I fold.

My latest love is folding. The act of arranging a piece of paper or cloth in a way that it occupies less space and looks neat. Layering one part of it on top of another to make it compact. Apparently, molecules, tents, parachutes, rocks and beds fold too. But I am more inclined towards an un-stitched piece of material. Bed sheets and towels are my favourites but I don’t mind table-covers, handkerchiefs and face-towels.

Firstly, it’s the subtle fragrance of moist lavender fabric conditioner, still fresh from the wash. When I open my arms out wide to hold the margins, the top edge rises right up to my nose and the aroma gets right inside my head. Exhilarated by that, my fingertips follow the margins to find the corners. Sometimes the rim curls up on itself and needs to be straightened, patted back repeatedly on a flat surface. The corner often falls to the floor and it takes a deep forward bend to lift it up. These are the in-built stretching advantages for the upper and lower body.

The corresponding corners are brought together and the first large fold created which gets progressively smaller with every corner alignment, until I have a beautiful stack-able rectangle in my hands, ready to land on its shelf in the airing cup-board along with and on top of its contemporaries in white, blue, orange and green. If dried on a clothes-line, it doesn’t need ironing. That’s the energy saving advantage.

Folding a sari is an art-form. I learnt it from my mother. Here, the mouth and teeth assume an active role. The sari is an un-tailored stretch, at least six yards long and about forty-two inches wide. Before anything I need to ensure that I have a bed nearby so that I can lay the length of the material there while I work on the edges and corners. After figuring out which horizontal edge is up and which surface goes on the outside, I start from the top left corner. The rest of the routine has to be witnessed to be believed but it’s the middle point on the top edge of the sari that has been folded twice over that is held between the incisors for a short time. The silk ones have a habit of going all askew if not held and laid perfectly and lovingly flat. A real treat for the hands and arms.

Oh. The satisfaction. I wish all the ruffles and crinkles of the world could be folded neatly away and patted out with warm hands.

Yesterday I found myself putting away a pashmina that I had used once since it was dry-cleaned. In default mode, I was making the folds along the same lines, in the same direction as the dry-cleaner had done. It was strangely pleasurable and worrying.

Wonder where this new love of mine will take me.

Unspeakable.

Age: 82 years.

Sex: Male

Residence: Bed number 19. Intensive Care Unit.

Duration of stay: 70 days and on-going.

Last heard speaking 68 days ago.

Up and down with repeated pneumonias, rising and falling need for support with breathing and blood pressure, weeks of starting and stopping a plethora of antibiotics, kidneys pushed to their limits, sepsis coming and going, metabolic state constantly fighting off infections. This goes on and on and we, his family go up and down with him. In between spells of invasions by nasty bugs, he mouths words, some of which we can decipher and some we can’t. It’s excruciating on both sides when he gives up after a few times of trying to be understood.

“I want to speak.”

Last evening, he insisted silently, sitting up in his hospital bed. His lips firmly formed the shapes of those words. After a quick consultation with the doctor in-charge, we arranged a brief attempt to enable him to speak. We did the appropriate suctions, explained everything to him and blocked his tracheostomy manually with a thumb covered in a sterile glove, to enable the small amount of air in his lungs to leave through his vocal cords, which have not been used for nearly ten weeks.

This man who used to have a big voice, spoke four languages and sang sweet songs had been rendered wordless. In a somewhat broken, hoarse, unrecognisable semi-voice he whispered, “I am trying.”

There were tears. Lots of them. Of love and all the unspeakable stuff.

His eyes were two bright lamps in a poor man’s hut. Oh! To be understood!

God’s voice.

The second time around, I was as sure as one can be. It felt like fun. An adventure. A way to deepen our friendship. Si and I worried that things might change after we got married. We didn’t want them to. But they did.

We found that we could be silent together. Our shared space became sacred. We felt closer. More intimate here than in the world of words. It gave another dimension to our togetherness, one that felt like cruising over deep blue still waters with the sun shining on us. It felt whole and complete.

The cages of our ribs expanded and contracted rhythmically without a sound. They breathed love and understanding. They rested and connected through the music of silence. A river of song flowing between them. Circles of time danced in overlapping squiggly whirls, periodically stopping at the end of each expansion and each contraction.

Five today.

Years of hope, love and possibility.

Creating the same for many others.

Walking together. Hand in hand. Silently.

We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence… We need silence to be able to touch souls.

-Mother Teresa

For no reason at all.

Andretta is a small village in the foothills of the Himalayas. It has been calling to us for the past five years. We’ve been working towards becoming able to take it up on its invitation and finally, we are here.

I return to my country, a stranger. I am not that young lady who left and this land is different from what it was when she left twenty-three years ago. It is noisier, busier and dirtier. People and houses everywhere. The national highways used to run through wide expanses of green and yellow fields but now they are lined with messy shops, workshops and warehouses. Overweight people used to be a rarity but now obesity is commonplace, even in kids and village folk. The forests are thinner and the weather full of surprises. The number of extreme rain events has risen three-fold since the beginning of the last century, possibly due to a warmer Arabian Sea.

It was in the last century that I ventured abroad. The dreams that lived in my eyes then, are a mere story now. Those dreams had to be dashed, so I could wake up. My heart had to be shattered before it could learn to be full. I had to be completely humiliated, before I could be truly humble.

Maybe it was necessary.

Fifty-four days ago, my father walked into a hospital for an operation that he believed would improve his quality of life. He has been unable to leave his hospital bed since. Every time I turn from one side to another in my sleep, I am aware that my father can’t do that. He needs help with nearly every activity of life. He’s aware of his predicament and we all are helpless. This helplessness is an old friend from a few years back. Looking back, it might have been better if he’d not had the operation but we don’t know for sure and it’s too late now. It could be worse. I could be better. It could be different.

I wonder why things happen as and when they do? Is this a question worth asking or is it completely pointless? Some questions are unanswerable no matter how frantically the logical mind looks for answers. There are none.

This is how it is. For no reason at all.

Long shadows

A few months after Day 0, at a SOBS (Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide) meeting at the All Saints near Euston, I met a father who said, “Eight years” when I asked him how long it had been since his son died. I looked at his face as if he was the most spectacular and wondrous impossibility of the world. Is it possible to live as long as that after the death of a child? He was proof. It was. I had never seen anyone who had been bereaved that long, standing and smiling and speaking sense.

Last Monday I joined the 3 dads on the last leg of their long walk to Westminster alongside many people who want the government to add suicide awareness and helpful resources to the school curriculum. We walked and talked in the rain. I said ‘Nearly eight years’ in response to how long has it been since my son passed. I got the same look from a young mum recently bereaved. She stopped and looked into my eyes through the thick rain drops. Past and future, face to face. “Gosh! Does it get any easier?” she asked. It does, I replied, holding her hands.

All these years I have tried to keep Saagar alive in every way I could – writing, public speaking, teaching Youth Mental Health First Aid courses, advocating for young people, working with various people, charities, NHS, Churchill Trust and other organisations, making films and so on.

I have read other people’s accounts of loss, hoping to lessen my pain and deepen my understanding. The latest book I read was ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ by Joan Didion. She says:

I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.

I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.

Let them become the photograph on the table.

Let them become the name on the Trust accounts.

Let go of them in the water.

Knowing this does not make it easier to let go of him in the water.”

Eight years! No time at all.

Time is the school in which we learn.

Time is the fire in which we burn.”

  • Delmore Schwartz.

Random stuff

After many years, things are being taken out of cup-boards and off shelves, turned inside out and properly looked at. Dusty books, clothes, folders, boxes and sachets. Some familiar fragrances are escaping and some old scenes are playing out on the screen of the mind. Bits of stuff slipping out of other stuff and falling to the ground with a clink. Some stuff that was believed to be misplaced is being placed. Some that was believed to be forgotten is being revisited.

Sample 1

A nappy pin. Special feature – A white safety cap to prevent accidental opening up while the baby has his cloth nappy on. Commonly used in India and other developing countries. Original owner: Baby Saagar.

Sample 2

A business card. Special feature – Simplicity. An invitation to music and joy. Original owner: Saagar.

Sample 3

A Crisis Plan. Special features – Not worth two pennies. Highly ineffective. Not accompanied by a conversation. No detail. Not individualised. Not created in partnership with the patient. Not an alive document. Does not mention anything more than ‘self-harm’. Doesn’t tell us what ‘Crisis’ looks like. Doesn’t identify any helpful distractions, activities, friends or family. Doesn’t appear to know the patient, for example, a key fact – does this person have a key worker? Does not express any understanding or compassion.

Commonly used in developed countries.

Oops! The name of the GP surgery is visible. It doesn’t matter. It closed down years ago. We were it’s last few unlucky patients. Owner: Saagar Naresh (1994-2014).

(Resource: Safety Planning is essential to safety: https://stayingsafe.net/home)

Where I live.

One or two years after Saagar, continuing to live here, in this house was painful. Everything screamed his name – the road from the station to our house that he did not take, our vet, our cat, our dentist, our GP Surgery and pharmacy, our local shops and cafés, our bins, his school, our neighbours, our radio and TV. Everything yelled out his absence.

The thought of moving away filled me with a terrible sense that I would be leaving him behind.  As long as I lived here, this would be his home. What if, one day he was to return? I should be here to receive him. I ironed his full-sleeved light brown t-shirt, a set of dark blue Super-dry sports trousers and kept them ready for use. His Vans shoes too, for that same reason. The boring, practical, Virgo, me. I couldn’t have gone anywhere.

Nearly eight years on, I have come to inhabit my body in a way that my home is where I am. I am comfortable here. Now he’s not separate from me. His home is inside my body once again. He lives in me as love. Divine love. It’s not possible for me to leave him behind ever. He goes everywhere with me, as my beating heart, my smile and my tears. We both share a home. His light shines through my eyes and his laughter rings through my chuckles. I can’t be without him no matter where I am. There is no insecurity. I am free and so is he.

Twenty-two years ago, I traveled from New Delhi to London with my eyes full of dreams and a suitcase full of books. Soon, I shall be crossing the oceans in the other direction, heading back with Si, with absolutely nothing to lose.

Bed number 19.

I never really left. I was always there. At home with my folks. Even when I flew across oceans, a part of me remained at home. The part that refused to leave. The rest of me has been homesick since that day.

The first time I was to leave my Motherland, India, twenty-three years ago, my dad noticed I was close to tears at the airport. He said, “Chin up my dear. Remember who you are and how proud we are of you.”

Two weeks back he had a routine surgery on his neck that has left him unable to breathe adequately for now. He has received all the support he needs in a timely and gentle manner. For a while he was sedated but when he came out of it, the first thing he verbalised on seeing my mum and I was ‘I love you.’

Two days back I left him again. This time in an Intensive Care Unit bed. Bed number 19. I left his doctors, my brothers, my mother and all the extended family in-charge of him and of each other. I left a list of plans, strategies and resources. I left not knowing what happens next. I left as I breathed and meditated and pleaded with the Gods to heal him.

Once again, I see the fragility of human life. I witness people and situations in a constant state of flux, the tide of hope rising and plunging, our uneven shallow breaths and his, our collective helplessness, the tentative stepping forward and standing back, the engagement of distant Healers, the comforting holding and massaging of hands, hours of sitting in air-conditioned rooms and waiting, second-guessing other’s needs, the tender wetting of lips and applying Vaseline, the daily mid-morning updates that set the tone for the day.

Walking purposefully through hospital corridors is something I’ve done a lot of. But this time it’s me who’s walking through them, lost and vacant.

After four weeks, we hope to return home for a longish time. The very thought makes my heart sing. May Mother Nature do its magical, mysterious dance – make things worse and then, make them better again.

A good death

Yesterday all national flags were at half mast, here in Delhi. Yes. It is sad. She was and will be an icon and an inspiration to many. Her dignity unmatched and her sense of duty unwavering.

She died in her bed, in her home, surrounded by her children and grand-children. She could say her final good-byes to those she loved. They could hold her hands while they were still warm. I am sure her corgis were not too far away. Her doctors kept an eye on her till the very end. She possibly had no physical or emotional pain and her spiritual needs were met, I am sure. Her family was certainly prepared. The newsreaders were kind enough to forewarn her people.

She could fulfill her duties right up to two days before her death. She left no debts unpaid, I am sure. No business unfinished, I hope.

Supremely dignified, even in her exit.

She was 96. She had a life well lived.

She had a death well died.

Long lived the Queen.

Loved and cherished forever.

Entrances and exits.

The two little lads were inseparable. Saagar and Rohan. They cycled together all evening after school and kicked a ball about for hours. They had dinner at each other’s houses. They created snowmen and played with snowballs together. They even shared a bath every now and then. Luckily, they lived right next to each other and their parents were friends.

At Ulster Hospital in East Belfast, the staff accommodation is a set of six flats. Rohan‘s family lived in the one just below us. His mum, Shruti, was the best grower of indoor plants. A gentle, sweet lady. She was also a doctor but at that time, was not working. Over time our families became close friends and continued to visit each other even after we moved to London and they moved to the north of England. If you ask me to name my oldest friends in the UK, Shruti’s name would be on top.

Eventually Shruti started working in Psychiatry and seemed to enjoy it, even though the exams were a struggle as they are for many of us, when they must fit somewhere in between work, kids, husbands, homes, pets, friends, sleep and homesickness.

When Saagar was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder, I needed to speak with her. I needed her. I asked her by text what time would suit. She said she’s call me after work and she did.

“Hi Shruti. Thanks so much for calling.”

‘No problem. I am driving so we may get cut off. I’ll call you back if that happens.’

As soon as I started speaking it got cut off and she called back and the same thing happened again. And again. And then she didn’t call back.

When Saagar died, she came to see us the very next day with her husband, utterly shocked.

A month later I needed to connect with her again. She said she’d call me back after work. She called while driving. She had to pick someone up from somewhere or drop someone off somewhere. She was on the move. On – Off – On – Off : our phones connected and then rudely disconnected mid-sentence and stayed disconnected for seven years.

Two days back a message arrived from Shruti on Whatsapp saying, “Please join us and bless the couple.” Rohan gets married soon. A nice little electronic invitation to the reception was posted underneath the message. The invitation wasn’t for anyone in particular. It had no names on it. I can’t be entirely sure it was for us.

I am happy for the family and for Rohan. Wishing them all possible happiness, I RSVP’d with apologies for being unable to attend. There’s nothing here and let’s not pretend there is. I felt sad for a little while at this loss of a valued friendship, but not for long. This is an opportunity to let go. Yet again. If there is one thing I want to be skilled at, it is to keep letting go, remembering what the Bard of Avon said – ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances …’ I get it.

I would like to live

like a river flows

carried by the surprise

of its own unfolding.”                                    

John O’Donahue