The faces in the photograph have started to fade. One by one, the faces will vanish until nothing is left except the empty benches and the memory of what was in the the picture. I am talking of a high school picture, the kind of group portrait taken in the urban schools across India during the 70s and 80s, when I attended such schools. The faded faces are those who are no longer with us. Spirits.
I was woken up on Sunday morning by a call from a high school friend who lives on the East Coast. A high school class mate of ours, living in India, had just collapsed of a massive heart attack and died before he reached the hospital. He was returning from a shopping mall with his wife. They were about to set off when he complained of feeling exhausted, too tired to even drive. He was a doctor, he knew something was wrong and asked his wife to get some help to drive him to a hospital. All this is only hearsay to me, of course. I imagine the face of his wife. Did she comprehend what was coming ? Did he know what was coming ?
He was my age or maybe a year younger. He has a son, studying in a residency school in a nearby town. His father is still alive, living in his home town. I imagine what it must be like to be his father, traveling through the night to bring back his dead son’s body. He is old, living alone, his wife deceased prematurely, just as we were at the threshold of adulthood. Leukemia had cut her stay short. In those days, in that small town, from the time they diagnosed her condition to the end was a horrifyingly short week. I think of the father, having survived all these years, to reach this point. How do you survive this, I wondered.
He was Shanthala’s class mate from kindergarten. She knew him better than I did. (Shanthala’s parents’ knew his family well, they worked together at the same hospital). She called him a sweet soul, who went out of his way to help others. He had mistaken the date of Maya’s first birthday, thus missing her birthday party in India. All we have of him maybe a picture from our wedding.
As she cried at the news, I quizzed my friend who called with the news, trying to ascertain the cause of death. Was he obese, I wanted to know. He had always been a little plump. Was he on any medication, had he run any physical recently that might’ve foretold this end ? Even as I was asking these questions, a part of my mind wondered at the questions we choose to ask at such a time. The causes may hardly stunt the grief of his loved ones. Our parents cried over the injustice of it all. How could someone good be taken by God, when so many bad people continue to live well ? How could someone so young be taken by God, when we old people, the forgotten and the lonely, still live ? It must be his karma. Ahh, the madness of causes, of our minds wanting a coherent narrative, a predictable storyline.
He is not the first amongst us to die. Another class mate died many years back. He committed suicide. He too was married, and if I remember correctly, had children. There may have been others, we don’t know where all our high school mates are.
Shanthala was upset the whole day. I wondered if some – however small – part of the sorrow is for ourselves, our own impending mortality. I had heard a poem, Gerald Manley Hopkins’ famous “Spring and Fall” and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. The poem is about a young girl, grieving over the dead leaves in the fall. The poem goes:
MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
The day before I had seen a small flock of geese in a sullen sky, honking the impending fall. They were going home, was my first thought, before I corrected myself to say they’re flying south. As our hearts grow older, should we, like the geese, turn east ? For an immigrant like us, for whom home is not a place to seek refuge from, the mind turns over these questions, time and again. Even for people like me, who feels little for a place as home. I wondered if Shanthala’s grief was also about this ? The disconnected lives and abstract deaths of loved ones back in India. I’m reminded of a David McCord poem, a poem I’ve read to Maya, called “Runover Rhyme”:
Even the leaves hang listless,
Lasting through days we lose,
Empty of what is wanted,
Haunted by what we choose.
Not all the news of the past week has been sad. I’ve reconnected with friends from my first grade, friends I had not heard from in thirty years. One of them has managed to track me down, despite my un-Facebookness. One of them is someone I still remember as my first “best friend”. We make plans to meet when we visit India. Maya has started to speak full sentences, making them up in ways that are new to her, new to our ears in her voice. Last night, unable to sleep, she turned to me and said in Kannada, “Dini, Mayange bahala hotte hasdide” (Dini, I’m so hungry). She switches (and translates) between three languages – Kannada, Spanish and English – fluently. After a long time, Maya and I spent a whole day together yesterday. As I write this, Maya is laughing a full throated laugh at something that Shanthala is doing.
As I processed the events of the past two days, my mind settled on a quote that I read in an article about the end of life in this country. Written by a neurosurgeon, the quote is from Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. Approaching the end, the archbishop says to a younger priest, “I shall not die of a cold, my son. I shall die of having lived.”