Saturday, November 29, 2008

Thoughts about my late mother

I wrote the following a week after I spent time my mother in April 2005. She had been suffering from cancer for three years. In mid-April our family was told that she would most likely last only two or three months. She passed away on July 2, 2005.

In March 2005, in what was to be the last public outing of her life, she decked up. She draped herself in her best silk sari–a wedding anniversary gift from my sister. Around her neck, she wore a gold choker with a stunning peacock pendant that she had just got custom-made at her favorite jeweler's. She drove out with our driver for a wedding looking like a million dollars.

“Look at this woman? How dare she dress like that when her husband has just had a bad fall and is home alone in bed?” Tongues wagged. But my mother never did get tossed around by tongues.

In the weeks that followed, we'd discover that her disease had metastatized to her brain. Mother now had edema in the brain and she began spending most days in the hospital. When her oncologist visited her on his daily rounds, she perked up. Whenever he looked her up, she clung to his right hand like a drowning man might a wooden raft while thrashing about and coming up for air in the open sea.

“This is Dr. Ravi Kannan, you know, Dr. Ravi Kannan,” she muttered over and over again, looking down, saying it several times like a mantra. Perhaps if she said it enough times, her illness would disappear as mysteriously as it burrowed into her one evening three years ago?

“Yes, mother, of course I know Dr. Kannan very well,” I said gently, nudging her arm, hoping she would release his hand from the vice grip. She presently brought her other arm and cupped his palm in both hers. Her eyes darted to the clock on the wall in front of her bed.

“See that?” she said, addressing us all, pointing to the clock for the millionth time that day, “It’s 9pm. Doctor Ravi needs to go home. It’s 9pm.” The words often slipped, tripped, tumbled and crashed in her throat before they screeched to the tip of her tongue. Although most of her sentences were lost on us these days, all of us - my sister, my dad, our driver, the surgical oncologist, myself - understood her this time.

“I know it’s late, Aunty, but don’t you worry. So, tell me, what did you do today?” Dr. Kannan put his free arm around his 75-year-old patient, goading her to talk about anything that floated into her tumor-ripened, refried mind.

“I ate mangoes.” The ends of her mouth lifted up and, for a mere second, her eyes joined her mouth to felicitate a ripe, cloying mango born in a sultry Indian summer.

“Sweet, I take it?”

“Very,” my mother smiled now, looking down as she did lately when she talked to people until one of us reminded her to look up and into the eyes of the person she was addressing.

“What else?”

“And SHE came very late,” my mother now pointed an angry finger at my sister, her elder daughter, the only one she’d trust to do anything for her. “Very VERY late.”

She looked at the clock again and hurled a fist at it, thought and word colliding inside her head until her eyes pulled a glassy curtain shut. She curled into silence.

“Traffic, Aunty. You must understand that your daughter loves you very much. She’d do anything for you but there’s really nothing she or the driver can do in Chennai traffic. Don’t you remember, those buses, trucks, auto-rickshaws, traffic signals?”

“I wept. Into a bottle.”

Then she proceeded to tell him how she thought the bottle was a cell-phone and how she wept into her ‘phone’ asking her daughter to come and stay by her side. Why couldn’t she come to be with her as quickly as she could after a swift shower and a swifter meal in her home?

And every so often, Dr. Kannan would chuckle and steal a look at us, adjusting his tie and he would nod and pat her on the back and tell her that it was just fine. But he’d plead with her, with a lilt, a little lisp, telling her she should try to remember that everyone loved her and wanted to take care of her, especially her 82-year-old husband who loved her so much he’d do anything for her. Didn’t she know that?

“Yes, I know,” she whispered. A furrow cleaved her brow, hurling a teardrop against her cheek. “I know. He loves me so much.”

And then Dr. Kannan, who had already worked a 16-hour day, would beam down at her, tell her that she was looking wonderful and that he looked forward to seeing her tomorrow at the same time after he was done with all his other patients.

“Yes, see, you must go, look at the time,” she’d say again to him. “Go home.” Then she’d tell us she wanted to lie down. Our driver would hoist her legs on to the bed, I’d pull the pillow forward a bit and my sister would rest her gently on the bare, thin foam with a clean pillow and a clean sheet in a simple air-conditioned room, one of the few private rooms available in a cancer center which sees over a thousand poor patients a day.

“Now cover me with that blanket,” she’d demand with the precision of a perfect sunset as she eased on to the bed, her glazed eyes wandering, perhaps, far into that jigsaw land of her mind’s eye where she dreamt about meeting the daughter she lost to small pox half a century ago. She would make that long-forgotten child her spongiest idlis and serve it with cilantro-coconut chutney. She’d marry her off to a man worthy of her and dress her up in peacock blue silk on her wedding morning. Strange that somewhere in the swelling corridors of her brain, a little live cell sang the same jingle: ‘Tomorrow, mango slivers for lunch’.

She fell asleep again, her chin bursting into cheer at this yellow season of tropical fruitfulness.

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