Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Wistful no more…

I go through life often wistful about books I have piled up to read and have not gotten to, movies I have not watched, places in my local town I have not explored. I decided to change everything with an experience I had last Thursday.

I had two great gals over for dinner and decided to treat them to Indian fare at home. I made Masala dosa, Sambar, Idlis, Ragada patties and bought, Pakoras, Samosas and Rasmalai from the store. I had an array of chutneys and pickles to accompany said dishes. For the Iranian woman the experience was akin to one in the movie Babette’s feast. She had never tasted any of these dishes before, but loved the dance on her palate from this new culinary experience. The other woman, Jewish from Russia, was steeped in nostalgia given the time she had spent living and studying in India.

Over dinner, we discovered we were all foodies. I also learnt that I knew much less about the food experiences in the City than them, even though I have lived here 25 years and they, for a fraction of that time. I learnt two things from these venturesome women that relates to the theme of this blog. That you can live life, grabbing it in fistfuls, no matter the limitation of your surroundings. You can go a step further and actually use your lifestyle to explore the glories of what your surroundings have to offer.

These women walk or use public transit. On foot they have discovered hidden gems in the City’s nooks and crannies. Be it, Masala Chai at Kabul Express for a dollar, or Firni at Afghan Village. I learnt where you get the best Iranian dried fruits, halvas and baklava and the list just went on. I sat and listened in amazement, knowing how unimaginative I was when it came to eating out. My vegetarianism did not have to limit me I realised, there was so much out there to explore. Same went for the books I read and the movies I watched. While I yearned for many textured experiences, I took the path of least resistance with a bland approach, reading popular fiction, watching formulaic movies and eating at the same three places when we ventured out.

I realised that a little effort could go a long way to enhance my experiences. I have decided to make a ritual of exploring one new and different sensory experience every week. Yesterday, I watched an amazing Malayalam movie. I recalled the language from my days spent in Kerala and just revelled in the nostalgia of those wonderful experiences. It was artsy with a tragic end, but I realised I could take it, even though it was a departure from the Hollywood/Bollywood fare I had grown accustomed to watching.

This week I plan to explore Kensington Market and next week, South East Asian cuisines in the food court at Markham Village. I am also making a reading list of books from around the world and of world cinema, besides checking out literary events, book readings, film festivals and screenings.

At MCIS we are launching a book called Food for Language – on the theme of food and how people from diverse and multilingual backgrounds leverage its power to heal. Recognising the City’s diversity to explore cultural experiences may be the next logical step for an interesting project that would mean so much to people like me who live in their little silos?! And of course, this is true of any place in the world? That we just need a little effort and imagination to move outside our beaten paths...

Masala dosa – Indian savoury pancakes with potato filling
Sambar - lentil soup
Idlis - steamed rice savoury cakes
Ragada patties - Potato Patties with Chana (chick peas) masala
Pakoras – deep fried onion and flour savory
Rasmalai - milk sweet with cottage cheese

On death and dying

Today my thoughts were on death and dying. Dr. Donald Low died recently. The news channels are all agog with discussions about a video his family has posthumously released where he has advocated Assisted Suicide for people hurtling towards an inevitable and often painful death. In his case a debilitating terminal brain tumour.

Then, there was the news that Fairfax Financial's (FF) Prem Watsa, hitherto newly resigned Blackberry board member, had put in a bid for FF to take Blackberry private, ostensibly to retain its Canadian ownership, but in my mind, heralding its imminent death.

Both news items struck a chord for similar and vastly different reasons. Both enjoyed their glory days. They were rock stars on Canada's stage, one the voice of reason amidst the frightening SARS epidemic and the other the digital device of the world's elite. But all rock stars have their end and sometimes tragic ones as in the lives of these two. Canada's laws would not allow Dr. Low to end his life painlessly as he had wanted to, surrounded by his family, after his favourite meal and a glass of scotch, his wife said. Instead, his end came gasping for breath in her arms, mercifully a mere ten days after the taping of that video. Blackberry too, chronically ill for two years, may be spared protracted dying. However it is hard to imagine its clean finish once it goes private, when its 2 billion in cash reserves and hundreds of patents are prime sources of attraction for its the prospective buyer – sadly, not the future revival of a Canadian icon.

It is always a source of amazement to me, as has been echoed by Hindu sages and philosophers of yore, that we live feeling so disconnected from death and the process of dying. We honestly do not believe it could happen to us anytime soon. Even when we rationally know it will, we do not stop to think how it will come. Therefore, most of us are unable or unwilling to sympathize with Dr. Low's plea. Not surprising then that we would do the same with Blackberry even as we watched its share value go from 80 billion dollars 2 years ago, to its present 4 billion, the asking price.

Is it that we live somewhat deluded, with a false sense of hope and comfort cocooned in platitudes which have no substance? We could remove these false security traps and be more actively present, actually listening. In the case of Blackberry this would have meant its management owning up to its fate 2 years ago and reinventing itself more aggressively to take on the firmament populated by Android and Apple devices, or selling it, thereby bringing a dignified end to Blackberry as we have come to know and love it. Having said this, it is no surprise to me that we approach the externalities of life just as we approach the relationship to our bodies, its inevitable death, and the process of dying!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Thoughts of an empty nester

I met Ann today after 12 years. At that time she had just graduated with a Masters in Social Work and had come to work at MCIS on a project. She had always been interested in issues of equity and access for vulnerable newcomer populations and so we worked well together. Ann continues to be soft spoken, humble, understated and thoughtful, notwithstanding a PhD from Brown, an Associate Professorship, twins and a good life with her lawyer husband who is a partner at one of Canada's largest law firms. Ann and her husband are shining examples of kids born to immigrant parents, who knew the struggle and the hardship of surviving without English and who continue to live within their ethnic communities, their only contact with the mainstream through their highly successful children.

Over a lunch of sandwiches from Panera Bread, Ann told me that her most recent work is on the condition of immigrant seniors - their social isolation and their preponderance in the ranks of the poor. This is particularly true of widowed or single seniors, she said. I had a moment of pause imagining life in a "silent world", the result of isolation and language barriers, where income security is sometimes not a guarantee.

The immigrant senior’s story goes something like this. Parents leave their home countries to be with their adult children. They help them out with babysitting. When the grandchildren no longer need their caregiving, they experience a loss of identity from not being “relevant” anymore in an alien culture. Their well- meaning children are preoccupied with the stresses of a competitive work environment which makes ever increasing demands on them. Within this new economy, these children are perpetually adapting and proving themselves to be assets. Due to mechanization and the need for up -skilling, they fear becoming obsolescent. (Richard Sennett, The Culture of the New Capitalism (2006)). Within this reality, the uncertainty and inability to conceive of a life narrative is further compounded for immigrant seniors.

My thoughts turned to me. Having hit fifty, I am not too far off from becoming a senior. However, my story has a slightly different trajectory. I am an educated professional with a fulfilling career. My experiences are as an empty nester now and god knows what in the future. I already feel that emotional void from not mothering as I would like to. Ironically, with social media there is less meaningful contact with our children than in the past. I remember when I got married I spent several hours writing long letters to my family back home, relaying in detail what I ate, saw or cooked. I wanted them to witness my life and to share my experiences, notwithstanding the thousands of miles between us. Now with the barrage of information, the paradigm has shifted. Our youth are preoccupied sharing with thousands of people in online communities. We don’t enjoy the privilege of living vicariously through them and of sharing in most of their experiences. We cannot make demands on them for that would mean overcrowding their cyber world interactions. It would also mean laying on the guilt which we do not want to be accused of doing?! We cannot even get them to acknowledge our stories sometimes. And yet we want to be relevant in their lives and wonder how or if we should even strive to? Above all, if today’s seniors are unable to script their lives’ narratives, what on earth will our lot be? We can probably read tea leaves before we know what will become of us in a decade or so, in a world where technology makes us more isolated as we age? Or else, will we be leveraging it to our advantage? We will make our online communities real ones, supplanting our face to face interactions with facebook “likes”? Really?

My mind was spinning out of control, when Ann’s calm voice brought me back to the present. “Our studies have found that immigrant seniors are extremely resilient…” her reassuring voice trailed.

After Ann left I was still moping wondering how I was going to build my resilience for this uncertain future, when I saw an email from my daughter. She was filling me in on everything that was going on in her life. She also said " I enjoy your emails and chat notes so keep them coming". Well, that changed everything...

Friday, September 6, 2013

My dad’s passing

My Journal on the day of my father’s passing

December 4, 2004 – Appa passes away

I type these words on my laptop as I maintain vigil in the hospital room beside my father, who struggles with what may be his last breaths. These are moments of sheer agony, of not knowing when his end will come and how. His kidneys stopped functioning the night before last. The doctors confirmed our worst fears yesterday, when they pointed out that he had no output at all i.e. no urine had collected in the bag attached to his catheter. I left the laptop now for a few moments to be beside him when he woke up with a shudder. I reassured him that I was right beside him, that I loved him and was there for him. He has heard me utter those words so often these past few days that he acknowledges them each time with a barely perceptible nod. His right eye is closed as he lies there, the oxygen mask fitted to his face, his right cheek resting on the pillow. It is 4 p.m. and time for his soup, which Amma will lovingly prepare and the special duty nurse feed through the Riles Tube that is attached to his right nostril. He receives a feed every 2 hours between 6 a.m. and 12 midnight. The doctor has asked us to continue with the feeds, even though his kidneys have stopped eliminating waste and the toxins are building up in his body. We still hope his kidneys will miraculously start functioning with the diuretics and saline solutions that are intravenously entering his body. Even from 5 feet away I can see that his half opened left eye is one of a pair of the kindest eyes known to man. I choke up when I think that in a few hours those beautiful eyes and that fragrant body would have left our side and been reduced to ashes. While we have been steeling ourselves for this moment and have shed all the tears we could possibly shed, Appa struggles valiantly with the ominous rattle in his throat, his breathing getting heavier by the minute.


Appa breathed his last that night at exactly 8:50 p.m. His end did not happen as we had anticipated. As a last ditch effort, we gave Appa his nebulizer and a couple of broncho dilators with his 6:00 p.m. feed of rice congee and yoghurt. His lung capacity measured at just 70%. His pressure dropped from 130/90 to 100/50 and his pulse rate was over 130 per minute. Family and friends gathered around, as though preparing for the worst. At 7:30 p.m. Amma and I saw the last of our relatives off. We settled down nervously to what we thought would be a very long night. We sat beside him and held his hand to soothe him, murmuring words of comfort and love as we had done over the past 45 days in that very same hospital room. Appa had endured a lifetime of suffering over that time. While the radiation had reduced the tumours, they had weakened his lungs. In addition, his inability to swallow had resulted in aspiration into his lungs which had then become clogged with secretions. After 4 bouts of chronic bronchitis treated each time with antibiotics and broncho dilators and alarming fluctuations in his sugar levels, as a result of a diabetic condition that had remained nascent till the cancer reared its head, his toiling kidneys had finally given up.

Suddenly, Appa’s special duty nurse pointed out that the oxygen supply that came through the pipeline had diminished and that we should alert the hospital to replenish the cylinder at source. I ran out into the corridor. The night duty nurse at the hospital got on the phone with the ward boys and yelled to them to replace the cylinder at the central oxygen repository. Barely, 2 minutes had passed, but for one who was hysterical with worry, it seemed like an aeon. Amma came running into the corridor. Wanting to check on Appa, I ran back into the room, and after one look at the special duty nurse, I knew all was not well. His pressure was coming down, his pulse erratic, his breathing ragged, laboured and then slowly giving way. The pauses between breaths were interminable and I suddenly saw Appa’s body heave, his eyes open wide, as he raised his head and his arms before collapsing onto the bed. I held his hand and knew his end had come. I ran out found Amma and in a calm voice said to her “its all over”. However, when we rushed back into the room, there was still some mild cardiac activity. By now the oxygen supply had resumed and the mask was once again fitted back on his nose. The duty doctor who arrived on the scene some 30 seconds later asked if we wished to revive Appa. Even in that dazed state, I realized that the question was an academic one. Appa was gone and the mild beating of his heart, while it may have spelt life to some, was just a mechanical movement in a body and brain that were already inert. I am still upset with the hospital for its negligence in delaying replacing the oxygen tank. But in some ways that event resulted in a merciful end to untold suffering.

I mourn my father. The day he died, Amma had a vision of a huge lion with a wide mane, curling its tail and bolting out of our home to never return. I share her vision.