He stopped breathing. I was chanting in my head – not on my watch, not on my watch, my hand on his knees. He was opening his mouth like he wanted to say something, which was impossible as his tongue was swollen. He hadn’t said a word in two weeks. Just that afternoon we were playing a ‘help us guess what you want Papa’ game. He was flailing around like he was having a spasm attack. He was having a heart attack. I was holding his knees. Ma was sleeping on the cold bench on that cold night. December 13. It was 2.40 am when his eyes glazed over and I ran like mad to the doctors. Cancer had crept up on him and swallowed him whole.
My soul walked out of my body and stood a little away from it all, watching the doctors give him injections and oxygen, splashing light on his light brown pupils. Mom was awake. He went still. Soon the lady doctor declared my father dead. It was like she was declaring a part of me dead.
I am now an old person. My Father just died on my watch. Mom whimpered, “So soon?” caressing his near-bald head of salt-pepper, before breaking down. He must really be dead. My Ma never cries. I moved and closed his eyes with my two fingers. Perhaps the most important task my fingers had ever performed. Closing the eyes of my dead father.
There was a scream trapped somewhere in my chest, in my throat. Hold Mamma’s shoulders. Find your voice. Make some calls. Call one sister. Call sister’s husband. Call someone. How do you say Papa is dead? What combination of words is the most dignified? Do I say it in English? Do I say it Hindi? What do you do when your father dies? Right after he dies? Don’t look at the pitying eyes of the nurses. Don’t cry. Check his pulse again. Maybe they are wrong. He’d smiled that evening, didn’t he, his first in months.
Look at his long nose. I have his nose. Look at his beautiful, beautiful light brown eyes. Baby sister has his eyes. Look at his body. Hardly any flesh left. All bones. A sinkhole of blood and platelets and glucose vanishing at lightning speed to someplace mysterious in his body. His long fingers, his hands. They couldn’t find his veins, in the end, something to do with his smoking. He needed us to turn him over to the other side. He needed two of us to take him to the toilet. When he soiled his clothes one day, baby sister had made him wear her sweater. She is a size 6.
I must have called someone and said the right thing because of my sister’s husband, his father and brother arrived. It was a full cold, weepy moon. I was frozen. I found Naina, my niece crying on the stairs back at home, my sister had left her alone and she’d woken up scared. I picked her up, took her to my bed and hugged her. I was in the hospital for two days straight with no sleep. I needed to sleep. It was 4 a.m. I slept and woke up at 7 a.m. Fatherless.
I woke up with a start because I wanted to kiss him before others would descend and tell me I can’t. I kissed his forehead, his nose. What and who is squeezing my heart? Who is strangling my throat? How do you breathe? How do you grieve? I don’t know the ropes.
Three long days of crowded rooms and weeping relatives, my eyes just moved over them lifelessly. Did I stop breathing too when he did? I need to scream, I need to scream. The scream is rattling my rib cage, trapped. No voice is coming out. These tears aren’t even ruffling the surface of what is buried inside me. What if I had come a month sooner? He would have died a month sooner. What if I had never left for New York? He would have died sooner. He was waiting for me.
Elder sister is grumbling about something in the kitchen, and I snap back (nothing matters but the loud, deafening scream that I haven’t yet let loose. I want to scream, I want to scream. Half blind, half deaf, half dead, I snapped. She slapped me. I tried to hit her back like a blind person would. She didn’t expect that. I don’t do that. I never did that. But Papa wasn’t dead then. Eldest sister is pulling me off. You don’t understand, I am chanting. Nobody understands. Apologize. I have to apologize.
I am sorry I hit you. I am sorry I snapped. I am sorry I didn’t come sooner from my selfish trip to New York. I am sorry I let him die on my watch. I am sorry I didn’t run fast enough to the doctors. I am sorry I didn’t run sooner to the doctors. I am so glad you guys weren’t there. The scream, like a child ready to be born, is gurgling in my throat. I scream. I scream. I scream. Mindlessly. Madly.
He’s not dead. I am dead. I am dead. He didn’t love me like I wanted him to. He didn’t love me as much as I wanted him to. But it doesn’t matter, I loved him. And he’s dead. And he has my first silly poem in his drawer. And he has all the imperfect paintings I tore to pieces in his files.
Can’t I dig him back out of the grave? Breathe life into him somehow? Kiss him one more time? Start over? Be a child again? And not this old person his death has made me?
There are no five stages of grief. There is just one stage that stretches on like a rubber band. It is the offspring of pain and disbelief. I go limp. I stay in fetal position for three months. I stop sleeping at nights. Start sleeping at dawn. I wake up in the afternoons, I eat. And I curl up in bed again. He’s vanishing. His clothes aren’t on the clothesline anymore. I don’t have to fight with him for the remote. His side of the bed is empty. I roam the house like a ghost. Where is he? Where am I?
I haunt social media sites. It’s a whole new realm. A parallel universe. Everything is sunny, and normal and nice there. No one knows I am ill for weeks, wearing my Papa’s sweater because he’s dead and his fragrance is still trapped in the wool. I put on masks. I don’t lie. I don’t announce my grief either. People see you in a different light. Go easy on you. I don’t need their pity. My Papa gave me a strong spine. He was the chiropractor of our spines. I was lifting and carrying his weight on mine, wasn’t I? I just need to hide for a while. I can do that. I can live two lives. At least I am alive somewhere, and not dead because he’s dead.
With a memory like mine, there is no detail I can’t pull out to sketch him back again. Drop by reverse drop. Just the way we lost him. In tiny painful drops. Enough to lose hope. Not enough to lose all hope. I can still recall his voice, by the way. They are wrong. Their voice isn’t the first thing you forget. I can’t forget how he just slept under the effect of morphine all day, so I cry when I see some man lying down in a movie, I cry when I see a hospital in a TV series. I can’t watch “Grey’s Anatomy” anymore. Too many oxygen tubes.
Someone snores, it feels like Papa is wheezing. His lungs’ desperate attempts to draw some breath. I cry when his favorite movie comes on. I pre-ordered Dilip Kumar’s autobiography. He would have made me. I watch cricket now. Or try to. I cry. But I am still not grieving. I haven’t reached that stage yet. I am stuck somewhere on that cold night of December 13, 2013, while the world is whizzing around.
There are still people who don’t know he’s no more.
The phone is ringing.
Hello, beta, is Papa around?
Yes, he is.
First published in Rediff.com on June 15, 2014: