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January 2007

My only son died on a clear summer morning at the young age of twenty-two. While jogging with a friend, he collapsed and hit the grassy patch next to the cement pavement. "Cut it, Anand," Manmeet said, knowing our son's penchant for out-of-the-blue goofy acts. Once realization kicked in, everything happened fast. A female jogger attempted CPR; the paramedic tried to revive him en route to the hospital; doctors did their best in the ER. By around ten in the morning they pronounced him dead.

Anand, which means joy, was gone?forever.

A physician later tried to ease our pain. "He went instantaneously. It was a heart seizure. He wouldn't have felt any pain." And later, while reporting that the autopsy showed all organs were robust, the benign doctor's countenance reflected our own perplexed state.

That's when the past tense hit me—were robust. Suddenly I realized that moving forward I have to switch from "is" to "was," "have" to "had," "lives" to "lived." Life comes with a manual shift, not automatic, and so changing semantics takes time and practice, especially when the need comes with such uncouth speed.

My immediate reaction was normal and irrational, like Auden's lament:

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;

Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;

Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;

For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Every day brought a different clutter of emotions that came from a kaleidoscope of broken feelings. I traveled through a jungle of changing emotions—bitterness, grief, anger, guilt, and a myriad others—before reaching that age-old narrow, stoic path: nishkama karma. Living up to the reputation of our hardy species—adept at adapting—I became focused on one feral goal: "must hold on to my marbles." The grief counselor had indicated if my body could get back to its normal functions—breathe, eat, sleep, and other basics—that would be the first sign of coping. In the next stages of progress, work became a welcome distraction, and writing a tool for catharsis.

Son-less. Even the very sound byte evokes a dark place. At times when the surreal feeling gets unbearable, I resort to venting aloud while driving alone. The same questions keep recurring like a stuck record: Anand, where the heck are you? Can you hear me? Talk to me, son of a gun. Give me a sign. Are you okay?

I miss his touch and the bear hugs. What I long for most is sharing interesting happenings of the day; discussing a fascinating fact he or I would come by; recommending a hilarious or weird movie. Yes, it's that calming spirit of his that I crave. Where has that wandered off to? At times, tossing about in bed, cold atheistic thoughts bubble up to choke me. Does everything end here—kaput? A full stop?

On one of her visits, my elderly neighbor who had run a hospice narrated several cases of her patients' near-death experiences. "There was a common thread to their stories. They recollect going through a dark passage and emerging into a bright place where a departed relative,Dad, Mom, Grandpa, or some other late, favorite family member, was waiting. This is not religion or spirituality I am talking, just actual observations." Continuity, that's all I wanted to be assured of. The specifics of the hereafter is anybody's guess anyway.

At a meeting of Compassionate Friends, a support group consisting of people who lost their near and dear, I came across another angle to assuage my sense of waste: all those years of our loving care. An empathetic member came up with a different perspective. He said we should think of what all he did for us: conferred on us sweet parenthood, helped us to grow fuller, changed us for the better, made us wiser and stronger.

Trying to console us, almost everyone had a common opening line, "I don't know what to say." That itself was comforting; their own helplessness openly shared with us. Then came a colleague of mine from the office, whom I hardly knew, and the moment I saw him at the funeral I hugged him and shamelessly wept. One month back his twenty-seven-year-old son had died in a car accident. I wonder if there is an apt term for such spontaneous bonding between fellow sufferers, like an antonym for the word jealousy?

Some propagated the idea of a better place. "Just think he is at a far better place now." Not blessed by that blissful thing, blind faith, I found no comfort in a distant site they kept alluding to. In exasperation I asked my younger, but wiser, brother, "Then why don't we all ingest cyanide-laced Kool-Aid and go there?" He smiled and reminded me of the old enigma: everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to die.

The remains of our bubbly six-footer son, who was constantly gushing with enthusiasm, now lay still in the confines of a gray, ceramic urn. When we asked in disbelief if that was all—a few quarts—the gentleman from the funeral parlor confirmed this, and added that it was mostly pulverized bones. Our son had extraordinarily long arms, which came in handy for basketball. But their coach normally kept him as a stand-by, for a valid reason: too courteous for the rough game.

Driving to work I would ruminate on Anand's quixotic ideas at various stages of his comet-like appearances in our life. When he was young, while telling him the story of Noah's Ark, I was at the part where Noah is loading pairs of earthly creatures, "?dogs, cats, ducks, goats?"

"No ducks," he corrects me.


"They can swim."

Later, in his teens, when I was telling him the common description of heaven—nothing unpredictable happens there, no death, no pain, nothing—he interrupts me.

"I don't want to go to heaven."


"I will die of boredom."

And more recently, when I was struggling to explain the rationale behind my decision to divorce after a quarter century, he helped me out with a quirky observation, "Getting married is mostly an irrational decision, but getting divorced is always a rational one." I cannot figure where he picked up this kind of stuff, although his zodiac, Sagittarius, did mention a philosophical bent, among other stellar qualities.

My father used to tell us that after departing from this planet he would keep an eye on us from Orion's belt and we could look up whenever we missed him. Of late I have been doing a lot of stargazing. In a similar vein, I had told Anand that my spot would be the autumn leaves that tumble around in wanton abandon in the wake of a passing vehicle or a friendly breeze. I hope Anand remembers that these commitments hold good both ways, like in a contract: whichever happens first. I cannot wait for fall.

Last week while purchasing my customary monthly ticket, Power Ball, an odd thought struck me. Tomorrow I could win a hundred million and be able to retire from work, buy a 7-Series Beamer that Anand hungered for, and do all the lofty deeds I dreamt of. But there will always be an unfulfilled gap in my cup of joy.


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