Kids Corner


Part I
Prem Kahani






Tuesday, November 13, 2012




It wasn’t the words that hit me hard, like a door slammed on the face. It wasn’t what she said, it was how she said it.

It was too matter-of-fact, too cold. No drama, no emotion, nothing to capture the enormity of it all. Even a murderer, when being sentenced to death, gets gravitas. The judge covers his head with a black cloth as he delivers the news. And then, I’m told, once he signs the paper to confirm it, he breaks the nib of the pen.

Dr Nussbaum packaged her words with no such fanfare. We could very well have been sitting in a banker’s office, being told that our application for a mortgage had been turned down, instead of here in this perennially chemical-smelling hospital room.

We were sitting on Mum's bed, mother and daughter together, our hands clasping each other tightly. The doctor stood at the end of the bed, the nurse standing beside her, clip-board in hand.

“A bed has come available at the hospice, Shan. We’ll be able to move you there tomorrow morning.”

It was as innocuous as that, as simple as changing rooms in a hotel. But we knew exactly what it meant. The six months since she had told us that Mum had terminal cancer had prepared us for this day. But then, one is never really prepared for this. Never.

I knew, Mum knew, that once the hospital had decided that she was ready to be sent to a hospice meant that they could do no more, that the time had come.

It still hit us like a brick wall.

Mum and I had talked about this day, as it drew near. The pain was recurring now, and spreading. She was shrinking before our very eyes … I could see the change even when I was away for the night and saw her the next morning. All that could be done was smother the pain.

“All I can promise you,” Dr Nussbaum had said six months earlier, “is to help you with the pain, Shan. The cancer itself is too far gone.”

And what about my pain, I thought, but didn’t say a word. We were speechless then. We were speechless now.

We nodded in unison. Going home at this juncture, Mum’s place or mine, was no alternative. She needed attention around the clock, and it wasn’t just the IV or the oxygen. We wouldn’t need the whole phalanx of monitors any more, but as the disease spread … and it was in two-thirds of her body by now … pain-killers had to be administered in ever-changing doses.

No pain, was the only strategy left.

“You’ll be more comfortable there, Dr Kaur!” said the nurse.

There was no point in occupying a hospital bed now. Others needed it. And the hospice could cater to all her needs. And help her prepare to …

*   *   *   *   * 

I sat beside her in the ambulance as we sped through the countryside to rural Ethridge. There was a bit of traffic. But we needed no whirling lights, no whooping sirens. No need for hurry anymore.

She slipped into sleep. I held her hand, and looked at her face, more gaunt than usual. But oh, still so beautiful.

With Mum, it wasn’t just physical beauty, though she was the most beautiful woman I knew. “Oh, you say it because you’re my Biba,” she would dismiss me.

But I knew it wasn’t just my bias. It had to do with how she had handled life and stood up to the world. That’s what made her glow.

I was eight and Kabir six when Dad had suddenly, unexpectedly erased himself from our lives. Young and perfectly healthy, he had come home one day from work -- both Mum and Dad worked in the same hospital, though in different departments -- and had turned on the TV. It was his daily routine: he would catch the 6 o’clock news, while Mum laid the table for dinner.

Our Punjaban housekeeper would’ve prepared the meal, ready and waiting as each of us sauntered home from work or school. But it was a ritual Mum followed every day: it was she who presided over dinner. Kabir and I were in the den with Dad, but engrossed in our own worlds, he in his GameBoy, I with my homework.

Mum yelled that dinner was ready. It took a few more summons before we bounced up and headed for the kitchen. I looked around. Dad was asleep on the couch. I called out. He did not answer. I jumped on the sofa and mussed his beard. He didn’t wake up.

He never woke up. He had died in his sleep. For some inexplicable reason, his heart had given up on him. At 36 years?

This lovely, helpless woman who was lying before me now, had turned into a pillar of strength then. It must’ve been terribly tough on her -- Dad had been the love of her life -- but I saw little of her struggle. She just became both our Mum and Dad, and restored normalcy in our lives. And marched on.

She never talked about it then, only assured us repeatedly that all would be fine. But as I grew up, I could see that she made some quick decisions then which kept us financially secure, and the family together.

She added an extension to our home, and brought her gynaecology practice home. A whole wing of the house, separate from the residence, yet attached to it, now became a full-fledged clinic, complete with an “operation theatre” and all.

Thus, she was “home” all the time for us.

The two decades since then, despite their challenges, have been good. For Kabir and I, at least. But I’ve never been sure about Mum.

We tried hard to convince her to remarry. She and Dad had an arranged marriage. No reason why she couldn’t meet another Prince Charming again. We were together, always, but I could see the loneliness in her eyes.

All she said was that she had no time.

Go dating, we said, giggling, and you’ll meet someone nice. Maybe, she said, maybe some day, when I’m ready. Not now.

And so the years passed.  And here we are now, in an ambulance, she, still single … dying.

I confronted her one day, a few months ago. She had closed her practice. I had moved my work-station home to her place; I could service my graphic design clients from anywhere, and work staggered hours. She needed me, as the illness took its toll.

“Go home, Biba, I’ll be fine,” she would moan and groan occasionally. But I knew that time was ticking by. I needed her now. Kabir was interning for a national accounting firm in distant Chicago. He flew home every second weekend, but both Mum and I wanted him to concentrate on his career. “You’re the man of the family,“ was an entreaty he didn’t know how to counter.

Mum and I were alone in the kitchen one day.

“Anything special you want to do, Mum?” I asked. “Go somewhere, do something. Anything?”

She didn’t say a word. Waited a long time. She shook her head. “Nothing, beta,” she said. “I’m content. I have you and Kabir. Everything is here for me.”

We nursed our cups of chaai and gazed out of the window; the leaves were beginning to turn.

“I should’ve thought of doing something earlier,” she broke the silence. “Done something worthwhile with my life. While I was well and had all the time in the world.”

Her head was lowered, her eyes lingering on her hands in her lap as she rubbed them gently, one over the other, as if washing them.

“What do you mean, done more?” I leaned forward, unhappy over her tone of voice. “How much more?”

She looked out at the trees again. “Well, we do waste our lives in routine things, don’t we? Earning a living, raising a family, eating, working, playing, sleeping … I think I could’ve done more for those in need, those who were without all the good things I’ve had.”

I dragged my chair next to her, put my head on her shoulder. “But you‘ve done so much, Mum. How much more?“

She shook her head. “I’ve done nothing in my life.”

I didn’t know what to say. Here was a woman who I thought had lived the epitome of a life. And she felt she had done nothing?

I began to protest, but she raised her hand and put it on my lips.

But I couldn’t let it go. I waited until lunch. Once we’d finished and I had put the dishes in the sink, I pulled up my chair next to her again, real close.

“Mum,” I said, trying to not raise my voice above a whisper. “You’re having regrets … it is natural … but you have nothing to regret about.“

“Not true,” she said and then waved me to say no more.

I could see she was troubled by things, lord only knew what. I desperately wanted to help, but how do you get into someone’s head and dig out its innermost secrets.

How could I let this woman who had been happy and alive and oh, so giving all her life, how could I sit back and let her mope her final days away.

“Mum,” I said, “tell me, is there anyone you want to see, to meet, to talk to … Are there any loose ends you want to tie up? I don‘t want you to go into a spiral of depression, when you don’t have any reason to be ashamed of whatsoever in your life. Tell me, can I help? Anything?”

Her long silence made me think maybe I had made a breakthrough. Finally, she was going to open up.

“Any secret love?” I nudge her gently. I am jesting. Or am I? I think I‘m fishing. “A lost love? A boy-friend you haven‘t told me about?”

She smiles. And bends towards me and kisses me on my cheek.

“I am tired,” is all she says. And then, a few minutes later, “I think I want to lie down.”

I look at her now, as we rumble into the village of Ethridge, and turn into a driveway. “Riverside Hospice”, reads the sign as we enter.

It’s a sprawling ranch house, surrounded by gardens, with a couple of wings haphazardly reaching out in opposite directions.

I look at Mum. She’s still asleep.

“Welcome to your final home,“ I say to her, but she can’t hear me. She looks so peaceful now. I so desperately want to make sure she’s happy in her final days. Not moping. But content that she has given us so much of herself and couldn’t have done more.

I watch the ambulance attendants wheel her in, as I linger outside. I pull out my cell phone and call Kabir. He picks up instantly.

“We’re here at the hospice now, Bir.”

He doesn’t say a word.

“This means it won’t be long,” I say. It’s not easy for me to say it. So, I pace it. I take a few breaths. “I don’t think she has more than a week or two.”

“I’ll be down tonight,” he says.

“No, don’t.” I know I’m being selfish … I want her for myself as much as I can. But I’m also being practical. “Wait till the weekend. And then stay. Tell your people you need a few weeks off .“  


Conversation about this article

1: Bhupinder Singh Ghai (New Delhi, India), November 14, 2012, 5:58 AM.

Brought tears to my eyes. I have recently lost my mother. It was so sudden and unexpected that we are still in a state of shock. She had no major illness except for arthritis, which had made her a little less mobile. She was scheduled for knee surgery and had diligently shed some excess weight, did her physiotherapy religiously. Just when she was beginning a new life, it had other plans. A poem I found sums it all up. "There's a deep pain within my soul / It feels like my heart has a big hole / Aa pain so deep that it hurts to breathe / Oh,God when will this pain ever leave me / Each and everyday I pray that this pain will ease away / Today I often think and wonder why / My sweet mom had to die / But I know God looks low and sits high / And she's with him now beyond the sky / It's so hard to say good bye / And all I do is sit and cry / I close my eyes and say a good prayer / That when I open them she will be there / To hold my hand or sing me a song / I just can't believe my mom is gone ..."

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Part I
Prem Kahani"

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