Last month, I held my father’s hands and confessed I cannot take care of him. It was a plea. He shook his head in response. The implication was clear: No hospital. Sitting in a room with more medicines than furniture, he appeared puny, as if the bed was slowly eating him away and what I was holding on to were his remains. As if he were a child prone to making towering demands for amusement. Except I was his child, a terrified 28-year-old witnessing the transformation of my father’s body. His eyes were foggy and mouth sparingly functional, restricted to gulping down medicines. He had not spoken for days.
On August 30, just before my three-month stay in Kolkata was drawing to a close, Baba complained of a bad headache. I touched his forehead and realised he was burning up. Two days later, he tested positive for Covid-19. Nothing prevented it, neither both doses of vaccines, nor the many rows with my sister and me when we forbade him from stepping out. My mother and I tested positive soon after. A one-way ticket to Mumbai remained unused.
For someone who visits her parents annually, I hear them ageing and see them aged. Ma tells me her feet are swollen over the phone. I come and find the turgidity resembling my grandmother’s with a precision I did not think was possible. Baba complains about not hearing too well. When I meet him, I notice him smiling in response to my questions, as if he were putting up a defenceless guard for his vulnerability. When you meet your parents annually, you care for them from a distance, hoping to postpone messy inevitabilities. The lack of physical proximity acts as a buffer, retaining their unassailable image of caregivers and lulling you into thinking there is time to become one.
But the unrelenting pandemic has robbed the solace of such a chronology. Far too many people, fated to live, have died prematurely. Age has been reduced to a statistical detail and not a signifier of mortality. With the temporal sequence dismantled, the role I thought could wait was staring at me in the face. Afflicted by the alienating virus, I transitioned to a caregiver overnight.
Caregiving is exacting. But when done for parents, it renders you heartbroken. Suddenly, your parents become a reservoir of organs and you have to reckon with what makes them mortal — and not just human. You realise they are disoriented not because of something you said but because their sodium levels have dropped. You discern what makes them alive at the basest level, and the answer is not you. Caregiving reminds you why you love them while constantly testing your love for them. It is affection shorn of any embellishment, brimming with concern and resentment.
For a month, except the 10 days when they were in a hospital, I kept alternating between my parents in two separate rooms. Staring at the oximeter, for the first time in years I was acutely aware of the calibration of their existence. I kept staring at it as if my life relied on it. It did not. Someone else’s did, and my life relied on them. Ambushed by grief, I folded my hands and learnt to pray, transporting myself to a time when I was younger and believed my parents were immortal.
As I write this, the oxygen cylinders in my house have not been used for weeks. My parents are walking about. They are better. But no matter what is the result, caregiving is a losing war in the battlefield of mortality. It is a preview of an image that will keep recurring, a glimpse of a future that no amount of manipulation can alter. There is no light at the end of the tunnel.
When I had held my father’s hands and confessed that I cannot take care of him, the subtext of my helplessness was that I cannot see him like this. For the brief while they were in the hospital, their absence persuaded me to be hopeful about their present. And when I see them now, I cannot acknowledge their presence, without fearing about their absence.
This column first appeared in the print edition on October 19, 2021 under the title ‘The burden of care’. firstname.lastname@example.org