Monday, October 18, 2021

Let’s Talk about Death

It’s no secret that we are all going to die one day. We must prepare for it, writes Vickram Sethi

Recently I was admitted to the hospital diagnosed with Covid-19. I was left all alone. Nurses would come administer a drip, injection, check the basic parameters and you are by yourself till the next time the nurse comes into the room again. No visitors are allowed, your phone is the only connection with the outside world. I spent eight days in the hospital, a tough emotional time where you think and rethink about life.

An unspoken fact was that death was silently waiting to happen. However, I didn’t see any white wall coming towards me, neither a white room or angels in white waiting to wrap me up. I was quite confident that I would pull through this nightmare and God heaved me out of it.

“At your age” was a common phrase which I heard. Everywhere the media telling us to stay inside, stay safe, confine ourselves to our houses so we don’t get exposed because our age places us at a high risk – blood pressure, diabetes etc (we published a lot of stories about Covid-19 in Seniors Today and it came back to get me). This bit about “at your age” rattled me no end. This is the first time I really heard the word comorbidities repeated again and again. I suddenly felt old. I took my walks – exercise seriously at least for the moment.

Labels and statistics

I feel affronted at being labelled like this, the connotations of helplessness surely not applying to me. I heard the statistics and shook my head in horror and disbelief. I must say that none of us feel our age and that I see myself quite differently from the face that stares back from the mirror. Definitely a little bit of flab here and there and maybe slowing down of some mental faculties. Yet a new reality tells me that some adjustments have to be made; perhaps it doesn’t matter what the label is as long as we stay safe and alive.

When you are all alone and feeling miserable you tend to wallow more and more in your own misery and look deeply within yourself. Seeing intensely without any preconception, you discover all kinds of boxes that you need to tick, look at the past and present. This kind of introspection changes everything. In this process you discover the kind of person you have been and what lies ahead. As a youngster I used to keep saying that I was going to live up to three score and ten as prescribed by the Bible. Now that I was almost there, I didn’t know what to do. What did I do to justify my existence? Frankly, nothing of consequence – just went with the flow as most mediocre people do.

A unique ordeal

Opening yourself to yourself is an ordeal like no other. It’s like being in the power of someone you cannot reach but who never lets you go and forces you to accept yourself. Coming to terms with who you are/who you have been, is an awful experience. However, when you tick the good boxes, you thank God for his benevolence in helping you achieve the good things that you did. You realise heaven on earth is already here and we have been too busy and preoccupied to see it. For me God already existed. Within ourselves the good and the bad already co-exist and are inseparable partners.

My dad had a great line for thanksgiving, “Yeh toh tera karam hai rabba, ke baat ab tak bani hui hai.”

Sitting all alone in the hospital I thought of my parents, their simple life, their charity, honesty and their religiosity. Religion has a different connotation when you are rich and very different when you are not. Parents have a great influence on their children’s life. Immigrating from Rawalpindi (Pakistan) to India was a traumatic experience and a series of unfortunate incidents led them into a life of extreme poverty. My dad was physically strong as an elephant and also had willpower to match that. He had a great never-say-die spirit, didn’t particularly moan or ever get depressed at any situation. My parents kept coming into my thoughts. I remembered all the bhajans that my mother sang. And all those sayings, lines of wisdom that they said. It was my dad who changed our destiny and I am forever grateful to him.


Boxes in the head

One by one I opened all the boxes in my head. Things that were wrong, the evil, the lies, the cheats and the deceit – that box was a hornets’ nest. I recounted little by little all those clandestine pleasures and justified to myself that they were the wild escapades of youth. The next box I opened was an account ledger, there are some debts that can be repaid with money and there are some debts that remain outstanding even after the money is paid, and you take them with you. God sends these people to help you out of your troubles. Here I seem to have passed the tests one by one; I have told my children all the favours that were bestowed upon us and it was amazing that I remembered everything from my childhood to now. Eight days in a hospital by yourself is a long time. There is something about never forgetting these favours that connects me to God.

It’s painful to think of losing someone you love, but it’s practical to be prepared for it
It’s painful to think of losing someone you love, but it’s practical to be prepared for it

We also carry a lot of grudges, mostly against people who we believe have wronged us. One by one I threw those rocks out of my basket. They were too much of a burden to carry. Given the fact that I am 68, why not fill my basket with all the goodies of the earth?

A devastating loss

Recently a dear friend’s wife succumbed to Covid-19; it was devastating. She took ill on their 46th wedding anniversary and died 5 days later. The last thing that she ate was a piece of the wedding anniversary cake that her son fed her in the car on the way to the hospital. A husband and wife take each other for granted like a home, the doors, the windows, walls and the roof. Only when the roof is blown away and the storm comes right in does one realise the pain of separation. The end of a relationship that lasted 46 years. We meet on earth to part.

Time and again people say whatever God does we should be thankful to him. I wonder what this husband must thank God for. He keeps seeing images of his wife walking around the house. It was shocking that one of us had died and it dawned on me that I was also very vulnerable. But I was hopeful and confident that I would be out of Covid-19.

Despite scientific advances, doctors still can’t give us a “use-by date”
Despite scientific advances, doctors still can’t give us a “use-by date”

Yet another reality tells me that while it’s important to stay alive, it’s also a good time to plan your final moments. I hope my children wouldn’t put me on a ventilator and allow me to go peacefully. If unfortunately, I did get dementia I would not want to be given antibiotics or any life extending treatment. A little sign on the door saying “nil by mouth” would help shut the body down in 3-4 days. It’s strange now that I think about it that corona seems to have grounded everybody into a reality that death could be imminent and it is now a subject that requires your immediate attention. Somehow death didn’t seem to rattle me, I thought it would be as easy as switching off the light and if it did happen, so be it.

A sign outside a cemetery said, “Manzil to meri yehi thi par umar lag gayi yahaan aate aate.”

Changed realities

Attending a funeral was a method of conveying support. Covid-19 has changed the rules of how funerals are held. No more comforting hugs that convey a supportive emotion; even the number of attendees is now restricted. I hope to die after the Covid-19 and don’t want my Uthala to be one of those sad, mournful afternoons when someone singing “Maati kahe kumhar se tu kya runde muye…” I would like to have a great tea party with great eats – samosas, sandwiches, pastries, snooty scones, and lots of other things. Music by Abba, Boney M, Beatles, Carpenters, whatever else the DJ can put together, music from the 70s to the 90s and have a happy afternoon with my cousins and friends all there. Death was inevitable and it has happened.

Forget about going to Mars or the moon, Chandrayaan 2 etc, scientists must focus on our life expectancy, to be more specific on a “use by date”. It would be a great opportunity for bright-minded, well-resourced physicists and doctors to approach the subject with some added enthusiasm.

Suppose one gets sick and the doctor discovers that it is something serious, that is a problem in an organ or two, your neurological/digestive/chemical systems have been warped and are doing things that will leave you increasingly helpless. Your body is then subjected to drugs, surgery, implants, transplants, chemotherapy or radiotherapy, after which the doctor is still unsure as to how much time you have left. It could be you have a few months or maybe a few years. So you go home and take your pain/bewilderment with you. In this state you don’t know how quickly your illness may progress, but whatever you do health issues may own you and to a great extent run your life. Yamraj has already set foot in your door and you never know when he steps in and wraps you up. At this point the option of legal euthanasia might seem a big comfort.


Surviving tough times

I wish researchers would devise testing methods that can delve into a person’s body and determine exactly how long someone is going to live. If you didn’t want to know your “use by date” you wouldn’t have to ask. But my guess is that most people in this peculiar situation would be glad to know whether they had no more than 3 months, 3 years, 10 years or a week. It would help in making realistic decisions. Consider the situation if you knew how much time you had left. Fear would be replaced by confidence. Furthermore, it would keep an increasingly large proportion of society stay focused and more confidently ticking the list of to-do things, bucket list, inheritance planning and maybe a spectacular farewell party.

Covid-19 has forced us to reconsider the way we do things
Covid-19 has forced us to reconsider the way we do things

Looking deep within I tried to discover what gave me happiness – spouse, family, friends and a host of happy memories and blessings for which one is forever thankful to God. I debated within myself whether I was ready to die; had I finished my life’s agenda? I realised that what is not to be is not to be and that we don’t drive the agenda, the agenda drives us.

It is in surviving the tough times that we acquire a special appreciation for the bounty of life. Coming to terms with myself was an understanding that I will need to deal with many physical and practical aspects of ageing – fear, hope, sadness, loss, physical and cognitive decline, and eventually death. Americans keep talking about a war on ageing, believing that they can stay in control and conquer the enemy out there. No one defeats ageing – it defeats you, and it’s only a defeat if you define it that way. It’s great to take advantage of the remarkable advancement in medicine, but I don’t want to go through endless medical treatments in an attempt to defeat an enemy who may eventually be a friend. Neither do I want to go through ageing alone. I want to be with family and friends as we travel together in this hard, painful and heart-breaking beautiful journey called life.

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  1. Written so well – Death Be Not Proud; Let’s dance like Daffodils as the soul sings Jagjit Singh Sahib’s Ghazals, Nazams, Unforgettable Bollywood Melodie still till the last breath ….Yes, no use exploring Mars or Moon if life on earth can’t be made better ..And I particularly liked the ..”Use by date benchmarking aspiration, besides the option of legal euthanasia in terminal cases! Enjoyed!!


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