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DEATH OF A LADY

 


DEATH OF A LADY

-         Anu Susan Abraham (India)

She was cold and stiff when she was taken out of the mortuary to be decked up for her grand funeral. I didn’t look at her body even once, because that one second may stay in my mind till my death as a burden of sight. I have my grandmother’s final moments as an unerasable burden of sight stored up in my brain. I saw her dying in the hospital after battling with Alzheimers’ disease for ten long years. I saw her memory slowly draining away. The first time the disease revealed its glaring presence in her was on a Palm Sunday in the church. I saw her trying to figure out the bench she was sitting on just before leaving for the altar to receive the Holy Communion. Later, when the disease tightened its grip on her, she started preparing dinner for my dead grandfather and waited for him to come home from his usual evening stroll, just like she used to do when he was alive. He died long back on a fine summer night. It was sudden and without much pain. He came after his evening stroll, had dinner, and went to sleep. A few hours later, my grandmother knocked on our door and said he seemed unwell. We took him to the hospital, but he died on the way. It was quite an easy escape from the world. But it was not that easy for my grandmother. When the ventilator pulled her soul back to the body, the soul tried its best to jump out of it. After a few minutes of struggle, the doctor said to all of us gathered at the hospital verandah, “There is no hope, I can assure you… shall we remove the support and let her go?” We agreed. I saw her soul bidding farewell to its abode of eighty years.

“Who is going to come in?” The nurse-cum-beautician of the dead bodies asked.

I was ready with all the things needed to prepare my mother-in-law for her last journey: newly bought under-garments, Yardley London- English Lavender Talcum, Brut-Classic Cologne, a small pillow to put her head up in the coffin, a golden bordered Kerala Saree which I had bought two years ago to wear during an Onam celebration at college. She had one Kerala saree, but it was not starched, and the pallu and borders were crumbled, so I gave her mine, which was dry-cleaned and saved for the next Onam.

I gave the cover to Rachel, her elder daughter and waited outside the mortuary. I said nothing. Everybody was in that customary silence that should be maintained in the house of death. Somebody gazed at the flowers and sparrows on the lawn and somebody at the wheelchairs parked near the casualty. After an hour, her decorated body was taken out to the front of the chapel for prayer. I glimpsed at her body; she was neatly dressed and covered with white satin. Her coffin smelled of Jasmine and Brut Classic.

The ambulance carried her to our house silently. The silence was unbearable, and the smell of Jasmine and Brut was so strong that I wanted to get out of the ambulance.

At home, she was placed on a high desk and we all sat in neat rows beside her.  I frequently wiped the droplets off her dead body with cotton. The videographer caught her last moments and the video was going live on YouTube for relatives and friends in foreign to watch. She was the star of that day -the day of her funeral, her last day on earth.

When the body was on display at the church for prayer and condolences, the self-declared righteous man praised her for her calm demeanour.

“Shirly aunty was such a nice person. It’s so sad that she could only have a very brief life of 65 years. Within that short span of life, she did her duty well. I have never seen her arguing or raising her voice to anyone, she was soft-spoken and treated everyone with her smile, that too was subtle and pleasant. She fought cancer for years and now has surrendered to it. But there is nothing to worry about her now, she was such a good wife, a good mother to her children and a good grandmother to her grandchildren. I am sure we will meet her on that beautiful shore. Let the almighty strengthen the beavered family.”

Memories flashed through and came gushing down my memory lane.

Years ago, when I first saw her, I felt the same as the man said. Her quietness surprised me. I never thought women could be this composed and quiet. Years later, when I became her family by marrying her son, I understood that there is something more in her behaviour that is not yet revealed to me. Her quietness reminded me of Bertha in Jane Eyre. When I realized that she has depression, it was already very late, and she was also diagnosed with stage four breast cancer.

“Daddy… I cannot breathe… daddy… I cannot breathe

Kill me…. throw me into the oceans… abandon me in the forests… Let me die…”

At times mummy’s screams penetrated through the walls and reached my ears. Every time she cried, I was reminded of Bertha- the one who screamed, ran through the attic with a candle at night and burnt down the house into ashes. But mummy couldn’t burn the house, and her screams never reached the streets. At moments she couldn’t recognize anyone at home, not even daddy. She saw her dead relatives calling her from heaven to join them in her hallucinations. She was so frightened and pathetically dependent. Daddy did everything for her. He did the chores, bathed her and gave her medicines on time. I never had the courage to look at her. She was Bertha for me. At times I felt sympathy for her. She was so na├»ve and innocent and trapped like a fly in the spider web of patriarchal and religious codes of propriety. She believed that watching cinema was a sin and an ungodly act. She was surprised to see my mother watching films on her phone when both the mothers came to take care of me when I was admitted to the hospital due to complications in pregnancy.

I saw her face changing and her eyes following my mother when she did something that she didn’t even try once in her life. Those were silly things like buying banana fritters and tea from the hospital canteen, using a smart phone and headset, waiting for the bus at the bus stop or traveling alone. She always wanted daddy to accompany her and do things for her. I persuaded her son, my husband, to buy a mobile phone for her. I hoped that somehow this would help her connect with the era she is living in and possibly come out of her shell.  She tried using the phone for two days. On the third day, she left the phone somewhere on the table after accidentally pressing a wrong button, sending an emergency call. She never touched it ever again.

“What’s her problem?” I thought.

She was surrounded by silence. Nobody helped her break the fetters that chained her to the pole of patriarchy. She was under the protection of her man. She was afraid of the world. Like the self-declared righteous man said, she was pleasant and soft-spoken. She was frightened to face the world. She read the Bible, attended prayer meetings and at times visited her sisters. Beyond this, her life was in silence.

 Once when it was raining, I saw her at the window-side, watching the clouds pouring memories.

I asked, “Mummy, what are you thinking?”

She said, “I was thinking about my mother. She was all alone after I came here”.

Her father died long ago. Mummy was their sixth daughter.  All the others got married, and mummy and her mother were alone in their big house for eighteen years till she married daddy. After spending a few years in solitude, she also passed away.

The repetitions of the life cycles of women shocked me. I looked in the mirror to see traces of these women in me. Suddenly I saw my eyes flinching into the eye socket and grays spreading on my youthful hair. Many familiar faces of women flickered one by one before me in the mirror, like an old film roll projecting images on the screen.

Days and months passed like a train with no stops or endings. Her health declined drastically after each chemo. When I visited her next vacation, her hair was all gone, and her skin seemed stuck in her bones.

Her hallucinations grew stronger, and her screams became unbearable. Daddy tried diverting her thought waves with cartoons, books and devotional music. At times he tied her legs with Jennifer’s shawl so that she won’t walk out of her hallucinations, fall and break a bone. I never questioned him; I never asked him to unleash mummy. Holidays passed in silence and guilt. The guilt became so intense when I heard about her death one year later.

Nobody saw her dying. She left the world without burning the house. When daddy woke up from his afternoon sleep, she was already cold.

The image of Bertha that I often associated with Mummy tumbled down, and she became an eternal symbol of helplessness and terrible dependency. She couldn’t burn the house. She couldn’t see the trappings of the world that suffocated her woman-body in her youth and later her diseased body in her 60s.

I didn’t cry. So many other men and one or two women bid her farewell through marvelous words, equating her life to the words ‘soft’, ‘pleasant’ ‘good’ etc. The trail of memories that flashed about her in my head was not so pleasant. Her long sixty-five years of life was an absence in the world. The flowers she made out of fabric, thread and paper stayed dusty at the corner of the showcase. Her daughters smiled in frocks knitted by her in the old moldy photographs. The bed sheets and pillow-covers she adorned with embroidered peacocks and birds replaced the new ones with digital prints.

The pain of delivering children into this world had made me love my mother and his mother more because of the realisation of their sacrifice. I understood with great shock that there is only a thin line between understanding and glorification. All mothers who sacrifice their bodies and minds should be glorified because no men can do this. But, when glorification is used to tie women to morality codes, it becomes the loop in the hands of an executioner for women. She becomes forced to always be ‘soft-spoken’, ‘good’, ‘pleasant’ and ‘smiling’ like mummy. The anger, the suffocation, and the pressure will eventually pave way for one state of being: quietness. The soul will fight with the body to jump out of it. It will long eagerly to leave the diseased body. After endless trying, it will escape the body.  Nothing will remain. Like mummy, her story will be buried along with her body in the grave.

Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia

The Strife is o’er, the battle done

Now is the victor’s triumph won

Oh! let the song of praise be sung

Alleluia

The song in four parts by the church choir repelled the rain clouds from bursting and pulled my wandering chain of thoughts to the soggy reality. I got my senses back.

Her face was covered. I didn’t cry. I was numb. 

“We therefore commit this body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.” The priest read from The Book of Common Prayers.

“It is a lie. She won’t be resurrected. We will not meet her on that ‘beautiful shore’. All of it is a lie. Nobody can come back. Life will be offered only once. Once the body reaches its prime, then life will start flowing in the reverse direction. Skin will start aging. Organs inside the body will gradually slow down its functioning. Like mummy, all of us will have to leave this beautiful, visible world forever. There is no second chance available. The priest is lying. It’s a lie. Don’t believe him” I wanted to scream to everyone, every woman, every man, every mother...  But I couldn’t. If I had the courage to do so, I would have been the next Bertha. I would have been locked inside the attic. And I would have searched at night for candles and match sticks to burn the house.

The coffin was pushed into the family cell. The screeching sound of it frightened me.

I muttered to myself “She was a woman. She was an artist. Her art is going to decompose like her body in the grave. May her soul rest in peace”

         

 

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