by Patricia D'Silva
In the first memory I have of my grandfather, I am six years old. I am sitting on a couch with gold-patterned cushions that mould around me, enveloping me in scratchy fabric. It is my first trip to India from our home in Bahrain so the cluttered unfamiliarity of my grandparents’ apartment terrifies me. I press myself further into the couch’s overstuffed warmth. My parents chatter away with my grandmother who sits draped on a sofa with casual elegance, her fingers caressing a crystal glass filled with rum. I fix my attention on my grandfather, swaying slightly from the mild vertigo of old age as he fiddles around at the dumbwaiter with his back turned to me. His shoulder blades jut out like developing wings, exposed to the heat of the day by his thin cotton vest. He turns and shuffles over to me, his liver-spotted hand concealing the contents until the last minute. Bending to my eye level, even though I can see the creak of his bones reflected in his wince, he holds the glass out to me, the pink liquid in it sloshing slightly from the tremor in his arm. I reach out for it, instantly mesmerized, thinking with a child’s logic that this must be what Piglet drinks because the colour matches his skin completely.
“It’s called pink milk,” my grandfather tells me gently. He peers at me, through thick soda bottle glasses, crowned by his bushy white eyebrows. He straightens up with a chorus of clicks and clacks as his joints reset into their correct positions, watching my reaction as I gulp the drink. It tastes unique, the thick richness of the milk diluted by a syrup that flavours it with a sweetness as delicate as the roses that it comes from. Once I’ve finished it, I smile shyly at my grandfather, our friendship forming over a glass of flavoured milk.
Every time I visited India after that, there would always be a glass of pink milk waiting for me, no matter what time my flight got in. Secretly, I always took it as a token of being his favourite out of his seven grandchildren. From my youth, my Nana had made it quite clear that, while she loved me dearly, I was too big-hearted to ever master the cutting wit that came so naturally to her and her other granddaughters. And so I was eliminated from the constant competition to be her favourite grandchild. Instead, I drifted closer to my grandfather whose childish glee over the simplest things like the video function on a digital camera mirrored my own delight in the seemingly mundane.
I grew closer to him by laughing at all his jokes since I was too young to understand how corny they were. As I got older, I still laughed at them but with small cringes that he was either blissfully unaware of or chose to ignore, opting instead to view me as eternally six years old. I still have the joke books that he would gleefully thumb through, their covers tattered and all his favourite jokes highlighted and the punch lines underlined numerous times, indicating his delight. I also indulged his obsession with his digital camera; I was the only person in the family to not complain loudly at his inability to understand when using flash was appropriate, and his penchant for taking candid photos.
When I was fourteen, he discovered how to email, specifically how to send those irritating chain emails which have fifteen facts about water you never knew or worse, those joke emails that have been forwarded to every single person with a working email account. But he didn’t care how painfully over-used a chain email was; if he thought it would somehow help his grandchildren by making us smile at a strange cat GIF or imparting some magical knowledge about the origins of numbers, off it would go in a mass email to the seven of us. I was the only one who didn’t mark his emails as spam. But even then, I rarely read them and never replied to them.
I always marvelled at how robust my grandfather was for someone so old and skinny. Other men in their late seventies were becoming crippled with heart problems, diabetes and such but the only thing really affecting Dada was high cholesterol and selective deafness. So I didn’t pay much attention when my dad told me that my grandfather was going in for a routine gallbladder surgery; it was routine after all. I didn’t even entertain the possibility of a stroke, even though I knew that they are common complications of surgery among the elderly. In my head, age was just a number and Dada being seventy eight didn’t actually make him elderly.
While I carried on with my life with a sense of deluded safety, a clot travelled to the limbic system of my grandfather’s brain while he was under anesthesia, triggering a stroke that wiped the traces of his personality away. Dada Tony went into the surgery, cracking jokes with the doctor and nurses but woke up a different man. Suddenly, words failed him and he would simply sit in silence while my grandmother and aunt desperately tried to get him to speak to them. He no longer wore his characteristic soda-bottle glasses, giving him a perpetual vulnerable, lost expression. I found this one of the more heart-breaking facets of this new person: it meant that he no longer felt like he had anything important to peer at like he used to. Instead of greeting visitors with his usual warmth, he lay in bed and turned his backs on them if they came into the room. Or he would endure their company for an hour before standing up and saying, “Okay, you can leave now.” One of the better known victims of this was the Bishop of Bombay who took it much better than my mortified grandmother thought he would. He stopped sending emails, abandoned his camera and began to find every reason possible to spend the entire day in bed either sleeping or staring emptily out the window. He became cantankerous with my father and his sisters, resisting their every attempt to get him out of the house or get him help and was entirely indifferent to his grandchildren. When we called or Skyped, he would refuse to say anything more than a simple “Hi” or “Bye” and when pressed, he would respond monosyllabically to our falsely cheerful questions before passing the phone back to my grandmother.
A doctor in India once told my uncle, “In India, we don’t care about the old and the poor.” The months following my grandfather’s personality shift made that obvious. He was shafted from doctor to doctor, each of them shrugging and blaming it on old age. The only doctor who did prescribe him the anti-depressant Cipralex gave him a condescendingly small dose of 5 mg. He was trying to make it obvious that the only reason he prescribed anything at all was because my aunt insisted. And so we were left with a man who wasn’t a person anymore but a caricature of an old man, with nothing left to do but cope.
Grief began with my memories, slicing away every moment I said “I love you” and leaving only the times when I was too busy to help him with his crosswords or every time an ill-timed joke would draw sharp words from me instead of a laugh. Next, it moved on to my personality, making me prickly and acerbic. Then it wreaked havoc on my body, leaving me with migraines from crying all night, dampening my appetite to the point of starvation and keeping me perpetually fatigued. And when I finally reduced it to a manageable knot of pain that sat in the pit of my stomach, it still controlled me, making me feel empty without its weight. Going back to the routine of school and work felt like betraying my grandfather in the cruelest way, relegating my memories of him to a deep recess of my mind, accessible only when unexpectedly triggered by a long-lost item of his or a stray photo in our albums.
Just when I thought I had conquered my grief, I imported my old email into a new email account and suddenly, all of Dada’s emails were being delivered again, marked as unread and forcing me to face all the times I’d ignored him, all the messages I never read, never replied to. I was frozen at my computer, choked with guilt. When the raw shock wore off and the tearful hysteria subsided, I booked myself an overpriced round-trip to India. Twenty five hundred dollars was a price I was willing to pay to try to buy myself a chance at closure.
“The Most Beautiful Couple in Bombay”
Over the years, the clutter of my grandparents’ apartment had turned into a shrine of their past: their couches were worn from years of people sitting, stepping and lying on them, any available surface was cluttered with macaroni art, deformed clay creations and gifts from all the different parts of the world that their children and grandchildren have flown to. Dust now coated all the pictures of my grandparents from their modelling days when they consistently won prizes from magazines for being “The Most Beautiful Couple in Bombay” or “Bombay’s Most Photogenic.” Everywhere, photos from all the major milestones in their children’s lives like weddings, birthdays and snapshots of my cousins and I frozen in various stages of youth and adulthood decorated walls and mantelpieces. One of my favourite family photos still perched precariously on their windowsill: in it, my grandfather smiles from between then-Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi and my grandmother, both women wearing elegant saris with their heads tilted towards my grandfather. My dad and his three sisters stood before them grinning from ear to ear. They were always my favourite part of the picture, these children with youthful chubby versions of familiar adult faces.
I sat in their living room, pressing my feet against the cool marble. Even though it felt like the rest of my body was roasting, at least my feet were given a brief reprieve from the stifling heat of Bombay. Outside, cars honked uselessly at one another, lending their noise to the constant cacophony of India. I waited for my grandfather to wake up and make his way to the living room for his breakfast. Even though he had already been told of my visit, there was no way of knowing what he retained and what just disappeared into the void of his mind.
Finally I heard the shuffle of his house slippers as he hobbled through the door into the living room. I sprang to my feet in excitement but froze as I caught sight of him. I had prepared myself to meet a different man from the one I knew but no one had warned me that he would look so old. He had shrunk into a stooped walk and he had abandoned dyeing his hair or even combing it, leaving it as a silver crow’s nest on his head. For the first time in my life, he looked every bit his age, eighty three years etched into every wrinkle and droop. He also froze when he saw me and I could see his brain furtively grasping at memories that he’d set aside a long time ago.
“Don’t you recognize your own granddaughter?” my Nana chided him.
“I was a kid when he last saw me, Nana,” I replied softly, smiling at him. My voice seemed to trigger a memory, or maybe it was my smile, and he seemed to wake up, his eye alight with warmth and recognition. He forced a smile as I moved to kiss him and his moustache tickled my ear. I was already excited from the energy I saw in his eyes, emotion that no one had seen in a year. But by the time I pulled away it had gone. His eyes returned to their customary rheumy emptiness and he pushed past me towards the breakfast table.
In my childhood, my grandfather had always come to my defence when our extended family or family friends mocked my baby fat. He was always sensitive to my chronic self-esteem issues and often yelled at anyone foolish enough to make a remark like “You would be so much prettier if you were skinny” within his earshot. I had never found the words to explain to him how grateful I was, but during these weeks in India I finally found the opportunity to pay him back.
One night, I stood on the balcony of my grandparents’ apartment, savouring the brief window at dusk right after the sun sets and just before the mosquitoes come swarming out. I had just helped Dada back into bed after dinner and I could hear Nana and her maid fussing around in the kitchen. I knew I had to go back in to help but just for a moment, I wanted to be sucked into the memory that the colours of the night sky was triggering. Their apartment building was situated on top of a large hill and so from their balcony, you could see the glint of the street lights reflected against the sea below giving the night sky an inviting yellow hue. Standing here made you feel like the lights breathed and shifted with the city itself; street lights flickered, bonfires burned, the occasional firework streaked through the sky. It reminded me of the best memory I had of my grandfather: the night of my grandparents’ golden wedding anniversary party, when he spun me around on the dance floor, his moustache tickling my ear as he sang along to “I Can’t Help Falling In Love” and the hall glittered and twinkled like the lights of Bombay.
My grandfather’s love for my grandmother was the stuff of old Hollywood romance movies. He had met her when he was twenty and she was thirteen which was creepy to all of us until my Nana pointed out that girls were getting married at sixteen when she was young. Still, my grandfather hadn’t realized how old she was when he saw her stepping out of her family’s car at a wedding reception they were both attending and had fallen completely in love with her.
“I rejected him when he asked me to dance that day,” she chuckled when she told my cousins and I the story. “I didn’t think my family would have ever approved of him.”
She was right. They didn’t approve of him at all. At twenty, he was considered too old to be a bachelor. He was also an orphan with six siblings who had been raised by a collection of aunts and uncles across the province of Maharashtra. He wasn’t poor but he certainly wasn’t as rich as my grandmother’s family who owned their very own town. None of it deterred my grandfather. He simply waited as my Nana left a trail of swooning men and broken hearts everywhere she went. His patience paid off; at eighteen, she couldn’t resist his charm and good looks any longer and finally agreed to go on a date with him. Four years later, they were married and a year after that, my aunt Karen was born.
From their first meeting, Dada openly adored Nana. I’d never heard him call her anything other than “Sweetheart” until after his stroke. He would constantly serenade her with love songs: on the day of their fiftieth wedding anniversary, he sang “She Wears My Ring” which so much raw emotion that all his children and grandchildren were reduced to tears. My Nana accompanied him on the piano and they smiled at each other through it all with the blissful complacency of years of mutual adoration. Even for a few months after his stroke, his love for my Nana appeared to be the only thing tethering the last vestiges of his personality. For example, when I asked him how my Nana looked after her hip replacement, he chuckled softly and said, “As pretty as ever” before slipping back into unwavering silence.
Now, my Nana had to struggle with living with and caring for a man who had become a stranger to her. She had to care for him as if he were a child, laying out his clothes, force-feeding him medication and making sure he got at least a minimum amount of exercise. Her frustration would always boil over into a torrent of anger and name-calling, leaving everyone in the house feeling battered after her screams subsided. I had never been close to my grandmother. We loved each other in the way we’re expected to but it never went any deeper than that. I had always felt like I wasn’t pretty enough, intelligent enough or charming enough to be her granddaughter and she was content to let me feel that way. It was just her way; she believed that feelings of inadequacy would make us to strive to be better. As I got older and began to see through her tactics, I began to resent her for consistently undermining me, no matter how pure the intention was. And it was this resentment that clouded my vision about why she treated my grandfather cruelly.
For her entire life, her beauty and charm had placed her at the centre of everyone’s attention. But now, due to his illness, my grandfather was everyone’s focus and I attributed her harsh behaviour with him as a tantrum at having to give up the spotlight. But one night, when she was trying to get my grandfather ready for a family outing, my cousin, Tarnia, and I overheard a snippet of their conversation:
“Tony, for the love of God, put your shoes on. Or have you forgotten how to do that too?” Her voice floated to us as we walked up to the bedroom door. Both of us had been sent by my annoyed aunt to find out what was taking so long. I rolled my eyes at Tarnia.
“She’s at it again,” I muttered, my hand resting on the doorknob.
“Tony,” the sudden change in her voice caused us both to freeze. She sounded so tired and more vulnerable than I had ever heard her. “Please. If you keep doing this, the children will stop visiting us—” Her voice broke off into silence. In the hall, Tarnia’s eyes were filling with tears and my stomach was rolling with nauseating guilt. I had never once stopped to consider what she was going through. I realized now that while I was mourning the loss of my grandfather, she was grieving for a man that she had loved for sixty years who had been stolen away and replaced with this stranger. And she blamed this new man for ripping her husband away and driving away her children and grandchildren. Tarnia and I had both realized something standing there in the hall: Nana was afraid of being alone.
After that incident, I took over her duties, sneaking into their room in the early morning to lay out my grandfather’s clothes, gently cajoling him into walking around the house with me and measuring out his medication carefully. I did to try and ease the burden off my Nana but also to spare my grandfather the humiliation of her angry words. I wanted to explain to him why I did it, why I refused my cousins’ invitations to go out with them, choosing instead to stay by his side in the silence of their apartment. I wanted him to understand that every kindness I did, every dish I cleared and every insult I protected him from was working to pay off the ledger of debt that I owed him: he was a kind, loving, wonderful grandfather who made me pink milk when I was scared, told me jokes when I was sad, loved me so dearly that he sought to preserve my memory through his hundreds of photos and cared so much about my well-being even when I was oceans away that he would scour the Internet looking for things that would make me laugh. The closest I ever came to articulating it was one night early in my trip, after I tucked him in when I paused at his bed and whispered, “It’s my turn to take care of you, Dada.”
I tried to ignore that bottle of rosewater that sat on my grandparents’ dumbwaiter. The ingredient that turned the pink milk of my childhood pink. My grandfather hadn’t shown any indication that he remembered our tradition and this broke my heart more than anything. Sometimes I flirted with the idea of making us both a glass. I even tried to once but I only ended up clutching the bottle tight to my chest with one hand while the other was clamped over my mouth, stifling my sobs.
The day I left came quietly with all of us trying to ignore it. Maybe if I stay, I thought irrationally, I could keep them alive forever by preserving them with my love like emotional formaldehyde. I couldn’t help but smile at my own corniness. Maybe I had inherited Dada’s sense of humour after all. But no amount of jokes could help me forget that I had a life in Canada that couldn’t be paused forever. My grandmother was visibly upset but my grandfather barely seemed to register my departure. Or so I thought. I entered his room, dressed, packed but not ready to say goodbye. He was lying on his bed in his usual position, hands clasped on his stomach. But when I entered, his eyes flew open and I realized that he knew exactly why I was there. I sat beside him and took one of his parchment hands in mine, my eyes fixed on the spider veins scattered under his skin. I was memorizing him, the softness of his skin, the smell of his hair, the bushiness of his moustache and the messiness of his white hair pressed against the pillow. He gazed at me with a lost look on his face like an actor who had forgotten his lines.
“I’ll miss you, darling,” he said. And it devastated me. With a sob, I buried my head against his neck.
“I love you, Dada. I love you so much,” These were the only words that came to my mind after two weeks of rehearsing this moment, because they’re the only words that mattered. When I finally sat up, wiping my tears, he was looking at me with utter confusion. Even though he knew he would miss me, my raw display of emotion bewildered him. I saw us for what we truly were; trapped in a vacuum and no matter how loudly I screamed or no matter what I said, he would never hear me again. I closed my eyes then and it was like my Dada had recovered and went back to telling his bad jokes and he cheated at family card games in the most obvious ways and he started sending me emails that I always replied to and he made me a glass of pink milk and we stood on the apartment balcony and watched the twinkling lights of Bombay that chuckled with us as we laughed and laughed about that time when he tricked us all by pretending to be a different person for a year.