Waiting for the End: How Do You Prepare to Let Go of a Beloved Grandparent?

First Person

Waiting for the End: How Do You Prepare to Let Go of a Beloved Grandparent?

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

T

wo years ago I sat inside a film theatre in Delhi watching the Pixar film Coco. Though largely fun,  the film’s forlornness was carved out of yearning for family. So when Mama Coco, Miguel’s grandmother – a near replica of my own – seemingly died for a moment in the climax, the thud of my unwitting heart ran several laps of the 400 miles my grandmother lived away from me. With each leap, echoed the fear of the inevitable. A family film wasn’t of course going to let mortality linger in the dark hall like a cold chain that suddenly grips you by the ankle, so Mama Coco came back to life as she had to for the sake of everyone watching and crying.

I had never cried in a theatre until then, not even through the most heartbreaking of certain cinematic deaths. A resurrection had oddly gotten to me this time.

My grandmother has almost died twice and returned. I wasn’t by her side on both occasions.

My grandmother has almost died twice and returned. I wasn’t by her side on both occasions. In my 30 years, I have never “seen” anyone die. Both my maternal grandparents died, their last rites performed away from sight while I was young, shielded either by my innocence or the banality of academic commitments. I realised this while I was watching Coco and it made me wonder – Can anyone claim adulthood without ever having seen one of their own die?

If existence and life as we know and live, is the sea, then mortality must be the shore. Over the last year or so, I have sailed to and from this shore, not knowing which of the two is more painful to be on. Grandma doesn’t know either.

She never went to school and married early. And though she remembers little of her own personal history, of a life before she was “handed over”, hers is a language, a version of memory far less corrupted compared to me and others like me who are educated. I speak three languages, but cannot claim either as my mother tongue. She speaks only one, and can tell folk stories from songs and fairy tales from archaic gossip. Though her eyesight has waned, she recognises people through their voices and what she remembers of them.

Every time I sneak up on her she asks if it is me. Every time I’m not there, and she mistakenly calls my name I wish I were.

Every time I sneak up on her she asks if it is me. Every time I’m not there, and she mistakenly calls my name I wish I were. Even though we are two bodied, breathing individuals not always alongside each other, we regularly play hide and seek, out of longing rather than sight.  

Watching your grandparents age is like processing the end of time, the folding of a document that is now situated so far back in history that even the possibility of its survival becomes a joke. Which is why grandma often claims she’ll live for another 50 years. “I will even wed your children,” she tells me, smiling. The next moment, she shivers and spasms on the bed, her eyes roll into their lids. Moments later, she is back just like Mama Coco, talking about life, having just dodged death. Each time she holds me from fear of fainting and falling to the ground, she bawls and cries distrustfully. Life, after all, is beginning to abandon her. Who would she trust? Not the living, at least.

I’ve often been asked the question – are you close to your grandparents? I’ve never known the answer.

The relationship between the first and the third generation of a family is perhaps empathetic, starved of responsibility and therefore whimsical. Both witness the other at their most vulnerable stages in life. Middle age on the other hand is probably hamstrung, guarded by the weight of responsibility they feel toward both. Naturally, grandparents and grandchildren cling to ideas of freedom and choice that are relative and often comparable. For three decades now, grandma and I have been the brats of the house, collaborating in mischief.

That’s probably one reason why it is hard, perhaps impossible for me to articulate how the eventuality of her death must be dealt with. Maybe, it needs to be accepted, like a prescription drug that must result in loss. In this case, the loss of life that has been part of mine from the time that I have been alive. More than the inevitability of her losing her life, it scares me that I will be unable to fill up the vacancy.

I live at least 10 hours away from grandma, and what scares me more than the day I will receive the phone call of her demise, is what those 10 hours will feel like. If 30 seconds of a film felt like a lot, what will those 10 hours do to me?

There is no way to prepare myself for this. Tough I have tried. I have at times considered going to crematoriums or even to the ghats of Banaras to internalise the process of letting go, of accepting something that is inevitable. I continue to tell her she has another hundred years to live, to tell her unasked stories, to draw her away from the despair of death towards the ludicrousness of wishful moments we can still create – like Mama Coco. Because if not grief, to her my memory, I owe, of which you are now a part.

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