One day, I had a call from mom.
It was one of those routine calls she used to make to my wife and I, more as a means of reaching out than because she had some news of import to convey – the telephone line as umbilical cord.
So she would call and ramble on about my eating habits and smoking and how the neighbor was remodeling his home and the dust was settling in thick layers all over our home as a result and about the other neighbor whose daughter, based in the US, was pregnant, and…
I listened patiently to those stream-of-consciousness chronicles of the mundane ticks of her time because I knew she was, in her own way, trying to make up for lost time. Through a torrent of words, she was trying to make up for the grim silences of the past.
So that day, she rattled off the news from the extended neighborhood and then, just before signing off, asked me, ‘So when is she coming next?’ Who? ‘She… you know…’, there was a pause, and then in a voice driven an octave higher by frustration, she said ‘Never mind! I am getting old! One of these days I am going to forget my own name!!’ And she banged the phone down.
I did not realize at the time that it was the first manifestation of a trauma that would progressively engulf our family, plunging us into a state of helplessness beyond comprehension.
And it happened one painful day at a time.
One day, in the middle of a call, her voice trailed off. I thought the line had gotten cut. Hello? ‘No, wait, I am trying to remember something I want to tell you, I am still here,’ she said.
One day the phone rang. I answered. There was silence. Then, without a word of greeting, she said “I called you because there was something I wanted to tell you. And now I have forgotten what it was.” I heard a sob. And then she slammed the phone down. The sound hurt like a physical blow to the gut.
One day, in the midst of a long ramble punctuated by many pauses and as many repetitions (by then she had begun to forget that she had told me something, and would go back and start all over), she asked me to wait while she got herself some water. “My throat feels so dry,” she said. I waited. She never came back. Long minutes later, I panicked and called my sister on the other line. It turned out that mom had forgotten she was talking to me, and wandered off, and was watering the plants. The time was around nine — at night.
One day my niece called and asked, did grandma speak to you today? No, I said, why? “She asked me to dial a number for her because she has forgotten the number — but she won’t tell me whose number she wants me to dial, and she is getting angry with me for not dialing it,” my niece, a teen bewildered beyond measure by her grandmother’s progressive deterioration, wailed. Never mind, I said, give her the phone. Mom came on the line. And said hello, how are you, it has been a long time, why haven’t you called, are you okay?
And then she called me someone else’s name.
One day my sister called. “We were watching something on TV. Mom got up and walked off towards the bathroom. After a while I realized she was missing, and I went to check, and she was just standing there, staring at the wall,” sis said, in a voice made moist with sadness.
One day, I was visiting mom in Chennai. A call came in that I had to attend. When I was done, I walked back into the room, and found her standing in front of the bank of light switches in her room. She was just standing there, staring at it. Mom? What do you want? She looked at me and then she looked at the switches and then she looked at me and her eyes were blank. You want the lights on? She stood there thinking about that. And then her eyes teared up. I flicked the switch on for her. She looked up like she had never seen a bulb light up before, with a sort of child-like wonder. And she flashed me a blinding smile. It was just around noon, then.
She forgot to shut doors when she opened them, and she forgot how to open a door that was shut and she would stand in front of it, trying to figure out what she was supposed to do next. And if you noticed and opened it for her, she had forgotten what it was she wanted in whatever room it was she was trying to enter, and she wandered away till something else stopped her in her tracks.
She forgot how to put on her clothes. And she got angry when sis helped her put the blouse on the right way. This most private of persons could not tolerate these daily reminders of her own helplessness.
She forgot how to eat, and would hold a spoonful of food poised in the air in front of her, and stare at it till someone actually guided it to her mouth — and then she forgot she had to open her mouth and take in the food.
One day, I got out of the car and turned and saw mom waiting by the door, a beaming smile on her face. “Did you have a good trip?”, she asked. “Have you eaten anything? You are looking so thin!”
And then she called me by the name of her only brother – the man who had disowned her when she got married against her family’s wishes; the man she had never spoken to for over 50 years; the man who was long dead.
One day, my wife went to Chennai by herself. Mom smiled happily at her, reached out with fingers that trembled with the effort to convey affection and stroked her hair, and then asked her “Why didn’t he come?” Who?, my wife asked. She knew; she was just teasing. Mom struggled to get my name, her mounting frustration evident in the furious workings of throat and jaw and the tremble of her lips. And then she broke down and sobbed like a baby.
One day – April 14 – when I went visiting, she stared at me as I walked in the door. She did not say a word, nor did her expression change. I asked her how she was doing. She just stared. As I moved around the room, her eyes followed me — blank eyes, empty of life.
Eyes like glass, reflecting what they focused on, absorbing nothing.
And then, one day, she went to sleep – that is to say, she went back to sleep, because by then she was sleeping all the time, with the briefest periods of wakefulness.
And thus she died, at 4.40 am on May 11, when she finally forgot how to breathe.
THEY used to call this madness, back in the day.
My great grandmother on the paternal side was “mad”. “Possessed”, some of the elders would say, nodding wisely.
There was a room in our ancestral home that was always kept empty, and dark, and closed. That is where the souls of our departed ancestors lived. (That is also where we stored those enormous porcelain jars of freshly pickled mango and jack and peppercorn and papaya. There is a mordant, witty connection to be made there, but I am not in the mood just now).
Great grandma was kept chained in that room till the day she died. The awful clank of those chains on the wooden pallet that was her bed, and on the floor when she moved about, and her screams of rage and of frustration as she repeatedly tested the limits of her freedom, formed the disorienting soundtrack of my days and nights, back when I was a very small boy.
By the time I moved into my teens, it was my grandmother’s turn. They didn’t call it “madness” then, not openly. They simply didn’t refer to it, is all. And so my grandmother would sit, in the chair my grandfather alone had the right to sit in when he was alive. And she would point to someone in her line of sight and ask, “who is that?” Oh, that is Jayaraj. “Who is Jayaraj?” Your son, grandma. “Ohhhh, Jayaraj — when did he come?” This morning, grandma. “This morning? Really?” She would smile and even as the smile blossomed it would change to a puzzled frown. “Who is that?”
After a few rounds of that, I would slip away. It didn’t matter — she sat there and stared into the distance and repeated the questions and answers to herself, until something distracted her and she went off on some other loop, muttering away.
We cousins would invent our own dialogues, in imitation of grandma’s rambles. And with the casual cruelty of the very young, I once built a segment of my mimicry program around her ramblings, and brought the house down at the annual college cultural fest.
Now we have a name for it. Dementia. Even my young nieces know it is dementia – not madness. Not even Alzheimer’s, which was the original diagnosis when mom first showed signs of “losing it”.
In an Alzheimer’s patient the brain will be shorter and more square than normal because that is what the disease does — it shrinks the brain. In the case of dementia, the brain will be of normal size, but will show the presence of lesions — softer, darker areas — throughout.
I learnt all this through an article in the New York Times. Elsewhere I read of how, and why, cases of Alzheimer’s and dementia are proliferating, and how this has the potential to become a health-care disaster of epic proportions. I learnt that there was a subset of dementia, called “pleasant dementia” — the kind my grandmother suffered from, if I were to make a posthumous diagnosis.
My mom’s disease progressed in incremental stages, and so did my knowledge of the disease — because what else is there to do when confronted with such than to read, and try to understand? So I googled dementia and collected links and read and made notes, all to what purpose I did not stop to ask myself.
Late one night, I was sitting at my mom’s bedside. She was drifting in and out of sleep and each time her eyes opened, she would look around the room till she saw me, and there would be a momentary flash of recognition in those eyes, and then she would go to sleep again.
So I sat there and I googled, and I stumbled on Nora Ephron’s piece on her own encounter with dementia.
Once I went to a store to buy a book about Alzheimer’s and when I got there I found I had forgotten its name. I remembered this as I sat at mom’s bedside that night and I thought it was very funny. I laughed out loud. I don’t know when I stopped laughing, and when in the dead of that night the fat, hot, wet tears began to sting my eyes and rake red-hot furrows down my cheeks.
This is what I learnt during that night, during that vigil without end: dementia does more damage to the bystanders, to the family members, than it does to the victim. The latter just fades away, imperceptibly and, one hopes, painlessly – “the long goodbye”, someone called it. But even as the victim forgets, the bystander is forced to remember.
LITTLE memory bubbles, trapped too long in the muck of the mind, keep breaking free and bursting on the surface with liquid plops.
I cannot claim to ‘remember’ that my parents, both with nascent careers to nurture and grow, outsourced my own nurture and growth to my grandparents, leaving me in their care when I was just 20 days old.
What I do remember is that from when I was old enough to talk — and even to this day — my parents have always been ‘mom’ and ‘dad’. ‘Achchan’ and ‘Amma’ — father and mother respectively, in Malayalam — have always been my grandparents. That is how I thought of them and referred to them when they were alive, and that is how I think of them today, when they are long gone. They brought me up, they taught me stories from the epics and the puranas and the meanings underlying rituals; they instilled in me their values and their ideals. Mom and dad were the people who visited once every summer and brought me toys and clothes and books and then went away again, leaving me in peace to play with those toys and read those books.
Today we talk of the trauma of being “abandoned” in childhood and the resulting scars on the psyche. Those days, it was just how life was.
I remember being taken away to Madras, to ‘my own home’, when I was 14. I remember my parents rushing off to work by eight and coming back home around six and asking me how school was and did I do well and did I have a shower after playing cricket in the dusty field opposite my home, and then leaving me alone while they wandered off to discuss their work and colleagues and all the other things they had to talk about — so many other things, they had no time to talk to me.
I remember that as I grew older, they began to talk AT me. What electives I should take, what marks I needed to get to qualify for a seat in medical school. They talked at me, their words reflective of their own ambitions for me. But they never talked TO me. They never listened to me. And they never knew what, if any, dreams and ambitions I had for myself.
I rebelled. Bunked class. Started smoking, drinking, doing drugs. I majored in psychotropic pharmacology before I’d finished pre-degree.
I don’t remember the day – I was 17 – when mom came home and found me in bed, froth around the edges of my mouth. I don’t remember swallowing an entire strip of Mandrax. Attempted suicide, the doctor said.
I don’t remember wanting to die.
I remember being shipped back to my grandparents’ home to “get better” (the ancestral home appeared to be a kind of left luggage place for inconvenient baggage).
I kicked drugs. I couldn’t kick the rebellious streak, though. I dropped out of college.
I remember grandad dying. I remember grandma losing first her mind and then her life. With their passing I lost my anchor; I lost the only benign influences in my life; I lost the only two humans who believed that there was more to me than “hopeless wastrel”.
By then, I was a burden to my parents. I know this because they told me so. Repeatedly. Then my mom stopped talking to me (I wrote of it here) – but she managed to convey the message anyway, with words sharp as knives hurled at the space above my head.
I finally found a job in Bombay, and I left my home. I met a girl, and I got married to her. My parents did not attend. They did not know the girl, but disliked her on principle – how could someone who I liked possibly be any good?
So I made my life and lived it. And my parents made their life around my sister and my nieces, and lived that life. We were parallel universes with no channels of communication, with no connection.
And then came the morning of March 17, 1997, when my cousin landed on my doorstep to tell me my father was no more.
That afternoon, as I lay prostrate before the corpse of my father, seeking to wash away with tears the bitterness, the regrets of a lifetime, I felt a gentle hand on my head, a touch that transmitted absolution. A benediction.
Shortly after that day, my mom began to call.
She kept it up for the next sixteen years – till the day her mind failed her.
PS: I wrote large chunks of this on April 12. I had barely reached office that morning when my sis called. She told me mom was no longer even opening her eyes. There was a heartbeat, yes, and a pulse. And if you looked closely you could see her chest rise and fall in time with her slow, labored breathing.
But her eyes were closed. And save for fleeting micro-seconds, she never opened her eyes again, ever. I went down to Chennai late that night. And I saw her lying there – desiccated, shriveled, still, a shell within which once resided a person who, among other things, gave me life.
I knew, then, that she was gone. For it is not a pulse, or a heartbeat, or a breath, that makes a mom.
That morning, after I got that call, I wrote. And in Chennai next day, sitting at her bedside, I wrote more (Not everything I wrote has made it to this post).
I wrote to remember. And I wrote so I could forget.
I wrote to cauterize wounds, to exorcise demons.
And at some level, I wrote because who knows? A day may come when I’ll stare at the keyboard of my laptop and not remember what it is for.
Just like mom with the light switch.