A Death in the Family
Payal Talreja on a father who gives up and a daughter who can't
by Payal Talreja
I felt that empty, numbing neutrality that comes when one person in the room appears to monopolize all the available emotion. This is not new. She has done that, all our lives. I glanced at my brother. His face was frozen. He too, was trapped in an emotional vacuum.
Behind me, my mother’s screams and wails filled the room. Everybody was crowded around her, trying to offer comfort, patting her shoulder, offering consoling words from the scriptures.
The body that lay on the bed was once my father. Three weeks ago, when he was still able to talk, he had requested a haircut and a shave. Ever an officer and a gentleman, I am sure he wanted to be ready for today.
Exactly twenty-three days earlier, he had stopped eating, unable to bear the volcano in his stomach, that spewed lava the minute he ate.
Ten days ago, he had stopped accepting even water.
The last words he spoke were to the barber we had called in – “Beta, aur chota kar do”. His hair was buzzed to what we all called the ‘Cadet’ cut. His moustache trimmed, but still fierce.
He was ready to battle.
“Half the battle is to be prepared” he always said.
My medical training kicked in. I signaled to my friend, his primary doctor, and the attendant nurse to empty the room. Everyone filed out. No one offered any comfort to my brother or me.
As always, mother’s emotions were paramount.
“You don’t have to do this,” my friend said, eyes filled with pity. Thank Goodness, he had come. Thank Goodness, he was talking to me.
I shook my head. I asked my brother if he wanted to stay and help. He nodded, swallowing hard. He too, is a military man.
I removed the catheter. The bag contained a bare 20ml of urine, now brown and sludgy. Deprived of water, first the kidneys shut down. Eventually, all organs shut down, and the heart gives in. For a lucky few, if the heart is weak, death comes quickly with a coronary.
My father had a strong heart.
I had prayed for this. Every night, dry-eyed and empty, my brother and I would go up to the terrace, smoking cigarette after cigarette, discussing in hoarse voices what was to be done. The fact is, nothing can be done in fourth-stage liver cancer, compounded by acute cirrhosis. There we would be, talking, worrying, torturing ourselves with slivers of hope in the form of new treatments scoured from the internet, which we knew were quite useless at this stage.
Occasionally, my husband would join us, and be the voice of reason. “Stop it, both of you. You have done all that could be done. He’s eighty-two. He’s beaten cancer twice. He has had enough.”
My dad had requested that we stop the chemo and radiation. Cancer is the one ailment where the treatment is as terrifying as the disease. My dad had also requested that we not take him back to the ICU, but enable him to die in peace, at home.
Six months ago, I had brought him to my house. My mother threw tantrums, she fought and yelled, but for once, dad had the foresight to understand they could not manage this alone in another city. Hence, the move to Delhi, and the beginning of the ordeal that would swallow all of us, including my husband and young daughter.
He was a soldier. He would stare at the boiled egg in front of him and will himself to eat. Every time a spoonful of food hit his stomach a plume of fire would roar up the esophagus. We tried everything. “Get bullets of nutrition into him,” my friend, the Gastroenterologist said. Gulab Jamun, packed with sugary energy. “Eat parathas, sir, you just need to eat well now”, another doctor said. I remembered the futile second consultation at the Liver and Biliary Institute.
My dad laughed. At least his mouth stretched, and his eyes twinkled. “It’s ok, Doctor,” he said gently. “I understand you have no medical cure for me”. Eat parathas! Fine advice for a man who could barely ingest a spoonful of boiled rice.
He became grumpy. He flung down his spoon and said the kheer was salty. I understood. It did taste salty to him. Everything we cooked was either too sweet, too salty or bitter. His clear, strong gaze became glazed and rheumy. Meals were soon replaced with protein shakes. He said they tasted like ‘whitewash’. As if he was a baby, we would pat his back for hours, helping him burp, to soothe the burn that ran up his throat. There was no cure for the bubbling fire, the weight in his chest, even though we tried medicine after medicine.
In eighty-two years, this was the first time I had ever heard him complain. About anything.
His mantra was – “This too shall pass.” He told us to try our hardest, never let defeat overwhelm us or victory elate us. When I lost a debate and came home feeling rotten, he said – “Chin up! Losing is an important tool for growth. Now, write down all the things that made you lose points.” When my brother lost an important cricket match, he said - “Your fielding was poor. You need to practice that. Let me know if you want me to work with your team. Know what will help you beat them.” When we celebrated wins, he would smile and gently remind us that the wheel of Life turns, and nothing remains the same. Unlike mom, he never fussed or got mad.
In the beginning, he would walk the length of the long corridor in my house, trying to keep his muscles from wasting. Triumphantly he would report he had done “Ten chakkars.” Or on good days, fifteen. Then, even three, or four became a struggle. A mere month later he could only manage walking to the end and back, supported with a walking frame.
When dad was forty, he won the Armed Forces Marathon, beating soldiers and officers as young as twenty-three. He used to call himself “Lambi race ka ghoda”. I could sense him remembering that, when I helped him into a chair, trembling from the effort. “Thank you, beta,” he said, with a slight shake of his head. I hope he was as kind to himself as he was to us.
His stay in the ICU was an ordeal. He was always cold, the nurses were harried, and no one had the time to help him when urine leaked out of his diaper. My friend did his best to ensure he had good care, but good care in hospitals does not mean emotional care. He begged me to never send him to an ICU again. We moved the double bed from his bedroom to the garage. I ordered a hospital bed and an air mattress, set up an IV and arranged for a Bi-pap machine. I engaged two ICU level nurses, took over his care, and shifted him home.
It was the last leg.
Everyone assumed that he was getting better because we had brought him home.
Late one night, I sat by his bed holding his hand. I had sent the nurse out for a short chai break. Dad said – “Beta, you know what to do. Help me go. You are my Arjuna. If nothing else, press a pillow to my face. I am ready.” He held my eyes for a moment before I disengaged his hand. Filled with horror and rage, I fled the room. Stoic, all these days, I dissolved into tears in my husband’s arms that night.
The next day, my father stopped eating. He whispered this request to my husband. “Don’t feed me, don’t make me eat, even if I beg,” he said. It was his only recourse. He never asked for food after that day. As the fat melted off his bones, as his eyes receded into his skeletal face, as he began to sleep for longer and longer, he never once asked for food. My mother raged and demanded to be allowed to take him home to Lucknow. She would appear at his bedside with little bits of orange, a few spoonfuls of sweetened milk, a tiny portion of jaggery and pleading with him to eat. He would shake his head and close his eyes.
We tried to explain to her what the food did to him, but she could only see that we were starving our father. She accused me of cruelty, then torture, cursing me for being the worst daughter any man could have. She appealed to my husband and my daughter to exhort me. Her tears and crying grew unbearable and finally, I had to threaten her with banishment from dad’s room.
Every day, I searched the internet to find out how long it takes for someone to die without food. I knew the answer. But I hoped for comfort.
My brother would ask –“Are you sure this is Okay? Is he suffering? Oh God! I hope he’s not suffering.”
I took solace from websites like ‘dignityhealth’ and ‘peacefuldeath’. I was alone in my quest. My gastro friend was livid with me, insisting that we should continue to feed him, forcefully, artificially, through an IV if necessary, till he passed on. I was equally insistent we obey his wishes. He said he would quit as his supervising doctor if I did not agree. “It’s our duty to feed him,” he argued. We fought and he left, then came back again. “This is wrong,” he told me.
I felt a continuing sense of betrayal. Mine, in not being able to lead him to a quick release. His, in making a monstrous request.
He wasn’t dying because he had stopped eating. He had stopped eating because he was dying. Medically, an old, ill person who stops taking in any calories and fluid gradually falls deeper and deeper in sleep. This was being aided by the fentanyl patches that had now been prescribed for him. His body was slowly consuming itself, first the fat, then the muscles. I cursed my medical training because I could envision each step of this awful journey. His tongue was slowly turning black and shriveling in his mouth.
“Is he in pain?” my family would ask. I would lie – “No, he’s sleeping, see?”. All doctors lie. They must, in order to save people from grief.
The Bhagwad Gita says that telling lies or truth is also Karma. My dad was a Karmayogi, and he had taught us to be so. The Bhagwad Gita says the body is temporary, the soul is eternal. I prayed for forgiveness. I prayed, every single moment of every single day for my father to die, for his soul to forgive me, when his body must blame me for the torture.
I was in the bath when he died. “Maaa, come quick!” my daughter said banging on the bathroom door. The nurse was leaning over him, with his hands on the radial artery. He nodded to me as I stepped in. I leaned in close with my stethoscope. My mother was already wailing. She was screaming and cursing God, screaming at my father for leaving her. “It won’t make a difference to your lives,” she raged at my brother and me, “I’m the one who’ll be left alone.”
My daughter was sobbing, curled up on a corner of her grandfather’s bed. “Say good bye,” I whispered to her. I motioned my brother over. Dad was gone.
My friend arrived within minutes. I was grateful. I don’t know how he got away from his busy OPD. Someone must have called him. We washed the body. There was no subcutaneous fat. His ribs were caved in. Someone had mercifully closed the eyes shut. I closed my own eyes against my father’s nakedness. Gangajal was brought in, and he was wiped down with it, purifying his body, absolving it of sin. We had a white kurta pyjama ready.
The furniture was moved to the side in the living room. I talked and I instructed and answered a million questions. “She is her father’s daughter,” my aunt said, “she’s so strong and brave.” My eyes remained dry. I comforted my brother, my daughter, my husband. “Cry, beta, else you’ll fall sick,” someone else said. Who will call for the flowers, the pandit, who will call the crematorium, I thought? I gave more instructions. I switched off my cell phone that kept on ringing. I smiled and nodded at my friends who poured in, with hugs and comfort.
Someone said the kitchen should be shut down. Someone said he shouldn’t be in a daughter’s house. Someone else said I had served him like a son. Someone put on a bhajan. The body was brought in and there was some debate about the direction it should be laid in. The nose and ears were stuffed with cotton, mortuary style. He looked handsome, even in death.
The only one who could comfort me over the loss of my father, give me the permission to cry was my mother. But the room resounded with her wails. I would have to wait.
Payal Talreja, writer, poet, fiery feminist, explores words, experiences and places with no limitations.
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This story was written in response to the following prompt:
Random Sentence: Pick up the nearest book of fiction. Go to page 124. Read the fourth complete sentence on that page. Make that the first line of your story.
The book closest to Payal was was Enduring Love by Ian McEwan.
Art by Simahina.
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