By Lalita Iyer May. 02, 2017
As Amma and Appa age, I think about their death frequently. I dread the certainty of their passing, but for them, it is nothing more than the happy end to long, fulfilling lives.
Last week, my phone rang in the middle of the afternoon. It was my first cousin. I am at an age where such calls are ominous because, sadly, we no longer call each other. Not even on Diwali. WhatsApp forwards is how we keep in touch.
The call was about my maternal uncle (Amma’s older brother), who had passed away after a prolonged battle with diabetes-related complications. He was 77. My mother is sure she is next in line. She has two valve replacements on her résumé apart from diabetes, the family heirloom.
I rehearse this call – about the death of a parent – in my head all the time. When I bring this up with my siblings, they are in denial. “She’s only 73,” my brother reminds me exasperatedly. He is in California and furthest away from my parents. His optimism is essential for his survival. My sister is in Dubai and into Reiki. Whenever I bring up existential questions she reminds me I should try Reiki too.
I watch Mukti Bhawan and Amour in the same week last month and both movies lead me into the space of talking to my parents about their death. May be when they are both home at the same time, I think. Such conversations need the right time, the right ambience, I remind myself.
Appa likes to describe himself as “80, not out”. It’s been a longstanding joke in the family – referring to death as “out”. My uncle (who passed away) and my father used to regularly discuss the geriatrics in the family with their scores.
“You mean Ramki? 87 not out?”
“No, his older brother. 91 not out.”
For the last six years, Appa has been living by himself on a farm in Zad-Shahapur, a village in Belgaum. It’s been his lifelong dream to be a farmer and he is finally living the dream, although it is inconvenient to all of us.
I call my father to tell him about my uncle’s death and book his ticket to Mumbai.
I think you should move back, I tell Appa. You are all alone there, and it’s a jungle. What if there is an emergency? Who will take you to the doctor?
“My father is with me, yaar,” he says. My grandfather passed away when Appa was 14.
I hang up.
A year ago, I had the biggest fright.
I imagine a death shower for my father, where he will invite all his friends and family and cook a feast for them.
Appa called one morning, saying he couldn’t see a thing. His cataract had insidiously burgeoned over the last two years to blur out his vision completely and an emergency surgery had to be scheduled. We rushed him through a battery of tests that were routine before the surgery, given his age. His blood work was impeccable and my father couldn’t stop beaming. “I have really enjoyed life, doctor!”. However, there was an 80 per cent hearing impairment owing to the long-time effects of tobacco (Appa is a heavy smoker).
He promised he would quit smoking. I sent him a consignment of nicotine gums. When I visited again, the gums were untouched.
I imagine a death shower for my father, where he will invite all his friends and family and cook a feast for them. I think 80 is a good age to do this. If there is one candidate who can throw a death shower, it is Appa. I am scared to suggest it though – my mother would consider it a bad omen.
Amma is on life-long blood thinners. This essentially means that she treads the fine line on a daily basis between bleeding to death or choking to death if her INR (International Normalised Ratio), an indicator of her prothrombin time (the time it takes for human blood to clot) is not adequately managed.
She regularly defaults on her INR tests and if I don’t keep tabs on her, weeks go by without her being tested. The last time, her ratio was dangerously high, at 5.2. She was to travel in two days to visit my sister in Dubai. The doctor advised her not to travel until the INR was brought down by monitoring her dosage of warfarin for a few days.
She lost it.
“What does he know? Has he had his heart opened up twice? Has he given birth to twins when his weight was 40 kilos? Does he know that travelling makes me happy? I need a new doctor. I am going to sack this doctor.” (I post this on Facebook and it gets 200 likes. My carefree Amma has a fan club.)
Back from the clinic, Amma had a chat with our cat Millie. They often talk about this and that, but mostly about who is going to go first. Millie is 16, which makes her 112 in human years and a more likely contender for the first spot.
When Amma speaks, she has Millie’s full attention.
“I am not going to be scared by doctors. If I feel happy visiting my children, what is the doctor’s problem? Wouldn’t you get angry too? I am going to do what I want. But you still have to wait for me, ok?”
Miaaaooww, said Millie, and sashayed back into her favourite chair.
I don’t think my parents think as much about their death as I do. They think about life. I think about logistics. I think about Belgaum-Bombay-Dubai-Los Angeles and my head spins. Death is a lot about logistics. Who to call? What to do? When to do it? How to do it? I know I will be stuck with the operations. As chief planner and executor of all things in my family, I know this will be my lot too.
My parents have become my children. I am constantly admonishing them for being careless about their health, diet, exercise, and whatnot. For tempting fate. They are constantly ignoring me like I were an errant child.
During my mother’s second valve replacement surgery around five years ago, the surgeon had told me that this was a way to buy ten more years, at best, for my mother. She keeps reminding me that five are down, five to go.
“I want to go like Rangu,” she tells me these days. Mrs Rangarajan was her closest friend; she died last year and went real quickly. It’s my mother’s dream death. She wakes up some mornings and tells me she dreamt of dying. There’s a sparkle in her eyes. Tell me about it, I say. She does. We both giggle (me nervously).
Maybe being in denial like my brother, is not a bad thing after all. Death is all around us, but even that checklist for the death shower may not provide me with the emotional inoculation I need. Maybe talking about it just buys us time. It buys us another opportunity to have conversations with the one who hasn’t gone yet. It buys us another night of going to bed without having to process grief. Because grief is a certainty in a way that joy can never be.
Until then, let me let my parents live yaar!
Lalita Iyer writes books for little people and big people and the little people in big people. She lives with four geriatrics (two humans and two cats) and two children (one human and one cat). She somehow feels like the oldest person in the house.