I woke up today in a cold sweat. I’d remembered going to bed quite late, so I assumed that it must’ve been well after noon. As I habitually checked my phone, I was surprised to see that it was only 9 am. A subconscious frown enveloped my face as I realised that I’d only gotten about 3 hours of sleep. It was going to be a long day.
I made my way downstairs, already grumpy. Generally my parents would greet me with sarcastic remarks on how I’d woken up early for once in my life. But today, the house was surprisingly empty. I looked around for my grandmother, eventually finding her in the garden. “Your mother asked me to tell you to go to Babu chettans house today, if you can.”
Sh*t. I was supposed to go there a week ago, as his cancer was already quite critical. I’d decided that I had no choice but to go today. Babu uncle, as I’ve always referred to him, was a very distant relative. But in my family, we kept in touch with all our relatives for some strange, peculiar reason. As a result, no family member was distant enough not to be close.
My father picked me up a short while later, and together we headed towards a sick man’s house. On the way, my mother calls him. He puts her on speaker as he’s driving, so I hear her say, “He’s gotten as worse as he’s possibly can. Are you coming?” After my father consoles her that we were on the way, he continues his rant about how the family members refuse to take Babu uncle to the pain and palliative care clinic to ease his suffering in his final moments. We pulled into the driveway of the house and parked outside. The merciless Kerala rains had surprisingly decided to take a break for a few hours, as we walked into the house.
As we walked into the bedroom where Babu uncle was lying down, the sound of prayers got louder. Inside, was a grim sight. An old man lying on the bed, his once long and magnificent beard trimmed off, a tube collecting his waste to the side, and his eyes staring at the ceiling, almost in disbelief. Was he staring at God? Surrounding him, all the ladies of the family gathered in synchronous prayers to help guide the soul into the afterlife. They were hysterical with grief. I did not know Babu uncle all that well, but the memories I do have of him were all very sweet. And the stories that I’d been told about him were even sweeter. Most people made him out to be some form of a saint, always going out of his way to help people. This attitude was also passed on to his daughter, who was very kind to me once when I desperately required kindness. But that’s a story for another time.
I entered and took my place politely at the back, watching the proceedings, not really sure of what to do. And almost on cue, within a few minutes, Babu uncles mouth came open and he shuddered, almost as if he was belching. But no belch came out, and suddenly everyone knew that he was gone. Immediately after all the ladies in the room including his wife, his daughter, and various other old women that I knew by face but not by relation immediately burst out, throwing their prayers into the wind. In the midst of all this chaos was my mother.
Now, my mother is gullible to a fault. She’s a dentist and she has a habit of getting fooled financially and otherwise. She’s also extremely charitable, treating several patients for free and such. But she was always, for lack of a better word, naive when it came to a lot of things. Quick witted and sarcastic (like me) but also careless and silly. I’d always criticise her for this, as she’d criticise faults of mine (of which there were plenty she could choose from). I’d also found that she was often terrible at controlling her emotions, especially when it came to any situation regarding me, her only son. But today was not such a day. Today, I saw my mother in a tough situation. And when there’s a tough situation, my mother really steps up her game.
Amongst a sea of tears, prayers and hysteria, my mother was the only anchor. Her face was saddened, but dry. She went on her way to console everyone, quietly giving instructions to all the men standing around aimlessly, surrounding the commotion. Most of the men, including myself, were glad to have someone tell them what to do. She gave my dad a list of people that should be informed about Babu uncles passing, and dad quickly went away to finish his task. Soon, she instructed everyone to clear the room. I stayed behind, and watched her work. She carefully closed the lifeless mans eyes, cleaned up around him, removing the drip syringes from his wrists and neck with surgical precision. She then quickly prepared the body to be presentable to the oncoming waves of relatives. It was not that she wasn’t grieving. She was, and I could see that in her eyes. But she knew that she had a job to do. Why? Because no one else would do it.
I helped as much as I could, fetching things for people, making phone calls, asking about others, and fetching more things. It was exhaustive, but everyone else seemed to either be bawling their eyes out, staring off into the distance, or making phone calls. There were very few people actually doing things. Soon, Unni muthashan (grandfather) arrived. He was the perhaps the most respected member on that side of the family. A very successful lawyer in his prime, and someone I’d always admired in my youth. As far as men go, I’d never met someone more steady on their feet than Unni muthashan. He was the man to consult when you were in a tricky spot, because you can bet your bottom dollar that he’d have a solution. He was awfully close to Babu uncle. But he was also quite severely afflicted with Alzheimers.
He walked in crying, moving very slowly from his car with the help of two attendees and a walking stick. As he passed by me, he asked his attendees, “Why am I crying? Why am I so sad, I can’t understand.” As he said this, I fought back the tears that had involuntarily crawled up into my eyes. It wasn’t just the fact that I felt bad for this old man, who couldn’t even remember why he was crying, and yet somehow knew that he had a reason to be sad. It was also because I’d never expected to see someone like Unni muthashan in that position. He was very much a legend in the family. Everyone aspired to be like him, but knew they’d never get there. And today, in front of my eyes, I watched this legend fall and he didn’t even know why.
He eventually went to the room where the body was kept, and suddenly got a stark reminder of why he was grieving. After which he was almost inconsolable for a while. I watched him, as he switched between praying, crying, and becoming absolutely normal and wondered what a cruel fate God had bestowed upon a man so great. He would have probably said that God had his reasons for doing what he did. But I wasn’t so sure.
My mother was constantly talking to people, consoling, and giving others instructions. When people were unsure of something, they’d come to her and ask her what to do. She always had an answer. And again, she reminded me of how proud I was of her, as she kept Unni muthashan consoled. A task that every other person who had tried, failed at. It was at that moment that I realised that, in the eyes of my whole extended family, my mother was like Unni muthashan. A legend.
When I got the chance, I pulled her aside and asked her, “Mom, you must be very tired. Did you eat something? Shall I go get some food or something to drink for you?” And for the first time that day, she gave me the smallest of smiles and said, “It’s ok, I’ll eat later.”
I’m not sure why she smiled. Maybe it was because she knew no-one else would ask her about how she felt, when she was making sure everyone else was ok. Whatever the reason was, amongst all that grief, she still managed to pull off a faint smile for her son. And that’s the sort of person I aspired to be. A person who can maintain their calm, and their composure when everything else was falling apart around them. Someone who would be willing to do what no-one else would. Someone to turn to when they had no-one else to turn to. A person whom you could trust would make the right call for a tough decision. A person who’d be willing to let slip a calm, knowing smile at a funeral.