“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
While the above words belong to Samuel Beckett, I came across the phrase in Paul Kalanithi’s memoir, ‘When Breath Becomes Air.’ I read this novel in early 2019, or the pre-pandemic times, as we might as well call it. This was a man who spent his entire life working towards the goal of becoming a neurosurgeon. When he did finally achieve it, he was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer.
As a surgeon who specialised in the human brain, Mr. Kalanithi was often faced with the question, “what makes life meaningful enough to go on living?’ It was only when he sat on the other side of that desk did he finally try and comprehend the answer. Of course, I could use this essay to talk about the multiple lessons this book taught me, but I shall allow you the pleasure of reading it for yourself.
However, I am sharing a passage that calls out to us, especially today, as we are almost attacked every second by grim news.
“Getting too deeply into statistics is like trying to quench a thirst with salty water. The angst of facing mortality has no remedy in probability.”
So, what do we do instead?
To quote Mr. Kalanithi one more time, ‘until we actually die, we live.’
We live with hope.
Hope is an emotion that I have begun to think of as stone-cold. As we go through the sheer condition of being human – as we flail, fall and fly – hope is the one that remains constant. Like the breath we take but hardly notice, hope exists.
When a surgeon puts on his gloves, he does so with hope. A person goes down on their knees to propose hoping they spend the rest of their lives together.
A child looks at an ice cream truck with hope. Infertile mothers change their diets, farmers plant seeds during a predicted drought, students graduate, and babies are born.
Patients sign consent forms, adventurers climb mountains, smokers smoke, entrepreneurs create pitch decks, lovers fight, and dogs’ cross busy roads. Devotees pray. Writers buy blank notebooks.
The patient dies. The suitor receives a refusal. The mother walks past the ice cream truck, the drought kills the harvest, and the baby never utters a cry.
The patient’s family mourns, the adventurer loses a leg, the investors reject the idea, lovers part ways, the dog yelps. The idols stay silent. The notebook remains blank.
A pandemic hits the world.
Yet hope lies like a steady rock, anchored at the bottom of a heavy heart. Undeterred; stone-cold.
There’s something about a challenging situation, about feeling helpless, that makes you feel both grown-up and child-like all at the same time. This is the only way to describe how I felt when I heard that my Nani was no more. After a year of extreme precautions, she became part of the pandemic’s history.
When I think of her now, I remember her bedside drawer in my mother’s childhood home in Calcutta. She filled it with combs with different types of teeth, half used talcum powder, Pond’s cream in its plastic container, vapour rubs, an almost empty tub of Vaseline, smudged kohl, half-empty bottles of oil, hair clips worn with age, and maybe some bangles and a ring or two. It was not a very fancy drawer, but it spoke more about my Nani than she could ever tell me.
Even today, certain fragrances transport me to that room and that home. To summers eating mangoes and litchis with all of us curled up in different positions on floor mattresses in the hall as the adults (and my four-year-old sister) closely followed their timetable of Hindi soap operas that aired every night.
When I think of her, I remember old toys and books that she dusted out of the storeroom for us, kept safely for years after her kids grew up and moved away. I remember smiles and gleeful squeals as we rushed to the terrace to greet sudden summer showers against Nani’s repeated warnings that they make you ill. She watched with a smile as we danced in the rain anyway, waiting with towels and turmeric milk as a precautionary measure. When I think back, I understand that those summers were precious because, for those two months, my mother and I were both children.
When a parent dies, so does the child within us, and that is something I understood the morning I lost my Nani.
On the days that followed, I would hear her voice in my head. She always told my sister and I, “Take care of your mother; she works too hard. I want you to really take care of her.” At the end of each visit, those were her parting words. My mom and Nani constantly worried about each other. They had a bond that I never understood until I grew up to share the same with my mother.
So, when I heard the news, I knew what I had to do. I held my mom’s hand while she grieved, staying close to her as people drifted in and out of the house. I was prepared to do the same for as many days or months - but on the morning of the fifth day, my mom wiped her tears and realised she couldn’t go on like this. She had to look at the situation differently. She had to go back to celebrating her life instead.
I think parents always worry for their children, but sometimes, when you have done your part, your kid grows up to be a lot stronger than you think. Sometimes, when a parent teaches her child to have hope, she gives her the power to face anything.
Of course, it was far from easy. Her heart was in pieces and her faith faltered – but instead of shutting the world out, she invited it in – willing for anyone to show her how to heal. For the parent who guided her, had held her hand through every sorrow her whole life, no longer could.
From crying at the overwhelming lifetime of memories, my mother forced herself to hum instead, even if the words got stuck along the way. She woke up each morning to appreciate the little things she had; to go out into the sun or drink a cup of tea with her daughters. (Mom and Nani shared everything over cups of chai). She took an interest in cooking again and listened to YouTube videos on acceptance and the art of living. She even started a gratitude journal at the advice of a friend. While I began to panic at every small sign of illness in the family, she urged us instead to take that trip we wanted. Slowly, with my mom guiding us, we all began to heal day by day.
It takes a herculean amount of effort to reboot yourself from the loss of a parent, especially while your father is still in the hospital, but I know now that it is far from impossible. In fact, it is the only way. This past year, I had lots of time to reflect, slow down and appreciate life’s journey. But in these last two weeks, I learnt of the strength that accompanies the now-made-clichéd feeling of hope.
This is why I now know that the surgeon will continue operating, and lovers will still quarrel. Children will get adopted, and sudden showers may make you squeal with joy. Students will land great jobs, and babies shall smile for the first time. Smokers switch to nicotine gums, and young CEOs become millionaires. Cars wait in line for turtles to cross and a debut novel wins a Pulitzer.
A pandemic may hit the world.
But we will stand back up together, closer than ever before. In a society that learns the hard way, it is hope that saves us all. For even when we can’t go on, we go on.