Dedicated to my beloved late mother-in-law and father-in-law

My wife and her siblings were kids when their dad passed away immediately after his open-heart surgery at Mayo Hospital in Minnesota. He was 42. His surgeon was Dr Walton Lillehei, one of the topmost heart specialists in the world at the time.

My beloved late mom-in-law, Moti Mummy as she was known in the family, was just 34 at the time. She had not accompanied her husband on his fateful journey. His brother-in-law had gone instead and completed the last rites in America itself. My ma-in-law was not asked if she wanted to go, either before the trip or after his demise. The logistics were too much to handle. Anyway, these things had not even been seriously considered. A woman, especially a daughter-in-law, was not supposed to be seen or heard in traditional Indian households those days. A widow with 4 children? Well, her vocal cords were cremated along with her husband. It was just the way things were done then.

My in-laws were well off. My wife’s father adored his family and kept his wife ‘on the palm of his hand’, as they snidely say in India. But his death changed a lot of things for his family. In one cruel stroke, destiny made them dependents and poor cousins to the rest of the family.

Moti Mummy took refuge in constant prayer. People remember her as the quiet lady in a white saree walking to and from the temple twice a day, head bowed and back bent. Her prayers did pay off eventually but it took a long time and a heavy toll on her and her kids.

My wife was apparently her dad’s favourite and he had wanted to send her to America to study. It was therefore a given that my wife and I would somehow reach America, which we did in January 2001.

Within the first few months, my in-laws came to visit us from India. From the moment she arrived home, Moti Mummy would sit in the bedroom alone and cry quietly for long periods of time, many times in the darkness of the night. She had finally reached the land where her husband had died, the land where she should have been beside him at the end. His passing had left an open wound which had never been allowed to heal or even hurt fully. We are not sure whether she had cried enough at the time or mourned his passing adequately. His passing had passed her by.

And now, more than three decades later, the wound had become free to open again, to hurt and burn as it should have been allowed to then. We did not try to stop or soothe her or even talk her out of it.

My wife had already called up Mayo Hospital to take permission to visit their premises just to see the place where their dad breathed his last. The permission was readily granted and we were asked to present ourselves at the reception desk on the appointed day. We thought we would just look around the hospital, sit there for some time, think of our dad and show ourselves out.

We were not prepared for what happened next.

At the hospital, a lady met us at the reception desk and ushered us to a conference room a couple of floors above. There were several people there including a doctor. All of them were very kind and courteous as they greeted us warmly. A senior looking lady introduced herself and the others, coming last to the doctor who was standing beside a whiteboard. One of us was constantly explaining the proceedings to Mummy.

I don’t remember the Doctor’s name now but he had been a junior intern or apprentice in Dr Lillehei’s extended team those days! We were in the presence of one of the persons who had last seen my father-in-law alive, who had probably touched him, checked his temperature, taken his pulse and talked to him. I think that was the moment when we all started crying.

The hospital had brought up the folder containing the papers and notes about my father-in-law’s case which was passed around. Most of the notes were in Dr Lilliehei’s own writing and we touched the papers reverently again and again, feeling our dad and his heartbeat in those scrawled lines.

In the meantime, the doctor had drawn a heart on the whiteboard and as he consulted the papers, he explained the surgery to us. Through our tears, he answered our questions patiently and carefully, paying full attention to them. And above all, there was the kindness and the dignity accorded to us for an event that had occurred over 35 years ago.

Our hearts were full of grief and the tears were just unstoppable as we tried to imagine what had happened. Moti Mummy just sat there, her small kerchief clutched to her mouth as she sobbed her heart out. Like all of us, she was also probably thinking that Dad had been all alone when he was taken away and how frightening all this must have been for him in an alien land, among unfamiliar people speaking in an accent that he couldn’t understand.

Later, we shook the doctor’s hand, folding our hands in gratitude, thanking him through our tears, acutely aware that we were touching the same hand that may have touched our dad. We sat for a few minutes and then prepared to leave. But Mayo Hospital was not done with us.

They informed us that somebody would accompany us to the very operating room where he had breathed his last. It was a children’s room now but they had already got it cleared and would show us where the surgery bed was placed when he passed.

I think anything that we had in store broke in that room. It was almost as if we could close our eyes and imagine him there, in the hospital gown with the wires and tubes attached to him, helplessly alone and afraid, far away from the family that he loved so much. We held each other as we cried without reservation, hugging Mom again and again, crying, crying, crying till we had nothing left inside.

Spent and exhausted, we were shown out but our pilgrimage was not over yet.

The hospital had given us the name and directions to the Lakewood Cemetery where Dad’s cremation and last rites had been performed. It had happened a long time back and we did not expect to find too much information there. Still, it was one more place in Dad’s last journey that we could relive and be a part of.

Like all cemeteries in the US, Lakewood Cemetery was a beautiful place, calm, green and clean. At their office, I mentioned to the receptionist the circumstances of our visit and provided Dad’s last name. She tapped a few letters on her keyboard and within seconds, she produced all the papers related to his cremation!

We were stunned. 35 years back! And they could produce the details in a few seconds! Remember this was an event that had occurred almost two decades before computers even came to India. And again and again, we were seeing the kindness, the courtesy and the dignity shown to us, always and above all.

The lady said that the crematory room itself had been remodelled a few years back. She could have just stopped there and we would not have complained. But she did not. Without hesitation or any request from us, she discussed it with her colleagues, made a few calls, explained the situation patiently and finally found a gentleman who had been around before the remodelling was done.

I am not sure what it is about these people – the gentleman in question came prepared with old photographs, notes and diagrams showing the layout of the crematorium room at that time!

He took us all down a flight of stairs and took great pains to explain the exact location of the electric platform on which my father-in-law was placed and in which direction he must have faced! And all through his explanation, there was no sign of impatience, no lack of concern, just kindness and empathy even for the strangers that we were. We were all crying again, uncontrollably. But I don’t think it was just in grief. It was also in deep gratitude and wonder at these people, this country, and what they were giving to us.

After answering all our questions, he respectfully left us to grieve privately and pay our final homage to our dad. After a few minutes, we thanked the staff profusely and made our way to our car.

All of us were overwhelmed, exhausted and completely wrung out. We were silent and lost in our own thoughts as we started on the long drive back home. There was no more crying. I don’t think we had anything left in us.

Mom was silent too. She had finally stopped crying. The wound had started to heal. She had found closure. So probably had my father-in-law.

  • In gratitude to Mayo Hospital and Lakewood Cemetery, Minneapolis, MN.

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