Monday, March 4, 2013

On the Death of my Father - Part II

Keeping vigil by a dying parent’s bed-side is a bittersweet reversal of roles. But unlike a sleeping child who is left alone in slumber, my father didn’t spend a single solitary moment in the hospital. There was a round-the-clock companion to my father throughout his hospital stays, a mission shared mostly among my brothers and Sundar, and supplemented by others in the family. 

In the weeks and days before my father’s demise, he had begun to show signs of imminent death. He had significantly lost his appetite. He had great difficulty swallowing… In the months following his diagnosis, my father would have read all there is to read about lung cancer and the course it takes. He may have recognized the signs in himself. Or perhaps my father consciously avoided reading about the inevitable end in order to maintain a positive outlook throughout his illness.

My father’s prognosis turned bleak when his breathing functions continued to decline despite efforts to rejuvenate a collapsed lung. A final scan revealed increased tumor growth that explained his deterioration. Already, as a result of inadequate oxygen and the build-up of carbon dioxide in his body, he was in a fluctuating state of drowsiness and wakefulness, of which the latter would become fewer and far between. When my brother had asked him, during one period of awareness, if he was ready to depart this world, my father had answered "Yes." Eventually, unconsiousness would take over. His blood pressure would decrease. His pulse would weaken. His heart would stop.

After the nursing staff had medically confirmed my father’s death, they, along with Sundar and my brothers prepared the body. His nostrils were occluded with cotton balls; gauze was wrapped under his jaws and over his head to prevent movement of the joints before rigor mortis set in. My father was changed out of the hospital gown into his own clothes. A “body bag” was brought, in which my father’s body would be transported on a gurney out of the hospital to the hearse. While adjustments were being made and procedure was being followed, what was left physically of my father was referred to as “the body” and “it.” The transition from referring to my unconscious father as “him” to referring to his bodily remains as “it” was immediate and natural. Yet, when they had put my father’s body into the body bag, my brother quickly instructed the nursing staff to not zip it up the whole way. To leave the face exposed. And just in case they hadn’t heard him the first time, he repeated his request. One of the nurses responded that when they transport the body out of the room and into the hospital halls, they are required to zip up the bag completely. My brother acknowledged that as a given, and reiterated that in the room the face must not be enclosed. He might as well have taken the words out of my mouth. Even while the mind easily accepted (as seen in the shift in our choice of pronoun), that the sleeping image of our father was no longer our father, the idea of covering the face of the body, as if it might hamper his breathing, was unpalatable. We hold on even as we let go.

In Song of the Flower XXIII, Khalil Gibran writes of the flower: “I am the last gift of the living to the dead.” In reality, though, this gift is as much for the benefit of the living, as it is a final tribute to the dead. The last images I have of my father’s physical remains were strangely beautiful.

As we rode in the hearse to the crematorium, I happened to sit at my father’s feet. As a child I had had an unexplainable fascination for the protruding veins on my father’s feet. If I wasn’t on his lap, playing with his warm hands, I was at his feet – trying to displace or squash these veins, and then watch them quickly resume their shape. To my 5-yr old self, this was an activity that was hugely entertaining.

When I saw my father for the first time in the hospital two days earlier, I had noticed how swollen his feet were, and how the edematous flesh had swallowed up the protruding veins. The rest of him was, in contrast, shrunken and thinner than he had ever been. I remember him remarking about my own weight when he had visited me in the US the previous year. The day before my parents were to leave Phoenix on their way back to India, I was weighing their suitcases by holding them while standing on the scale. I subtracted my weight from the joint weight of suitcase and self. On hearing me speak my calculations out aloud, my father interrupted from the next room: “Wait a minute. There must be some mistake. How could that be your weight when it’s just a little less than mine?” I told him that I’m a lot heavier than I look. Hopefully that’s true. In retrospect, it was he who was a lot sicker than he looked or felt.

At the crematorium, the priest undertook the last set of rites performed on the body of the departed before we proceeded to the crematory, the room containing the furnace where my father’s body would be consigned to flames in the electric kiln. I imagined my father inquiring, some time in the recent past, while attending somebody’s funeral, particulars about the electric furnace – a relatively new possession of the funeral industry in India. He would surely have inquired about the temperatures inside, the method of ash collection and other particulars.

The final image I have of my father’s physical presence, as his body made its way on a moving trolley into the furnace of the crematorium, is a multi-colored arrangement of garlands and flowers in the shape of a sleeping man with only his face visible. Placed over the flowers were ten diyas – little clay lamps that were lit with burning camphor – whose dancing orange flames symbolized the funeral pyre of earlier days.
It occurs to me that some rituals do serve useful purposes. Holden Caulfield was wrong when he said: “Who wants flowers when you're dead?  Nobody.” I most certainly do.

A famous quote from Remembrance of Things Past reads:
People do not die for us immediately, but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life, which bears no relation to true immortality but through which they continue to occupy our thoughts in the same way as when they were alive.  It is as though they were traveling abroad.

Although Proust intended this to refer to death in general, it applies well to the way in which someone views the death of a loved one in another country. In his observation, Proust inadvertently carries the immigrant experience.

I have lived outside of my hometown for 18 years now. In these years, my father did not have a daily presence in my life. Now in death, he doesn’t cause, for me, the experience of a daily absence – as he most surely does for my mother and brothers. My consciousness of his permanent absence would come in sudden bursts of recognition - they would come on unawares, greeting me each time as if it were a new revelation. I would sometimes react as if it were indeed a new announcement, until my memory, always a few steps behind, would remind me, that I’ve been though those same emotions before.

When my grandfather, an octogenarian, passed away under peaceful circumstances, in his home, surrounded by family, I reacted to the news of his death in ways that I knew were clearly incongruent to the situation. But I couldn’t help it. There was an unbridgeable disconnect between my rational mind and my emotions - and I had no control over the latter. On my last trip to India, I asked a friend what drove her family’s decision to return to India after having spent many years abroad, as immigrants. She recounted an episode, similar to mine, where she couldn’t help reacting with excessive emotion to the death of a relative. Right then, she said, she had decided she couldn’t subject herself to that experience again.

Spurred by the experience of my own lack of control over my emotions regarding my grandfather’s death in 1998, I wrote a poem called ‘Telescopic Grief.’

Telescopic Grief

They did not cry to mourn his passing on,
Or ask aloud: Why should he now be gone?
They celebrated that he had lived, instead,
And rejoiced that it was he, their common thread.
I knew that he had lived well past his prime,
I knew that even for dying there is a time.
Still, my sense of loss, excessive and profuse
Was a sentence disproportionate to the crime.

For telescopic grief takes its own slow course,
Un-propelled and unguided by the healing force
Of bearing witness to Death’s Aftermath:
Cremation. Obsequies. Solemnities.
It’s a feather flitting down a zig-zag path,
It stays afloat or is carried by the breeze
Of nostalgic gusts that linger in persistence
As dues that absence pays – the price of distance.

The topic of grieving in absentia, or telescopic grief, as I call it, is an area much in need of reporting and research. That I did not have to deal with telescopic grief with my father’s passing is a blessing of immense proportion.


  1. Thank you for sharing such a personal time of your life with us. As an immigrant as well I am constantly torn between home (motherland) and career/spouse land as I call it. I wonder how my children will form similar bonds here and also relate to the people from the land I came from.

    1. Dear Anon, Thanks for your comment. I think as immigrants, we eventually let go of old norms and adopt a new "normal." Also, I seem to have shifting identities depending on who I am relating to: In America, I feel a strong sense of being of Indian origin. In India, my sense of being an outsider, a non-resident Indian emerges......

  2. touching tribute.Both my husband and I became immigrants at 73 to be with our son. It was the fear of being lonely at the time of our exit that over powered the attachment to our motherland!!
    I am the mother-in-law of Meera Suresh!

  3. Thanks for your comment, aunty. Moving from South India to Canada is a big change.....
    I ust sent you a message on fb!