I know this sounds strange, but there’s a lot you can learn sitting by the bedside of the seriously ill. Both Mummy and my brother-in-law, Irwin, are in hospital. Mummy’s at the Research and Referral (R&R), Irwin at the Max in Saket. I — and the rest of the family — seem to be in both!
First, I had not realised how brave the ill can be. Nor would I have imagined that they would make an effort to put you at ease when you meet them. Yet that’s what happened after Irwin was told he has a fast-growing liver cancer. I met him with trepidation. I wasn’t sure what to say and, frankly, I was dreading it.
“Hi, Irwin,” I said, projecting a false cheerfulness. “How are you feeling?” No sooner had I spoken than I realised that was a stupid thing to say. But Irwin burst into a big smile and his eyes twinkled with wickedness.
“Both the cancer and I are doing very well.” And then he added with quiet determination: “I’m okay. Don’t worry. You’ve got me to contend with for quite a while!” That was eight weeks ago. Although he’s steadily got weaker and visibly less well, Irwin’s humour has not disappeared.
When the hospital put a tube in his stomach because he wasn’t eating, he commented: “From a loud mouth to a man with two mouths. That’s progress!” When he couldn’t shave himself and needed help, he said he kept a beady eye on the attendant: “If his hand slips it’s my wretched throat that could get slit!”
Alongside bravery there is their indomitable will to live. Last week, as I watched over Mummy, initially lying helplessly in what her doctors called a pre-coma, I feared we were losing her. At 92, age is against her. As is her obvious frailty. But Mummy is determined not to give up. She kept struggling back to alertness. And each time she did, my three sisters and I tried to stimulate her with conversation.
“Who am I?” I asked on one such occasion. “My son,” she mumbled. “What’s my name?” I continued. “Karan,” she muttered.
“What’s your name?”, I added. “Bimla.” But she was growing weary. “How many sisters do I have?”
This time I had pushed my luck too far. “Oh, shut up,” she said, fed up of my silly questions, and went back to sleep.
There were times when Mummy was a frightening sight to behold. After exhausting all the veins in her hands and feet, the intravenous drip finally found a home in her jugular vein.
Inches away, a Ryle’s tube shared her nostrils. To prevent her yanking them out, the R&R Hospital nurses tied her hands to the sides of the bed. Yet, even from this restricted position, when asked by the doctors how she felt, she promptly replied: “Chalti ka naam gaadi.” And then, in case Brigadier Nair and Colonel Bhattacharya could not follow Hindi, translated: “Getting along nicely, thank you!”
Who would think that visiting Mummy and Irwin can, at times, be uplifting rather than depressing? Whatever the situation, their spirit remains defiant. Of course, they have bad days and then your own spirits sink. But if you learn to see the fight they’re waging you can also feel the clouds lift, even if temporarily. At times it’s sheer will that keeps them going.
It makes me wonder why we, who are well, so often give up."
The views expressed by the author are personal