Dubai: I wrote a list of things my mother wanted me to do once she had died.
A few hours earlier, she’d been admitted to hospital for a key-hole surgery; intense pain and no diagnoses pointed to a need for further investigation.
It was supposed to take 30 minutes. It was supposed to mean a quick return to daily life.
An hour later, we were told she needed an appendectomy; then her guts would be removed and cleaned, infected tissue peeled off and the rest repacked. Another hour later, she was wheeled out, strapped to a ventilator, her face the only grey part of her visible in the swaddle of sheets.
The numbers were playing a crazy game of chase around; urea levels elevated, blood pressure plummeting. And like a party toy that had been mangled, there were sprouts of wire and bits of plastic buried in her now-bruised skin.
That night I went to an empty room with only one nightie that belonged to my mother; it was unusually quiet without her authoritative voice calling for a glass of water or ranting at the incompetence of a caretaker.
That night was a lesson in loneliness.
The next morning to the stroke of a hand, reached out in desperation, my mother opened her eyes. Off the ventilator, the numbers on the board of essentials straining for normality, I hoped things would get better. But the first words she said to me were: ‘Take this down’.
And on the first sheet of a book I was reading – years later, I cannot recall either the book’s name or why I took it with me to the ICU – I wrote down a list.
Of things to do when she was gone. Of ways for me to be alright. She whistled through her teeth as she spoke in ragged little whispers of safes and combinations. She spoke of funeral arrangements and of her dreams for me.
And something cracked inside, even the tears I could have cried stayed still.
My mother was wrong
Fortunately, she was wrong. Fortunately, the medicines worked; a few days later my mother came home.
The fear came back with her. For her it’s always been a case of practical preparation, so we don’t want for anything.
For the rest of us, it’s a boil that fills with dread until its inevitable burst.
It’s been many years, but that sudden jolt of nothingness comes at unexpected moments — a quiet cough in the dead of the night; the scent of a certain disinfectant; the seasoning on a certain salad; the absence of a snore.
This is why we need to talk of death and the shades it carries, the shadows it leaves behind.
Practicalities are important, but so is a lesson on grieving, on acceptance and on resilience.
A world view may stretch as the years go on, past parents and guardians to encompass friends, foes and even strangers, but fundamental connections remain.
You can die in your sleep, or while walking to work.
You can choke on something and block your windpipe or be at the receiving end of a brutal hit.
Forget about the gratitude you want to convey, the ‘I love yous’ you want to say — that’s another conversation for another time.
But talk about death – so you know what’s coming. So you know how to deal with the grief, so you know what comes after.
Talk about death – before it’s too late.
Talk about death, parents – you owe it to the living.