I came home from school to my Ammammma’s (grandmother) wails. She was 78 years old and trying to comb my 53 year old Pedamma’s (Amma’s older and only sister) hair. The comb was covered in dark soot. At first I thought that my Pedamma’s hair was on fire. But they were lice. Her scalp was infested. I swung into action and prepared a concoction of Dettol and Naphthalene. I sincerely applied to her hair and waited to comb the dead lice out. The mission was successful but the wounds on the scalp were so painful we had to shave her head. My doctor uncle prescribed some good topical cream that we could apply to her scalp to relieve her from the pain, if only she knew what was happening. Of the few times I cried in my life, I joined my Ammammma’s wails. It was gut wrenching.
Her son, my cousin, one day calls frantically to summon my parents, my uncle to his home. I was the driver. We drove through the narrow lanes of Ramnagar and arrived at his gate. It started pouring so heavily that we had to wait out in the car. As soon as it cleared a bit, we tried to run into the house. But neither of us could make it from the gate to the door. He made a make shift tent for my Pedamma with plastic sheets and there she was drenched in rain. The stench, as we got closer to her, made us realize that she wasn’t bathed in days and was let to rot in her own fecal matter. I was overcome with rage but ended up crying my lungs out. I wanted to kill my cousin.
They say daughters are closest to a mother’s heart. She had two. They are still alive. But she is not. My Pedamma died way too young, way too soon. She ate all my favorite cookies and annoyed me, but I am not myself each time I remember her. If only I was old enough to earn, if only I was old enough to convince my parents to keep her at our place instead of trying to teach her own children lessons of responsibility, I would probably have given her few more years of oblivious but some good life. I would’ve given her a better death.
Another cousin’s husband whose fiendish nature gives me jitters down my spine forcibly took her to an old age home for abandoned low income people. I have a rather ‘sick’ memory of him swinging me in jest at 14 months. This old age home, it may have been good if only she knew what she was doing. And we don’t know if they knew her condition. She was starved not because she wasn’t given food, but no one made sure she ate. By the time Amma came to know and rushed to her rescue, she was half her size and barely recognized anyone around her. We were fortunate, she recognized Amma.
Pedamma never had an easy life. She was married into poverty. Even though her husband was educated, he wasn’t able to meet ends meet. Everyone around them was reasonably wealthy, but I am not sure why no one thought about helping them out of their misery. I was young, didn’t know much. I regret being the youngest and a late born. Her husband had some kind of a skin disorder that caused his bloody abscesses to explode every now and then. When she recognized what happened, she may have cleaned. Other times, he may have cleaned. When it happened when they were our guests, I cleaned
Somewhere within these experiences, I lost my childhood. She died of Alzheimer’s. Her name was Kamala (Lotus). The lotus flower, even though it grows in muddy waters does not show the trace. But this lotus was tarnished and crumpled. Very few people cried that day, Amma and Uncle. Rest may have pretended to cry but sure were relieved that they don’t have to deal with her anymore. I wasn’t in India – I wailed all alone in the United States. It was another gut wrenching experience. Despite being affluent neither Amma, Uncle nor I did anything. We let her die.
People fear death more than pain. But what my lotus would have felt is unknown to any humane heart. Her memories hurt, because at her point in death, the pain was more.