March 2007: In October last year, the man I was most attached to died holding my hand. He was surrounded by all those he most loved—his wife, father, uncle and aunt, closest friend, and only child, me.
My dad was diagnosed with cancer in 2004. It chose to strike at the worst time ever—our family was in the process of immigrating to Australia. Mum and I were already there, dad was wrapping up and was scheduled to leave in nine days when his ‘bone cyst’ showed up in an X-ray. Mum and I flew back. The cancer was discovered on the operating table.
The two years that my dad fought his cancer were the two years the family battled to stay sane. Emotionally, each of us fluctuated between hope and reality; despair and faith. Every positive result put us over the moon and validated every belief in the goodness and justness of the world: every negative development drowned us in despair through which hope and belief in miracles, realistic or not, were the only saviours. In some ways, being on that emotional rollercoaster was worse than having to deal with his death now that he’s gone and that’s final. It changed us all.
I drove head-first into a full-blown depression that I’m just about coming out of. Mum, who I’d describe as a questioning Catholic, decided to ‘mannat maango’. She bartered with God—turned vegetarian if only he’d spare the love of her life. He didn’t. I think she might as well revert to non-vegetarianism. Our family, which is educated and decidedly non-superstitious, took to consulting saadhus and astrologers, going to Haridwar, and doing foolish things like throwing quantities of wheat and jaggery into the Ganga. The depths of desperation.
Dad was the strongest through this. There were moments of bitterness—“I’ll die out of a suitcase.”; there were moments of grief—“I’m ruining everyone’s life”. But those were rare. The way he lived his life and nurtured his relationships ensured that my grandparents’ house in Dehradun was always filled with friends from the world over. His optimism through the pain was inspiring. In fact, after he died, I discovered a letter I’d written to him when the cancer had just been diagnosed: the envelope said, ‘Open only when you’re really depressed’. It was unopened.
There are many ‘what ifs’ which lead to much guilt and regret. They don’t really include the fact that my career and educational aspirations and marriage dissolved around dad’s illness and my need to be with him.
One ‘what if’ grips me with guilt. You see, my telling on someone when I was really young caused a rift in my father’s family. It resulted in an on-again-off-again relationship with a really close relative who is a very competent doctor. It’s been speculated that my dad’s cancer was caused by radioactive iodine that he took to kill his thyroid that was hyperactive. When my dad got his thyroid ‘blasted’, we were on an ‘off’ stage with this doctor who told me, when dad died, that, had he known about it, he wouldn’t have let my dad take the nuclear medication because of the high cancer risk. If I had just shut up all those years ago there wouldn’t have been the ‘off’ stage: the doctor would have dissuaded my dad from taking the iodine: the cancer wouldn’t have struck: he’d still be alive…
The other major ‘what if’ leads to a feeling of pure regret. Chemotherapy was purported to be working for dad. The test results were all positive after his first round of chemo. Then his tongue got paralysed and there was a second round. He was confident he’d beat the cancer. While on his second round, he consulted this very well known homeopath from London, who has cured people we know of cancer. This doctor arrived at our doorstep in Mumbai one day, at the same time mum was at dad’s hospital being told that dad wouldn’t last long. I saw this as a message too strong to be a mere coincidence. This was December but dad didn’t start his homeopathy until early May—he said the dietary restrictions would stop him from eating the little that chemo had left him with an appetite for. I kept urging him, forcing him to start the homeopathy. When he did start it, it was too late. The homeopathy had great results but the cancer was too far gone. My dad believed he would conquer cancer and didn’t see the urgency to start the medication that could have saved his life. A lesson learnt—it’s great to believe in your abilities and to be positive and keep the faith. But it’s a fine line between that and overconfidence, which will lead you to foolish decisions.
And there’s the ‘what if’ he didn’t smoke, drink, eat red meat…
His death was poetic and glorious in many ways. He waited until all of us were by his hospital bedside and then took off his oxygen mask, waved his hand and said, “Bye.” Mum was holding his right hand, I was holding the other. I started crying and had a sinking feeling in my stomach, though mum was very calm. He told us not to hold him back and said, “Forget it” repeatedly. Mum and I told him we’d forget it, forget all the pain. Mum said, “Fly away baby, fly away.”
And he said, “Flying away, flying away, flying away, flying away…Flown away.”
And he was gone.
In his last moments, I remember his reaching out instinctively and desperately for mum, holding her hand, kissing it. Arguing with the doctor as he put the oxygen mask back on. An uncouth relative whispering loudly in the background, disturbing the sanctity of the last few moments. Those moments are so special, and are so hard to write about.
I’ve been a crazy daughter—went through my wild ‘bad daughter’ days (years!) before I became sane and turned out okay, if a bohemian dilettante who writes for a living. I feel I ran out of time with my dad—that he’d barely started seeing the fruits of his patience and toil. I’m 23 now: the recognition is arriving slowly, the money is just about starting to be significant. But he isn’t here to see it: to feel the pride. My mum is, but I’m convinced she needs me and validation of her sacrifices way less than he ever did. I’ve had these grandiose dreams of settling my middle-class ex-Naval officer dad and mum in luxury. No time left for that.
I am left with many childhood memories. At the moment they’re all overshadowed by the more immediate pain of dad’s cancer and death. I have nightmares—most involve being told that he’s not really dead. And if it wasn’t for a very strong support structure—my parents’ and my friends—mum and I wouldn’t be ‘okay’.
I’ve always scoffed at people who’ve turned to religion and God in times of adversity—I could never understand it. I’m agnostic and see religion as nothing but rituals and a way of life, and God as nothing but a crux for the weak. I’ve always believed I’m too intellectual for blind belief—that everything has a scientific and logical explanation. But this experience has changed me. Not only do I understand the need for religion and God, I must admit I was tempted. In a way, I feel that I want to believe: that I wish I could believe.
I want to believe in karma: that the pain he’s suffered in this life will ensure that he has a pleasant journey ahead.
I want to believe in reincarnation: that I will see him again.
I want to believe in Heaven: that he is happy now, having lived a good and moral but unfulfilling life here on earth.
I want to believe in ghosts and spirits: that he’s still around, here, somewhere.
Oh, I want to believe so many things.
But mostly, I want to not believe it’s over.
An edited version of this article appeared in Tehelka in March 2007. Read the obituary I wrote for my mother-in-law here.