Excited about Mother’s Day, my brother and I spent the night before the day planning a surprise for Mom and Nani – from balloons to cake and confetti, we had it down pat.
“Arav, spend some time with Nanu, his oxygen is dropping by the minute,” aren’t the first words any child wants to hear on Mother’s Day.
I got up, brushed my teeth and mentally prepared myself for the first death in my house during this brutal second wave of COVID-19. My Nanu tested positive last week. For my family, it seemed like another obstacle he had to overcome; after all, he had survived cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
For breakfast, I had dal and rice. My mother, I realised, was holding on to false hope. “He will sail through this, he’ll survive the virus,” she chanted. And at that moment, it did seem that way – his oxygen had stabilised, and his breathing was back on track.
For a second, my brother and I thought of re-launching the Mother’s Day celebration.
But the thought lasted a matter of minutes before the caretaker rushed out of the room and pronounced Nanu dead. The words didn’t fully translate into reality for me – they were hurtful and surreal – until I entered the room to see him lying very still; his lungs no longer labouring for breath.
That’s when it hit home. My Nanu, he was dead.
My mother, whose cheeks were soaking wet, struggled to stand upright as she crumbled in pain and despair. My Nani was in a state of shock, with tears gliding down her face.
My heart felt heavy, while my tears told my tale. All the good times I had shared with Nanu flashed in front of my eyes – from the time he scolded me for being rude to a waiter, to the time he told me the funniest memories from his time in the army. I remembered how I used to make fun of his frown lines; so distinguishable and prominent.
It had all come to an end.
We finally placed him in an ambulance, and my mother somehow managed to gather herself to cremate her father. Seeing him in the ambulance, in a steel coffin, she looked at me and asked me, “Is that my father? Why is this happening so fast? Can’t I keep him any longer?”
Seeing her superhero, her saviour, her fighter, lying lifeless in a coffin was something she could not digest.
We reached the crematorium. I could tell by the heat of the pyres and the palpable grief of the tears cried there. When we stepped near my Nanu, whose body lay lifeless on the logs, my mother asked the mortician if she could see him one last time. He told her that would not be possible. My mother cried out, “You’re telling me I’m never going to see him again? I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.” The mortician allowed her one short glimpse. She looked at him, turned to me, and smiled. “Arav, his frown lines have disappeared.”
Just like us, there were about a dozen families at the crematorium. Grieving and crying, all of them feeling helpless and cheated. Near the 12 pyres were 12 broken families. Families with a void that would never be filled. It was all very overwhelming – I caught a glimpse of a burnt skull and a body starting to catch fire there.
How a life of years is reduced to ashes was extremely disturbing to physically see.
I performed the final rites and witnessed the fire reduce Nanu to nothingness. An unexpected thunderstorm blanketed the crematorium. I stay there, and keep watching as my mother cries herself into acceptance. I think of the unforeseen turn Mother’s Day has ended up taking.
Coming back home to unused confetti, deflated balloons, an unnoticed cake and a room where Nanu’s scent lingered, I bid farewell to the saddest day I have ever lived.
Arav Malhotra, 17, is a student at Vasant Valley School in New Delhi.