Packing up your home of 40 plus years is challenging work, thought Arun. Doing it alone is harder. Mala would have known what to keep and what should go to whom.
It wasn’t that Arun had not participated in housework in their 40 years of marriage. To say that they had been equal partners may be an exaggeration, but they had both been active partners. Mala had been a professor and he a businessman, and when they came home they had both worked together at housekeeping and parenting. They had tasks they preferred- Arun was the inspired cook, and Mala the meticulous cleaner. They both hated laundry and took turns at it. Arun helped the children with regular homework, and Mala enjoyed helping with the larger complex projects. Mala taught them gardening and photography and Arun took them biking. When Arun travelled for work, Mala shouldered all the work at home and when she had assignments to grade or papers to write, Arun had to step up. Neither of them was perfect, but they both worked hard to make things work for their family.
Decision maker for the home was always Mala, though. Arun would often say that the house and he both belonged to her so she could do what she wanted. Mala and everyone who heard it thought it was a joke, and it had always put a smile on Mala’s face. Remembering that smile put a smile on Arun’s face.
“Dad, should we donate this camera to the school? Not too many of these are around anymore. Kids now likely haven’t seen a film camera?” Aditi said. Today his youngest daughter Aditi was helping him go through stuff in the attic and had picked up an old camera bag. She dusted it and unzipped the bag.
He extended his hand and Aditi put the camera in his hand. He took off the lens cover and peered through the viewfinder. “It is your Mom’s camera. She was always taking pictures of all you kids with it, you remember? I was never the photographer.”
“Yes, she was a bit of paparazzi with us. It was embarrassing,” Aditi said, wistfulness in her voice.
As Arun fiddled with the camera, he realized there was a film on it still. Mala must have forgotten the camera.
Aditi said, “I wonder what pictures these are. Do you mind if I get these developed?” He handed over the undeveloped film to her.
Aditi repeated whether she should put the camera in the donation pile. He said “Let’s stop for today. You go home now, and I will start again tomorrow.”
Now that Mala was not there to help decide, smallest decisions related to this move were difficult for Arun. It was exhausting to answer all questions in the context of what Mala would do. He had to make more and more decisions in the last 10 years, but it had never become easier for him.
10 years ago
It was their oldest daughter Ananya wedding day. Mala had driven herself and Ananya to the beautician. After Mala’s hair and makeup were done, Mala left to pick up lunch for both. She did not return. For three hours. Ananya called Arun at home in a panic, who was surprised. Mala had returned home a while back. She was busy with all that needed to be done at home, entertaining the guests. Arun had become angry with her. How could she forget her daughter? Were the guests more important?
The wedding day passed, and everyone thought the stress of the wedding had caused Maya to forget her daughter at the beauty parlour. Many people joked. Arun saw something unusual, some panic and confusion in Maya’s eyes, but there was too much going on to stop and talk about it. And then after the guests left, and Ananya moved to a new city after the wedding, Mala and Arun returned to their routine. Everything seemed normal, the forgetfulness on the wedding day almost forgotten.
A few weeks after the wedding, when Arun came home from, Mala was waiting for him. She made them both a cup of tea, sat beside him and then gently took his hand. Arun looked at Mala and he felt afraid. She was going to tell him something terrible. He could see that in her eyes.
“Love, I went to the doctor. It’s not like me to forget. You know that, right? Forgetting your own child on her wedding day?” Mala shook her head. “There have been other instances too. Forgetting my keys, my student appointments. Two months ago, I forgot my car at work too, you remember. So, I went to the doctor, two weeks ago. He did the tests and scans. I got the result today.”
Where she had started out holding his hand, now Arun was gripping Mala’s hand. The pressure of his hand on Mala’s increased with his own fears. “You are ok, right? There is no problem?”
Mala’s eyes were filled with tears, her smile apologetic. “I am ok, for now. I have Alzheimer’s, the test confirmed.”
Arun felt his hand go cold in Mala’s hand. That wouldn’t do. She needed him now, he could not be weak. He let go of her hand and put his arms around her and held her close. “That is just one doctor, we will find the best. You are the strongest woman I know. You will beat it.”
“You think I would go to anyone but the best?” Mala said with a smile. They both laughed. Arun had always said Mala demanded the best and nothing else would do.
“The diagnosis is correct. We will have to figure out our way, Arun.”
And they did figure out their way, with love for each other and support from their loved ones.
With the diagnosis, the doctor had said she could not drive anymore or travel alone. Mala felt it was not fair to her students to continue working though no one had noticed anything wrong with her. Driving or travelling alone was not an option either. Mala joked that she was retiring early. She took photography lessons and spent more time in the garden. They were empty nesters by now. Arun cut back his hours at work and started grooming his younger daughter, Aditi to take over the business.
Slowly over the years, the disease progressed. On normal days, it was hard to tell if something was wrong. On some days, she would talk about Ananya as if she was a little girl. Worried that the school bus had not brought her home on time. Ananya would call and Mala did not know who she was. It broke his heart to see the confusion in Mala’s eyes and to hear the pain in Ananya’s voice. He took solace in the fact that Mala still knew him. She still was able to take care of herself and manage the house most of the time.
At times there was hope that the medication and therapies were working, the degeneration was slower. and then something would happen to dash Arun’s hopes and show that the disease has progressed.
The day Arun had dreaded from the day of the diagnosis came a few years later, when she asked who he was and what was he doing in her home. He should leave because her husband was coming home soon. She remembered him from when they were younger when they had just moved across the world. To start a new life together. Newly married. She had started university and he had started a new job. But she didn’t recognize him as the balding older man he was now.
Ananya and her husband moved back to the city and bought a home close to theirs so that they could help with Mala’s care.
There was the scary instance of when she had left home, while he had fallen asleep and did not know her way back to the house. Neighbours who had seen her wandering in the park had alerted them. It had broken Arun’s heart to see her distraught and confused in the park, and yet afraid to come home with him.
Gradually, Mala lost control of her bladder and bowel movements. Arun took care of her day and night. Then Madhur, their middle child, their son had moved in with them. He had also insisted that they hire a nurse during the day. “Dad, I know you want to do everything for her yourself, but we need help.”
There were still some good days where she recognized one of them and on those days, they were grateful. There were many moments of joy along the years. Ananya had a baby boy. Mala held the baby and said she was tired, could someone else hold Madhur. Aditi brought home the young man she wanted to marry, and Mala had a lucid conversation with him. Or the day Madhur cut his hand chopping vegetables, and Mala rushed to hold his hand under running water like she would have when he was 12.
Things had taken a turn for the worse about six months ago. Mala had lost her ability to speak much. The most she could manage were a phrase or two. Most days she did not even try. Then she started to lose weight rapidly, her ability to swallow had reduced. The doctor had recommended that they start feeding her through a suction machine. Arun had to make the difficult decision to move Mala to a long-term care facility. He spent most of his time there too.
Recently he had decided that he no longer wished to live in “Mala’s house” without her and had requested a room in the same facility. He had been on a waitlist. In preparation for the move, he had started to go through the house. There were decisions to be made on what to keep that would fit in his one room at the facility, what should be given to each child and what should be donated. The kids all helped when they could.
Two days later
Arun was in Mala’s room, sitting on her bed beside her, fiddling with his iPhone. Mala had always liked listening to music, so Madhur had downloaded some more songs that he thought his mom would like. Arun was trying to find the new ones to play for Mala.
Aditi and Ananya came in the door together. Arun looked up from his phone. It looked like the sisters had been crying. When one was upset, the other one was called upon and once they both cried, they seemed to be able to carry on. This is how it had been for the past few years. Arun was grateful that they had each other.
Ananya came around the bed and kissed her mother’s cheek. Mala raised her eyes. It was hard to tell if she knew her today. Mala had said nothing this morning. That was not unusual.
Aditi came and hugged Arun. She pulled a chair closer to the bed. “Dad, the pictures from the camera roll.”
Arun took the envelope and pulled out the 5X7 pictures. As he started to go through them, he was confused. They were all pictures of him. Headshots. They would have been taken 7 -8 years ago. His hair had greyed, but he had not most of them. In some pictures when he was sleeping. At other times he was cooking or reading or sitting on the chair looking at the garden Mala had put together. Always unaware.
Tears blurred his vision. “These are pictures of me. Your mom took these. Why would she take such mundane pictures of me, an old man?”
Aditi said “Ananya and I think she took these pictures after her diagnosis. When she was afraid she was going to forget you. She must have been so scared, Dad.”
Arun put his hands over Mala’s and said “It’s ok, Love. I remember, and that is enough for both of us”. He felt the faintest of pressure back on his hand.