Friday, August 7, 2009

Sometimes Death is NOT the Real Tragedy

A fairly close relative of mine died last week. The news was all the more shocking because it was so unexpected. She was 34, and apparently without any major health issues. No diabetes, no hypertension, no heart troubles, in fact, when we met her last month, she seemed to be in the pink of health! Two weeks ago we received a phone call that she had been hospitalized for joint pains and such, but was likely to be released in a couple of days. Everyone assumed it was nothing major. A week later she was dead!

While it is shocking enough to have a young life cut off in its prime, her death has raised a number of issues which are more tragic. It is also showing me, as we learn more about the circumstances of her death, how most people complicate their own lives, and that of others, by a lack of foresight, a refusal to acknowledge their own mortality, and just plain bad decisions. One must not speak ill of the dead, apparently. However, I am forced to reiterate some of the things I have always said were faults in not only the Indian mentality, but also in our traditional modes of thinking.

Where shall I start? Every new aspect that comes to light just reinforces the sheer cumulative stupidity of a life ill lived! She has left two sons behind, one eight years old and one four and a half. The first problem now, of course, is what to do about the boys. They live in Singapore, and the father not only has a demanding job, he is required to tour extensively. In the absence of the family support structure, bringing up two kids of this age group, or any age group for that matter, is likely to be an almost impossible proposition. One of the possible solutions being talked about is boarding school. Now, although I personally don’t approve of the institutions at all, and consider them cruel and inhuman, it might have been a feasible short term solution at least, in this case, if not for the way the boys (especially the younger one) have been brought up by their mother.

In the fine Indian tradition of “maaaaaaa”, she has made them totally dependent and completely unable to fend for themselves. We had visited them when my daughter was a year and a half, and her younger son two and a half. My child, being the daughter of such a cruel and un-maa-like mother was already feeding herself, and eating everything we ate. The two and a half year old at that point was still on only baby food or cereal, with no extra additions, and each feeding was a “production”. In the best Indian tradition, it took two hours to feed the baby, with the mother running all over the house chasing it. My daughter had her meal in 15 minutes.

Today, he is a four and a half year old who seems to survive solely on Maggi and Horlicks, the latter still being drunk out of a bottle! He is still unable to dress himself, or put on his own shoes. My baby, I am glad to say, eats everything, feeds herself, can and does dress herself and actually get angry if u try to do it for her (“am I a baby mamma?”). Indian mothers like being compulsively preoccupied by their kids. They think a true mother is one who will get up and give her 10 year old a glass of water, even from her deathbed. My question of course is (as illustrated by this case) what happens if you do die? How does the kid manage then? Is it not better to teach them to be more self-reliant? How is the father supposed to look after such a helpless child? The child is old enough to be doing some things on his own, why wasn’t he taught to? As matters stand, it is not only impossible for the father to look after it well, it is also impossible to put it in boarding school!

I know I will come in for a lot of flak, and am likely to be lynched, not just by the mothers but by most Indians, for saying such sacrilegious things. After all, the Bollywood stereotype MAAA is so much a part of the common psyche, that logic seems like heresy to them. But seriously, why do we hate the idea of kids growing up, so much? Why do we do everything we can to prevent them from becoming individuals? And why are we so averse to simply facing our own mortality? My entire life is lived on the assumption that I may not wake up tomorrow. My daughter is being brought up in such a way that if I really don’t, she won’t have real material handicaps to deal with, along with the mental and emotional trauma of losing her mother. I would not burden her with being dependent on the help and care of strangers at a time when she is likely to be under enough stress anyway. I much prefer that she is able to fend for herself, at least in the most basic ways, so that her adjustment, as well as that of the people around her, is easier.

The inability to face one’s mortality creates other problems here too, as it has in this case. Another option, and a better one than boarding school, is for the father to relocate to India, and this is also being discussed. He might have to take a pay cut, but the advantages of such a move far outweigh the monetary loss. He will have the support of friends and family, he will be involved in the day to day life and upbringing of the kids, and the kids will be far happier, and grow up better adjusted, in their own home and in a secure situation. Yet there is a major hurdle, mostly of her making. They emigrated last year, and as soon as they landed, she splurged on a fancy car and a big apartment, for which her husband will now have to pay, “out of pocket,” a huge amount of money (in dollars of course, which makes it worse) if he wants to leave immediately.

Well, why not pay it out of the insurance? Why not? Simply because she belonged to the group made up by a majority of Indians who don’t understand the need for insurance, and are even afraid of it, because it forces you to face your mortality. Traditionally we do not talk of death, as if talking about it, or acknowledging that it exists, will make it happen immediately, and as if not talking about death will make you immortal. It’s a totally irrational thought process, based on knee jerk fear and a lack of mental strength. It is also the biggest hurdle for the insurance industry in India. To buy life insurance, you have to acknowledge that someday you will die. Oh horror! For a people unwilling to make a will, for fear that they will pop off as soon as they do, insurance is a far cry.

In this case, the woman was not covered AT ALL!!!!! The day her husband brought home insurance forms for her to sign, she asked him, in the fine filmy Indian tradition, “you want to kill me and make money from my death?” after which, understandably, the man didn’t push the issue. As a result, today her sons are the ones who will suffer. If they had a substantial sum coming in, in this time of need, the father could have paid off all dues, closed down the fort and moved here today, immediately, to help his sons pick up the pieces of their devastated life. Instead, the boys will probably have to deal with the pain on their own, in the unfriendly environs of a boarding school (which his company pays for, thank god, or that would have been impossible too), surrounded by bullies and cruel kids with two parents and happy homes. A simple understanding that I may die before my kid is grown up, the strength to face that thought, and the foresight to plan for the eventuality, can leave a child much more secure, at least financially, and better able to deal with what comes next. It also gives the child a better chance at a future.

And talking about wrong decisions, the couple apparently found out she had cancer in March. The prognosis was not great, and doctors gave her two years to live if she didn’t go on chemotherapy immediately. With chemo, they predicted, she might live for four. Given the same prognosis, and while I am not sure of what the response of any logical human, who cares about her kids, should be, I would just say “hit me with all you’ve got”! After all, if I live four years, my kids would have grown up, be much more able to survive well, and fend for themselves. Even if the chemo didn’t give me a full four years, every extra day it gives means my kids are that much closer to being adults, that much better able to lead life without me.

She, on the other hand, refused chemo. Not just that, she refused to get a second opinion, or to bring the papers and reports when she was visiting India! In fact, she threw the papers out of the suitcases at the airport on the way here, refusing to board the flight if he took them with him! They never even told anyone! As a result, she was dead in four months, died almost alone without any friends or family to help her or her family through the ordeal, and left two helpless kids in the middle of a maelstrom while the poor father tries to decide what to do with them.

While he is trying to get a grip on himself, deal with his own grief, handle that of his kids, and make important life decisions which he is in no shape to attempt, he is also dealing with guilt. For not having been able to force her to seek more help; for not having physically forced her to get on that plane with the papers, and so on. Hardly the kind of thing I would like my man to go through after I am gone. How is the man supposed to do anything? What’s priority? And in the middle of the mental emotional turmoil that he is going through, how is he supposed to take major decisions that will have long lasting repercussions not just on his life but on that of his sons? The way I see it, this is a result of selfishness, weakness, lack of foresight and bad planning. She practically committed suicide, and left behind a royal mess for her husband to sort out. She put him in an impossible position, caught between a rock and a hard place. All because of an inability to be logical and mentally strong. The poor man is now in a complete “can’t go can’t stay” quandary, and us, the extended family, at a total loss.

Is this the great Indian wife and mother we hear so much about? Well, if that’s so, I prefer being the “bad” character that I am, the unsentimental cold hearted bitch that I am seen as (and called to my face sometimes). At least my man or my kid will never have to face such a thing. My kid will have enough financial strength if I die suddenly, and she will be able to fend for herself much better. My man will never have to worry that he can either feed my daughter or be with her. And he will definitely never have to deal with this kind of guilt. The only major tragedy will be the emotional loss.