In the summer of 2008, my father muttered to me, trying to appear nonchalant, “The doctor said your mother has a behavioural disorder – bipolar.”
For some time, the world stopped making sense in its entirety, until we realised that it still did make sense – just differently. My mother’s bipolar, my depression, my father’s anxiety, my dog’s behavioural issues and other insignificant tragedies that afflict the life of a common person birthed a crude system of loving, coping and communicating.
That system was put to test on April 13 when my mother got diagnosed with COVID-19.
Previous brushes with illness have revealed that my mother’s bipolar disorder gets worse when coupled with an illness. There are almost no ‘normal’ gaps between her manic and depressive episodes. Her mood constantly oscillates between bursts of energy and paranoia, and bouts of lethargy and grief. At the end of the day, she is left mentally and physically exhausted but sleep, or any kind of respite, escapes her. With no rest yet a manic adrenaline flowing through her veins, my mother often loses control over her speech. Even the slightest mistake elicits painful jibes; secrets are divulged with an intention to hurt – our wounds function as the great equaliser.
My mother quarantined herself in her bedroom, which has an attached bathroom and a balcony that faces the unofficial dog park. She will be comfortable, we thought. It was only a matter of two weeks. Our only concern was finding a hospital bed if she required one.
That night, I was awoken by her muffled sobs. She was scared, she told me on the phone, that this was the end for her. She had seen posts online of people dying and given her age, she was sure it was her turn next. No amount of reassurance could pacify her. Physically disconnected from her family, surrounded by walls and a door that opened only intermittently, my mother’s mind found itself caged in her worst fears and fantasies. With no one to wipe her tears or cradle her to sleep or even hug her, my mother called out to her dead mother, begging her spirit to caress her scared and lonely daughter.
Left alone with her thoughts, it was only a matter of time before the paranoia kicked in. Every medicine we gave her was suspect. What is it for? By whom was it prescribed? Are you guys hiding something from me? Then there was the manic energy she was unable to spend due to weakness, which led to anger and frustration: my calls would go unanswered; she would stop communicating her oximeter readings; she would refuse to take her temperature; conversations would abruptly end if I inquired about food; and meals would remain untouched if they were not to her liking. A few hours later, she would call apologising and crying for burdening us with caretaking duties and household chores.
Across the door, my father and I – one propelled by duty, the other by instinct – would silently panic. What if she doesn’t report to us if her oxygen level dips? What if she is not taking some medicines? So I would take to pleading. I would call and plead. I would message and plead. I would bang on her door and plead. Peek into her room and plead. But nothing worked because my mother saw it as part of a giant ploy to deceive her. Touch, gestures and expressions – things she accorded truth value – were hidden by double masks and surgical gloves.
Once admitted to a hospital, whatever little trust remained between us crumbled. We didn’t get a chance and to be honest, did not consider it necessary, to explain to her properly why she needed to be admitted. We assumed her unconditional trust and focused on making calls to endless numbers on endless lists to arrange anything that resembled a bed.
While we found a bed, called an ambulance, contacted a doctor, my mother fought growing fears of abandonment. Surrounded by critically ill patients in the emergency Covid ward – some gasping for breath unable to prone, some fighting other comorbidities like cancer and liver failure – my mother was plagued by the thought of being discarded by her family. I could hear the deafening ‘beeps’ of machines echoing in the emergency ward, drowning her strained wheezes in our daily video calls.
You guys have left me to die, she would accuse us. They packed and left a body at the corridor – this is what you want from me.
In every dying patient, she saw herself: an unclaimed corpse tied in a body bag unceremoniously discarded at an unmarked cremation site. Within three days, she was released without a discharge certificate. My father blamed it on her erratic accusations of negligence against doctors and on the pictures of dead patients she had posted with nonsense captions.
I agreed with him somewhat but irrespective of the reason, I was relieved she was let go. She deserved to imagine a better future. The inevitability of an undignified and lonely death ate away at her more than the virus.
How does one imagine a future of survival when the whole country is engulfed in blazing pyres? Even if she survived the pandemic, how do you cure a disease which is only spoken of in whispers? How do you build trust in a family where it was difficult to differentiate between love and duty?
One member in the house remained blissfully unaware of the dystopian nightmare: our dog, Kafka. While we tried to limit physical contact, Kafka spent entire days figuring out different ways to infiltrate my mother’s room. Every time he heard mother call out his name, he would cock his head from side to side and vigorously scratch at the door. He displayed unwavering loyalty and unconditional love that my mother craved from us. He was beyond the pale of suspicion because of his (in)consistency: he will bite you and lick you, and try to steal your food, both in sickness and health. A reminder of a time gone by, of a normalcy which was slowly fading from our memory, Kafka also held the promise of a future where hugs and kisses could be shared indiscriminately.
I decided that Kafka would be our knight in shining armour. Our video calls were no longer about the pandemic, it was all about Kafka. I would list all the things he had done in a day while my mother insisted on the various angles at which she wanted to look at him. It’s not that this helped her forget about her illness – dying loved ones and her own death still haunted the room – but it made her excited for that hour of unadulterated happiness. Her thoughts were no longer about burdening the family and worrying about the house left in inept hands. My job as a primary caretaker was reduced to giving her food and medicine while Kafka grew into his larger role of being my mother’s emotional support.
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, says Marcellus in Hamlet. Our crude system of loving and living was putrefying under the indifference of an invisible husband and the evasiveness of a coward daughter. There is a vaccine for the virus, medication and therapy for bipolar disorder.
But for a family performing a farce of love and care, there is only an unpredictable four-legged animal.
Alolika De is an assistant editor at Taylor and Francis. You can find her on Instagram @lemoninasock