December 6, 2020

Maut

(c) J. Singh, 2017

Jatinder Singh sighed as he stared at the prescription in his hand. Hours ago, he had returned from the doctor's office with the terrible news. The lab tests had come back, and the doctor had confirmed that it was indeed what they had been fearing. Cancer. It had started in the pancreas, but had spread across his entire abdomen. There was not much they could do, the doctor informed him in  a sombre tone. Even the most aggressive chemotherapy and radiation would not be able to stem the tide now. The end was near. Jatinder had maybe one more month of life left before the disease claimed him. Perhaps more, if he was lucky. At best, he might manage to eke out three months. But the doctor was quite certain that he would be dead before four months had passed.

The doctor had prescribed some strong pain-killers to help him deal with the pain. He had explained what to expect, and it wasn't pleasant. The coming weeks would be accompanied by fatigue, weakness, and increasing levels of pain. Eventually, he would not be able to walk. Then he would be bed-ridden. And finally, he would struggle to even breathe. It was going to be a slow, painful death.

Jatinder folded the prescription neatly and tucked it into his shirt pocket. He ruminated that at least he had a rough idea of when his end was coming. He could at least feel fortunate for that. And, he had no complaints. He had lived a full life. He was in his mid seventies now, and had experienced much of what he had wanted to in life. He had children and grandchildren, and felt fortunate to still be married to the same woman, Ruby, his wife of over fifty years. She had been by his side through all of life's ups and downs.

Ruby came into the living room where he was seated with a hot cup of tea. She handed it to him and then sat down on the couch next to him, watching him intently. She had not spoken much since they returned from the doctors office, but her quiet resolve gave him much comfort. He knew that she would be with him until the very last moment when Death would claim him. Loyal and fiercely devoted, she would be there for him no matter what came. He felt the deepest appreciation for her, even though he could not quite put it into words. He looked her in the eyes and took her hand in his.

"What a journey we have had, eh?" he asked, reflecting on their lives together. She smiled, tears welling up in her eyes, and nodded.

"I wouldn't have it any other way," she replied, "and if I could have another lifetime, I'd want to  spend it just with you."

He wiped his eyes and looked away.

"I think," he said, clearing his throat, "we should tell the children. It's important that they know."

"Do you want them to come?" she asked. Their son, Devinder, lived in Chicago and worked as a senior executive manager in a major consulting firm. Their daughter, Poonam, lived forty five minutes away and worked as a health diagnostic technician in a hospital. Jatinder knew that they would both drop everything and come immediately when they heard the news.

"I don't want to disrupt their lives," he said. "But they should know what's happening. And I do need to talk with Devinder and Poonam, they need to know about the family's properties and other assets."

They got them both on a video conference call. Ruby was dressed in her white lab coat and had her hair neatly braided. She stepped out into the hallway to take the call.

"Dad, Mom," she smiled warmly when she saw Jatinder and Ruby on her phone screen, "How are you?"

"We are just great," Jatinder replied, "Look at you, all grown up!"

"You always say that, Dad!"

Devinder joined the call. He was in the airport, high ceilings with bright lights in the background. He seemed like he was in a hurry, walking at a fast pace, the strap of his laptop bag over his shoulder, causing wrinkles in his expensive suit.

"Hey, Mom, Dad," a smile across his features broke the visible stress on his face, "Poonam! The whole gang's here, what's up?"

"Where you headed, Dev?" asked Poonam casually.

"Oh, another client meeting in New York," he said, "you know how it is, I'm always traveling. How you guys doing?"

Jatinder looked at his children on the laptop screen.

"I just wanted to tell you kids," he said, "you both make me very, very proud. Every day."

"Awww, Dad," Poonam blew him a kiss.

"Thanks Dad," Devinder had reached the airport security line. "I will get cut off for a minute, have to go through security. I'll call back in a few minutes."

"No, beta, that's alright. You go ahead. We will call you both again this weekend, when you are a little bit more free, and we can talk."

Devinder hung up but Poonam lingered.

"Mom, Dad," her voice was quiet, concerned. "Is everything okay?"

Jatinder laughed to reassure her. "Yes my dear," he replied, "Don't worry."

That weekend, when Jatinder and Ruby finally gave them the news, Poonam and Devinder both rushed to their parents house. Poonam reached within an hour, and Devinder arrived on the early morning flight. He hadn't slept all night.

"Why didn't you tell us?" they both lamented. But after the initial shock of the news, they all sat together, talking, crying, and hugging.

"Don't be so sad," Jatinder said, wiping Poonam's tears away. "I can't bear to see my daughter shedding tears. Everyone has to leave this Earth one day. It's just that my time is coming. And I can be grateful that at least, I know that it's coming. So, don't be sad."

Poonam nodded but the tears still fell.

"This is the only truth of life, Poonam," Ruby said as she hugged her.

"We have to get a second opinion," Devinder was standing, poised to dial his phone. "What if your doctor is wrong? We have to try!"

"Dev, come here, sit down with me," Jatinder gently patted the empty seat on the couch next to him, "I have spoken with the doctor about this. It's not a matter of second, or third, or fourth opinions. Nobody will be able to do anything, not at this stage."

Devinder's frustration was palpable. He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it. He tried to take a breath, and couldn't. Ruby stood up and gathered him in her arms as he broke down sobbing.

After a quiet dinner, when the tears had dried up, even though everyone felt spent and weary with the emotional toll, Jatinder began speaking about the necessities of what his wife and children would need to know after he was gone. He gave them the login credentials for all his bank and investment accounts. He told them about his property investments and handed them the deeds and paperwork. Initially they resisted, not willing to accept these indicators of his impending demise. But he was gently persistent.

"You must listen, it is very important," he insisted, "Tomorrow, I will be weaker than I am today. And the day after that, weaker than that. Soon, I will not be able to explain all of this to you. It is very important I give you all the information as soon as I can. There is a lot for you to know, and I don't want you to struggle with these things after my death."

Dev nodded briefly, his jaw set, teeth clenched. Jatinder knew that steely look in Dev's eyes. He had seen it many times before as he was growing up. It meant that Dev was ready, he would be able to handle it now. Jatinder nodded and patted him on the shoulder.

"Be strong, son," he advised, and continued sharing the paperwork.

Three weeks later, Jatinder's condition worsened to the point where he was not able to walk more than a few steps before needing to sit and rest. It was a rapid, visible deterioration in his condition. When Ruby telephoned the doctor, he solemnly acknowledged it and informed her that things were going to get much worse. She should mentally prepare herself for what was to come.

Poonam took extended leave from her work and assisted Ruby in tending to Jatinder. She would sit by his bedside and read the daily prayers to him. He thanked her for that. It was becoming increasingly difficult for him to perform any kind of activity. Even reading took a strain on him.

Dev would come and visit for several days at a time before flying out again. He was traveling very frequently, and his haggard look and the bags under his eyes spoke of his sleep deprivation. Still, he wouldn't let more than a few days pass before he was at the house again.

It was on a clear, Sunday afternoon when it happened. The skies were blue and there was bright sunshine and a gentle breeze. Perfect weather to be outside. Poonam had helped Jatinder out into the backyard and onto the reclining garden seat. He looked up at the clear blue sky and smiled.

"I remember," he whispered in a hoarse voice, "I remember when I was a kid, and I would stare up at the blue sky, just like that, in Ludhiana, and I would say to my friends, 'one day I'm going to go a see America'. And I made it. I came here with twelve dollars in my pocket. And I built myself and my future here."

He closed his eyes as tears rolled down his face.

"I'm really proud of you, Dad," Poonam whispered and kissed his forehead. "You gave Dev and me a perfect childhood and it's because of you that we succeeded."

Poonam's phone buzzed. It was Dev. She stood up and answered it.  "Haan, Dev?"

Dev and Ruby had gone to the grocery store to pick up some soup and bread and other items. They had only been gone for fifteen minutes. But Dev sounded panicked.

"Poonam!" he cried. She could tell that something was terribly, terribly wrong. Instinctively, she walked back into the house and closed the door. Once she was certain that Jatinder could not hear her, she asked Dev, "What is it? What's wrong?"

"It's Mom!" there was panic in his voice.

"What happened to Mom? What's wrong?" Poonam felt a rising sense of dread.

"She just, she just collapsed! We were in the story, she was picking some fruits, and she just, she just fell down!"

"Is she okay? What happened? Dev?"

"No, she's not ok," Dev was crying, "She died, Poonam. Mom died."

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