Cricket in the summers and
badminton in the winters. That’s what Saagar chose to play during his school
years. He was good at both and wanted to be better.
I often went along to watch
him play, even though I didn’t appreciate all the technicalities of either
game. One evening we gathered in the Sports club to watch him play. I noticed
that every time he missed a shot he hit his right leg hard with the badminton
racket gripped in his right hand. That must hurt. I didn’t understand. It
distressed me. I spoke with him later. “It’s only a game, darling.”, I said. He
kept quiet, neither defending his action, nor arguing with me, pointedly focussing
on the piece of ground hit by his obliquely downcast eyes. In him I saw a boy in pursuit of perfection.
Out of the blue he broke up
with his lovely girl-friend of 7 months. That too on Valentine’s Day. His first
love. Sweet and innocent. On being asked why, he said, ”It’s boring.” Soon
after, late one night I gleened tears in his eyes as he hugged me, pretending
not to sob. In him I saw a boy, trying to be a man. Oh! The pains of growing!
After a night out with friends,
one weekend I noticed a cluster of 3 pea-sized fresh burn marks on his right
forearm. Horrified, I asked what happened. He said it was a dare. A few of his
friends were being goofy and challenged him to hold the burnt end of a
cigarette on his skin and he did. He laughed as if it was a joke. I didn’t know
what to make of it. How could this bright kid with an astute sense of right and
wrong be talked into this kind of silliness? In him, I saw a boy trying to fit
in with his peers.
Was there more to see? Did he
tell me everything or just what he thought I could handle?
Nearly 5 years on, we gather again. This time it’s a 25th birthday party. Many in the room are in their mid-twenties. It’s their party. It’s everyone’s. There’s an open mike. Young voices. A few songs are special – Dolly Partons’ ‘Jolene’, Timberlake’s ‘Cry me a river’. By divine conspiracy, there is this song from the CD Saagar got me one Christmas – Corinne Bailey Rae’s ‘Girl put your record on’. I sing along nice and loud, word for word, like I used to, a long time back! It’s our music, biryani and laughter. A strong sense of belonging binds the room together. Sadness and joy are everywhere, stuck together like conjoint twins.
When I supposedly had ‘everything’, I didn’t know how to
access true joy. Now that I don’t have ‘everything’, I do. Even if it happens
for tiny snippets of time, it happens in its fullness. It’s like being immersed
in a singing warm ocean of bliss. The brickwork of resistance drops off. Everything
is in harmony with my cosmos. Everything that steps in the way melts away. I am
complete with everything just the way it is. This enticing path of joy meanders
through a dark forest of grief. I carry the forest with me. And its black
shadows. And all its wild animals that threaten to kill. We celebrate. We sing,
laugh and we dance. We hug and cry and eat and drink as one. We are held in the
warm embrace of a field of love that nourishes our souls.
Frantically searching for an important document, I rummaged through all my papers up and down the Study. My mind can’t be trusted with anything anymore! My memory is shot. I exhausted myself and all my options. Over a cup of tea, I thought about all the places I had not looked through. A box full of Saagar’s books and diaries. I never read through any of his personal stuff. But that day, before I knew it, I had read all his musings from his travels to Uganda with a friend. They were there for 2 weeks to help at a local school supported by their College.
It seems when he was struggling, he wrote. Like me. He wrote exactly as he spoke, leaving some words half said and stretching out the first letter of unspeakable words. His diary was reading itself to me in his voice. I felt like he was in the room. I was an intruder. It wasn’t my place to read it. It was personal to him. But it was also my conduit to him even if it was written 27 months prior to Day 0.
It was clear that the boys
were totally unprepared for the massive change. This is the note from his last
30/7/2012. 2300 hrs.
“Never before have I been able to say the words “I want my mommy!” with as much certainty as now. This sucks ass. I feel like such a pathetic little shit. I hope missing Mother is no more than a manifestation of homesickness.”
A deep feeling. Then a judgement. Then an admonishment and then a substitution. A minimization. A classic example of a young man being brutally unkind to himself even though he is suffering. Being a ‘man’. Not allowing for any fragility even in the face of a harsh reality.
Fact: He missed me. Thinking of me brought him comfort. I have evidence.
How could I ever doubt that? By judging myself too critically. Why do we do this to ourselves?
That was a beautiful gift from you to me on your birthday my son. 25th birthday! Bless you my love.
Carrie Fisher: Date of death 27th Dec 2016.
Her mother, Debbie Renolds’ date of death: 28th Dec 2016
Emiliano Sala: Plane Crash – 21st Jan 2019
(Death confirmed 13 days later).
His father, Horatio Sala’s date of death – 26th April 2019
Both these parents died of natural causes. Horatio Sala was only 58. For days after the crash, he was not sure what was happening. “Hours go by and I know nothing. It makes me think the worst. I know nothing. Nobody has spoken to me. Not a call from the Embassy, the club, from anyone.”
I cannot imagine how stressful that must be. After the ‘worst’ was confirmed, the investigation was a protracted one. Horatio’s angst is palpable on the video clips. The grief and anger of it must have caused a sustained and prolonged release of adrenaline which greatly raised his pulse and blood pressure, making his heart work harder, making his blood sticky and ruining his immune system. Research also shows that in the first 30 days after a loved one dies, your risk of dying too is significantly increased. There are many stories validating this finding.
More than a month after the crash a BBC report said, “Some operational aspects are yet to be determined, such as the validity of the pilot’s licence and ratings.” What must that do to a parent! “Air accident investigators will continue to look at all operational, technical, organisational and human factors which might have contributed to the crash.”
They will continue to look I am sure but for the bereaved families, there is no resolution till the investigation is complete. They don’t feel settled until then. They are haunted by unanswered questions. The big and noisy fight inside overshadows everything else. There is no sign of ‘peace’ for at least a thousand mile radius. A prompt, fair and proper investigation is essential for them to start grieving properly. Losing a child is bad enough. A parent should not then have to fight for facts and justice.
Sadly, even the medical profession does not understand sudden traumatic grief. Often the investigations are a sham, take forever and produce vague statements like the ones above. I know many parents whose suffering is insulted and prolonged for this reason. This must change. It breaks my heart and many others.
PS: Very sorry for the pilot, Mr Ibbotson’s death. The system failed him too. If he did not have an appropriate licence, the system did not stop him from flying.
Recently I have met a Professor of Psychotherapy, a Consultant Psychiatrist and a GP – all parents of children lost to mental illnesses. Here’s what one mum says:
“Whenever I have seen a therapist, they have gone straight to my childhood, my up-bringing, my parents and their parents. All my behaviours and feelings seem to be explained and understood based on their behaviours, however ‘normal’, for their times. I am encouraged to think of all the ways in which they could have directly or indirectly damaged me.
By that principle, all of my child’s behaviours and feelings should be explained and understood based on the behaviours of his parents. Half of them is me. I agree. I must be part of the problem. My profession is perceived as a bigger problem. ‘High achieving Asian’ parents are assumed to put a lot of pressure on their children. So much so, the medics looking after him didn’t even need to meet me or know the quality of our relationship to be certain that my job makes me a bigger problem than most other mums. They could squarely put the blame on me and actively keep me out of the picture. I asked too many questions. I was the biggest problem. They wrote it in their notes.
However, that does not mean that I cannot be part of the solution. NICE guidelines lay out my role beautifully but do the people on ground read any of these guidelines? In my experience, not. If half of all that is written in Policies and guidelines was implemented, families could engage meaningfully in helping their kids recover.”
In between childhood and adulthood.
In between start and finish.
In between finish and start again.
In between seed and sapling.
In between nothing and something.
In between ‘now’ and ‘not yet’.
In between confusion
In between ‘not knowing’ and ‘knowing’.
In between listening and understanding,
Understanding and assimilating,
Assimilating and learning,
Learning and applying,
Applying and having an effect or not.
In between the impact and its height,
Or possible flight.
In between the flash of lightning and the roar of thunder,
In between thought and action,
In between you and me,
There is travel.
An invisible, microscopic stirring
Of this nurturing Universe
Of this mothering Earth
Of this sun-ward bound energy of Spring
Of this Blossoming of everything
(The mean, very mean wife of the inn-keeper. Nativity play 1983. CMC Ludhiana. India.)
Once upon a time I used to be a kid. A bright and happy kid. I nearly forgot that girl. She used to be fun. She loved singing, dancing and play-acting. She had thick black, unusually curly, short hair. She laughed easily and played harmless pranks. She listened to music on the radio with such ardour that her day was planned around the timings of her favourite programmes on the Urdu service of All India Radio. The last few pages of all her notebooks were filled with scribbled lyrics of songs written at speed to keep pace with them as they played on the old Murphy which was a part of her mother’s dowry. Then she neatly transcribed the messy song-words from the back pages of her notebooks onto a special red diary which was her treasure.
A few months back I accepted an invitation from my alma mater, Christian Medical College, Ludhiana, India. This is where I trained to be a doctor and an anaesthetist, nearly 30 years ago. They requested me to run a Mental Health workshop for about 70 medical students and make a Keynote address at the World Junior Medical Congress they were hosting in early April.
While preparing my lecture, I dug up a few old pictures. They flew me back in time. I saw what I looked like when I was Saagar’s age. It was a strange juxtaposition. So much had changed. Oh, that heart-breaking innocence! The stars in my eyes shone so bright, they nearly blinded me. Who was this lovely girl? Where is she now? She has walked a long way and formed a big circle. She is back where she started, working with what she has – her Love, her Grief and her Self.
The workshop was four and a half hours long. The sharing was powerful, the enthusiasm infectious. The learning for all of us was invaluable. It was fun! We sang and we danced. We worked and we played. It was just like the old times. Saagar was there. He was smiling his crooked smile.
“There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life.” – Victor Frankl.