Thursday, 12 January 2012

As good as it gets......and the Hammer of Fate

Originally written on 21.7.11:

I've been waking up at 3am several times this past week. I normally need only 5-6 hours of sleep, but when its disrupted this carries through the following day (since come hell or high water I have to be up by 0700). So I usually do a shufti to see if all's well, and then try to salvage what I can from the remaining hours of darkness. But two nights back I awoke, pretty abruptly too, since I became immediately wide-awake without a trace of somnolence clinging like cotton clouds around my head. It was 3.23 a.m., and I rolled over to check if J had woken me up, but he was breathing peacefully. My mother is visiting us for three months, so we have moved out of the main bedroom to share the bed with J (it's a king-size bed so it's less cramped than it sounds). Its hardly a striking departure from routine anyway, we have always shared beds, and he really likes it. I must confess that I really love it too, the way we lie in bed at night talking in the dark and telling stories and singing before he slowly drops off to sleep. I think we both (my wife and I) will really miss it when he kicks us out a few years hence (and fuck what child psychologists say about children becoming emotionally stunted when they are used to sleeping in their parent's bed for too long. How did people manage years ago when the standard family had 5+ kids with smaller houses? And yet kids back then were perhaps more self-sufficient and had to shoulder far more responsibility at an early age).

I was lying back in bed, and I could hear the gentle breathing of my little boy beside me, his foot snuggling for warmth (or contact?) in my belly. On the other side, my wife was also fast asleep and I could hear my mother breathing from the next room. And then, it was as if the grace of God descending had enfolded me in infinite loves, and I felt content and peace as I have rarely, if ever, felt before. As I was sinking back into sleep I had the sensation (and these are two tropes that I have had from childhood, I think they are connected in my mind with feelings of security and contentment) that our small room had become abstracted from its moorings and was floating in a black, glass bubble on a starlit sea*. At the same time, I also had the feeling of being inside an immense string instrument that was bowing a deep, low hum and the world, and everything in it was benign and kindly (as everything was when we were children).

*I'm pretty sure that this one association can be traced to the cover of a box of colour pencils that I had at 6. As I recall the original picture was slightly different. I'm sure that one of the sailors had a peaked cap,  the size of the yacht was smaller  making the sea look more vast, and there weren't any other yachts around to ruin the splendid isolation, but memory can be a tricky thing.

Anyway, real life intrudes. My mother went back at the end of July, the rest of the summer went by, J started a new school year, and everything went back to our usual daily routine when I got a call at 3am in early September. THE call, the one we all dread and yet must face at least once in life. It was my eldest sister, her voice breathless and choked with anxiety, telling me that my brother had been found lifeless in a friends' house, and that my other brother was on his way over to check out the situation and that I should sit tight by the phone for further developments. There was some ambiguity still, no-one knew this friend and there are lots of scams in the olde country relating to kidnap/blackmail/extortion/false identity (this last due to lost or cloned identity cards), so someone had to be on the spot to verify things. I waited with a sinking heart, hoping against hope that it was all some mistake, but the call came through again, finally extinguishing whatever slim hope remaining. The next couple of days were a blur. Thanks to the internet I could book the quickest flight back which was on Monday afternoon (the call came early Sunday morning), there was an 8 hour transit and the entire journey, including the train to Z├╝rich airport took almost 22 hours. On the way I felt numbed most of the time, I hadn't slept well since the news, and the whole preceding day had been a flurry of phone calls and organising. I grabbed snatches of sleep and mostly spent my time trying to recall everything I could of my brother, to honour him in the memory, and to keep him alive in thought while his body was still above ground.

I was met by my other sister and brother and they filled me in on the details on the way home. It was a massive, sudden heart attack. On the one hand he smoked heavily, drank heavily and ate with gusto, but at the same time he wasn't overweight, was athletic and had been through so much in the past that he seemed indestructible. Later at the funeral, several of his colleagues told us that he had been complaining of shortness of breath the past year and his face had turned a shade darker which we all should have recognised as a sign of a chronic lack of oxygen. Still no one expects this in an outwardly fit and healthy 47-year old.

At home I hugged my mother, never having imagined that I would be seeing her again so soon, and in such sorrowful circumstances. My brother's widow was there, sadly she was visiting her family in the Philippines when he died, and she was inconsolable. I went in, where he was lying in state in the cleared dining room. I have to say, like a stereotypical old biddy, that it was very tastefully done, with masses of beautiful  flowers surrounding the coffin, bier, backdrop etc. However I was pained to see, and it shot through me with a pang, to see what had become of my beloved brother. His face looked puffy and blackened and his body looked shrunken and out of sorts. Since he was discovered lifeless, an autopsy was mandatory and the uncaring bastards at the public hospital had cut him open from the belly right up to the chin. We had engaged a private funeral director to sort everything out, they collected him from the mortuary and stitched and dressed him up as best they could but hell, I could see the stitches running up to his chin and his body looked crumpled like a rag doll. The thought of the indignity and violation was almost beyond bearing. I appreciate that they had to do what was necessary by law, but they botched it through typical laziness and sheer callousness. Unfortunately, the remains were so badly mangled that the embalmers were unable to properly inject the required volume of embalming fluid with the expected results. The funeral was on the following day and after the short service, (my brother converted to Catholicism but the Methodist pastor from my mother's and sister's church was extremely kind to conduct it at short notice), we all: mother, brothers, sisters, his widow, nephew and nieces, huddled around the coffin to pay our final respects and take one last look. When they removed the perspex lid so we could place some keepsakes and a flower each in the coffin, there was a strong stench of decay that even the masses of lilies and roses couldn't mask, courtesy of the wonderful pathologists and mortuary attendants. It was identical to that of the Titan arum I had seen just months earlier, again never remotely imagining in what circumstances I would next encounter it, and the smell seems to be burnt in my olfactory memory as I can recall it at will now (I just did). This was the most emotionally harrowing moment of all, we all cried then as he was about to be taken away from us, with none of us willing for him to be gone yet. It was an hour to the cemetery and he was buried on a slope just a few plots down from my fathers grave.

DMB† 1964-2011
Coming back was the same journey in reverse, in addition to being emotionally drained. I felt washed out and listless and almost beyond any sort of caring. But on the train back home, on a sunny Saturday morning, to see S and J after five turbulent days away, it was impossible to suppress my anticipation and longing to be back home and I knew that the centre of my world was there, with them.

How does one react to a death in the family? Sure, there is no set response, I didn't even mean to pose it as an actual question. But someone that one has known all one's life, grown up with, through the ups and downs of childhood and maturity, a constant that we casually come to regard as immutable as the sun rising in the east, all that is suddenly no more and our world becomes a little smaller and a little colder and we grow to know that out there, beyond the door, fate sits patiently waiting for its time to roll by once again. All of us died a little that day. For me, it was the sense of invulnerability, the feeling that these were considerations that still lay decades in the future. Another thing that died was the dream, of someday becoming rich and buying a big house, where we would all live under the same roof like when we were children. A childish dream to be sure, and possibly one without any takers as we all have our own lives to lead in the real world, but yet another foolish fancy that cold, hard life compels us to discard as it reminds us that our short, warm moment is over all too soon.

4th September 2012
One year gone. God bless. I'll light a candle for you in a church today, the one in our hearts is always lit.

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