Part I. Obit
I’ve been attempting to write this for a while now. This is an obituary. That said, I think I waited too much because more hours have passed now than there should have between the grief and the healing. Life has whirred back into some form of its old rhythm in the two (now three) days that someone I loved dearly died – and I cannot get back the words I canvassed and discarded in half-sleep and tears and bleariness of the early stages of my mourning.
My mourning isn’t over though. I don’t know when it will be. But getting these words out of the way is step one in getting on to writing new ones.
I’ve had a regular person’s share of bad luck. A regular, present-day youngperson’s share. There have been instances of spectacular luck — mostly academic. And there has been some misfortune, including but not limited to my mother’s MPD, two failed suicide attempts and three tumours. Family issues and health problems, everyday things on this planet.
And therefore, I never had a ready description for the worst thing to have happened to me. And then in the space of a week, I suddenly had two. Exactly a week ago, I walked into the hospital my mother was admitted to for (what I thought was a routine) hysterectomy. My father told me then that she had cancer. Stage 2. And that they had decided not to tell me this before so my masters thesis (that I’d submitted a day before) wouldn’t be affected. Endometrial adenosarcoma, her reports said. Cancer of the endometrial wall of her uterus. And an uninvestigated tumour in her right kidney. To focus on how I felt just then was impossible, but I remember throwing up in a sterile, quiet, medicinal-smelling washroom a little while later.
She was in surgery then, something that stretched on beyond its designated six hours. The father and I sat in the waiting hall, me numb and him worried. A little over eight hours later, the operation was over and they got my mother’s uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes and lymph nodes. She was to stay in the ICU for the next few days.
The next day, I found you, little squirrel. I found you, I fell in love and then you were gone. Too soon. I should’ve written about this in the first few hours of your death, when your story gushed out of me, eager as you always had been, yourself. But it hurt too much to talk about you. I couldn’t even bring myself to tell anyone about it. To friends who texted, asking about you, I had a standard reply. I “wasn’t ready to talk about it yet”, I said. I wasn’t.
I didn’t — couldn’t — describe how you stopped eating the morning of your last day, how you were slower than usual, sleepier than usual. There was no strength in me to relive the afternoon that I got back to my flat because I had to show it to a potential flatmate and how, on seeing how sluggish you were, I ran back out to look for a vet. You rolled feebly in my palm as I asked shopkeeper after shopkeeper for the location of the only doctor that could save you, in the area. And I could not, for the life of me, talk about what it did to you when the seizures began.
“We’re closed,” the man on the end of the line told me when I finally had a number for the animal clinic. “We’ll open at five.” He was obstinate. And they only worked for cats and dogs, he added. “I know nothing about squirrels,” he said repeatedly. When I begged, he suggested I go to ‘one of those places in south Delhi that were open 24x7. When I got over the call, you were gone. Stiff. Eyes shut like you were sleeping. Traffic blared around me – 2 pm on a weekday afternoon, sunlight blasting every surface, all the world a mean, noisy whir, as I leaned against a wall and cried.
No, I could not talk about how I failed you, the person you adopted as a surrogate mother, the person you – tiny, shy thing that you were – trusted enough to fall asleep on.
I had found you in a bucket in my washroom the day after I found out about my mother’s cancer. I came back to my flat that evening and saw you, dehydrated and slowly dying, cheeping feebly in protest when I picked you up and bathed you gently.
M got milk for you when he got back home that night, and we stayed up reading articles on the internet on how to care for abandoned squirrels. We tried feeding you and attempting to put you to sleep. And because the Steve Jobs book was lying on our bed, we named you Walter.
The next day, I took you back to Gurgaon because I needed to be there for my parents. We discovered each other further, as I found you favoured apples over everything else and you discovered that I had hands that you must absolutely sleep on, all the time.
I’d designated an old VIT t-shirt as your bed and you promptly sought out a sleeve to burrow in and snooze. That was your second favourite place. To the best of my knowledge, I loved you. And I thought you were doing well.
I had plans to take you to the vet for a check-up soon, a day or two later perhaps. Once I wasn’t spending entire days in the hospital.
When I would come back after visiting my mother in the ICU, a little subdued every single time, you’d squeak and scramble all over my arms and shoulder, scratching me ever so gently, till I actually, literally grinned at your innocent enthusiasm. And as I’d hold you while you fell asleep in my hands, I would realise keenly, every time, that I needed you just as much as you needed me.
It was love. And you were just a baby, my little baby.
M stayed back that afternoon after I got back home with your lifeless, hunched body. He put you back in your box, held me as a part of me felt like it had died, held our worlds together somehow.
No amount or quality of words will ever record what that afternoon was like; we alternated between disbelief and denial, tears and mumbled words. It was inconceivable that you were gone. Wasn’t it just a few hours ago that you were shuffling in and out of your t-shirt sleeve home? Hadn’t you been reaching for my hand an hour ago? You were breathing and moving and with me, goddamnit, it was only an hour since, so how were you gone? And how was I supposed to go on?
It was a few hours before we could take you downstairs to the garden. You’d never been there, you’d never known what it was to be on a tree, to run across a grassy park, to chase after a nut, all the things I had dreamed you’d have once you could fend for yourself.
But maybe here, we reasoned, you’d be closer to all those things and not too far from us too.
I chose the prettiest, most shaded spot in a corner of the garden, a place you would have liked. Flowers bloomed overhead and the ground was green with clover patches. We lowered you into the ground in your t-shirt, with you snugly fitted into your sleeve. I put the apple you were supposed to eat that day next to it. And then a little absurdly, on a whim, I planted one of the clover bunches that had a four-leaf branch, on top of your mound. For luck.
You changed us, Walter. You, little skitterer, you, the eater of shredded fruit, you the climber of arms, you, the sleepiest, furriest, softest thing I will ever know. My heart stings a little as I write this.
M is brave enough to visit you in your new, green home before he leaves for college sometimes. “I’m leaving,” he’ll call out from the door, “I’ll say hi to Walter!”
And he breezes out.
He has accepted, even embraced the goodness you brought into our lives and I envy him so much. All I have is this dark lump in my chest, this hardened, sad lump that refuses to move along anywhere from the guilt of having failed you. My phone is full of photographs of you and yet, the only image I remember is you convulsing in my hands, on my palm, in your favourite place to be, dying, dying, dead.
That image comes to me at the most unexpected of places. On the metro ride on the way to work, right after I wake up in the morning, at my mother’s bedside in the hospital. On her third day in the ICU, I looked at her and held her hand as she drifted in and out of consciousness, my brave, brave mother, and I thought of the times she played with me as a child. I thought of her walking, I thought of her driving to work, I thought of her coming back home to me in those faraway years when I lived at home. And dragged back to the present, I thought of how long it would be before she could walk again. This wasn’t supposed to happen. It wasn’t fair. None of this is.
The best of mothers fail us sometimes, Walter.
I hope your brief but wondrous life was worth the pain on your last moments. I hope some last vestige of your consciousness was glad that you were where you probably liked to be the best. I hope, still hope, for the best for you. I have and I will love you, every single day. You were only a baby. And you were my first.
And now you’ve been gone exactly as long as I knew you. Two days, that’s all it took, that’s all we had. It’s been a week since I found out about my own mother. And everything hurts, most of the time.