. I recall our neighbors stopping by with food, sympathy and offers to help. Bhaiyya, bless him, stepped in and took care of the funeral arrangements. All our friends said kind words. Ashok and I moved around in a daze, unable to fully comprehend that you were no longer with us. Then there were arrangements to make, questions to answer, calls to banks and credit card companies and insurance companies, forms to be filled out. I threw myself into these distractions.
Eventually everyone returned to their own lives. The new school year started and Ashok is back in class – eighth grade now – and seemingly doing well. He has signed up for track and field and goes for practice a few evenings a week. I am back at work. We are getting through our daily routines. He and I watch a ball game together on weekends and I make dinner for us most nights. We go for walks once in a while and run errands together. We don’t talk much about what happened; there is a lot that is left unsaid. Remember our picnics in the backyard? He and I tried that last weekend but it just wasn’t the same.
The hospice folks have been great. The social worker stops by or calls to make sure Ashok and I are doing okay. The other day she recommended that we try joining a support group for families or sign up for grief counseling. I don’t want to sit and listen to a bunch of people talking about people they’ve lost or about their difficulties coping. I’m not sure I can handle that.
All told I think I’m doing okay and handling myself the best I can. However, little things – random thoughts, a place, a phrase overheard, or the sight of something – suddenly trigger uncontrollable grief. Just one toothbrush by the bathroom sink. Your blue dress hanging in the closet. That tree in the park that you liked so much. News of some new breakthrough in cancer research. I never know when it’s going to happen and when it does, I don’t know why. It just does. There are days when I hear myself talking out loud to you as though you are in the next room, about to walk in at any instant. All your things are just where you left them. I don’t even want to think about what I’m supposed to do with them.
I cannot believe you’ve left us. I become numb thinking about it. I keep going back to that day in February when Dr. Jeffries told us that continuing treatment was no longer a practical option. Sometimes I feel that they gave up on us too soon. Couldn’t they have tried another approach? Perhaps there was a clinic somewhere else that could recommend a treatment that would work? Agreeing to turn to hospice care felt like admitting that we were at the end of the road. Should we have looked at other options? It makes me angry sometimes. I feel like throwing things. And then I think of what you said to me: “I want to spend my last days in the comfort of my home, with the two of you, in peace.”
Asha, you give me the strength every day to move on. I think about our lives together and how we managed to get through all of this, and I’m hopeful. Some days are better and some days are worse. I wake up early in the morning sometimes and lie in bed wondering how I’ll get through the day. Why did you have to go? How will life be for Ashok and me? Will I be able to do the right thing by him? Be there for him? Will he know that he can come to me for help? Then I always ask myself what you would say and I have my answer.
You are with me all the time. In my heart. Perched on my shoulder guiding me at every step, giving me courage to get through the day. I am so thankful for you, for Ashok, and for our time together. My sweet Asha. My Sweet Love. I miss you terribly.
This remembrance is dedicated to all those who are left behind grieving for their loved ones.
Mukund Acharya spent 40 years on three continents as a professor, scientist, manager and technologist in aerospace. He currently promotes healthy aging and wellness, advocates for patients and their families, and is exploring the use of short stories, photopoetry, and blogs to spread the message on the importance of living substantive, impactful, fulfilling and contented lives while giving back to the community.