Saying goodbye to my grandmother

By ANAND KATAKAM



My grandmother laboured through her last hours.

Propped up on five white pillows, she struggled to breathe. She flailed her arms as her doctor, nurse, and family watched, while a machine pummeled her with oxygen.

In a private hospital room in Kottayam, her husband of 61 years, and her five daughters, waited for the inevitable. They watched as her breaths became shorter until she released a last, quiet one. She died dressed in her favourite white and orange floral kaftan.

At 81-years-old, Annamma Varghese didn’t die comfortably, but she had come to long for the end.

In July, I started to document my grandparents lives. This was the beginning of the end. Here they are in their living room. Our summer evenings usually ended up here.
In July, I started to document my grandparents lives. This was the beginning of the end. Here they are in their living room. Our summer evenings usually ended up here.

For months, she had been standing at death’s door. She was diagnosed with Interstitial Lung Disease in September 2010. It’s a degenerative lung condition that is a common side effect of Rheumatoid Arthritis, which inflames the joints and makes it harder to move wrists, fingers, feet and ankles. She had been living with that for decades.

I had last seen my grandmother at Christmas, 2015. I hugged her before I left. She had smelled of talcum powder that had been on her skin for too long. Her tired bones grasped me as tight as they could. She could barely stand, but she managed to walk with me out to her porch.

I had spent so many summers with her on that porch. Some with my cousins, some without, but all of them with her. When I was 13, she dug up an old board to play carrom with me just so I would be occupied. She wasn’t very good. But we sat on her verandah nearly every summer afternoon with tea and deep fried curry puffs (a variation of samosa), taking turns to flick the striker.

Towards the end of her life, her disease sapped her energy. She was slower, and crankier. Her words berated those close to her, especially my grandfather. Her kitchen, which used to be flooded with the smells of ginger, spices, fish curry, and banana fritters, now had a stillness to it.

When I finally realized she was gone, I cried. I cried alone. I cried a lot. Her kitchen would no longer smell of steaming hot appams. Her pond won’t be filled with fish for long. Her house would never be the same again.

The funeral procession went through the town where she had spent her whole life. For a few moments, everyone in Kottayam peered through the wide glass windows of her funeral car. Squinting under the Kerala sun, they caught a last glimpse of her.

We took her through Kottayam, a town where she had spent her entire life, her nephew, Vineet Abraham placed his hand on her coffin. As we left the funeral car, he grasped the casket a little tighter. He wasn't ready to let go. Neither were we.
We took her through Kottayam, a town where she had spent her entire life, her nephew, Vineet Abraham placed his hand on her coffin. As we left the funeral car, he grasped the casket a little tighter. He wasn't ready to let go. Neither were we.

Although her life had not been that different from her peers, she received an extraordinary farewell on a warm Thursday morning in January. The church was filled with people, including 15 priests. Nearly everyone in town had come to say goodbye.

Her energy, her sarcasm, her fastidiousness, her perpetual need to feed anyone who stepped into the house: all of that had waned towards the end. But the memories came rushing back to me on the morning of her funeral.

Her spirit had a longevity that her life did not.

The last family photograph. They sat near the Vembanad lake in central Kerala. She’d be gone within a month.
The last family photograph. They sat near the Vembanad lake in central Kerala. She’d be gone within a month.
In late July 2015, her lungs had begun to fail. She would lie down  ever so  often. Any kind of exertion would take a huge toll. She was in a lot of pain and she kept willing her body to fight, but her strength began to diminish. A day after I took this, she started using an oxygen cylinder to supplement her breathing.
In late July 2015, her lungs had begun to fail. She would lie down ever so often. Any kind of exertion would take a huge toll. She was in a lot of pain and she kept willing her body to fight, but her strength began to diminish. A day after I took this, she started using an oxygen cylinder to supplement her breathing.
Christmas was spent in a small hotel instead of my grandmother's home. My aunt, Tara and she decided to take a break from the humid Kerala weather.
Christmas was spent in a small hotel instead of my grandmother's home. My aunt, Tara and she decided to take a break from the humid Kerala weather.
She passed away in the morning and her home was flooded with mourners through the day. I arrived 14 hours later at 1 AM to an empty home. I felt her presence as I felt the pain of loss.
She passed away in the morning and her home was flooded with mourners through the day. I arrived 14 hours later at 1 AM to an empty home. I felt her presence as I felt the pain of loss.
We kept vigil through the night. My mother and her sisters took turns to stay awake. As the hours passed, we began to look through the mobile mortuary at her corpse.
We kept vigil through the night. My mother and her sisters took turns to stay awake. As the hours passed, we began to look through the mobile mortuary at her corpse.
Her funeral procession went through the crowded streets of Kottayam. Her funeral hearse was large and flooded with light. We stopped outside the church and took her body through a crowd of mourners.
Her funeral procession went through the crowded streets of Kottayam. Her funeral hearse was large and flooded with light. We stopped outside the church and took her body through a crowd of mourners.
We stood in church for over an hour. It was long and arduous. Grief, as I've learnt is exhausting.
We stood in church for over an hour. It was long and arduous. Grief, as I've learnt is exhausting.
We lowered her body down into the grave. The finality of it all was overwhelming. We threw some earth  over her coffin and slowly walked away.
We lowered her body down into the grave. The finality of it all was overwhelming. We threw some earth over her coffin and slowly walked away.
After the funeral, we sat under the makeshift scaffolding in her garden. It felt eerily normal. But as the conversation dried up, we began to feel her absence.
After the funeral, we sat under the makeshift scaffolding in her garden. It felt eerily normal. But as the conversation dried up, we began to feel her absence.
Our first dinner after the funeral. Everyone is sharing their memories especially my chatty mother, Roshin.
Our first dinner after the funeral. Everyone is sharing their memories especially my chatty mother, Roshin.
Her cupboard. She had an enviable collection of saris. Her daughters waited 30 days to open it up and sift through more than 180 saris.
Her cupboard. She had an enviable collection of saris. Her daughters waited 30 days to open it up and sift through more than 180 saris.
An empty bed.
An empty bed.
We visited the cemetery on the Sunday after she passed. I've never seen someone so stoic. I waited for my grandfather to cry. It never happened. My mother and aunt, Susan, waited with him for the crowds to pass. He was unmoved.
We visited the cemetery on the Sunday after she passed. I've never seen someone so stoic. I waited for my grandfather to cry. It never happened. My mother and aunt, Susan, waited with him for the crowds to pass. He was unmoved.

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