Friday, September 17, 2010

Initials: JCT

It seems fitting somehow that the first person whose story I tell is my grandfather. And in a way it’s my own story, too – his started long before me, but mine started with him. This journey I’m now embarking on, this started with him, too.

Barepapa loved to spin a good tale, some true, most humorous. Growing up, I knew him as a singer, a jokester, a caretaker, but first and foremost, a friend. He was my first playmate, and we were thick as thieves. Being a grandparent means being the designated keeper of illicit secrets – Mister Rogers TV marathons, extra trips to the park, a third helping of ice cream.

My memories of him make up a good portion of my childhood. Our ritual of walking to school started in kindergarten, when school was actually right down the street. I had PM classes – he would get me ready, feed me chicken noodle soup, and off we went. When I came home, I would take a nap with my head in his lap, on my favorite baby pillow. He and I had a game, where I would try to sneak up on him from behind, treading softly on my tip-toes. His hearing was so sharp, he never missed a beat, always turned around and swung me up before I even got close.

He loved to take us all to the park, pushing us on the swings and vainly trying to keep his little terrors in line. I remember he always dressed sharp. Every day, he had on his dress pants, a nice button-up shirt, and a belt, with his favorite sweater vest over top, rain or shine.

Barepapa dedicated much of his life here to raising us and looking after Barimama. She passed away my first year of high school, and Barepapa took it the hardest. He suffered a string of health setbacks, and very slowly began losing his recent memories. He had begun down the path with Alzheimer’s, and it was a roller coaster from there – frustrating for him to ride, and heartbreaking for us to see. One of my saddest days was when I successfully snuck up on him, and he didn’t hear me, didn’t see me, didn’t turn around.

In his spare time, before his eyesight and motor control began to deteriorate, Barepapa had filled journal upon journal with his poetry, shairo shairee. Any time we got together for prayers, he sang his favorite bhajan, “Aye Mere Gurudev Karuna,” and as he lost his memory, that refrain increasingly echoed through our home, a lament and a prayer.

I started college close to when he began losing his memory. Every time I left for school after a weekend home, he would slip some pocket money into my hand, tell me to study hard and come back soon because the house was too quiet with me gone.  

Soon after, his memory took a steeper decline. He steadily lost his sense of self, his awareness of everyone else. I came home one weekend, sat down to tell him a story I’d heard; he sat there listening, and as I looked at him, I realized there wasn’t the faintest glimmer of recognition in his eyes. He didn’t remember who I was; that knowledge never came back, and I knew I’d lost him, thought it could never hurt more than it did then.

This past year he couldn’t take care of himself anymore. Barepapa, once such a proud, self-made, independent man, was suddenly dependent on everyone around him. The fact that he wasn’t aware of the autonomy he’d lost made it that much harder to watch, to help him.

And these past two weeks were a different kind of torture. He stopped eating two weeks ago, and I was at school, away from home, away from family, away from him, confused about how to deal with this on my own. I came home the weekend before my exam because Mama wasn’t sure he would make it to Monday afternoon when I got done, and I’m so glad I got a chance to see him, to talk to him, even if he couldn’t respond. My leaving didn’t make the house quiet; his leaving did.

When he passed away Thursday morning, I somehow felt I hadn’t just lost my grandfather, my oldest and dearest friend, but also lost my last connection to my grandmother. They both made me who I am, were my inspiration, my driving force my entire life, and I didn’t know how to handle the thought of losing both of them, what felt like a second time.

And then one of my closest friends in high school, whose grandfather passed away a year after Barimama, wrote me a beautiful e-mail. She said, “One of the only things that made me smile when my grandfather died was something you wrote me in a card that I’ve always kept. You asked me to imagine our grandparents sitting in heaven somewhere having tea together, happy and free of all their earthly burdens.” She re-gifted me a precious image, of Barepapa and Barimama meeting again, sitting on a bench somewhere, spending eternity together sipping chai and gossiping about the rest of us.

Throughout high school and college, he would write me little notes, and I always kept one with me in my wallet, reading it when I was thinking of him. The latest one was a quote he transcribed for me:

“Everything will straighten itself in time
Only we need patience, faith, self-surrender,
The Lord is great
HE knows best the purity of every thought, action, and motive.”
-Swami Chinmayananda

And he also wrote something it seems especially for us today:
“We should never be afraid of tears. They soften our hearts, wash our eyes, and clear our vision.”