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meeting death for the first time - asmita kumbhar

I started this year with four grandparents. Now, I have three.

Growing up, I would hear my friends talk about how they had never met some of their grandparents and I would feel sorry for them. I would apologise, and be grateful of the fact that I had all my grandparents. I always knew I was lucky to have them, know them, love them. A world without them was one I couldn’t fathom, and losing them, although inevitable, had always been one of my greatest fears.

I was raised by my aba, my father’s father. He was, and thankfully still is, my one constant. Him and ajji, his wife, live a minute away, and I meet him every single day. But with my maternal grandparents living 6 hours away in Aurangabad, my sister and I would meet them once in five years, three if we were lucky. When we visited, we would sit with ajji, my maternal grandmother, for hours, listening to stories about her life, childhood tales of my mother and our uncles and aunt, marvelling at the many languages she knew and how skilled she was at painting and knitting, trying out her newest recipes for chutneys and pickles and jams. But with ajoba, any conversation beyond 5 minutes about anything other than my education was a rarity. I never knew what to say to him. He was this distant, stoic figure who had strictly moulded my mother into the parent who used the same firm hand to raise me. He, I realised, was her constant.

At the end of January, just when I was beginning to think that maybe everyone I loved really did make it through a pandemic and through 2020, ajoba had a heart attack. Two of his five children, my mother one of them, rushed to be by his side, and for nearly 10 days, they never left his side. Ajoba was always stubborn and strong, even in my limited memories of him, and we were confident he would pull through. Then, on my 20th birthday, I received a text from my mother asking us to come meet him.

“It may be your last visit”, she said, and fear set in.

As we sped to my mom’s hometown, I prayed to the gods I struggled to believe in, selfishly asking them to not take him away on my birthday. We got there, and the doctor gave us 5 minutes each with him. Lying there in hospital garb, hooked to beeping machines, he had never looked so small. I waved hi, he didn’t wave back. I asked how he’s doing, but he didn’t speak to me. He held up his hand and tapped it in a few places, as if dialling a number.

“I’ll call you when I’m better.”

He didn’t want us to see him like this, and the feeling was mutual, but I couldn’t help feeling like I had lost my last chance to know him. Over the next couple of days, we stayed home with ajji, helping out wherever we could. The weekend ended, and life beckoned us back to Pune. Mom stayed back, of course she did, and when I met ajoba before we left, I made him promise that we would meet again.

He couldn’t keep his promise.

The gods came through and my 20th birthday passed unmarred by tragedy. Then, four days later, my mother texted me again: Baba is no more.

For a second, the world stopped spinning. My sister burst into wracking sobs, but not a single tear left my eyes. How do you wrap your head around the fact that someone simply… ceases? Disappears? Vanishes? I’d compare it to a magic trick – Poof! Gone! – but there was nothing magical about this. Just the painful, inevitable truth of being human. Since then, I have become more fearful. Driving, something I have begged my father to let me learn for years, seems too daunting now, too risky. I ask aba and ajji about every doctor’s visit, every check-up, every report. I try harder to make my mother laugh, and every time she smiles I feel a little lighter. I remind ajji, my maternal grandmother, of all the things I have planned for us – cooking lessons, movie marathons, knitting tutorials – when we’re in Mumbai, her to live with my uncle, me to go back to university.

I used to think to myself sometimes, about how Death was like my mutual – hovering at the end of my social circle, meeting some of my friends, but never coming closer, never meeting me. Well, I’ve met Death now. And nothing will ever be the same.


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