Friday 1 June 2012

The hidden promise of “Till death do us part”

I met him 21 years ago at a wedding in California. He was studying in California and his father from Bombay asked him to attend this wedding to meet potential brides. As an act of defiance, he showed up with three girls - one Indian, one Chinese and one White American as his dates to this traditional wedding in Thousand Oaks, California. I got talking to all of them and over the years we became friends. It so happened that he fell in love with one of the women who he showed up with and engaged to her six months later and married two months after that. In a way, I was with them from their very first meeting. Two people from two different cultures thrown together by a prank became life partners. He -  a smart, driven entrepreneur; she - an artist and a life long student. I visited their home filled with cats, dogs, rabbits and backyard filled with chickens, ponies, mules and many other moving creatures. They both loved nature and animals. I witnessed years of their life together with a string of dis-jointed incidents – news of their pit bull jumping the fence and landing in the next door yard; walking through their backyard in the early hours picking ingredients for breakfast – fresh eggs from the cage, tomatoes and green chilies from the garden; having a business meeting with him in the living room while she carved a horse head at the tail of a pencil to give as a gift to me, both of them talking to me on the phone as fire was engulfing most of their neighborhood telling me that they were being evacuated and the most recent one where we all agreed to meet in my next trip to US. There are so many moments small and big that mark our friendship.   

J and S... 

I meander through this memory lane today because of an email I received from him. It was a lengthy description of what happened to her in the last few weeks. I learnt of her having a stroke, of rushing her to the hospital where she told him that she loved him and that he should feed all her animals regularly even though she was in the hospital after which she slipped into a coma. When she woke up, she was totally paralyzed communicating only through batting of her eyelids. She was deteriorating fast and they had to make a decision about putting her on a feeding tube. She has always been a very shy, private person who was happy with her family and pets and I was one of his few friends that she grew close to … perhaps because she saw me as part of their first meeting. She was fiercely independent, incredibly simple, she created a home where she blended in with her animals and did not demand much from anyone else. She, who nurtured countless animals lay herself a wounded one and wanted to go the same way she would let her favourite horse go were it to be incapacitated. True to her nature, the same rule for animals had to be the rule for her. She communicated with the batting of her eyelids that she did not want to be kept alive. He held her hand as she breathed her last on her own terms. 

This incident made me think of love in a whole new way. The worse nightmare of any parent is to lose their child. And for a mother to fight to have her child die says something of the condition of the child. I thought of her parents, of him, of her siblings fighting to let her die. There are stories of people who survived her condition and lead their lives where someone has to take care of them round the clock. What is the effect on those who take care of them?  And for how long can they take care of them? If they are kept in institutions, what is the level of care that they receive?  Should they have tried for a few years and then let her go?  Should he and the mother have dedicated the rest of their lives to take care of her?  Should they have dissuaded her from her wish?  There are no right answers. And no one knows the details of agreements / arguments a couple might have within the confines of their private lives. All I know is that they both were in love for the 20 plus years and she gave an indication that she did not want to live. And they did everything they could to grant her that wish. 

And now, when I think of love, I also think of letting go. For most of us love is the celebration, a feeling of the living but love is also the end. As I bid farewell to her, I think of the agony that she went through in those last days. I am sure that there was some longing to live, to be with loved ones, some survival instinct working hard but her pride not to be dependent on anyone won over all that. Finally, her wish to live fully or not all won any other natural instinct. She remains in my memory as a quietly vibrant soul who built a small world around her of her family, pets and a few friends and I can still see her fingers carve horses of all sizes out of every possible material. 

Most importantly, like she did, I have to let my husband and family know what to do if I were to be a vegetable. It is not fair to toss that responsibility on them who would always feel guilty for pulling the plug but would be fulfilling my instructions if I made them clear. Death is imminent but death with dignity is the dream of every human being. As he wrote to me, he said that he did not want her to die but he wanted to save her from life worse than death. And that was the agreement in their marriage. Her last journey that started with a fall at 4:30pm on May 11th, filled with major battles with doctors, priests, medical boards, ended the way she silently communicated, at 9.02pm on May 27th. Memorial day that commemorates those who died saving their country added another veteran to the list… one who died fighting for her dignity.

Julie with her cat 


  1. Yes...Love is just not about holding on...but letting go too...when life slips out of one's hand..and you honour the pride of the person you love is the most agonising painful yet fulfilling moment...It is a strong love and solid foundation when one can survive this truama of letting go.....May she be an example to people who are still living and may not be alive..!!!!

  2. Such a conflict........such a would be difficult to not live a day without thinking of the decision made for Julie. This choked me.



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