On Dying, Death And The After

The past couple of weeks have been rough. As forty-somethings wedged in the middle, little kids on one end and the aging parents on the other, we have seesawed between caretaking for both, sometimes continents apart.

A routine phone call had us scrambling to find tickets for Saathi. He waited at the hospital where his father was tracking doctor visits with the patience of a saint. He worked when he could, ate if he had time and called me when necessary. I held the fort calming upset children and introducing the concept of death.

“Where does one go after they die?”

Where indeed? Does the soul escape into nothingness? Does it manifest itself in another body? Perhaps nothing happens at all.

We talked about conventional explanations. We made up explanations on our own. We decided the memories are still with us and that is all we can count on.

The call came in the middle of the night. One we had been expecting. One that left us sobbing despite all the preparation.

My father in law was a good man. He was simple. He believed in his convictions in a way I only wish I had a conviction about anything at all. He truly believed in the adage “athithi devo bhava” He showered his affection in the form of food. He gave wholly and willingly. No person who asked him of something walked away empty-handed. He saw God in everyday things. In the stray he set milk out for, in the passerby who helped him without expectation. Mostly he saw God in food.

Our weekends always began with a couple of hours on the phone with him. The conversations would be long and rambling. “Chittu kutti he would call the kids. He loved to hear them speak, to sing and just talk. Whether or not he understood what they said, he would continue the conversation like it did not matter. He reveled in the odd Tamil words the children learned to speak to him.

His conversations with me were reserved for the last. “Breakfast enna?” he would ask. He would exhort me to make the kind of foods he craved, and the conversation would turn to his working days or how he would wake from a nap only to have my mother in law stand with a plate of piping hot bajjis.

Most days the conversation would end with byes being traded a zillion times. Saathi would walk around with a satisfied smile on his face and the day would begin.

In my days as a new bride, he would ask me to come closer, inspect my forehead and comment on how minuscule my pottu was. I would smile and seethed and continue to do what I did, small bindis, sticker bindis and designer bindis. Eventually, he gave up on me.

For all his prickly armor, he truly saw the best in people. He embraced diversity in all forms. He did not see class or caste the way I had been surrounded with. He had so much in common with my Appa in that.

The thing about him I hold to my end is how completely and overwhelmingly he embraced my children when we first talked about them. There was no hesitation, no ifs, no buts, no reservations. He offered the kind of unflinching support through our adoption process that made us feel that we were doing the right thing. When laddu was born, he made sure whatever gifts he sent included the exact same thing for her older sisters. He did the kind of things intuitively that most people take a lifetime to understand.

I look at picture albums with my children. We see the handsome man who fathered my husband. We see the bright smiles in each picture. We see the head full of white hair, neatly oiled and combed. We see bright white shirts in every picture. We sit as a family lingering over memories captured on film. We notice how he embraces the camera, looking directly, baring his soul for everyone to see.

En chattaiyum vellai, en manasum vellai” he would say anytime he was asked about his choice of wearing white.

I miss him. I see him in my husband and child.

He is at peace wherever he is.


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