#inspiringwomen: “Breaking down was not an option: I had to carry on for my son”

It’s been four years, but the evening is still fresh in my mind. Arnav was home playing with Ayushman, when a neighbor came by and told me Ayushman’s father is seriously ill. Kapil rushed out to assist and I ran out a little later with emergency medication for a heart attack. Downstairs, I found Ayaan slumped in a wheelchair surrounded by neighbours. Surprisingly, the doctor not only refused the medicine but even the suggestion to take him to a reputable private hospital nearby. He just recommended we take him to the nearest local hospital. I didn’t know it was already too late to do anything for Ayaan.

Soon after, Kapil called me to the hospital. I was tasked with breaking the news to Antara, Ayaan’s wife. His cousin did not have the courage to do that. I didn’t think I had either.

I don’t know how a woman is supposed to respond to her husband’s untimely death. Will she cry? Scream? Collapse? Faint? I don’t know. Antara took the news without any reaction. Her first sentence was, “How will I tell Ayushman, He is so close to his father. He is only six”. From that day to now, I have never seen her cry. She has hidden her grief and tried to keep life as normal as possible for her son. This year Ayushman will turn 11.

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I asked Antara with trepidation if she would like to share her story with the world, not sure if she would be willing to share a loss as personal as this. But she took the challenge. As she has, these last four years. I worried if she will break down sharing her story. But she didn’t – just as these last four years.

Antara was born and brought up in Kolkata, had a happy, uneventful childhood. An only child, she preferred being on her own and had select but close friends. Her parents gave her the freedom to be – her mum wanted to work, but could not, so she always encouraged Antara to be independent, have a career. Her dad was busy with work and mom dominated all household decisions, like all Bengali households, she laughingly tells me. That open upbringing and a strong mother figure, made her into the strong woman she is today, not afraid to deal with life on her own terms. The foundation laid by her parents, is what has helped her get through the hard reality of life she faces every day.

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She met Ayaan while doing a two-year course in computer programming and coding. They became friends and were part of the same group. While Antara was reserved, Ayaan was her total opposite. Outspoken and friendly, Ayaan made friends easily.

They started dating only after both started their jobs. After finishing their studies, they kept in touch and slowly an unsaid bond developed. Antara says there was never really any proper proposal. They both grew into the relationship and neither had to formally ask the other. Ayaan moved to Delhi for work and Antara followed a year later, when they got married.

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Ayaan was an ambitious, hardworking young man. As Antara says, he was self-made – he got through most of his education on the back scholarships he earned. He wanted to make sure they had their own house before having a child. They both worked hard to achieve that goal and shifted into their new house, three months before their baby was born.

“Though he never mentioned, I think Ayaan was not very close to his mother. However, he really cherished the relationship he had with his father.” Perhaps to compensate for the fractured relationship, Ayaan loved his son to the hilt. No wish went unattended, Ayaan showered Ayushman with toys, gifts and most of all his time. The two developed a very close relationship and Antara feels that Ayushman is probably still not as close to her as he was to his father. The threesome loved holidaying and spent some cherished vacations together. But time was short.

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9th April 2014. Antara had a job interview and Ayaan offered to drive her to the venue. On the way back, he complained of a slight pain in the chest. Shrugging it off as a gastric issue, he came back home and took some medication. When he didn’t feel better till evening, they decided to go to a doctor and Ayaan went to change. Antara was in another room, when she heard a strange gurgle followed by a thud. She ran to the room and found Ayaan lying on the floor, unconscious. She screamed.

Too soon it was all over. He was declared ‘brought dead’ – and was no more a person. Ayaan had become a ‘body’. The hospital could not release ‘the body’ till a post mortem was done to find cause of death. A police report was required.

And in the middle of all this was Antara. Surrounded by women – mostly neighbours – no mother – no sister – no friend. No one she could lean on and cry with. So she just held everything in. Steeled herself to go through all the processes.

Antara had decided to take Ayushman for the cremation. A psychiatrist told her that it was important for Ayushman to understand his father was no more. We all collected at the Lodhi Road crematorium where we waited for Ayaan’s parents to arrive. They reached soon after we did, and I will not forget the cries of a woman who has lost a young son. Crazed by grief, she was in stark contrast to Antara’s composure. Two women who loved the same man, bound and separated by his death.

She broke down once again, when they laid her son on the ground. In her grief, she wanted Ayushman to touch and feel his father for one last time. The little child, not seven yet, froze with fear. Unable to comprehend what was going on around him, he wanted to run. I took him away with me, holding him, playing with him while the last rites were being completed.

Ayaan had been very popular and loved wherever he went. Many of his friends surrounded Antara and helped her with all the arrangements, the paperwork, the post mortem. But they all also had to get back to their own lives. One by one they left. And Antara was left alone to pick up the pieces of a life that once was.

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Kapil turned 40 last December. The exact same day Ayaan would have turned 40 too. I remember feeling that death had prowled our corridors that fateful day and took Ayaan finding him home. Even now I shudder at how close by death had been. I am once again reminded how important is each moment lived. And how lives can change in a minute. Here one minute and gone another.

I am reminded of Sheryl Sandberg, who lost her husband a month after Antara did. She wrote on her FB, “I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning.

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As we talk, I tell her how amazed I have been with her self-control. She says she doesn’t know where it came from. Even her mother says she had no idea how brave her daughter was. As far as Antara is concerned, she knew she had to be strong for her son. She did not show her grief, so her son could retain a sense of normality.

She remembers the evening of the cremation. When she came back home, it was empty. Silent. Her mum had not come yet and Ayushman was with us. She just sat down in the drawing room, soaking in the silence. The cacophony inside and the chaos outside needed to be silenced so she could think. But even then, she did not cry.

When her mum came, she allowed herself to grieve a little, but something still held her back. A close friend called from the U.S. and she was crying on the phone. Antara did not. Her friend told her she needed help and advised her to see a psychiatrist. Antara is glad she took her advice. The first time she really let go of her emotions was with the psychiatrist. Perhaps, it is easier to be vulnerable in front of a stranger.

Till almost a year ago, Antara would suddenly go blank, in the middle of things. But she has been getting better. For almost nine months after Ayaan was gone, she could not bring herself to go out and resume working. (I wonder how she even had the energy to get out from the bed every morning.) But life doesn’t give us so much time. There was a house to run, home loans, Ayushman’s fees to be paid. Some people even advised her to move Ayushman to a cheaper school, but Antara chose not to. She wanted things to run the same way.

With the help of her mum, who moved in with her, she restored normalcy to life. Four years down the line, life is not ideal, but they are happy. Ayushman is a cheerful young boy. They go out for vacations. They celebrate festivals. She goes out with her friends. She is living her life.

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Antara says she has matured as a person. She was very emotional earlier – could get upset at small things, now she learns to ignore such incidents. She was also a very carefree person, “I didn’t even buy a packet of milk – Ayaan would do all that.” Now of course she has the responsibility of running the whole house.

They have almost lost touch with Ayaan’s family, but she holds no grudges, “I don’t expect anything from anyone anymore. I just believe in carrying out my own responsibility.” “I have also learnt, that money is important. It may not be everything, but it is needed to live a life.” She worries about Ayushman, “What if something happens to me?”. She has heavily insured herself. But now she reads the small script carefully. Four years later, she is still submitting papers for Ayaan’s insurance claims.

Have you ever thought of remarrying, I ask. “No. I am content. I have already led a happy married life and I don’t feel the need.”

“And I miss him so much……………………………”

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Do share this if you think it can inspire someone.

Death Comes as the End

This is the cover of an Agatha Christie novel. Yes, we all are big Agatha Christie fans here. We have proudly displayed almost her entire collection in our drawing room. My dad also liked Agatha Christie. In fact, I think he was the one who instilled the love of Agatha Christie and for that matter all detective/ mystery novels in us. A very long ago memory – perhaps when I was 7 or 8 – lying in bed with him at night time and listening to the story of “Why didn’t they tell Evans” – another Agatha Christie novel. I remember the fascinating cover of the novel very vividly – a huge skull covering almost the whole page.

But despite knowing that Death does come as the end, I don’t think anyone is ever prepared for it. Even in the case of terminally ill patients, even in the case of a 90 plus parent… you always wish the time with them lasted some more. And so do I… I wish he had been there to see Abeer walk (he walked a few days after papa’s death); I wish he had waited to see Arnav’s new school; I wish he had waited for me to establish this blog – a platform I had wanted to use to share his ideas also with the world… I wish; I wish; I wish…

Birth and death, despite being the most basic truth of human life, both seem equally unbelievable to me. Every time I look at my kids, I wonder at the wonder of life. Of how life emerges from another human being. I cannot believe that they took shape inside me. That they were crafted from a cell. Similarly, death. I am just unable to wrap my head around the fact that a living, laughing person just suddenly disappears into nothingness. And you have blank walls staring at you, when you want to reach out to him. The person is no more. NO MORE.

I don’t think a day has gone by since he left us, that I have not wished that things had turned out differently. Not a day, that I have not missed him. The wound somehow has become deeper in fact. They say time heals – so I am waiting for that to happen. But many have also said that you can never get over the loss of a parent. And it is very different when you lose someone who lived with you. Every little thing in the house, every room screams out his absence. I remember the day I was hanging out washing – I wash clothes by colour – and it was whites that day – and there weren’t any of his baniyans (vests) to hang. I don’t think anything else made me feel his absence so strongly.

The video camera battery that he had asked me to bring from the U.S. – which we ultimately used for his remembrance meeting. The half full case of weekly medicines (medicines eaten till the morning of his stroke) – the unfinished cornflakes (he only liked Mohun’s – Kellog’s didn’t do it for him) – his drawer of tools and PCBs and other electrical equipment – the Nano which he drove (it killed me when Arnav asked who will pick him up from school now or who will the stuff in nanaji’s drawer belong to now) – the weirdly pained expression with which Arnav talks about him – the cooler which he set up every summers – each and every thing a painful reminder of his absence.

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I would meet Papa quite often either going down the building or coming up as I came back home in the evening. And kurta pajama was his usual attire. Yesterday evening, when I came out of the lift on our floor, I glimpsed a kurta pajama, before seeing the face. My heart stopped for a millionth of a second. But of course, it was not him. So many times, when the phone has rung, for a split second, I expected it to be him. And then there is his image of saying bye to me at the lift, feeling slightly cold and I telling him to go back to the house  – as I left for the airport to go to DC – the last living image of him….

papa-photo.jpgFor his remembrance meeting, we had picked a very happy picture of his – we didn’t want the usual passport photo as his reminder. After the meeting, we kept his picture in our dining room. But we soon realized we didn’t want a reminder of his absence. Without it, we could at least make ourselves believe he is in another room.

And sometimes I wonder what my mum feels – if this is how strongly I feel about his death. That is what we are all condemned with – life after death. Not that of deceased, but of the living. The lives that we all lead, after losing someone close. The silent grief we all carry, unable many times to share with others. When the mourners leave, we the living are left behind to pick up the pieces of our lives, lives after death.

Anyway, as people say, I hope he is in a happier place now. He sure seems to have been collecting some interesting people. After getting over the shock of Sridevi’s death, my next thought was that papa will have some good company there! And now Stephen Hawking. “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers.” – words, by Stephen Hawking that my sister messaged me this morning, saying she thought of our dad while reading this message. But just in case they are both wrong, I would like to imagine they are discussing the secrets of the universe somewhere!

By the way, this also was not a planned blog. I had actually planned to write something happy this time – about Abeer, who is increasingly becoming naughty. But I just could not write. I guess this needed to come out before I could write any further. Now that I have written about Death, I hope I will be able to write about Life. So long!