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When I met amma in the ICU that fateful day – truth was that she wasn’t doing as well as we’d thought she did.
But I didn’t know it then. In hindsight, I realised that. But at that moment – when I met her – she looked a little weaker than normal. Her voice was raspier than it had ever been.
She looked more worn out than before.
But there were reasons for that. Or so I explained to myself. When I met her that fateful day amma had been in the ICU for 14 days. Obviously, she was tired and desperate to come home. Over those two weeks, she was also getting increasingly worried about my appa who – at that point in time – had been bedridden for over three months.
I ‘saw’ what felt real to me when I saw amma that crucial day.
I remember holding her tight and murmuring that things would get better soon and that she should just hold on. I reassured her that just a few more days and she’d have her operation and she’ll come home to recuperate.
She shook her head over and over again – I thought it was because she was anxious and irritated of the ICU and had had enough.
Soon it was time for me to leave. I still remember that moment so clearly. The ICU nurse hustled me out saying, “Swaminathan family member – you have been here for too long. This is ICU. Time to say bye to your mother for now. You can always come back tomorrow.”
Given how kind they’d been by letting me stay with my amma every day for more than a few minutes – I knew that I shouldn’t push my luck too much. So I squeezed amma again, hugged her tight, and promised to come back at the same time tomorrow.
I asked her if she wanted something specific to eat for lunch and dinner the next day but she shook her head again and said no. She said she did not feel like eating anything. But I told her that I’d send some hot rasam (my amma loved rasam very much) for lunch the next day and held her tightly again before I left.
As I reached the entrance door to the ICU, I paused, turned around, waved my hands and blew amma some air kisses like a Bollywood film star, and mouthed goodbye again.
I recall every tired feature in my amma’s face and her beat body language even as my weary mother tried valiantly to keep the faith and not lose hope. It was my mantra to her every single day I met her at the ICU.
“Just keep the faith, ma, and it’ll all be OK.”
As I called an Uber to take me home that night – there were so many things running through my mind.
On one hand, I kept mulling over how wan amma looked that evening – weaker than usual. On the other hand – despite her weakness – she’d still complained to me about how hot she felt in the ICU (even though the AC was on full blast) and how no one, not a single nurse, paid attention to anything she said.
I remember the ICU nurse taking me aside and advising me to urge my amma to keep her oxygen mask on. When I told amma that she said, “I’m fine. My O2 levels are OK. The nurses just keep complaining against me.”
In hindsight, I feel that my mind was battling with itself on the inside. Even as I remembered her weak body – I forced that image out of my mind and kept returning to her fighting spirit. I fooled myself into believing that if amma was still strong enough to complain about the ICU nurse to me then she was definitely ready for the major operation she was to undergo two days later.
Looking back – my mind was trying to get through the noise and tell me something important. But I did not allow that part of my brain to have a voice.
I know now what that ‘other’ voice was telling me.
Truth was that Amma was a LOT weaker than she had been over the 14 days she’d been in ICU. Her raspier-than-usual voice was a result of her heart not getting enough oxygen and because her lungs had started to collapse. She couldn’t breathe properly. Her deterioration was quick and sudden.
All this I know now.
But back then – that late evening – as I said goodbye to my mama… I didn’t know then what I do now. I didn’t know then… that was the last time I would see my dearest darling amma alive.
That goodbye would be my final goodbye to her. That image of my amma as she waved back tiredly would be the last time she would ever wave back to me. That raspy voice with which she spoke would be the last time she would ever speak to me.
But that day – I didn’t know what I do now.
She went on a ventilator that night and two days later – she died.
I took a break writing after the previous sentence. I fall apart every time I think of that final image – me at the door saying goodbye to amma but not knowing then that I was saying goodbye to her forever.
Truth is that when someone in our life passes away – we never know when the time we say goodbye to them is the last time we ever say goodbye to them.
I think that is one of the BIGGEST tragedies of loss and death of a loved one. The fact is that we never know when they will die. That lack of knowledge is something that never gives you closure.
The days after were horrific. I drowned in agony of what-ifs. What if I’d stayed a little longer? What if I’d given amma one more hug? Did I tell her how much I loved her and how sorry I was for the nightmare daughter that I had been to her? What was amma thinking as she waved bye to me? Did she have a premonition of what was to come? If she did… was she scared? Why didn’t I go back and reassure her?
The what-ifs can take over your life if you let it.
My brain tells me that I couldn’t have done anything differently. Amma was just sick and it was her time to go. Over the last decade amma and I had patched up and we had become the very best of friends and she knew how much I loved her.
I, also, couldn’t have stayed longer because ICUs have rules and I HAD to get back because I had another extremely sick parent who was bedridden at home and who I had to take care of.
My mind knew all that. But my heart – my aching breaking heart – seven months on I still think back to that last image of my amma.
For it was that moment when you don’t know that the last time you see them WILL be the last time you see them. I don’t think I will ever get over that.