The Day He Stopped Breathing

The day father died was like any other. Spring had come to our small Indian town. Sun was out, warm and mild. While spring air was a medley of fresh blossoms, leaves mixed with wood smoke, growing up; in 2020, spring was a lungful of vehicle exhaust with a faint occasional waft of freshness that dared sneak through the smog.

That day in March our world turned upside down. The journey from hope to hopelessness was quick. All those days in the intensive care unit while he was tethered to monitors, syringe pumps, fluid drips and ventilators that were supposed to heal him; we hungrily held on to hope, that he will open his eyes and see us, recognize, smile, talk to us, tell us he was hungry, hold our hand back when we held his, that he will come back to us. We tried to give each other hope through relentless updates with every doctor visit, squeezing any optimism we could from what they told us. We did everything to be optimistic, to be positive, as if staying positive would keep him alive. Talk to him, play him music, massage his feet with lotion, keep him awake. Rotating between 4 people on 8 hour shifts to keep round the clock watch at his bed side. Bring him home cooked food, as soft and bland and liquid as the doctors asked. It didn’t matter how long it took, how much treatment, how many specialists, how many procedures, just as long as he got better. Prayed as hard as it was possible. Told him we loved him, so somewhere inside he heard us.

As the days wore on, the outlook grew increasingly grim. We clung steadfastly to hope as the doctors continued trying, fighting to give him every chance. Even with the knowledge I had as an anesthesiologist who had treated critical patients; knowing well how it ends and when the fight becomes futile. I could not not give my father any and all chances he had at regaining some ground. One line of thought was to make it easy for him to pass, give him comfort care, take him off ventilator support, stop harsh heart stimulating drugs, stop lifesaving treatment and maintain comfort treatment; oxygen, pain killers, and let nature take its course, allow him to pass away without trying to retrieve. Some intensivists suggested I make that decision. End of life requests must come from relatives is the unwritten rule. There was no doubt he was on a one-way downward spiral, and trying hard would only delay the obvious, while he would not recover or get any quality of life for all the effort. After discussing the options with the family, we concluded that there was too much Dad in there to give up on him now! Some decisions are best left to the Almighty. Knowledge of medical science does not help make a rational decision about your father’s end, it only shows the futility and robs you the comfort of optimism, since you know more than others that he is not coming back and it’s only a matter of time. We continued the fight as he would have fought for us; we owed him that much. Doctors chose their words carefully, avoided pessimism; they did not talk about the end. They continued answering our questions and we had many. They kept playing their game of wills — physician vs sickness and sickness was winning. They used every weapon in store and lobbed it at the malady.

He died anyway.

He slipped away quietly and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it.

It is mind numbing when someone so close, so dear, so precious goes away. No matter how old, how sick, no matter how obvious the outcome; nothing softens the blow when the end comes. The departure hits hard and continues hitting in many different ways for a long time after. The sight of his lifeless body lying in the hospital bed brings incredible pain every time the memory rises, and that sticky little recall does not leave easily. The moment you feel you are done accepting the end, it re-starts, because accepting is not a one time deal, it happens over and over again till you are fatigued and tired and exhausted of going through your loss; till you are tired of grieving, but it is there to stay — relentlessly, repeatedly, reminding you what you don’t want to face again. That “end” is not a single moment, it is a long and continuous line of flashbacks. Grieving is hard and repetitive work. And our grapple with this reality was just beginning.

The day father died was not unlike any other. Spring had apparently come to our small Indian town. We had largely forgotten spring this year, all we felt in our hearts was emptiness, confusion, guilt, pain, anger, loss, grief and the mild sun and its slanting rays, the wafty air, all seemed an unnecessary burden on our overwhelmed senses. Nothing but futile intrusions.

Memories are all we have left — us immigrants — when we move abroad and call it home. While we spend a lifetime making the unfamiliar ours, lands of our origin beckon us only as visitors. Parents remain an excruciatingly inseparable part of our dual existence and remain the link with the soil from which we come. We all dread that call which says rush back, your parent isn’t going to make it…

The threads of Dad’s existence so intricately woven into the fabric of our lives; his loss shook us. We could scarce fathom the extent of it on his death and for a long while after. All these threads were now disconnected from the energy, warmth and light that he was. His exit left a thousand nooks and corners of our life dim and empty. And every time we came to a place where he once was, we newly comprehended his absence, that he simply was not there anymore. There will be no shopping for father anymore, nor celebrating his birthday or wishing him on holidays, no more telling him how well we were doing in life to hear him say how proud we made him. Who will answer questions only he knew the answers to; or open doors only he could open; tell us about authors, singers, musicians, performers that he lived his life knowing deeply. With him we lost the magic and light and wisdom and laughter that was Dad along with all precious knowledge of music, politics, literature, books, movies, history and art, that only he was such a ready reference of. His jokes, his stories — his famous ‘farting tiger’ story he told us back when we were kids, that made us laugh till our tummies hurt. Only he could make it sound so funny. (Seeing as how he totally made that story up, no one has ever heard of it and its origin is otherwise unknown, it is safe to assume he was the original author and narrator of the story and we can safely retire that story now because certain stories can only be told by him and no one else).

I think with a smile how he relentlessly teased my stubby little nose and missing teeth when I was a little girl; making funny faces and pretending to elongate the nose with a pair of tongs till I giggled. How he was sham worried I wouldn’t find a good husband with missing teeth and stubby nose. When he gently rubbed my soft little toddler palms on his prickly, morning stubble would send me into peals of laughter. He called me {chiva} little sparrow. And only he called me that. Because like a sparrow I was tiny, I pecked at my food and ate very little. (The word {chiva} will be retired too).

Fast forward to present time; life happened to us all and mine fell apart in unmendable ways, sadness took permanent residence in my heart; it broke his heart to see me shattered and beaten up by life’s trials. For a child’s tears rip a parent apart. I was after all, his pride and joy, growing up. Ever the father who took his job of protecting his family seriously, there are some things even a formidable father cannot protect his little girl from and that anguished him endlessly. For he never stopped protecting and worrying. “I am not going anywhere till you are happy” he said every time I visited from abroad these past few years. Acutely aware of his mortality and yet not believing that it would actually happen, we all kept hoping he will get better. Even when I was in my 40s and him with his failing health, he still stood steadfastly between me and my demons. The world was safe with him in it.

Where my happiness was concerned, it was my duty to relieve him of his worry, and even while life’s struggles were relentless, I told him I was happy, and that he was going nowhere. He was patient with me, until one day he quietly told me that it would be selfish of him to linger, because God had other prayers to answer. He held on to life till mine rolled back into a semblance of happiness and having relieved of his burden, he slipped into the dark night leaving us empty, stunned with grief. The world was unsafe with him gone and we were exposed, vulnerable to all that he had deterred with his formidable presence.

We were orphaned without our father and even the slightest hint of the past brought back a flood of memories that replayed his loss all over again and tears followed closely. He was an inseparable part of the whole and we will never be complete without him. For a long time after his demise we felt like empty shells, ghosts without any real sense of being, bouncing from one day to the next.

Grief has its place, but death does not diminish him. For us, he never really left, he stays on, watches over us, helps through our challenges — knowing what he would say, what he would do, what he would fight for and what he would let go, will forever guide our way forward. His voice will always be as beautiful as it was when he was young, his life will continue to inspire us, his smile light our memories, his essence will carry on. We will not let time fade anything about him. We keep him alive around us. His light warms us still. As a family we will never be shrunk nor minimized by death. We continue to live the values he raised us with, to be courageous, to be happy, not sweat the small things, to think big, to keep climbing. We continue to make him proud, for that will always matter. He lives on in many ways, continues to be part of our lives, we think of him at every turn. We know that it would please him immensely to know this.

Writer, Thinker, Scientist