The Fading Away of Parents

You may not have shared a great relationship with your parents. But even at the mere thought of their passing away, the world around you will collapse.
Ageing
“When I go, it will feel like the roof’s blown off your head,” my father would say. (Graphic: SIDDHARTHA DUTTA)

An announcement echoes through a microphone at Holy Spirit Hospital, Bombay. “ICU twenty one relative of Mr Vasant kindly requested to come into ICU. Thank you.”

It is a typical Indian microphone announcement. There is no pause or punctuation. It is also a typical Indian hospital announcement. The accent is distinctly Keralite. Vasant is pronounced as “Vazzant”.

The ICU is an air-conditioned, exclusive space. The patients are on beds along the rectangular perimeter of the chamber. Some sleep, one pleads with God for death. Someone sings a bhajan.

My father is on bed No 21. The letters ‘I.C.U’ are stenciled in red on his pale blue hospital uniform. He calls me “Mr Kulkarni”.

My father is 76 and has vascular dementia. Any form of dementia affects your brain. Then it affects your body too. Recently, my father lost his ability to swallow solid food. His psychiatrist advised hospitalisation. When in hospital, an infection he had likely caught at home worsened. This necessitated a move to the ICU.

My father has been blessed with robust health. Till a couple of years ago, he played a bit of football with kids and jogged a couple of rounds. Now he lay on the bed, shrunk to half his size, tubes plugged into his body. It hurt to see him like that. It also brought some peace. The anger over past incidents vanished. 

This emotional response was a revelation. As your parents get old, the prospect of their end scares you less. You feel it won’t hurt that much. But it does. Even if you did not share a great relationship. That dip in their health, the sight of them struggling will hit you hard. Your heart will sink when the doctor tells you, in a certain tone, to hospitalise your parent.

“When I go, it will feel like the roof’s blown off your head,” my father would say at the end of wholesome 3 am shouting matches. I took this with a pinch of salt. Father could be dramatic. His mother was a mimic and raconteur, at whose door the women of the lane gathered in the evening for entertainment. My father and his elder brother long suspected themselves of possessing acting brilliance. That they chose other professions was the great loss of the film industry. My uncle did do Bollywood a favour with a cameo in Manoj Kumar’s Shor. He also obliged Attenborough. When the Gandhi director was looking for someone to play Nehru, my uncle sent his pictures. 

Fights, I felt, gave my father a chance to channelise his inner Dilip Kumar. But turns out he was not always wrong. Although he’s made a temporary recovery and is back home, he is bed-ridden. He is on liquids. It does feel like the roof is cracking.

It is not surprising therefore, that Preeti Menon, a 30-something working woman in Bombay, obsessively worries about her parents, even though they are only in their 60s and doing alright. 

“I fear the vacuum when the inevitable happens,” she says. “My siblings are in the US and I don’t have close ties with them. My parents are the last tenuous link I have with the home I grew up in.”

Menon realises her fears are irrational. “Even as a child, when I was nine or ten, I would not let my parents go out together. We lived in Dubai. I would be afraid that my brother would sell me off to an Arab trader. I had read something similar in a Biblical story. An annual Christmas party was one rare event my parents would go to without us. Before they left, I would take the phone number of the venue from them.”

The feelings Menon has towards her parents are a mix of emotional attachment and also resentment over having to shoulder added responsibilities. It is the same for all of us. “I love my parents but also feel burdened by the task,” Menon says. Some of her irritation, evidently, is towards her siblings, who do not care much and reside in faraway lands. “My parents’ care has fallen upon me by default,” she says. 

Sitting in Bombay, Menon once even took an appointment with a doctor in Dubai for her father. This, when her father was in Dubai and could have fixed the appointment himself. “He was dilly-dallying, so I just picked up the phone and got the appointment,” Menon says. 

This storm that we typically fight in our late 20s or 30s confronted Raja Sanyal when he was a teenager. Sanyal, a 35-year-old marketing head of a leading multinational private bank, was in junior college when his father had a stroke that set off a long battle to save his heart. Over the years, Sanyal’s mother suffered serious health setbacks as well, losing vision and developing diabetes. Sanyal’s carefree years were spent chasing doctors, making grown-up decisions, preparing for the next day’s exam from his father’s bedside at the hospital. Twenty years later, having been through bypass surgeries and diabetic emergencies, angioplasties and angiograms, Sanyal has realised a few things about life. It is important to take, but perhaps it is more important to give. He enjoys the perks of his big job. But not always do they give him peace. 

“Beyond a point, business class travel and fancy restaurants start to feel pseudo,” he says. “When time permits, I visit villages, find out the medical needs of people and organise the medicines.”  

While you can, move. Act. That seems Sanyal’s credo. It is manifest in his attempts at poetry. He quotes a couple of his lines:

Doh roti kamaane mein umar jaayegi beet/Jab tak saanson mein hausla hai, kuch kar le/Warna umar dhalte dekh pachtaega, yehi zindagi ki reet

Roughly, it translates into this. All your years will be spent earning bread. Do something (for others) while you still have the strength. Else, you shall repent. Such is the way of life. 

Sanyal says, “I wouldn’t have done well in my career without my parents around me. Parents are a huge support system, whatever condition they may be in.”

Which is why, even at the cost of her own health, Preeti Menon gives in to her conscience and does one more tedious Google search or picks the brains of a doctor friend for information that might come handy should her parents’ health take a turn for the worse. 

She says, “If I tell my father I want something, he will make it happen, even at this age. So I have to do my bit. That’s the trade-off, right?”