The Deathbed

गुरुचरणाम्बुज निर्भर भक्तः, संसारादचिराद्भव मुक्तः। सेन्द्रियमानस नियमादेवं,द्रक्ष्यसि निज हृदयस्थं देवम् ॥

O devotee of the lotus feet of the teacher! May you become liberated soon from the samsara through the discipline of the sense organs and the mind. You will come to experience the Lord that dwells in your own heart.

गुरुचरणाम्बुज निर्भर भक्तः, संसारादचिराद्भव मुक्तः। सेन्द्रियमानस नियमादेवं,द्रक्ष्यसि निज हृदयस्थं देवम् ॥

O devotee of the lotus feet of the teacher! May you become liberated soon from the samsara through the discipline of the sense organs and the mind. You will come to experience the Lord that dwells in your own heart.


Veda sang, gently caressing the wrinkled forehead of the divine soul that lay on a low bed at Lumina Hospice & Palliative Care in Corvallis, Oregon. The sunlight, sparkling radiant gold, illuminated the blue as the red and burgundy leaves clung to the skeleton branches of the pacific dogwood and vine maple.  November being a few days away, the autumn breeze carried fine drops, each one a promise of the rain to come. Through the half-shut window, Veda felt the soft chill heralding an urgency to close it. Just then, she heard Ms. Cotton whisper, "I sinned."

The shorthand on the clock ticked eight times before she spoke again, "I didn't want to. Do you think she forgave me?" Her voice strained towards the end of the sentence. With silent footsteps, Veda advanced towards her and perched herself on a stool next to the bed. Ms. Cotton's face, like paper crumpled twice, carried a steady stream of tears that glided down her face. Veda knew this; she knew this too well. As a Hindu chaplain, she had experienced death and grief multiple times - yet, each time, it felt unique- what happened moments before the soul departed from the body that had housed it for years, the days and weeks before the soul, the praan started its journey to retreat into a different world. To enter out into the silence where the soul struggles with life, to participate in the preparations of the last few days, to step into someone's else's life story and make your way, experiencing the turbulence and the stillness, that was what Veda had trained for, that is what Veda felt was her duty, her Dharma, her calling in life. 


During the last few days, every soul underwent a different journey- some would have slipped into a coma following a terminal illness; their glide into the other world more like a swan on a lake- smooth and gentle.

  Some would oscillate between moments of being fully awake when they would talk about their beautiful life stories and kiss their grandchildren's palms and praise the Lord for a blessed life, and other times completely unresponsive, and a few of them, much to their family's consternation, would strain to worm themselves out of the burden that had kept their life shackled.  A few others would say or do things that would make Veda's heart drop; they would confide in her and seek forgiveness. Shame and remorse would sweep over their final days as they would recount the course of events that led them to do the unthinkable. Some would recall the memories of a lost spouse; a lay off from a job during a recession that left them broken, staying in a migrant encampment, as a young boy, on the Belarusian border while waiting to find space for oneself in the world, a special friend who offered them shelter when the housing advocates banged their door for eviction because they were too poor to pay the rent. Some expressed admiration for their country and how proud they felt dying as a veteran, knowing they fulfilled their love and commitment to their nation. While some would be grateful for the life they built with their sweat, tears, and blood, others would repent over the possibilities they never encashed. Some would talk about their imperfect compromises and messy lives. Others would talk about the legacy they were leaving behind and how blessed they felt so much love and recognition came their way. 


Some may speak or move less, have little interest in their surroundings, and eat or drink little. For some, the skin would start to turn purple and blotchy; the heart's rhythm would begin to change- rapid breaths followed by periods of no breathing. There could be periods of illusions and hallucinations, and for some, weeks or months before death, they undertake the task of patching up their life.  Each life story left Veda astounded, each life story so rich, so splendid, and so incompletely complete. It was difficult for cynicism to creep in the frail bodies and brittle souls. Do bitterness and resentment belong to life? Is death more liberating then? Doesn't it remove the encumbrance from all that people suffer from when alive? Then why is life so prized? She often cogitated. On the deathbed, practically everyone marshaled the last few breaths and time to clear the weeds. The deathbed resembled the metaphorical duck paddling madly beneath the smooth pond surface. 


Whatever it was, one thing was common- everyone sought closure; everyone scrambled to say the until-now-unsaid, to clear the pathway of the life led. To Veda, it felt familiar. Her own mother had uprooted the toughest crab weed and flung it out of the window moments before her chain of breaths broke. Somehow, everyone wanted to travel light without disappointments, guilt, or regrets. Somehow, everyone had the most sincere things to share in their final moments; somehow, they chose to be unfortified; the years of guardrails, they let it collapse, and the candor and vulnerability awed Veda. It felt like a moral imperative to neither delay nor deny what must be said and then close the gates. 

Wiping the stream trickling down the crow's feet, Veda placed a soft dry towel on the pillow. She gazed gently at the lady who wore a rosary bead around her neck. 

Annabelle Cotton, a retired accountant, and real estate broker had been living in an assisted facility in Corvallis, Oregon. But at 90, her health problems began to mount "heart failure, weakness from post-polio syndrome, a 30-pound weight loss in a year, and breathing troubles. That's when Dr. Helen Robinson, her palliative care doctor and medical director at Lumina Hospice and Palliative care determined that she qualified for hospice services- in which a team of nurses, social workers, a doctor, and chaplain help patients through their final weeks or final days, usually at home. 


Ms. Cotton specially requested a Hindu Chaplain. Soon, Veda, a 48-year-old brahmacharini with Chinmaya Mission West, found herself at Ms. Cotton's home in Corvallis- a .86-acre property with seasoned fruit trees and a garden shed. The first thing Veda noticed about the house was the large photo of Swami Chinmayananda on a gray painted mantelpiece against the warm white walls of the living room. When she was five, her father had sketched the same photograph and framed it with his initials at the bottom right in what would be called Corsiva in today's font lingo. 


He would regularly light a panchavati oil lamp at the altar and pray at dawn and dusk, a ritual she witnessed until she was eleven, and then it stopped forever. 


The room smelled of harsh antiseptic, and Veda chose to light an incense stick. It almost always brought calmness. Her gray pupils tried to adjust to the dimly lit room and slowly moved towards the picture of Ms. Cotton and her husband with their two daughters next to a temple's elaborate Gopuram with stone carved deities. She stood there for long, staring at the man whose arms surrounded his wife protectively, almost cradling her like a baby. She felt something stir in her chest, a brief ripple that disturbs the stillness of a lake, a calm lake.  Holding on to her Tulsi mala, Veda started to chant, a practice that settled the anguish of a human heart. It had taken her years of sadhana to reach a place where she could absorb the suffering of humankind and help them heal. In the background, life continued as the nurses carried vegetable soup for Ms. Cotton to her room. 


While Ms. Cotton was being fed, Veda entered the bedroom. Next to her bed, on the wooden side table, were figurines of Vishnu and Lakshmi and a small book of The Gita. Ms. Cotton's breathing seemed laborious with every passing second; her cheek had skin so thin one would want to place it under glass in a museum. Filmy cataracts covered her eyes reminded Veda of fog on the hills of Mahabalipuram in Mumbai. 


The first time Ms. Cotton met her, she stared deeply at Veda as if trying to recall a connection that had got severed years back. Soon, she drifted to sleep. Veda sat next to the bed on a darba mat and read The Gita. For as long as she could remember, after her father disappeared one night, Veda had clung to The Gita to prevent herself from falling into the abyss of loneliness and abandonment. Her mother, a primary school teacher, gathered the powdery pieces of her life and relocated to Mumbai, her mother's place with Veda and Vedant, her younger brother. While her father never returned, his books, his association with Chinmaya Mission, her Balvihar's classes continued for the family. At sixteen, after reading Bhaja Govindam by Adi Shankaracharya, Veda came to a realization- there is no happiness in the world of objects- punarapi jananam punarapi maranam punarapi janani jathare sayanam,iha samsare bahudusare krpaya'pare pahi murare . 


After graduating from the Tata Institute of Social Science, she completed the Foundational Vedanta course and later Advanced Vedanta course from Sandeepany Sadhanalaya in Powai, Mumbai. Soon, she was initiated as Brahmacharini Veda Chaitanya and later a Hindu Chaplain. Thirteen years back, when her mother lay on her death bed, Veda helped her through the final days. Her brother, a software engineer with Microsoft, relocated to The United States. Veda accompanied his family to join Chinmaya Mission West, where she taught Bhagavad Gita, Vivekachoodamani, Atma Bodha, and other Vedantic treatises.


The word spread soon- there is a brahmacharini who can help you start anew; her voice so divine and chaste, it could erase disillusionment and sorrows; she an embodiment of peace itself.  However, for Veda, there was something that intruded the tranquil lake and raged like a cyclone - a black hole in her chest, a hole so deep that her spiritual practice had not been able to fill up. 'I wonder if he ever loved me, but I forgive. I forgive him, and I forgive her '- these were her mother's words when she breathed her last, her head gently falling to her right on Veda's lap.  When you lose a life, a body that housed both a father and a mother, the grief bludgeons you with double intensity.



Bhaja  Govindam Bhaja Govindam,Govindam Bhaja Muudhamate

Sampraapte Sannihite Kaale,Nahi Nahi Rakshati Dukrijnkarane

 Veda continued her chanting, the japmala rotating slowly around her fingers. Just then, Ms. Cottom stirred, a slight croak interrupted Veda's meditation, 'Water.'

Helping her frail body against the bed stand and propping her against the plush pillows, Veda helped Ms. Cotton take a few short sips from a steel glass. The tumbler reminded Veda of her life in Chennai. 

 Ms. Cotton then signaled, using her snow-white index finger, toward the drawer in the wooden side table of her bed. 

 "You want me to open the drawer for you?" asked Veda.

 Ms. Cotton nodded. 

 Veda twisted the cooper key hanging from the hole and slid open the drawer towards her. 


"Pinkkkk' Veda heard Ms. Cotton whisper.


Amidst bottles of Tylenol, Vicks VapoRub, and Claritin, Veda spotted a pink envelope towards the farther end of the drawer. It felt light, and Veda handed it to Ms. Cotton. Slowly, very slowly, with trembling hands, Ms. Cotton opened the envelope and gave the letter to Veda, urging her to read. The shuffling of the paper disturbed the tranquility of the hour. 

 "You want me to read this?"

Ms. Cotton nodded. 

As soon as Veda opened the letter, a passport size photograph fell from the sleeves onto Veda's lap. She jerked forward to save it from falling on the ground. It was a family photo, an old one, with a sepia glow and dog-eared edges, of a man, his wife, and their children. 

 Outside, one could hear the soft drizzle turning into a steady rain. Occasionally, one could listen to a faint rumble somewhere at a distance. 


She took a deep breath and started to read, absorbing every word spilling from the vessel of life like a paper towel. 


I am sorry. 

I didn't want to hurt you, but I know I did. I did it in the most brutal way possible, a hurt so deep, it would continue to bleed entire life. I am so sorry. I can supply no intelligible explanation of why I did what I did. I wish I could do something, anything to change things.  I met Kamal, your husband, when I was nursing a deep wound of a rough divorce and the responsibility of two young daughters. I spent the first year self-medicating with alcohol. However, you don't get to choose what emotions the wine dulls. It is very effective at muting the pain but also at muffling the joy. It was a war life had waged at me, and I found myself inept to even breathe, let alone raise two young twins. I needed to lean onto something, anything, and spirituality felt like the solution, the antidote. A few Indian friends in my community suggested visiting Swami Mukutananda at Sandeepanalaya, Kerala, and pursuing a Vedanta course, which they believed would help me get a proper perspective in life and heal in the process. Leaving my twins with my mother in Vermont, I left for this holy place called India to stitch my heart back and be ready to walk again, eat again, live again. Little did I know that I would come back full, to the brim, with happiness and love. Little did I know then that there was someone who was going to be sacrificed in the process. I chased my joy and crushed yours. I plead guilty.

When I met Kamal at the Sandeepanalya, he was just another electrician for me who frequented the ashram to fix an electrical wire after an episode of inclement weather.  The next time, he was just another plumber with a wrench, a plumber's tape, and a plunger helping to unclog the ashram's kitchen sink. For anything that needed sealing or fixing, Kamal was the go-to person. Soon, I discovered that he was a devotee of Swami Chinmayananda too, who volunteered at the ashram.   

My first interaction with him was what magic is made of. Wounding and healing are not opposites. They're part of the same thing. You will heal; we all do. 

How did he see the lonely landscape I had become where I did not even have reliable access to my own self.  In a world with a 7.5 billion population, he made me visible, and that moment I started crawling out of my shell...very carefully...the way a snail does. When I peeped out, I saw him smiling at me. Kamal was kindness personified with no veneer of maschismo, and I sought more of him each time he left the ashram. 

When I was around him, I felt decompressed. Whatever had happened to my brain after the whiplash, I had become a stranger to myself, and suddenly, I started seeing myself in his eyes. After dinner, we would spend the evenings talking about pain and suffering and this world that Hindus call a 'Maya.' He would often point out similarities between the Western religious concepts and Hinduism, and with each passing day, I started to climb on him...the way a vine nearby support. He was then married to you with two young children. One day he came with his older child, his daughter, and I felt a pang of envy rise and hiss. Didn't my daughters deserve someone like him too? 

The tulsi bead slipped from her hand with a clunk, and Veda bowed to pick it up. Wrapping it around her clammy fingers, she reached out for a glass of water before she resumed the story.

One evening, over a fit of convulsive weeping and animal wailing, Kamal held my face and kissed my forehead. This chapter must lead to a happy ending, I vowed, my selfishness at its crescendo, my pining heart hungering for love. Did I question him about his family? No. Out of the hours, he would spend with me, often he would talk about you and his domestic life. I burned from within but chose to show it none lest he broke his ties with me. One day, over a steaming cup of chai at a roadside joint, we sat on a wooden bench, with nails jutting out from one of the legs, and he said- I love Mridula, I love my children, but when I am with you, I feel closest to him. Saying this, he looked at the sky and kept looking at it for long. I first pretended to have no needs, then heaped it all on this man who absorbed my pain like a sponge. His capacity for delight, his seemingly boundless sense of wonder, was one of the first things I loved about him. My earlier experiences of falling in love had felt like being stuffed in a barrel and thrown off a waterfall, a blind tumble both euphoric and terrifying. Falling in love with Kamal felt like being carried along a smooth river to the sea.

 Sunrise and mornings used to freak me out, freeze me up - what to do today? What new way should I invent to process my pain? It was a source of crippling angst that Kamal provided much-needed release from. Slowly, he morphed it into joy. I knew safety is an illusion; the world is Maya; however, with him, everything felt real.  Months later, he accompanied me to The US. 

Why? I never asked; he never answered. I was too busy tending to the tangle in my garden. Then, it felt nothing, maybe something that I suppressed so hard, it died.  I would deflect the questions my inner vice would shoot at me.  Or that is what I thought. I was wrong. Very wrong. Deeds don't die. They live on. I need to tell you that Kamal never shared any form of physical intimacy with me. We never shared a bed in our thirty-one years of togetherness. In this home, he lived like a saint. We didn't have any children other than my daughters from my ex-husband. He stood by me dutifully and tended to my garden, ensuring we all bloomed. 

He cleaned the bathroom sink with toothpaste samples that arrived in the mail. There was nothing he hesitated to mend or fix: clothes, the washing machine, the hot-water heater. He loved to repair, and that is what he saw in me, I guess. 

He became the most wonderful father to my children, and in the process, he orphaned two of his own. Ten years back, the doctors diagnosed him with advancing Alziehmers, and slowly he started losing everything, bit by bit, like wall paint that chips away slowly. The day he passed away, I was by his side at Hoag Medical Centre. The disease had reduced him to a mass of bones with flesh clinging on wearily. I felt the same love that had overpowered me years back. Suddenly, as if overcome by a short gust of memory, he groped for my hand. The moment our fingers coalesced, that he mumbled- Mridula, I never stopped loving you. Please forgive me."

 Saying this, his hand felt limp in my palm. 

To continue living without him was a tall order given by life; however, I continued, though in a ham-headed way. I had two more Kamals in my life by then: my daughters. They turned out to be a xerox version of him in thoughts and deeds.  If you think I am the weakest person God ever created, always needing, wanting, leaning, then, I say with surety, you are right. There was an impolite amount of pain life served on my plate; maybe barbaric is the right word. Someone who saw her father shoot himself on his temple,  a marriage marred by domestic violence and rape, I just didn't have enough to become strong again. Or I could have? Who knows. 

In his drawer, which I never had access to, we found a diary where he exclusively wrote to you every 29th February of the year. It was your wedding anniversary date; I found out. 

What kind of a man was he then?  If you look through my eyes, he was God himself. You have a different story, I am sure.  

I just wanted to tell you that I feel sorry, terribly sorry, and have felt it for all these years and hope you can forgive me, knowing very well I deserve none of it. 


Veda's eyes fluttered, and she saw Ms.Cotton staring at her face. Veda had witnessed her struggle for the past month with something more than just pain.  She now had the answer. The unsolicited overshare had explained it all. Veda dabbed at a string of saliva hanging from Ms. Cotton's lower lip. She held her hands and felt a tremor rise within. She had done this before. She had witnessed a soul's final departure, and she knew it was time.

"Do I deserve forgiveness?" Ms. Cotton's voice was a strenuous mumble.

Veda stood staring at the eyelids flitting as if oscillating between life and lifelessness.

Then Veda uttered-"Mridula ---- is ----- no ------more. She passed away ten years ago. But,"  Veda wrestled with the words, "she did forgive you. She forgave Achha too.” 

The word Achha widened  Ms. Cotton's eyes; it seized her with a gust of breath and her body with ferocity - "You...?"

"I am Veda, her daughter. Kamal was my father."

The words touched the auditory senses, and the soul bid the final adieu.

गुरुचरणाम्बुज निर्भर भक्तः, संसारादचिराद्भव मुक्तः।

सेन्द्रियमानस नियमादेवं,द्रक्ष्यसि निज हृदयस्थं देवम् ॥

O devotee of the lotus feet of the teacher! May you become liberated soon from the samsara through the discipline of the sense organs and the mind. You will come to experience the Lord that dwells in your own heart.

Veda closed her eyes and chanted. Minutes later, she walked out of the room to inform.


To read the story on Momspresso, please click on The Deathbed. This story was recognized as the #BlogOfTheDay on Momspresso. 

Image courtesy-Pixabay


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