My neighbor died last week. He was the one who couldn’t leave his house for more than ten minutes at a time, and then only when the maid was there and his wife, so ill with Parkinson’s, had been bathed and dressed and fed and was willing to let him out of her sight for as long as it took him to walk the 350 steps to the shop to bring the milk, the bread, the little box of matches.
“What can I do?” he had said to me just two weeks ago. “There is no one else to look after her.”
I dropped in when I could because my heart went out to them: elderly, frail and alone in a small, neat house. Their one daughter was in Mumbai; their one son in Saharanpur. There were rumors in the neighborhood that the son had mental illness.
Ten days ago, returning home late at night, I saw a man lying in the road. It turned out to be my elderly neighbor’s son. I managed to get him to give me his wife’s phone number and learned from her that her husband was supposed to be at his parents’ place, that his mother had been admitted to the hospital and that his father was there with her. When I suggested that perhaps I should call an ambulance and have the son admitted as well, she begged me to just escort him to his parents’ house where he could wait on the verandah for his father to return.
“My husband is depressed,” she explained. “He’s a diabetic. How much can my father-in-law take on?”
How much indeed? With help from some neighbors, we got Mr Tandon’s son safely home. We gave him something to eat and drink; we gave him a mattress, pillow and quilts and about half an hour later, his father arrived back from the hospital and moved him inside.
I thought about him often in the next few days: his wife in a coma; his son also in need of support, he himself nearly 80. Who would look after him? He was so essential to preventing the house of cards that was their life from collapsing that even to ask the question seemed disloyal.
Disloyal, yet, as it turned out, essential.
Mr Tandon dropped dead a few days later. No one asked him if he was ready. No one checked to make sure he had made all the arrangements for his wife, for his son, for his grandchildren. One day he was here; the next day, he was gone. And all the balls he was keeping up in the air fell briefly to the ground and were then gathered up by others and tossed back into the fray.
We think we are irreplaceable and we construct our lives around that belief. And we are. And we are not. That awareness forms the tension and the complete truth we all have to live with and learn to balance: We are irreplaceable. We are nothing.
We live out our lives on a razor’s edge, knowing, if we know anything, that a single moment, an accident, a simple twist of fate, could change everything. We act as if we are essential and eternal yet we know that we are not and that at any moment,we could be snatched away and the world would continue just as it always has.
Mr Tandon is dead. His wife remains in a coma; his son still has depression. Nothing has changed. Yet everything is different.
Nothing’s a gift. Its all on loan. Remember.