A month without Mary

Posted on April 2, 2012

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About thirty days ago, I said goodbye to Mary. We were expecting a call, and when the call came we ran to the hospital, to the ICU, past the sweetly round-faced woman at the door who betrayed her Bengali provenance through air-heavy admonitions, and as the others waited outside, I went in and stood by Mary’s bedside as one doctor detached himself from his colleagues, crowding around her in a half-circle, and told me her heart had stopped. After three days of grief, which in its weight of unreleased feeling can feel like three months, or thirty years, the brain must have slowed down its deductive processes, for I asked this solemn man in his solemn white coat what that meant. What did he mean ‘her heart had stopped’? She’s dead, he said. Oh. He said this had shot up and that had failed and therefore this other thing had shut down. It all meant nothing. Post mortems are for television serials where forensics experts find traces of arsenic in the bloodstream and catch the killer. This was death in the real world. The strange words left the doctor’s  mouth and slipped right through me and drifted past the patients in the beds behind. How it happened was no longer important. It had happened.

Mary lay there still as a sleeping doll whose eyes had closed when rested from standing, the motionlessness of her small form no different from her stillness yesterday, the day before that. But yesterday, the day before, she was alive, at least in the way machines with their neon indicators and video-game beeps tell us. Today, she wasn’t. It’s a machine age, and the machines have told us that she’s dead, and the doctors have no choice but to echo this assessment. The sadness I felt was like a stone. Sadness in the movies is the opposite, like water, coursing through your innards and mopping up emotions and bursting forth in blessed catharsis. People cry so easily in the movies. That sadness leaves the system with the last tear, unlike this sadness, which was like a growth inside, a tumour gathering mass, a black hole sucking in and hoarding pain instead of releasing it and leaving me lighter. I looked at Mary guiltily, not being able to reward her struggle with a single tear, and after kissing her forehead, still warm to my surprise, I stepped out to let the others in.

There are times bureaucracy is a blessing. Between forms to be filled and final payments to be made and various people to reach out to for taking care of this formality and that one, none of us had much time to slap a label on what we felt, which only revealed itself when we spoke. People had to be informed, and we’d dial numbers and ask for them and when we started to talk of Mary’s death the voice would tremble as if it were wired to a socket during a voltage fluctuation. But after the call, the black hole would suck up this new burst of feeling as well, swelling, growing stronger. After there was nothing else to do, I returned to Mary’s side, where she now looked like a Babushka doll peeping out of an off-white knapsack. A face at peace bloomed from a body bag. How could someone this small weighed have so much in my arms, a few days ago, when I lifted her down the stairs and into the car that would take us to this hospital? My left hand still felt the presence, the weight, of Mary when she was a person, before she turned into Mary, this thing.

I looked around, wondering if the caretakers of these other sick and dying people were secretly relieved that it was Mary and not their father or aunt. Or maybe they were looking at me in anticipation of what I would do and whether I would provide a lesson on deathbed etiquette that would come in handy when it was their turn. A nurse came and asked me what I was to Mary, and I told her, the voice again beset by voltage fluctuations. The nurse stood around silently, respectfully, and then she left, probably too callused by death to contribute much. To my mind, I was the lead player, the protagonist, in a grand drama of grief, but to her I was just a two-bit extra reenacting a numbingly familiar part. More people would die tomorrow, more members of family would be given the news, and if lucky they’d succumb to tears, or else stand by numbly, like me, thinking that there must be something wrong, terribly wrong, with them.

I felt Mary’s forehead and it was finally cold. I kept my hand there, on her head, remembering how she hated being alone, and how much she must have hated being all by herself in the ICU these past days, for we were shooed out even before we could tell her we’d be right outside, right outside, and that there would always be a light on in this new room just like the light in her room at home, whose dull-green glow clearly possessed the power to ward off demons. I asked myself if I’d done enough, if I should have done more, and then I told myself that surrendering to survivor’s guilt was not going to help anyone now, not her, not me, not the people outside. And then, out of nowhere, the tears came. The stone inside was being cracked open by wracking sobs, and the gravelly bits and pieces were smarting my eyes and hurting me and making me ashamed of being embarrassed that everyone else was watching my convulsion over the small bundle of this uncaring person, under whose pillow a kind doctor had allowed us to slip a get-well-soon note from my sister, who, mercifully, has very little trouble with tears.

Copyright ©2012 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Fiction