How do you deal with cancer? What do you say and what do you want to hear? When you are the patient and when you are a dear one? Do you cling on or let go? Do you deny or accept?
This is how Reacher's mother and her two sons (Jack and Joe) spoke about her impending death. In what is probably a goodbye meeting with her sons, she talks about her cancer that is about to take her away. It is not an easy conversation. Yet, it is just the kind of "death literacy" conversation that Dr M R Rajagopal advocates.
This was written some years ago, soon after I finished reading Lee Child's book, The Enemy. After I recently watched the Amazon series on Jack Reacher, I revisited the blog.
I have extracted what is relevant to this post and introduced subheads. The text I have added is in italics or within square brackets.
Thank you, Lee, for permission to use this very real and touching part of your exciting work.
After hearing from her doctor that she was dying, Jack Reacher and his brother Joe are in Paris to meet their mother. They know something is wrong, they know about an accident. This description is in Jack’s words.
We heard slow shuffling steps inside the apartment and a long moment later my mother opened the door.
She was very thin and very grey and very stooped and she looked about a hundred years older than the last time I had seen her. She had a long heavy plaster cast on her left leg and she was leaning on an aluminium walker. Her hands were gripping it hard and I could see bones and veins and tendons standing out. She was trembling. Her skin looked translucent. Only her eyes were the same as I remembered them. They were blue and merry and filled with amusement.
‘My boys,’ she said. ‘Just look at the two of you.’
She spoke slowly and breathlessly but she was smiling a happy smile. We stepped up and hugged her. She felt cold and frail and insubstantial. She felt like she weighed less than her aluminium walker.
She turned the walker around with short clumsy movements and shuffled back through the hallway. She was panting and wheezing. I stepped in after her. Joe closed the door and followed me. My mother made her way to a sofa and backed up to it slowly and dropped herself into it. She seemed to disappear in its depth.
‘What happened?’ I asked again.
She wouldn’t answer. She just waved the enquiry away with an impatient movement of her hand. Joe and I sat down, side by side.
‘You’re going to have to tell us,” I said.
‘We came all this way,’ Joe said.
‘I thought you were just visiting,’ she said.
‘No, you didn’t,’ I said.
They find out
She had broken her leg when a car hit her.
Then the X-ray revealed that she had cancer.
Nobody spoke for a long time.
‘But you already knew,’ I said.
She smiled at me, like she always did.
‘Yes, darling,’ she said. ‘I already knew.’
‘For how long?’
‘For a year,’ she said.
‘What sort of cancer?’ Joe said.
‘Every sort there is, now.’
‘Is it treatable?’
She just shook her head.
‘Was it treatable?’
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I didn’t ask.’
‘What were the symptoms?’
‘I had stomach aches. I had no appetite.’
‘Then it spread?’
‘Now I hurt all over. It’s in my bones. And this stupid leg doesn’t help.’
‘Why didn’t you tell us?’
She shrugged. Gallic, feminine, obstinate.
‘What was to tell?’ she said.
‘Why didn’t you go to the doctor?’
She didn’t answer for a time.
‘I’m tired,’ she said.
‘Of what?’ Joe said. ‘Life?’
She smiled. ‘No, Joe. I mean I’m tired. It’s late and I need to go to bed, is what I mean. We’ll talk some more tomorrow. I promise. Don’t let’s have a lot of fuss now.’
We let her go to bed. We had to. We had no choice. She was the most stubborn woman imaginable.
She's only sixty
The two brothers found her refrigerator “stocked with the kind of things
that wouldn’t interest a woman with no appetite.” They started talking.
‘What do you think?’ Joe asked me.
‘I think she’s dying,’ I said. ‘That’s why we came, after all.’
‘Can we make her get treatment?’
‘It’s too late. It would be a waste of time. And we can’t make her do anything. When could anyone make her do what she didn’t want to?’
‘Why doesn’t she want to?’
‘I don’t know.’
He just looked at me.
‘She’s a fatalist,’ I said.
‘She’s only sixty years old.’
She had made up her guest room with clean fresh sheets and towels and she had put flowers in bone china vases on the night stands. It was a small fragrant room full of two twin beds. I pictured her struggling around with her walker fighting with duvets, folding corners, smoothing things out.
We’re too late; she made sure
Next morning, their mother was still asleep when Jack went and got breakfast.
‘She’s committing suicide,’ Joe said. ‘We can’t let her.’
I said nothing.
‘What?’ he said. ‘If she picked up a gun and held it to her head, wouldn’t you stop her?’
I shrugged. ‘She already put the gun to her head. She pulled the trigger a year ago. We’re too late. She made sure we would be.’
‘We have to wait for her to tell us.’
She told us during a conversation that lasted most of the day.
We started over breakfast. She came out of her room, all showered and dressed and looking about as good as a terminal cancer patient with a broken leg and aluminium walker can. The way she took charge spooled us all backwards in time. Joe and I shrank back to skinny kids and she bloomed into the matriarch she had once been. A military wife and mother has a pretty hard time, and some handle it, and some don’t. She always had. Wherever we had lived had been home. She had seen to that.
First you live, then you die
‘I was ten when the Germans came to Paris. I thought that was the end of the world. I was fourteen when they left. I thought that was the beginning of a new one.’
‘Every day since then has been a bonus,’ she said. ‘I met your father, I had you boys, I travelled the world. I don’t think there’s a country I haven’t been to.’
‘I’m French,’ she said. ‘You’re American. There’s a world of difference. An American gets sick, she’s outraged. How dare that happen to her? She must have the fault corrected immediately, at once. But French people understand that first you live, and then you die. It’s not an outrage. It’s something that’s been happening since the dawn of time. It has to happen, don’t you see? If people didn’t die, the world would be an awfully crowded place by now.’
‘It’s about when you die,’ Joe said.
My mother nodded.
‘Yes, it is,’ she said. ‘You die when it’s your time.’
‘That’s too passive.’
Some battles can't be won
‘No, it’s realistic, Joe. It’s about picking your battles. Sure, of course you cure the little things. If you’re in an accident, you get yourself patched up. But some battles can’t be won. Don’t think I didn’t consider this whole thing very carefully. I read books. I spoke to friends. The success rates after the symptoms have already shown themselves are very poor. Five-year survival, ten per cent, twenty per cent, who needs it? And that’s after truly horrible treatments.’
We talked it through, from one direction, then from another. It was a discussion that should have happened a year ago. It was no longer appropriate.
I waited for Joe to ask the next obvious question.
‘Won’t you miss us, Mom?’ he asked.
‘Wrong question,’ she said. ‘I’ll be dead. I won’t be missing anything. It’s you that will be missing me. Like you miss your father. Like I miss him. Like I miss my father, and my mother, and my grandparents. It’s a part of life, missing the dead.’
We said nothing.
‘You’re really asking me a different question,’ she said. ‘You’re asking, how can I abandon you? You’re asking, aren’t I concerned with your affairs any more? Don’t I want to see what happens with your lives? Have I lost interest in you?’
We said nothing.
‘I understand,’ she said. ‘Truly, I do. I asked myself the same questions. It’s like walking out of a movie. Being made to walk out of a movie that you’re really enjoying. That’s what worried me about it. I would never know how it turned out. I would never know what happened to you boys in the end, with your lives. I hated that part. But then I realized, obviously I’ll walk out of the movie sooner or later. I mean, nobody lives for ever. I’ll never know how it turns out for you. I’ll never know what happens with your lives. Not in the end. Not even under the best of circumstances. I realized that. Then it didn’t seem to matter so much. It will always be an arbitrary date. It will always leave me wanting more.’
We sat quiet for a spell.
‘How long?’ Joe asked.
‘Not long,’ she said.
We said nothing.
‘You don’t need me any more,’ she said. ‘You’re all grown up. My job is done. That’s natural, and that’s good. That’s life. So let me go.’
We owe it to her
As she wanted, they went out to dinner.
[We rode a cab part of the way and then walked.] My mother wanted to. She was bundled up in a coat and she was hanging on our arms and moving slow and awkward. But I think she enjoyed the air.
We all ordered the same three courses. We ordered a fine red wine. But my mother ate nothing and drank nothing. She just watched us. There was pain showing on her face. Joe and I ate, self-consciously. She talked, exclusively about the past. But there was no sadness. She relived good times. She laughed.
‘Why didn’t you tell us a year ago?’ Joe asked.
‘You know why,’ she said.
‘Because we would have argued,’ I said.
‘It was a decision that belonged to me,’ she said.
Next morning when Jack woke up he heard Joe talking to the nurse.
She told me she was my mother’s private nurse, provided under the terms of an old insurance policy. She told me she normally came in seven days a week, but had missed the day before at my mother’s request. She told me my mother had wanted a day alone with her sons.
Later, Joe found Jack getting ready to leave.
‘You leaving?’ he said.
‘We both are. You know that.’
‘We should stay.’
‘We came. That’s what she wanted. Now she wants us to go.’
I nodded. ‘Last night [at dinner]. It was about saying goodbye. She wants to be left in peace now.’
‘You can do that?’
‘It’s what she wants. We owe it to her.’
[At breakfast] my mother had dressed in her best and was acting like a fit young woman temporarily inconvenienced by a broken leg. It must have taken a lot of will, but I guessed that was how she wanted to be remembered. We poured coffee and passed things to each other, politely. It was a civilized meal. Like we used to have, long ago. Like an old family ritual.
We left thirty minutes later. We hugged long and hard at the door and we told her we loved her, and she told us she loved us too and she always had. We left her standing there and went down in the tiny elevator and set out on the long walk back to get the airport bus. Our eyes were full of tears and we didn’t talk at all.
This is a slightly modified version of the original post, which you can find here.
As I devoured one Lee Child book after another, I got lost in the world of Jack Reacher. He is the Grim Reaper to those who dare to cross him. The large man has an equally large heart intent on doing the right thing. Given all the bone-crunching action in Reacher's world, this part in The Enemy, was a surprise.
With Lee Child's gracious permission I reproduced this extract as a tribute to my friends, especially those in palliative care, who deal with death in close proximity almost every day. They try to make every departure, always too soon, as comforting as the movie the dying must leave.
Thanks, Lee! Thanks, friends!
Yesterday was Valentine's Day. No, this is not a delayed post. For them dates did not matter, every day did.
Every evening her bed at the palliative care center would be wheeled out of the ward and positioned next to the garden. Then he would come, sit next to her, and hold her hands. That was all. And, for them, that was all that mattered.
He knew she didn’t have much time
Maybe she did too
That didn’t matter
That was out of their hands
The sun played hide and seek
With the leaves and the flowers
And people flowed around them
That didn’t matter
At times they spoke
Most times they didn’t
That didn’t matter
They still had each other
To love, to care for
That was in their hands
That was all that mattered
So they held hands, always.
“You are positive, please isolate yourself.” She was so shocked she involuntarily repeated what she had just heard over her mobile.
Those standing near and talking to her suddenly went silent and took a few steps back.
She had come a long way from home to this place of worship. A couple of personal tragedies had driven her here to find solace.
As she was escorted to an isolated room in an unoccupied section of the spacious devotees’ inn, she protested vigorously. There must be a mistake. I had tested as soon I arrived two weeks ago. After that I have been busy with the prayers. Never gave another sample. The caller had said the sample was drawn four days ago. How can that be mine? Do I really look sick to you?
The authorities were sympathetically firm. They would arrange for a test. She would pay for it. The food would be delivered to her door. She would stay in.
The caller got up from his chair and reached for a file. He flipped the pages until he located the name. “Here it is. There is no mistake. Wait a minute. What did you say your initials were? It is different here. Must be someone else. Sorry!” He disconnected. He had another call to make.
For the isolated woman, the cruelest blow was not being allowed to visit the main place of worship, a short walk away. She called a fellow devotee who had appeared sympathetic. Could he please take a photo and share with her during the evening and in the morning? She wanted to be there for the prayers but was not allowed to. At least the photos would make her feel close.
Night descended in the dimly lit wing of the inn. It turned cold. She remained stuck to her phone. The corridor echoed with her desperate narration as she reached out to friends and family many miles away.
Please don’t come back mother, her son said. He had an important examination coming up. I don’t think any virus will want to come near you, I should know, said the husband. He was never in favor of her coming to this place that did not preach his religion. She hoped they were both joking, just to keep her cheerful.
A couple had made plans to join an old lady on the way back the next day as they were staying in the same town. They had seen her talking to the “positive” one during lunch. Did she know she was infected? Why didn’t she tell them? The old lady said yes the report was positive, but…. The couple walked away. Later they would call the lady and tell her something had come up and they would leave early on their own. In the morning as the three waited at the gate for their respective cabs, the couple simply looked through the old lady standing right next to them.
Her new report arrived. There was no infection.
Later as she stood in prayer at her favorite place that gave her so much peace, she could not see the virus standing next to her. The virus was also praying.
“I have failed, God. You wanted me to cause fear and death. I did. You said that would make them see within and help one another. So that they could again be the humans you created.
“I held a mirror, as you wanted. They did not look. Lifeless numbers and evil plans are clouding their eyes. The thirst for destruction distracts them.
“I changed forms to smite them differently. To no avail. They would not revert. The loathing and the divisions are too strong. Those you made to be humane no longer cares to be.
“Please take me, God! I want to be back where there is love and compassion. I want to be back in your embrace. ”
What do you do when floods destroy your crops year after year? Well, in Baleshwar (or Balasore), they converted it to an opportunity and took to fish farming.
Last time I shared my thotshots from Jodhpur, Rajasthan. Now, far from the sand and the camels, I was in Odisha to cover the fishery development project of Nalanda Foundation.
At a place where people didn't just eat but practically lived fish, as a vegetarian, I was probably out of my depth. Yet, the locals were very happy to share their stories.
So, here is the second edition of Thotshots (personal thoughts, random shots) from Baleshwar, Odisha.
Nalanda Foundation used to spearhead the CSR activities of the IL&FS group of companies. I had the opportunity to see the idea of sustainable development in action during my brief association with Nalanda.
My work involved occasional visits to project sites to get a first-hand feel for all my writing. Beyond the official, my notes and camera would also capture whatever caught my interest. I would share these “Thotshots” (personal thoughts and random shots) with the team after every trip.
Here are some thotshots from my visit to Jodhpur in October 2017.
This was one of the few families who were resettled to accommodate the solar project. It was a task to get the wife to come out and be photographed. It was even tougher to get father, mother, and daughter to stand relatively close to one another. A wise soul whispered in my ear: “They consider it bad luck to be photographed.” Please take note, selfie-crazy world!
It is not unusual to find both mother and daughter(s) in the same class here. Most of them were married off when they were still children and became mothers before they could understand what marriage was all about. The project helped them resume education and regain confidence. Education apart, they were here for love and for togetherness without any discrimination.
I am a carrom board. Just a piece of wood. Happy to help.
They enjoy playing on me, whenever they can, wherever they can—in the corridor, on the lawn or in a room.
When they are all around me, playing or encouraging the players, you can’t tell the patients from the family.
Of course, if you were around the day I was on the tray table and you found them applauding every feeble strike that just managed to touch a coin, you would have known that they were trying to cheer up the once-brilliant high-school teacher on the bed, who was depressed because now she could not even manage to teach her 10-year old son.
Otherwise, who is patient, whose patient, who is family, whose family—these are all irrelevant questions.
One of my players once described me more philosophically. We are all helpless coins, she said. Every pocket is a state of mind: joy, anger, sorrow, and acceptance. The striker is not in your control, and no one knows where you will land next.
I don’t understand all that. I am a piece of wood, just a game that may help you forget tomorrow and live today. I am just happy to help.
Originally written some years ago for the Cipla Palliative Care and Training Centre, Pune.
Does your cure end with your surgery, dressing your wound or restarting your heart? Or is that just the beginning of your recovery? Guess what, they don’t teach recovery and convalescence in medical school.
“Many of my tutors seemed to assume that once a crisis of illness has passed, the body and mind find ways to heal themselves,” Dr Gavin Francis, the author of Recovery: The Lost Art of Convalescence recently wrote in The Guardian. “But nearly 20 years as a GP has shown me time and again that the reverse is true: guidance and encouragement through the process of recovery can be indispensable.”
Dr Mazda Turel, a neurosurgeon, agrees. “We are not taught this in medical school,” he says. “But if you are attuned enough as a student while you sit in the clinic or OPD with your mentor you can learn it from your teachers in the way they respond to a patient’s needs in the recovery phase, from their ability to patiently answer umpteen questions (most of them repetitive). Eventually you imbibe care and concern, and that’s enough.”
Dr E K Ramanandan, a senior ayurveda physician too thinks most doctors pick up on their own how to help a patient through recovery.
Dr Nagesh Simha, Medical Director at Karunashraya, considers helping the patient and family through recovery a matter of compassion. “Yes, the doctor’s personal values matter. However, I believe compassion is something that can and ought to be taught.”
Recovery matters in an infected world
As new strains of coronavirus continue to give us all a physical and emotional pounding, the concepts of recovery and convalescence require deeper contemplation.
Convalescence is anything but passive. It’s an action that needs us “to be present, to engage, to give of ourselves.”
Anyone who has been through the viral infection is aware of the fatigue that follows. Physiotherapists encourage those in post-viral recovery to push the limits of physical effort. Else, “sufferers can become trapped in a cycle of effort followed by collapse,” with each collapse requiring lesser effort.
Recovery must act in concert with natural processes. Florence Nightingale believed that “nature alone cures.” She said what nursing had to do was to “put the patient in the best condition for nature to act upon him.” Nature's healing touch apart, people recover more quickly if they think their physician is sympathetic and there for them.
Dr Simha remembers the time he was recovering after a major surgery. “There I was, flat on the bed and everyone would be looking down upon me. Except for one doctor who always made it a point to sit so that he could have a conversation at my level. That made a big difference.”
“Every illness is unique,” Dr Francis points out. It follows every recovery is unique too. There is no easy solution or a formula. “It’s a landscape we all have to visit sooner or later. From time to time, we all need to learn the art of convalescence.”
Thou shall not abandon
AETCOM, a manual on attitude, ethics and communication published by the Medical Council of India for the Indian medical graduate, cites a case study. It is a letter to the oncologist from the husband of a patient who succumbed to breast cancer. Here is the gist.
“As you may recall, Alka was diagnosed with breast cancer 5 years ago. We rushed to you knowing your reputation as a talented oncologist and we were not disappointed. Your aggressive approach to the disease made all the difference. Alka beat the disease and she lived disease-free for 2 years. We were very happy and still are very grateful to you.
“Then the disease came back with a vengeance. Even at this time you did not give up hope and took on the disease like a warrior but then there came a time that it was clear that the disease had won. We were devastated.
“Alka looked up to you as a doctor to provide her with support, but it looked like that you were unable to confront the failure. While you did prescribe pain medications and your office helped us find a home nurse, you were reluctant to meet Alka or talk to her. When we called for appointments, your office would tell us to contact our family doctor for pain medications.
“When we did get to see you, you would not even look at Alka’s eyes. You would distractedly talk to her, refill her pain medications and dismiss us quickly. It was as if we were seeing a different doctor than the one we had seen when all was well. And when Alka was admitted to the hospital where she breathed her last you would not even come and see her.
“We made so many requests for you to come and visit with her. I even called and told you that it would mean so much for her to see you before she departs but you did not. Would it have been too much for you to come and hold her hand for a minute or say a kind word?
“We come to you not with the expectation that a cure is always possible but always with the expectation that you will support us in coping with the disease and the tremendous effects it has on our lives. We don't always expect you to succeed but we always expect you to show us care and compassion. You abandoned Alka and us at the time we needed you most. You, sir, abandoned us when we were most vulnerable.”
Some of the best communicators I have met have taught me that you are truly big when you communicate small. You get up from your plush designation, push aside the corporate façade, slide down the hierarchy banister and stoop to talk and connect with a simple, solitary individual.
There was this owner of a group of companies, a true monarch of the market. He would look everyone in the eye, greet by name and enquire about the immediate family. Last I ran into him, some four years after our last meeting, cruel circumstances had reduced the monarch to a pauper. But he still greeted me by name, asked about my wife by name, named both my sons and correctly guessed their grade. He remains a communication king in my heart.
Of course, not everyone is blessed with that kind of memory. However, if you think it is important to communicate small, you will find a way.
The CEO of one of the country’s largest companies used his secretary and his laptop to communicate small, big time. I helped him with a few templates. Just by adding a name and changing a few words, he would convert each into a very personal communication to suit every occasion—from congratulations to condolences. Before he started a telephone conversation or his secretary ushered in a visitor, his database would bring up the gist of their last exchange—personal and professional.
Goes to show you can’t blame technology for the all-pervading disconnect. Use it right and it can help you connect—if it matters to you.
True healing touch
She was not just a doctor, but a demigod. I was sceptical. She treated the same diseases and prescribed the same drugs as every other doctor. Yet, people loved her and stayed put in her waiting room for hours. Why?
I realized the magic was not in her stethoscope when I was with one of her patients. She was 30 minutes late and my friend was in serious pain. Just then, he received a call. It was the doctor. She apologized, explained the delay, and told him when she would reach. That call acted like a placebo. My friend settled down comfortably for a longer wait.
That doctor’s reputation and her healing touch was as much in her prescription as in the small, thoughtful communications like that one-minute call.
Back the pat
Talking of calls, I can never forget the Monday when I got one from a very senior executive of a client organization. My regular contact was about five levels down the hierarchy, so this was a surprise. He told me that the presentation I had helped his team make was very impressive and did its job well. That one-minute call made my week.
The irony? My contact never bothered with mundane things like feedback. Unless, of course, I had made a Himalayan blunder. Or what was needed yesterday till a minute ago, was now required the previous week.
Months later, when I ran into the big boss, I told him how his call had had such a positive impact on me. He had no clue what I was talking about. But he shared a secret. “Someone told me a long time ago that you should never miss an opportunity to pat someone on the back for a genuine reason. And you must do it without delay. I just try to follow that always.”
Back the pat to work wonders.
Grace under complaint
I wish my bank would grow up to be big one day. I had emailed a complaint about a wrong charge. When there was no response even a week after the promised 48 hours, I followed their protocol and took up the issue with “higher authorities.”
Four days later, someone from my branch called. “Did you check your account before you escalated the problem?” he sounded very irritated with me. “The issue was resolved two days before you complained higher up.” But no one told me the problem had been resolved. Else I would not have bothered to escalate the issue. And am I supposed to monitor my account every minute?
“When you escalate any issue, the branch must answer. I have to answer.” Did he want me to apologize? “You should understand customer complaint emails are handled by a different department,” he growled.
All he had to do was tell me the issue was resolved. Instead, he made it amply clear that me the small customer was being a nuisance to him, the busy boss of a big bank packed with so many departments.
Talk beyond script
My internet service provider, on the other hand, is beginning to cheer me up. I am used to tiring cut-paste email responses and scripted answers when I post a complaint. This time I had almost given up even before sending an email.
Surprise! A live human being, who knew my name and my problem called up to admit they had not figured out a solution yet. Two days later, he called again to say that the company had sorted out the issue and went on to share his personal number, in case I faced the problem again.
Admitting a problem, taking the initiative to make a call and conducting a conversation with a small, solitary customer, without a script. Yes, my ISP has suddenly grown big in my eyes.
Maybe it helps to have a degree in language. However, effective communication often requires simple schooling in making a proactive connection.
A version of this was first published here on February 15, 2017.
If we reach it before we are ready, our destination can unsettle us. All of us alive have the same destination—death. When we realise it creeping upon us, many of us are not ready to disembark. That is when we need the ashraya (shelter) of karuna (compassion) to help us cope and to let go in peace.
Karunashraya, the palliative care centre in Bengaluru has just published Crossing Over, a collection of 35 stories of people whose journeys so ended. It is about how the proximity of that ending affected those who had to leave, those they left behind and the compassionate team at Karunashraya.
When it comes to palliative care, there are courses and experts but no easy answers. There is no room for judgment, but frustration thrives. A gentle touch or a patient ear often helps to ease the pain as effectively as an opioid.
Life matters until it is. The idea is to ensure comfort and facilitate closure. Every palliative care professional tries to practice detached attachment. Yet, it is never easy. There is no shutter you can pull down at the end of the day. They must share the tears and fears of one patient after another, day after day. This book is as much a tribute to them as they are about those they care for.
As Atul Gawande, the famous writer and surgeon put it, “In the end, people don’t view their life as merely the average of all its moments. Life is meaningful because it is a story. And in stories, endings matter.”
Read this book. Because we are all living our stories. You will find no morals in the pages of Crossing Over. You will find acceptance. And gratitude for those who make the ending matter.
When what used to be your home is destroyed by the rising waters, nothing can ever be “normal” again. The residents of Chiplun, one of the places in Maharashtra that drowned in July, can never forget those days.
Yes, help arrived soon. To feed, clothe and rebuild. But how do you rebuild your mind? Especially when you are a teacher who is responsible for shaping minds and lives?
That was the prime motivation for Vaijayanti Thakar, always ready to help others cope and heal, to conduct a workshop for a group of teachers on August 26, 2021.
What follows is based on the information and emotions shared by her.
Bundles of joy and sorrow
Some of the teachers had already resumed work. Some were visiting children at home. They were all making a good effort to be normal. They were all dressed well—in clothes that were borrowed or had been donated.
We started with a prayer to the Sun. “Please rise again every day.” It was a plea. It was an expression of hope.
After they had settled down, I began with a story.
There were two women in a village. Both faced similar situations. Violent, alcoholic husband, not much to eat. Yet, one was always sullen while the other was happy. The sullen one could not stand it any longer. “Why?” she asked the other. After everyone goes to sleep, the happy one said, I sit before the idol and pray that everyone should be happy.
The sullen one tried the same thing, nothing seemed to happen. Then the sullen one had a dream. She was walking towards a light coming from far. She reached a cave that had several bundles. And a beautiful woman sitting on a throne. She was the source of the light.
“I am the servant who looks after these bundles of joy and sorrow,” the one who looked like a princess said. The sullen woman opened her bundles. There was hardly any joy. But the other woman, her bundle of joy was so heavy. What was the difference?
They both had had similar experiences. They were both unwanted children because they were girls. Yet the other was happy with her mother’s love whenever she was held close and fed. Yes, her father would beat her. But she remembered the times he would hold her close. The clothes she got occasionally were all old and torn but she was happy to get clothes. She loved the moments she spent with her children.
Story over, I requested all of them to congratulate themselves. You have suffered so much, yet you have emerged strong, ready to teach again.
It was time for the “trust walk”. I requested them to choose a partner who was a relative stranger. One would be blindfolded and had to totally trust the partner to lead her right.
The floods too had presented a situation where they quickly realized whom they could trust. Calamity or not, we must learn to trust. And we have to teach our children, our families to trust, to help one another.
Then I invited each to share her feelings. There was anger, there were tears. I let it all flow, without interruption.
“I … my child … no. I can’t speak.” One of the other teachers filled in for her. “She has a six-month old child. When her building got flooded, she picked up her child and went up to the terrace. It was impossible to go back down the stairs. The terrace did not have a parapet. There was a tin roof which was somehow holding up against the howling wind and lashing rain. She held the child close to her chest and stood there in the dark for 28 hours.”
Another teacher said, “All of us had moved up to the upper floor but the water kept rising. We decided to abandon our house. We used a ladder and went to the adjoining house. There were about eight of us, including children. Then we all went to the terrace of that house. We could see various things floating away but we were numb. Our only thought was that we had managed to save ourselves. There we stood for more than 24 hours.”
For another, it was time to realize what really mattered when everything was at stake. She took her jewellery and money and put it on the floor above. Then she decided to move some grains and, like a true teacher, some books also. Then it occurred to her that her life was more precious. Everything else could be earned or bought again. She was happy to get out of it alive. But the next time?
Get it all out
I asked them to write down all their thoughts, their fears. To let their anger flow. Forget you are teachers and supposed to be role models. Use the worst swear words you know. This is for yourself.
At the end of it, we collected all the pages they had written in and set those on fire.
Then they were given pillows. I encouraged them to hit the pillows. Let all the anger come out, transfer the pain to the pillows. There were giggles to start with and just light taps on the pillows. Soon, the mood changed. There were tears, screams. Some just could not continue.
We ended with a meditation session. Soothing, calming and, hopefully, rejuvenating.
There was a lot more to do. But, right now, it was time for a fresh start.
The sun will rise again. We must too.
Vaijayanti Thakar may be contacted at email@example.com