Reflections on an overdue farewell
This morning, my mother woke me up telling me that my father was no longer breathing. It wasn’t entirely unexpected. He was suffering from Parkinsons and had deteriorated rapidly in recent times. And he had suffered. Coming awake in a hurry, I checked him. No breath, no pulse, he was still warm. My mother had seen his last breaths and stayed with him to comfort him before waking me up.
I called the doctor, who confirmed the death and issued a certificate. My father had wanted to donate his body. However the delays with arriving relatives and his extensive bedsores along with having to cross district lines to submit his body to the Anatomy department at JJ led us to decide to cremate him locally.
It was the strangest day I have lived through on many levels.
My father was many people. To his siblings, he was a devoted brother. To his many nephews and nieces, he was a doting uncle. To my mother, he was someone who undermined her constantly and was frequently cruel to. To me, he was Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Someone who encouraged me to pursue achievements and also someone who disowned me in what he perceived as failure. A large part of my adult life had troubles directly born from trying to exit his home. He was the one to go on a tour with my mother while I returned to his home separated from my husband. He gave another key to the home to the husband I was trying to leave. He manipulated me into coming to live with him when trying to exit an abusive marriage, only to force me back with a disabled infant in tow. He has wished my mother and me dead over the years, predicted that we would have long and paralyzed lives and worse.
He was an extremely self-sufficient man and could cook, clean and do whatever was needed to keep the home running. He did not like household help and when my mom wanted to hire a maid, he took over sweeping, mopping and washing utensils rather than hire one. While he constantly berated my mother for not acting more housewifely (any and every reason would do – housework was just one), he most certainly never expected her to be the only person working in the home (they both had jobs and incomes). His abuse was more an issue of control than misogyny. He’d support me to become a brain surgeon, but not to make choices he wouldn’t allow, for example. He happily supported my mother going on her own for the Kailash Parikrama, but in routine life, her salary went to his hands on payday and she never had over twenty rupees in her purse till I hit my teens, then, with inflation it became fifty, then a hundred – for emergency expenses strictly. No whimsical snacks or rickshaw rides. Nor did he ever buy her a single ornament if he could avoid it.
To be honest, I’ve never seen my mother complain other than occasionally when she really wanted something. She lived as frugally as him, initially to repay the loan for their home, and then to save for their old age. Neither of them smoked, drank alcohol or had other habits commonly understood as vices. My dad’s addiction was junk and they both loved to travel and lived unbelievably frugally to fund travel without touching savings.
My father was a tinkerer. A compulsive DIYer who haunted flea markets and junk shops to bring home broken treasures to be brought back to life and gifted or used. While I thankfully don’t scour the world to bring junk home, I do think I got my tendency to do stuff myself at his knee, holding a solder wire as he fixed something with the iron, helping him create furniture for his home, reading tiny tiny numbers on electronic parts with my sharp eye for him, or using things for purposes other than they were designed for.
He was an avid traveler all his adult life, and organized travel would give way to two treks a year in later decades. There was no such thing as a summer vacation without a tour to some far away place. And then Himalayan treks. Strangely, by the time I grew up, our rift was so deep, that in spite of him having a daughter who did specialized cultural tours and extreme treks in the Himalaya for a living, we have never been on a trek together. Ever.
Perhaps one thing many would appreciate was his successful saving. He purchased his own home in Vile Parle before he married my mother (though both of them worked to pay off the loan well into the marriage). He saved like a religion. And for someone who had only one job in life – as a factory worker (and machine setter at the end) – he saved enough to be still offering people in need money and affording two treks a year and trying to buy a second home well into his retirement (long story). He wasn’t rich by the standards of today’s upper middle class, but given the frugality of their life, he had enough to cover his needs indefinitely. I did not get this from him. my financial planning is dismal. I may have supported with care in his last days, but to his last breath, he could most certainly afford all he needed.
To his friends from work, he was a mentor. An elder brother who guided them true in their work and life. One of his friends had come today. Tears streaming down his face to see the pitiful state my father had been reduced to, from a fit and physical ex-bodybuilder, ex-factory worker, ex-trekker. I was able to give him some peace when I shared that their visits in the preceding months had brought my father great joy.
He is also the man who hosted ice cream parties for my cousins and me in the summer vacations when color television and VCRs were a novelty so we could watch films and have fun. He was the one to unfailingly rush to the side of his siblings when they fell ill, serve them tirelessly and offer as much money as he could to them.
Today, I would meet many of these cousins. People whose eyes welled with tears to see his body on the floor when all I could feel was relief at no longer having to change dirty diapers for someone who didn’t recognize me for most of the last months, and was unlikely to be happy about it if he did. The benevolent figure they lost today, I’d lost somewhere in my teenage. For someone who had lived with him around the clock for the last ten months, I did not recognize the person they were mourning. The person who was lying dead had little left in him that would support life.
He had spent the last few months in pain. He had lost control over his body to the point that the last few days before he died, he had even been unable to open his eyes or swallow more than a few spoonfuls. He hadn’t recognized me in months, calling me “Manju” (a cousin). In the last weeks, he sometimes didn’t recognize my mother. He used to beg to be killed, before he lost the ability to speak altogether. What was to mourn? This was freedom. Freedom for him from pain, freedom for my mother caring for him round the clock in her old age, freedom for me from the exhausting effort of caring for someone you would have preferred to not run into at all again.
Today, my mother looks exhausted, but far lighter than she did last night.
Did I wish him ill? Not at all. The man who had done untold harm to my life was not the slowly dying man who came into my home ten months ago. This was simply an old and scared man knowing he had a difficult future awaiting and knowing there was no way he could escape it. He had all my compassion, but I felt little attachment. Would I prefer for him to have been alive? Not at all. It was time for him to go. For his own sake too. I felt no guilt for not caring, because my conscience was clear that I had done all I could for him while it could make a difference.
I didn’t particularly like my father. He was of a judgmental nature and had let me down in some of my worst times in life. He had abused me to drive me out of his home repeatedly, taunted me into some of the most desperate and destructive choices to shape my life. While he had been a paragon to his blood relatives and colleagues, at home, he had been cruel to my mother and me as well once I entered my teens. I hadn’t lived with him for the most part of my life and frankly had no ambition to be around him at all till his fall last May brought the parents crashing back into my life. His condition had deteriorated too much for them to live safely on their own. My mother was not capable of caring for him alone. I rented a larger place in a hurry while we extended his stay in hospital so we could move him here.
In these months, I saw another side of my father. The monster who kept trying to drive me out of his home was another creature while living in my home. He was a helpless old man who pined to see the home he had purchased with his sweat and blood one last time before he died. A wish we were not able to fulfill, because of his condition, and the fact that we were two women and a disabled child other than him in the home, with no real manpower for the kind of effort it would have to be.
He was also an intensely proud man humbled by circumstances and humiliated by having to live in the home of a daughter he had driven away. He saw many of the curses he had heaped on my mother and me come true about him with his extended helplessness in a bitter twist that life can be. He was often a very frustrated, sad man, and my mother, as usual was the one to bear the brunt of his anger.
But all was not bad. Before he lost his mental faculties, he did attempt to build a tentative and more respectful relationship with me. In turn, I lost a lot of my bitterness and contempt for him, because he simply wasn’t the man who had caused them anymore. We would never be close, but we did develop a carefully polite relationship that did not create new hurts and allowed for the occasional casual or even profound conversation, like when he told me that he did not want to be admitted to a hospital no matter what, since what he had couldn’t be cured. He would rather not prolong the discomfort and leave my mother money instead of finishing it on a lost cause. Another time, we had a conversation on assisted suicide and even euthanasia which was pretty raw and helpless given that I agreed with him, but both were not options by law. While he never apologized to my mother to his dying breath nor stopped venting his anger on her, he did learn to appreciate the uncomplaining tenacity with which she served him, in spite of being a patient of schizophrenia herself.
These ten months, he got time to spend with his grandchild. Said grandchild adored him, since he was the only one in the home who was slow enough and idle enough to offer endless entertainment. Nisarga used to go into peals of laughter the minute my father started walking – something he never did for anyone else. Perhaps he thought it was exciting when my father did it, because it was clearly so much effort and achievement for him? Regardless, his hysterical squeals would get my father laughing helplessly to the point where we worried if he’d fall from laughing. This was the only thing that could make him laugh, when his face was not even able to smile anymore. And I was glad that they both had this time together.
It was a day where I wanted to burst into a grin while many were fighting tears. And many, many reflections. While not a sad day for me, it was profound. It was also a sort of transition. I’d been promoted by circumstances to the position of the “man of the house” where the other two members were an aged woman and a disabled child.
So today he lay there and we were discussing who lights his pyre. An aunt was adamant that women can and should do it when appropriate, and as his only child, me doing it was appropriate. My mother-in-law disapproved of women at crematoriums at all. My mother thought that the person who took responsibility for him in the tough time prior to his death should do it, which was me (as opposed to me just being his daughter). Me, I’m an atheist. I don’t really care who cremates someone. The easiest way to resolve the issue would be for me to murmur that I don’t want to do it. It would be a graceful exit. No one would pressure a woman to light a cremation pyre. However, just because women don’t do it as per social tradition, I thought I should. I most certainly had the right as his only child in a world attempting modernity (no other women from the family came to the crematorium regardless), and I did it. There were no last rites to be done. Both my parents had done them while still alive. It was a matter of lighting the thing. I did it. I even did it in the traditional manner, holding the torches behind me, for respect of the beliefs of others there.
As we watched the pyre burn, the question came up of returning the next day to collect his remains for immersing in flowing water. I wasn’t interested. I didn’t see the point leaving my bereaved mother alone (not to mention what impact today would have on her schizophrenia) at home to do yet another rite, and if he’d got his wish of body donation, there wouldn’t be remains anyway. I knew for certain that my mother didn’t care about this, but said that I’d discuss it with her when we got home, and return for them, if she wanted it done. My lack of interest probably alarmed cousins who consider it as a closure, and one of them found a way of getting it done with a short wait, using the bones of the lower part of body, that burns faster.
Strangely, while I didn’t think of it as a ritual closure, I was glad that we did that. It resulted in a nice drive to the beautiful Agashi beach and the release of the bones into the sea. The bones, to me did not matter so much, but after the ugliness of the last few months, the beauty and peace of the beach was a much better scene to close the story with.
And thus it is done. My father died today, got cremated and his remains released back to nature. A fitting end, I think for someone who has been a passionate trekker for decades before his Parkinson’s flaring up in his last trek to the Everest Base Camp a few years ago.
He is free. We are free.