FINDING MEANING IN LIFE BY CARING- Prof. Sanjukta Bhattacharya
Life is challenging because it is never static.
A beautiful dream story of happy family life and achieving the very pinnacle in the work sphere, shatters when out of the blue, one partner faces the inevitable and leaves the other, lonely and bewildered, for the hereafter. And if this happens when one is at the end of one’s career, after husband and wife have grown increasingly dependent on one another and almost an entire lifetime of sharing time, ideas, hopes and fears have created a closeness where two individuals appear to have merged into one individuality, the one who is left behind is lost, too old and disheartened to make a new life out of his or her remaining years.
It is said that women, with their multifarious talents at making a life out of all situations, are better at surviving, but men, for whom life often revolves between office and his wife and family, find it difficult to re-adjust to being single again. The reality is harsh.
But there are some individuals who have the inner strength to inspire others even in adversity.
My father lost my mother when he was just past 70 after many years of togetherness.
My mother had been the perfect other half, cushioning my father from domestic worries and providing him invaluable companionship throughout life but particularly in times of need. I vividly remember the two of them reading to each other from newspapers or separate books, humming to their favourite Rabindra Sangeets, or enjoying each other’s presence in relative quiet and serenity. Since my father was in the administrative service, we had no fixed home: home was the peace provided by our parents’ companionship. I must mention that both my parents were strong individuals, my father particularly so. He had risen to a governorship through sheer hard work, integrity, honesty and intelligence.
And then suddenly, one afternoon, without any warning, giving no time for any action, my mother breathed her last in my father’s arms.
I have two brothers but like so many other families, none of us was present at the time – in fact, all of us were abroad. When we returned, apart from extreme restlessness, our father appeared more concerned about our feelings than his own. But over time we realized his silence spoke more than words.
He was of the old school, modern where we were concerned but his own values were traditional. I had often heard him telling my mother that post-retirement, they would never be dependent on their children for any kind of physical support.
But God disposes – we could not think of letting him stay on his own, primarily because he had no idea about how to stay on his own. He had never done anything to do with mundane housework – and even when it came to our schools, colleges, holidays, examinations, marriages, all had been planned and executed by Ma. He had travelled abroad many times on government work, but when he went abroad the first time after retirement post-Ma’s death, he was surprised that there was such a thing as the immigration desk, which he had never had to encounter with his special privileges.
One of my brothers and I relocated to India – I left my post-doctoral work incomplete and returned to keep him company, and eventually, I cajoled him into staying with me after my brother’s assignments took him away once again. And he lived with me 12 out of the 18 years that he survived after Ma passed away.
As I said, he was of the old school – the concept of living in his son-in-law’s house where his mother also lived, however welcoming and understanding they were, was something, I knew, he had never thought he would have to do in his wildest dreams. But this too, he bore stoically, never complaining, changing his lifestyle to suit ours, ever accommodating, always benevolent.
Why this story?
Because there are so many of us who have a single parent living on, and we, with our busy schedules, never find the time for them. Forlorn, and with no one to talk to them, they go into deep depression and sometime senility, and no one really cares – the children talk among themselves about ‘parent-problems’, without realizing that parents are to be valued for whatever they are.
So, what did I do that was special?
To me, it was nothing special – I just gave him my time and company and tried to make him welcome in an alien environment, even if it meant juggling ever so slightly with my own career compulsions. Since he never complained, I had to keep a daily watch on him to find out his discomforts, his illnesses, his wants. He had cataracts and macular degeneration and went blind in one eye, and the other eye would also have gone had I not realized that he was holding books without reading them and probed to find out why. He loved the company of children, so it was my job to take any child (and there was no dearth of them) who came to see us, to spend time with him. And I and my husband would talk to him to draw out his experiences (he never spoke unless we wanted him to; perhaps he did not want to be like other elderly people who are avoided because of their garrulousness) not only to keep him happy but also to learn from him.
His health began to finally abandon him just 15 days before he too left us.
But I will forever remember his last lesson to me – it was actually what he told a friend who had come to see him and who was shocked to see him in a wheelchair (this was because he had earlier refused to use a walking stick laughing it off as an ‘old man’s tool’, and was he that old?): he said, “Why are you shocked? We have to live as long as the Uparwallah (the One who is up there) wills, and we have to live just the way He wants us to” (His exact words were, in Bengali, “Uff bolchhen keno? Amader toto din banchte hobe, joto din Uparwallah chaan; aar jerom bhabe chaan, sei bhabei thakte hobey”).
This perhaps sums up his life-view, the source of his strength and his smiling fortitude. And this is what I hope I can emulate as I too grow old.
Mother Theresa once told me that if I look after my nearest and dearest ones, keep them happy and cared for, I would have done enough. I need not go out to do social service: social service can be done at home itself. There are people around me, close to me, who need help, mental, spiritual and physical, and the question is, do we give something of us to them to make them happy?
NAME: Prof. Sanjukta Bhattacharya (retired)