“I’ll clean up Papa’s medical files this afternoon.” I informed Mummy one morning a couple of weeks after he’d passed this summer. It was more of a directive to myself to get the task done.
“Thanks, I don’t know if we need all the records, you see what’s best.” She responded timidly. Belying her strength and referring to the meticulous journals we’d kept noting his vitals, feeds and output over the last 25 months.
I sat in the narrow space between the bed rail and the cabinets in the room Papa had occupied with all his medical equipment that had now been reorganized. It felt like a betrayal.
A stark reminder how our presence is linked to the geographical layout of the spaces we occupy.
The hissing and sucking of the oxygen concentrator and suction machines had punctuated his silent presence. A clicking sound the voice coach was able to coax from Papa became our dialect. His days had marked time by the comings and goings of nurses, physical therapists, prayers, music, tea, laughter and fresh mango pulp.
Papa had miraculously survived a massive brainstem infarct for over 2 years. As I willed myself to the present task of cleaning.
Two hours later, still sitting in a puddle of paperwork, journals, bills, envelopes and surgical supplies. Every piece of paper had been a silent witness as I piled them up. Keep. Recycle. Donate.
“Come have some tea, how much time are you going to spend with this task?” Meena, my oldest sister asked as she came down the hallway to check up on me to ensure I had not fallen through the hole we all felt in our hearts.
“Coming, Didi. Do you wonder how Papa’s brain may have worked before the stroke?” I asked holding up a large MRI slide from the pile.
“No, I don’t think of that.” Meena responded astutely, indulging my propensity for eccentric questions, steering me away from my maudlin self.
She left me sitting there, dry eyed, wondering how our brains worked, how beautiful his must have been. Like a prismatic head, that of the Nikon FE he had owned and given to me when he could still comprehend the world.
Examining the black and white slide I slipped into a more vivid time. Back again at the edge of his bed during the short winter afternoons of my childhood in Northern India. Light had dappled the pale blue walls with shadows cast by the magenta bougainvillea outside his bedroom window.
“Hand me the cloth.” Papa requested referring to the square piece of mummy’s old blue silk saree next to me. His hands deftly spooled film, released the shutter, fogged filters and cleaned invisible dust.
“Come, see how the reflex head works.” Papa encouraged me to scoot onto his lap. Keeping the shutter open he showed me the mirror inside the SLR. Fingers careful, not touching the prismatic head. Those quiet memories interspaced by the click and winding of reels, moved smoothly along the sprockets.
Releasing the memories I blinked back at the MRI slide. Tracing the outlines of his final frailty. This was the brain that had created all those pictures through the viewfinder, been an engineer, played the accordion, painted and gone about the business of being alive. Firing millions of neurons for over 80 years. It was the first time I was looking at the prismatic head of my father, tracing his inner geography.
With unsteady fingers I wiped away invisible dust from the MRI slide with a piece of Mummy’s old cotton saree and slid it back into the flat blue envelope and placed it on the Keep pile.