“Raj has an aneurysm the size of a golf ball,” our family friend said about my father that sunny afternoon in December 1984. We were in Sydney, Australia for what was supposed to be a holiday. True, I was too young to understand what the words meant, but I was aware that Daddy was gravely ill.
We had already gone through something similar before. Daddy had had a heart attack a few years ago. My uncle was going through his second heart by-pass. I’d become used to the smell of hospitals and the routine that comes with someone who is ill. Still, hearing this word – aneurysm – frightened me.
Hours later, while Mummy was at the hospital to help Daddy prepare for emergency surgery, my grandmother, Amma, stayed with me at the motel. It was located in the centre of Bondi Junction and close to that famed Bondi Beach.
I sat in a chair frozen while Amma prepared dinner, fed me and got me ready for bed. At eight o’clock, she switched on the television, but neither of us paid much attention to the programme.
A while later, Amma switched off the television and sat next to me. She lifted my shaking hands and said, “Put your palms together.”
I obeyed. She did the same and said, “Now, follow me.”
She recited a mantra and didn’t scold me when I struggled to pronounce the Sanskrit words. Instead, she patiently repeated them until I got it right. When I began to cry, Amma gathered me in her arms and said, “Don’t worry. Just pray.”
It was, perhaps, one of the first times Amma and I had been kind to one another.
You see, I was her last grandchild and I often believed that my cousins were her ‘true’ grandchildren. Being her last grandchild, I observed her affection for my cousins who all lived in India. After months of hibernation, her house would come alive when she kenw they were coming for their annual visit. I would get to see the inside of the master bedroom. The air-conditioner in that annex to Amma’s room would be serviced and the two boys would sleep there. And, when desperate for the toilet, I would be allowed to use the second toilet upstairs and not asked to use the only one downstairs which was used by the servants. If I was really lucky, I would get a new dress – not one that I liked, but a spare one made for me because my cousin, the favoured granddaughter, always had to have a new outfit.
But that night in Sydney, I forgot all these things. Together, in that non-descript motel room a continent far away from home, Amma and I must have recited that mantra over and over again that night. What moved me deeply was my grandmother’s compassion and faith in our time of crisis.
Four years later, when Amma was diagnosed with cancer, she came to live with us. By then, what the word ‘terminal’ meant. Daily, I observed how her once healthy body wasted away while she prayed for a cure. I stayed with her each night and made sure that before I left for school in the morning, I said goodbye.
I painted her nails so that we would hide the black under hear nails. How I used to massage her back to ease because she believed that the rhythmic movement would loosen the phlegm stuck in her throat. Mummy took her to get her hair waist-long hair cut to shoulder length. To look modern, she said. But we all knew it was because she could no longer manage looking after it.
I watched how one-by-one, our relatives and friends came to visit her. We all knew that, actually, they are all coming to say goodbye. I prayed that Amma would die with her dignity intact. I also prayed that before she died, maybe, just for five minutes, I could be her favourite grandchild. I’d like to feel that in those last weeks of her life, she loved me as much as she loved her ‘true’ grandchildren.
Nonetheless, today, when I think of all the gifts Amma gave me, it is this intangible one – this gift of prayer – that I treasure most. And I miss her.
(Last year, a shorter version of this story was first published in the Life and Times section of the New Straits Times to celebrate ‘Grandparents’ Day’)