I sit by my grandmother in the hospital room. She’s out of the ICU, finally. But she is weak and in pain.
She raises a shaking hand, motions for my aunt.
“I want to go,” she says in Hindi. For some reason, I can fully understand her. Anybody else in that language, no.
I reach over and hold her hands in mine. Her skin, always so soft. Those very hands that welcomed me into this world. That held me close. The hands that raised me when I was a little boy.
“Barimummy,” I say, using the name I gave to her as a child. Literally translated, it means: Big Mom.
She turns her face to me slowly. My Big Mom. Her body so tiny in the hospital bed.
“Where do you want to go?” I ask in English.
“Bhagwan ke ghar,” she says. God’s house.
She wants to go be with God. The word Bhagwan, said with such tenderness and reverence, it makes me think of love and creation and the very Universe itself wrapped into one.
“Mummy,” my aunt says, stroking my grandmother’s forehead. “You will get better and we will take you home and I will wash your hair.”
As far back as I can remember, her hair was always white and long and flowing. She, the wise one. The one everyone loved. The one the neighbors came to for advice. The one everyone trusted.
“Guess what?” I point to my head and grin for effect. “Our hair is similar.”
Last time she saw me, I had short hair, reminiscent of the high and tight from my Army days. This time, it’s a big shock of white everywhere. She laughs, taking my aunt by surprise. It’s the first time she has laughed in the hospital.
The next day, when I return to the hospital, my mother and aunt are in the room, both reading out loud from a book in Sanskrit. My Grandmother seems to be sleeping.
I motion to my mother. “Shouldn’t we be quiet, let her rest?”
“We are reading the Gita,” my aunt says. “It is what we are supposed to do for her.”
“It’s tradition, beta,” my mother says. She looks so tired. “When a person is dying, it is important to do this.”
I nod, feeling foolish, and sit and listen. When they finish, a thought occurs to me.
“Can I read it to her?”
“Of course,” my mother says. “I’ll buy an English version for you tonight.”
I smile. In my pocket is the world’s largest library. I pull out my iPhone, fire up Safari, and a minute later, have an English version ready to go. My aunt reviews it, then satisfied, tells me to read Chapter eighteen. The title: Final Revelations of the Ultimate Truth.
I go and stand by my grandmother’s bed. She raises a shaking hand up to me. She is ready. My first time ever with this ancient text. I start fast, my voice stumbling.
“Asked Arjuna, I want to know the truth,
and also about sacrifice.”
My grandmother closes her eyes softly.
“All of these acts should be performed
renouncing the attachment to the fruit of actions.”
I don’t have to look up from my phone. I can feel her listening.
“Without aversion to unpleasant work
and without attachment to pleasant work,
the renouncer is intelligent and free
from all doubts.”
I slow down and find my pace. I’m no longer stumbling. I read out loud. When I finish, her eyes are still closed. Her face, calm. And I am in awe. I’ve just read fundamental human truths on happiness, on right action, on giving one’s all to their task without attachment to outcome. It’s also about letting go and giving up to something greater than yourself.
This is a gift I’ve been given, I realize, to take part in an ancient ritual of helping a loved one cross to the other side. I read it to her one more time the day I leave.
My last memory of her is the darkened hospital room. The rhythmic beep of the heart monitor, the white sheets over her tiny body, the oxygen mask on her face. I stand by her side. She knows I’m leaving. She raises a hand and places it over my head, blessing me. The effort tires her out. Hand drops, eyes close.
I kiss her forehead, walk to the door and watch her for a long time. My mind is a numb echo. Then I walk back and kiss her forehead again. I think I repeat this twice.
“It’s time to go,” my aunt says gently. “Your flight will leave.”
I nod and give her a hug, then walk out the room, take the elevator down to the ground floor, past the sleepy guard, and on to the waiting car, then the hotel, a glass of white wine by the garden in the musty Delhi air, and off to the airport, and on to the plane, seatbelts, wheels up, and as I stare out the window to the night, I think of my grandmother taking in her remaining breaths on this planet. A sudden exhaustion sucks me in and I fall asleep.
She passes away two days after I return to the U.S. For the first several weeks, I wake up from dreams of her, crying. There was one point in the hospital room, when it was just her and I, me standing by her side and holding her hand, and I felt her drop.
Something in her started to go. The oxygen saturation monitor started beeping. I held tighter. There was nothing to do. We’d spoken with the doctors, it was her time, and no measures would be taken.
I held and she dropped and I held tighter and she dropped and I felt my chest squeeze from the inside. The monitor beeped louder. And then, just as fast as it’d happened, it stopped. Her breathing became regular. She started to rise. But my heart squeezed and squeezed.
I’d wake up to that memory, crying. Wishing I could have done something to take away her pain. You hold a hand, you hold it tight, you give it all the love you got. Everything. But sometimes, that is not enough.
Sometimes, life has its own plan and it has run its course. Do we hold on for ourselves or for the one whose time has come? Ourselves, I suspect.
It’s been over a month. I don’t wake up crying anymore. Besides, if she saw me this way, she’d lovingly smack me upside the head and tell me to stop being silly and find a great girl and get married. Thinking of her doing that always makes me laugh.
I remember her, this amazing human being who was such an influence in my life, and I smile, and I feel, for lack of better words, a depth of gratitude.
And that’s what love transforms into when the person is gone. Gratitude.
The novel I’ve spent the last few years working on is finally coming out. Based on my life, it’s a story about love, forgiveness, and following your heart.
If you pre-order it, that would mean the world to me. It’s available online here: