Mind the Gap

 You are 28.
 Married 4 years. 
 No babies yet?
 Your mum’s bursting with unspoken questions. 
 The answer arrives finally. 
 A perfectly miraculous baby.
 Born to you, so ordinary. 
  
 He’s way beyond your dreams.
 Your life’s now embellished. 
 He’s much loved and cherished.
 First grandson on both sides.
 That smile! Those cackles!
 Those big bright brown eyes!
  
 He can’t wait to grow up.
 As if in a big hurry, 
 He rushes into walking, talking.
 Loving mangoes and chicken curry.
  
 You work hard for your family. 
 That’s the way you’ve learnt to be.
 From the life of your Papa and Mummy. 
  
 He thrives. 
 Multiple moves
 He survives. 
 So many new houses, schools and friends.
 So many new towns, cities and trends. 
 He takes all of them in his stride.
 Builds up a repertoire of languages 
 from far and wide.
  
 He learns to play the drums
 Lovely unfamiliar melodies he hums.
 Spinning red cricket balls on summer afternoons.
 Reveling at night to heavy rock tunes. 
  
 You split your sides 
 with his impressions of accents 
 and caricatures of the brown, the black, 
 the yellow and the white.
  
 Paul Choudhary and Russell Peter.
 He loves their comedy.
 Their lines he recites to perfection
 At every opportunity. 
  
 Two things delight him most – friends and food.
 Stars at GCSEs and A levels come easy. 
 He’s quiet the dude.
  
 Uni takes him away to Durham.
 You miss his laugh, his wit and his hum.
 You find it painful to cook for one.
 And long for his cocktail –
 The old-fashioned rum.
  
 Two years go by.
 You think you are learning to comply.
 The holidays come by.
 Each and every moment you enjoy. 
 One day his closest friend, Hugo calls to say,
 “The guy I’ve known most of my life? 
 Saagar is not that guy.”
  
 The summer soon turns scary.
 You find yourselves in A&E.
 His laughter replaced with 
 Anger and paranoia.
 The Liason Psychiatrist calls it ‘hypomania’. 
  
 He starts him on ‘Olanzepine’.
 Puts him under the Home Treatment Team.
 They keep you well out of the scheme.
 They know what’s best for him. 
  
 Two weeks pass.
 He responds well to the pill. 
 He’s told he has Bipolar Disorder.
 You’re told nothing. Nil. 
  
 As his mood returns to somewhat normal,
 He wants to return to University.
 He is discharged to your GP.
  
 The GP receives a discharge letter.
 With no diagnosis. 
 No mention of signs of getting worse 
 Or better. 
 No list of warning signs.
 No safety plans or designs. 
 He’s just another number to quote. 
 A delivery note. Completed in rote. 
  
 He went back to Uni but just for 2 days.
 His mood slumped.
 He is too quiet. You are stumped. 
 At the next visit to the GP
 You describe his sadness.
 You are weepy.
 Then you hear the wise doc say
 Take more pills, Citalopram and go away.
 In 3 or 4 weeks
 They will start to play.
 Wait.
 Rome was not built in one day. 
  
 “Would you please refer him back to the psychiatrists? You plead.
 “They will do exactly what I am doing.” Says he.
 “This is not the first time I’m treating someone like this.”
 Take this slip please.
 You remember the look on his face.
 It’s now clear
 As if in front of you right here.
 The lines you thought were concern,
 Were fear.
  
 As advised, you go for walks and have a routine.
 Weekly CBT, daily gym, nice food and TV. 
  
 Multiple episodes of ‘Office’ and ‘Friends’
 Didn’t bring about any upward trends.
  
 He is but a hollow shell.
 You don’t know what to do. 
 Who to tell?
  
 This is your NHS.
 It’s honest and good.
 You know it. 
 It’s you. 
 May be waiting is the best thing to do.
 If they say he’ll get better
 It must be true. 
  
 One Thursday afternoon you return from work.
 An A4 sheet lies flat on the fourth step from the door 
 “Sorry. I can’t take this any more.”
  
 The hand writing unmistakable.
 The implications unthinkable.
 A dash upstairs. Screaming his name.
 A call to 999. 
 He’s only a child. A sweet child. 
 And he’s not well. 
 Surely they’ll find him.
 All will be swell. 
  
 Standing bare feet 
 in the middle of the street
 A festival of autumn all around me
 Red, orange, ochre and green. 
 A car pulls up in front of our house.
 Two uniformed men with his
 Keys and wallet … talk about
 Black hair…
 Brown skin …
 Grey hoody with a penguin …
  
 No one said anything about death or suicide
 What was there to hide?
 10 weeks from the first hospital visit.
 2 days from the last GP visit. 
  
 Later you find out they knew.
 But they didn’t tell you.
 And they didn’t know what to do.
 They sent him home with you.
  
 They call it ‘Care in the community’.
 Do we know the difference between 
 Treatment and care?
 If this is your community,
 What a pity!
 These are your colleagues.
 You trust them implicitly.
 With your baby. 
 Like they would have trusted me.
  
 I grieve for his guilt,
 His shame, his self-blame.
 Him. All alone. Forlorn.
 His quiet desperation.
 Separation.
 His terror. His fright.
 Night after night.
 Misunderstood.
 Behind a hood. 
 No one should have to suffer so.
 Nobody.  
  
 “To be or not to be” 
 That comes up for me.
 Time goes round and round pointlessly
 Never too far from complete insanity.
 Oh! The finality.
 I wonder if this is a movie or reality? 
  
 The official investigation says 
 everything was 'thorough and reasonable' 
 despite all the missing bits and 
 complete lack of clarity.
  
 The doctor stands up in Coroner’s court 
 and announces boldly
 “Suicides are not predictable or preventable.”
 I shudder in disbelief. Here stands a lay person.
 The only one who could have helped.
 I marvel at Saagar for staying alive 
 for as long as he did. 
  
 The Coroner sees the gaping holes 
 that swallowed him alive.
 Same old themes.
 Listening to understand.
 Communication. 
 Closing the loop. 
 Meaningful sharing of information.
  
She asked the Service Improvement manager of the distinguished Mental hospital what he would do to make things better.
He said he would discuss it at the next Business meeting and then spewed such jargon that I could have puked all over the floor of that spotless court room.
  
 I meet with other parents of deep loss.
 Story upon story of utter tragedy.
 Avoidable, preventable travesty.
 Immense outrage and consternation.
 Let’s start afresh with compassion. 
  
 They say when something good happens, learn.
 When something bad happens, learn.
 At a random conference, over coffee,
 I shared Saagar’s story 
 with a seasoned doctor of Psychiatry.
 He said plainly 
”This has been happening as far back as my memory ... ”
  
 I read somewhere:
  
 The opposite of love in not hate.
 It’s indifference.
 The opposite of art is not ugliness.
 It’s indifference.
 The opposite of faith is not heresy.
 It’s indifference.
 The opposite of life is not death.
 It’s indifference. 
  
 I questioned everything about me.
 Every decision, every word spoken, unspoken.
 Every move. Every choice.  
 I even questioned our love.
 But I learnt.
 I learnt to write. To speak. 
 I learnt that there is no ‘they’ or ‘thee’
 No ‘you’ and ‘me’.
 There is no other.
 It’s just ‘us’ and ‘we’.
 Saagar was our future. Our own. Our community. 
  
 Despite everything, I’m learning to love me.
  
 Did the others learn anything?
 Did my son, your son die of nothing. For nothing?
  
 No. There is a Saagar shaped hole in my heart.
 There is an Ed shaped hole in the NHS.
 There is a James shaped hole in A&E.
 At least seven thousand and fifty 
 more holes in the world since Saagar. 
 And rising.
 There are too many holes in this net. 
 In fact, there is no net.
 Just gaps.
 So, one and all, Mind the Gaps.
 And let’s please begin
 To close them in.  

[ Please support this film: https://igg.me/at/1000days ]

Methuselah

One morning, despite severe inertia and amplified gravity, I carried my body through treacle to a yoga lesson nearby. Once I got there, the music, the incense, the light, the chanting, the breathing and the presence of other people lightened me up and I got into the groove.

I became the rhythm of my breath and the simultaneous harmonious dance of the body with the breath. Each posture pushed me just a little bit outside my comfort zone and the energy started to shift and flow. Before I knew it one hour was up. As we were finishing off the session with a short meditation, Felix, the teacher said “Dedicate your practice to someone you love.”

In that moment, tears sprung out in rivers. Out of nowhere, all on their own accord, they flooded me. I lay in the corpse pose (shavasana) and the warmth of my tears continued to soak the hair at both my temples.

Just then a set of 4 light soft paws, one by one stepped on to my tummy. I am familiar with the weight and size of such paws due to our feline, Milkshake’s nightly visits. Instantly, I broke into a smile. I lifted my head and opened one eye. A black cat that had been lazing on a sofa previously had made itself comfortable on top of me, rolled up into a ball. The fuzzy warmth of that circle travelled all the way to my heart. I sat up and cuddled it, stroked it and thanked it for reaching out to me. It was gracious enough to let me. Love was boomeranging.

Constantine Bay

The entire coastline covered in Sea Pinks, bunched together in shapes resembling piglets. They could easily be called Sea Pigs. Poor soil – no problem. Lashing winds – no problem. Salt laden air and water – lovely! These little pink flowers are hardy as hell. Unperishable. Their leaves stay green all year round – sun or rain.

A week in Cornwall, the perfect escape from the Big Smoke.

From the white sands, rock pools and sand dunes of the bay, we could see a classic white light-house standing tall. A beacon of hope for hundreds of years for hundreds of people, lost at sea.

Lovely long walks along the headlands, fresh sea-breeze and delicious sea food. And, lots of exceptional cream-teas- especially the one at Bedruthan steps. Wowwie!!! It was indeed, like a dream. Our Scrabble travelled with us. In London we don’t get time to play it. So, here was our chance.

After dinner on Wednesday, I opened the green cardboard box. We were with friends who were half willing to play. We agreed to form 2 teams of two each so we would be able to consult and won’t have to wait too long between goes. As I unpacked the box, I found some old score sheets in there. They had 2 columns of scores – one for Saagar and one for me.

My heart lurched up to my throat and my eyes stung and burnt. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and smoothened out the contortions of my face. I didn’t want to spoil the evening for everyone. A good game is had by all and we are off to bed by 11 pm.

“I am in a strange building in a strange sandy seaside town. I am wearing strange flowing green garments. Someone says three people are waiting to see me outside. After a while I walk out to see these people. 3 young men are seated on comfy cane sofas in a shaded balcony. As I walk towards them, one pair of eyes glints back at me bathed in recognition. A knowing smile flashes across his handsome olive face.

I freeze and stare. His hair has grown. He has blonde highlights, like he did when he was 15. He is wearing a big tan jacket and looking so good! He stands up and steps gently toward me. I look at him is disbelief. He holds me in his trademark big bear hug.

“You know how much I’ve cried.” I whisper.

“I know.” He whispers in his sweet young-man voice.

I hang on to him, never to let him go.”

Then the flood gates of my conscience are flung open and once again I am staring at a gaping hole. Another day … love … longing … The sea pinks … endure. The light house … hope …

The Wait.

4k-wallpaper-beautiful-bloom-1597662

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
And resolution.

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
Despite everything.

Visiting my adolescence

Innkeeper's wife

(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.

MH Workshop

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A song and a prayer.

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Once upon a time I used to sing. My friends had to beg me to stop. In 1987, a whole bunch of us, medical students traveled from Ludhiana to Delhi to participate in the Annual music festival at All India Institute of Medical Sciences, called ‘Pulse’. It was just the perfect time for us to be and sing together. We belted out song after song for the entire duration of the train ride. Some onlookers were entertained and others annoyed but we were oblivious to them all. By the end of the journey, we were hoarse. I had no regrets that on the day of the competition, I sounded nothing like myself. I had had a great time.

I grew up in a house filled with music. The radio used to be on before we woke up in the morning and we followed the charts closely every friday on ‘Binaca Geet Mala’. My parents loved Hindi film music which by default is the most popular music in India. My mother has an uncanny ability to remember lyrics that I seem to have inherited. The popularity of the music of a film determines its box-office success. Our playback singers are worshiped like Gods.

Saagar found Hindi film music b-o-r-i-n-g!!! He thought it lacked imagination and the lyrics were always about romantic love. True. Yet, he accompanied me in my singing whenever I asked him. Despite the fact he didn’t know the songs, he played the drums or Djembe along to perfection. The boy had a solid sense of rhythm. After losing Saagar, I lost my songs. Some, I just couldn’t bear to listen to. Others, I could sometimes play for myself and occasionally enjoy. But singing was undoable. My tears would come tumbling in waves if I attempted it. For more than 4 years, I mostly stuck with words, Radio 4 and the random weekly music of someone else’s choice on Desert Island Discs. For the last 2 years, Si and I would dance to some of our favourites on Saturday evenings, while pottering around in the kitchen.

A few months ago, some songs came to me. They were devotional and Sufi. Initially, they came with tears of love, sorrow and gratitude. With practice, the tears learnt to hide. My friends accompanied me – Katie on viola and Rajesh on the tabla and finally, last week I gathered the confidence to sing in public after 5 years. It was an exercise in equanimity. It didn’t matter how melodious or off-key the song was, it was an offering from the heart. It was a way of loving and honouring myself, Saagar,  friends and families present and all the lovely people they had lost to suicide. It was a new beginning.

English translation of O Paalan hare

Oh, nurturing Lord, beyond description and beyond all,
Except you, we have no one
Ease our difficulties, oh God

Except you, we have no one
You are our only supporter
You are our only protector
Except you, we have no one.

It is you who has filled the moon with moonlight
The sun’s brightness is from you
The sky is content, you have given it stars
God, if you don’t adorn this life
Then who will adorn it?

Oh, nurturing Lord, beyond description and beyond all,
Except you, we have no one.

If you listen, Lord, I shall make a plea
Give patience to the sorrowful
So that they never give in to their sorrow
Provide the powerless with protection
So that the powerless can live happily.

Provide our devotion with strength.
Provide our devotion with strength.

As you are the master of the world, please hear this plea
There is darkness in our path
Shine your divine light for us.

Oh, nurturing Lord, beyond description and beyond all,
Except you, we have no one
Ease our difficulties, oh God
Except you, we have no one.

Lyricist: Javed Akhtar
Composer: A R Rahman
Film: Lagaan

Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arF8gWNFyZo

Recording: http://we.tl/t-npGeikz9QP?src=dnl

Venue: St Martin in the Fields. 9th March 2019.

Big thanks to Mary Kennedy for recording the song and to David Mosse for organising the Time to Talk service.

Thank you, Mr Bronx.

IMG_6919

He came to us as a little girl in 2004, from Antrim Animal Sactuary. We called him ‘Bella’ for a week before the vet told us he was a little boy. One of his ears had a wedge missing, a sign of having lived rough. That didn’t take his sweetness away. He jumped to the top of kitchen cabinets and mewed in protest for being locked up indoors. He loved being outside in the sun, watching the world go by and making friends with it. He played with anything – hair, wool, food, the mint plant, newspapers, laptops. He brought a light and joyful energy into our house.

He slept under my bed and some mornings I woke up, looking straight into his eyes. We had long conversations where each of us listened and allowed a gap after the other finished their sentence before starting to speak. Saagar was endlessly amused by this intimate interaction beyond language, where everything was being expressed and understood. In the evening, while I sat watching TV, Mr Bronx sat watching me.

Stroking him saved my life. He received love generously. That alone was enough.

He happily adopted the neighbours by pretending he wasn’t being fed at home. One day I found a note through my door. ‘Please feed your cat’ it said. Later I also found out that one of my lovely neighbours had set up a Facebook page to find support for this poor black and white cat on his street! Thank you, Bronx!!!

A few months ago the vet said that his thyroid and kidneys were not working very well. She put him on a special diet and some meds. We ran some blood tests, which indicated that he was slowly approaching the end of his life. So, we made the most of our time together, playing and eating and a lot of loving. Si found out Mr Bronx loved organic chicken. He treated him and himself to it often.

Last Friday Mr Bronx got a bit wobbly on his feet. On Saturday, all he wanted was to lie down. We spent the whole day together in the sun, listening to music and Radio 4, saying hello to passers-by and talking. That night he peacefully slipped away in his sleep. He now rests in his favourite place, our garden. Love you, Mr Bronx. Thank you.