Her father fell off his bed in the middle of the night while trying to walk a few steps to drink some water. Her mother, who is as old as he, helped him up, despite being frail and ridiculously smaller-made and lighter than him. Thankfully he got away with just a scrape on his knee, or so we think so far. The couple who have been together for more than 40 years, reassured each other, said sorry they weren’t able to be of more help to one another, returned to bed and tried to sleep.
Their daughter works a full-time, highly coveted, back-breaking job as a news correspondent for a well-regarded national daily nearly 3000 km from them. She is an example of courage, simplicity, integrity and hard-work. She worries constantly about her parents but doesn’t speak much about it knowing she can’t possibly do what a lot of people would ask her to — throw up her job and shift closer to them.
We are close, but we tend to not talk about difficult things as we know we come at them from different ends of the spectrum. And I certainly want to spare her the humiliation of having to listen to gratuitous advice that wouldn’t resonate with who she is and how she deals with difficulties. And yet whenever I think of them, my elderly uncle and beloved aunt, on their own, in a beautiful, spacious villa they have built themselves as a retirement home, I wonder what we could do to make their daily life less difficult.
Twenty-five years after agreeing to an arranged match with a woman who he found out later had intellectual disabilities, SM is a picture of patience, grace, tolerance, and acceptance. I remember seeing him seething with rage early on in his marriage, feeling let down by a matrimonial arrangement not of his doing. Now, with a son in his early 20s, who has grown into a moody, silent, self-conscious young man, SM has left all the anger and bitterness far behind. He focuses instead on providing for his family uncomplainingly, supports his son with all his professional and educational ambitions and does nearly all the work inside and outside the house without batting an eyelid. Having been self-conscious much of his early life for being in his own eyes less charismatic than his two older brothers, he is a new man now: on the ‘wrong side’ of his 50s but with a sparkle in his eyes, a big mop of graying hair, an easy laugh, a welcoming presence, a big heart.
My doctor friend
A medical crisis last year has acquainted us with a group of people we never knew before — including my kind, generous and attentive doctor friend, A. Because she knows us well I am able to mine her for more information and analysis than I am allowed with professional doctors and because we know her, she is careful in what she tells us when she looks at the same file of reports that may have alarmed us in other doctors’ hands. Something she said recently struck me as remarkable: that no matter how bad an investigative report may be and no matter how critical it says the health of a particular organ is, what actually matters more is how the living, moving, talking, feeling human being is– which is why all reports come with a rider – ‘please correlate the findings clinically’.
The strength of the mind
Twenty five years ago, my father’s cardiologist gave him an ultimatum, ‘quit smoking now or else…’ It had an electrifying impact. He stopped cigarettes overnight, moved to cigars and then pipes and one fine day just gave it all up. Several cups of coffee became a replacement and a crutch but it was incredible how he made up his mind to give up a habit that was part of his entire adult life. Ten years before his passing, cardiologists who examined him would deliberately not tell him how wasted his heart and lungs were. He used to try to ask one of them, one of the sternest, and most competent of his time, how many years he had left, and the doctor would just wave him and the question away and say ‘Mr. R please focus on living. The rest is up to the Heavens above.’
After his passing a decade ago, doctors we have known for years and some in the family told us slowly that they were incredulous how he managed as long as he did. One said that ‘for all we think we know as practitioners of medicine, we still don’t know enough about the mind or the will and its effect on health’.
The other day I nearly passed out when a kind, alternative medicine practitioner took a look at my mother’s reports and said two of her vital organs were on the cusp of an emergency. She asked my mother for symptoms typically associated with her condition and instructed her firmly to not keep the slightest sign of unease to herself because that would just further complicate intervention and treatment.
On our way back home, I kept mulling over the wide divergence between what the doctor suspected my mum should feel, and what she says she does and the only explanation I can think of is the very same force that explained my father’s life – the strength of her mind or will or consciousness. My mother is able to look and be and do what she does because she is not self-pitying, not afraid and not self-indulgent. And yet it was useful to have a person of authority tell her gently and persuasively that she owed it to herself to take things more slowly, allow herself more and more frequent periods of rest and to keep herself away as far as possible from undue stress, worry and anxiety.
I wish of course that we were all younger. And I wish my mum had nothing at all to worry about. But contrary to the ideas that one has had as a teenager and as a young adult about the undesirability of difficulty, it seems to me that it is exactly when life becomes crushingly difficult and nearly hopeless that we are compelled to whip out of her deepest being our latent resources of strength, adaptability and resilience.
Being driven to the point of despair seems to suddenly bring into focus all the precious love and care that is here – now – and one is overcome with wonder for how much a human being does and is willing to do for another and left with a sense of gratitude and indebtedness for being elected to be in their gracious, giving presence.