Dealing with parents' mortality

Few other struggles are as impartial as ageing and illness, and the mortality of a parent. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

My father, 81, and I talk occasionally about his death. At breakfast he, not an ailing man, can turn into a prophet of doom amidst spoonfuls of cereal. "I have two years left," he will pronounce, to which I reply that his predictions are unreliable since he has been saying this for the past six years. My mother, 83, laughs and he smiles. We are all, impossibly, trying to meet death with some humour and grace.

I am sounding braver than I actually feel for the inevitability of a parent's death is like a shadow that walks quietly with most of us. A 40-year-old woman I met recently revealed that when her parents are asleep, she stands over their beds in the dark, waiting for a tiny movement, a proof of life. Mortality is life's most towering lesson, not to be feared but gradually understood.

My parents' eventual death is hardly a preoccupation for me but for those of us who live on foreign shores, it's always there, lingering on the outskirts of our daily lives. It is hard to explain the two-second terror of the surprise phone call from our homes far away. I answer with a question that is always tense and terse: "Everything OK?" My father replies: "Of course, beta (son)."

Death will come, and somehow, it will always be imperfect. In old Bollywood films, parents made long, weepy speeches about family and love and then their heads fell dramatically to the side. Reality is never so scripted. The devilry of distance - I live two flights from my parents - means that it is unlikely we will be home in time. We do not want our parents to linger and yet the heart attack's unpredictable finality leaves no time for farewell. We are presuming, of course, that there is such a thing as a graceful goodbye. Perhaps it is in how we live with them that is more vital.

I talk occasionally to my parents about death, not because I am morbid but because I am inquisitive about mortality and because I do not want them to be scared or alone. Yet I find it is they who reassure me.

They return from frequent funerals, friends gone and family lost, and speak with voice softer but spirit intact. My father retreats deeper into his sofa and philosophy and tells me: "The whole, wonderful, joyful, exhilarating business of evolution would not exist if we were immortal." There can rarely be an equanimity about death - we all fear pain and indignity on the way there and we all feel loss - but sometimes we might strive for an acceptance that all things must finish.

Few other struggles are as impartial as ageing and illness, and the mortality of a parent. Every friend I spoke to carried a separate apprehension. A banker told me she is unafraid and yet had already asked close friends to attend her parents' funerals. Emotionally and practically, she knows she will need support. An executive, her parents still together after 61 years, sinks as she considers one parent left behind, like an old, steadied ship whose moorings have been cruelly cut. A flinty investigative journalist, bound to her mother who is her only parent alive, wonders about her sanity once left alone.

We feel hesitant often to raise some subjects with our parents as if they are too impertinent or inconvenient and yet practicality has a place. Was a will written, a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) ordered, all these seemingly minor matters which leave shaken families divided in emergency rooms. Do we know what our parents wish and how they want to go?

Clarity is the great courtesy that my friend Sharda's mother offered her: no life support, no unnecessary surgery. Another pal, Samar, has a paper packet at home given to him a while ago by his parents and only recently did he find the nerve to peek in. No religious rituals, his parents wrote; our bodies to be donated for medical purposes, they noted.

I found nothing grim in this but saw it instead as a gentle gift to their son by giving him answers to questions he cannot bear to ask. There was also in the giving of their bodies to science a beautiful, moral clarity. In their 80s, they had understood that in death, they might be able to do what so few of us can do while living: save a life.

Samar sees his parents every day and I call India every second day. In my wrestle with the eventual truth of a parent-less planet, I have learnt five things. The first is contact. To hear, see, touch. To talk and to learn. My father recently mentioned in conversation about the composers Johann Strauss Senior and Junior. I didn't tell him I thought there was only one. So thanks, dad.

Second, to speak your mind, to leave nothing unsaid, for in the sharing of love a relationship comes alive. Not everyone can find the words but regret is an incurable ache.

Third, mine them for stories, of where they came from, hardship they hurdled, love they found, museums they visited, people they became, dreams they left behind, times they lived in, fears they wore. If I don't write them down, then stories dim and histories die and there is nothing to carry forward.

Fourth, and this my mother is teaching me, is to respect choice. "Fight, fight" against age, against illness, we tell our parents, often selfishly, but not everything must be raged against. Dylan Thomas was wrong, sometimes you have to go gentle into that good night. Sometimes, life has been enough, a weariness comes to rest, all accounts are settled and people want to turn to the wall, away from life and slip away. As my closest friend, Namita, still grieving over a mother she recently lost, told me: "There is a great love in letting people go."

Fifth, and I am lousy at this, don't steal their autonomy and instead respect their choices, hear their opinions, let them be free to arrange the rhythms of their life. My brothers and I are always trying to buy our parents a TV, a fridge, as if we cannot fathom that their life does not need a new shine. Yet it is fine as it is. So what if the letters on my mother's keyboard wore away, she has not forgotten the unique order of this alphabet.

Still I search for clarity amidst the clutter of life's incessant questions. I wade, like us all, through the truths of ageing and loss. I think of a relative who cannot find a way to open cupboards and wander through the accumulated life of her parents she has recently lost. I am moved by a friend, a civil servant whose father passed away a while ago and who tells me: "I don't fear death. I feel I have had a fulfilling stint with my mum." We are, all of us, a forest of crooked trees, leaning on each other.

I find reassurance in the reality that my parents, hardly wealthy, not poor, have lived rich lives. My mother now sits with the stillness of a painting and reads. My father writes to me: "I am not frightened by death. I will be sad that I can no longer look at Michelangelo's David, Picasso's Guernica, listen to the cool jazz of Bill Evans' piano or smell the aroma of a beautiful woman!" Today he has gone, as he does many Sundays, to listen and learn from a younger man about his beloved Strauss and Bach and Mozart. To this music, always he comes alive.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 01, 2016, with the headline Dealing with parents' mortality. Subscribe