When you are old and grey and full of sleep


“When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep…”

(W.B. Yeats)

Last year, in this very month of August, a couple of elderly men ‘escaped’ their old age home to attend the world’s largest heavy metal concert in Germany. Many people found this funny. But I was deeply moved by these two men, ‘old men’ still young at heart, who wanted simply an evening out from their own lives.

The first time I ever came to know of elderly people ‘escaping’ from institutional homes was when I read a story in Joanne Harris’s book A Cat, A Hat and a Piece of String. The story was titled Faith and Hope Fly South— Faith and Hope being two elderly women living in Meadowbank Retirement Home in the UK. The story moved me to tears.

Actually, Hope is the one that moved me most. She’s a former Cambridge professor, very dignified, witty and possessing the right ‘airs’ for a cultured lady. Quite the formidable woman. But now, she’s blind.

Faith, on the other hand, is wheelchair bound. What both women share is a feisty spirit and dollops of zest for life.

Hope has a daughter who never turns up to show her face and merely sends her postcards from all over the world—which the mother carefully collects in a box. Faith, though, has a son that visits her every week—but with “petrol-station” flowers and merely stories of the “World Outside.” Never an offer to take her with him.

World Outside.

The words stung me.

The implication of being imprisoned. Not knowing what was on in the world outside the walls that caged you. And this, after having been out in that world for so long, after having partaken of its pleasures and its pains, its wonders and its routines, after having savoured every one of them for decades, you’re suddenly shut off from all of it.

What’s worse was reading that they needed permission slips to join the rare outings that occured.

“I have to say I don’t much like the idea of Tom having to sign a slip,” says Faith. Tom is her son who has to sign her permission slip. “It reminds me so much of the times when he used to bring those forms home from grammar school, wanting permission to go on trips to France, or even skiing in Italy, trips we could barely afford, but paid for anyway,” says Faith. To have your children become your parent. It seems an almost indulgent thought, but it isn’t really—not if it is unaccompanied by the respect that is due to those elder in years. It can carry an edge of humiliation with it, which I realised for the first time.

Worse, far worse is this—which Hope and Faith had to endure. To have people that are half your age tell you that you’ve been ‘naughty’ because you ‘escaped’ for a daytrip of your own- because you dared to claim one day of your life for yourself. To be taunted for expressing your need for independence and dignity as a human being.

“Lorraine (the warden at the old age home) is equally appalled—for a different reason—and often speaks to us in the syrupy tones of a cross nursery teacher, explaining how naughty it was of us to run away, and how worried everyone was on our behalf…”

Cross nursery teacher.

Being addressed like a kindergartener, robbed of all dignity.

Hit me like a punch in the gut.

Hit me with the severity that accompanies guilt.

Do I sometimes speak to my mother this way? Like I know more than her, like I know better? Like I’m the one instructing her on what was best for her? It’s hard to own up to this, but I do. Sometimes I begin talking to her like I’m writing one of my articles, going on and on about a point I’m trying to make.

Having it said straight to my face, even if by a fictional character, dropped me into reality with a painful thud.

Into the truth of what it meant to be a ‘senior citizen’. Especially when your children begin to exercise control over you.

This is common even in societies like ours, despite the fact that we don’t send off our parents to old age homes. The way we look askance at elderly women wanting to wear jewelry and make-up. At elderly women wanting to enjoy life beyond just grandchildren. The way we expect the elderly to have no dreams and desires, no need for enjoyment and revelry— no need for anything more than a prayer room.

Hope and Faith are ‘punished’ by Lorraine, the young warden, for ‘flouting her authority’ and going off on their own. She restricts them to the confines of the Home the next time everyone else is taken on an outing. A greater humiliation, one that hit badly where it hurt. It hit their desire and their one chance to be out in the world, even if for a day.

And then, something beautiful happens. Faith’s young friend Chris, who is a helper at the old age home, decides to bring the world ‘in’ if they can’t go out into it. He makes a beach ‘setting’ for them right inside the Home.  He hands them glossy travel magazines with mesmerising pictures and makes them sit with their backs to the window, so that the wind ruffles their hair like it would do on an actual beach. Then he lights scented candles on the sideboard, and all over the walls of the room Chris puts up posters of beautiful islands, “islands seen from the air like flamenco dancers shaking their skirts; bare-chested, beautiful young men standing hip-deep among green vines.”  And then, much to Faith’s surprise, she begins to actually hear the ocean. 

“Now I could hear it; the soft hissh of water with a throatful of stones. Behind it, a burr of crickets, above me, the wind.”

How?

Because Chris has turned on a recording of ocean sounds in the Lounge recorder! He then proceeds to complete their experience by dipping Hope’s feet in a tub of water and pebbles, like one finds on a beach, and Faith’s in a tub of sand, “soft, dry, powdery sand that tickled my toes and made small crunching noises in my insteps.” He brings them tiny bits of “forbidden” delicacies to celebrate, and plays the piano for a long time until they nod off peacefully in their chairs, with the ocean whispering in their ears like Nature’s lullaby.

It’s remarkable what one can do with love and empathy and a little bit of imagination.

The story ends with these lines that tug at your heartstrings long, long after you’ve finished reading. “We went to bed early, Hope to smell the candles that Chris slipped in her bedside drawer, and I to read my brochures and dream of orange groves and strawberry daiquiries and plane rides and yachts,” says Faith. “Next week we can try Greece, I think. Or the Bahamas; Australia; Paris; New York… as Hope always says, travel broadens the mind.”

Faith and Hope never left my heart once I became acquainted with them. They made me see, for the first time, what it was like to grow old and fragile, after you’ve been young and strong. They made me also see how it’s easy, when you’re young and full of self-importance, to be dismissive of the elderly, dismissive of their nostalgia and their longing for a beautiful, familiar world that is now long gone.

The story of Hope and Faith very subtly and beautifully reveals how, in caring for the elderly, what’s important is that we do not grow patronising and high handed. That love cannot be love until it is layered with patience and respect.

And also, that no matter what the body’s age, every person has a child in their heart that deserves to have some fun once in a while, a child in their heart that deserves to have the freedom to whoop with joy.

Why am I crying?


 

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“I hate this house!” the 5 year old declares in a huff, right after he is tucked into bed and the lights are turned off. I sigh. This isn’t the first time. I know the reason, but I still have to ask him the customary question.

“Why? Why do you hate this house?”

“There’s nothing here. I can’t have anything. No dogs, no rabbits, no birds, no fish. No garden. I hate it!” he exclaims with visible anger.

It’s the same every time. Each time we return from his grandma’s house, which has an entire family of cats, a garden teeming with birds and chameleons and glorious colourful insects—and two rabbits which are a new addition to the family. In my defence, we did try to keep the rabbit.

We bought the little black and white rabbit for our resident animal-whisperer who is fascinated by every creature in the animal kingdom—from cute, harmless ones like dogs, cats and goats to huge ferocious ones like sharks and crocodiles, and even the extinct kinds (dinosaurs and megalodons, which he often dreams of keeping as pets). And since we’re counting, let’s not forget the insects as well—spiders, crickets, ladybirds, grasshoppers. Whichever little guest happens to occasionally visit our apartment in this high rise tower.

Obviously, there was much joy and revelry when I brought home the rabbit, after persistent teary-eyed complaints of how horrible this house was, and how cruel we were to be inflicting a pet-less life on our offspring. At first, all was good. And then slowly, the charm began to wear off. A rabbit is not an expressive pet. It does not bark and it does not mew. It does not lunge enthusiastically at its owner, and it does not cuddle comfortably in the owner’s lap either. It cannot be allowed to roam around the house for then it would nibble down every single thing that stood in its path. (We had a first-hand experience of this when we became internet-less as the bunny chewed down the wi-fi cable.) And so, slowly, the joy of having a pet gave way to whines of, “What kind of a pet is this? This is a horrible pet! I want a dog!”

Despite this, things would still have worked out had it not been for our semi-nomadic lifestyle, which involves visiting our hometown as often as we can, along with attending every wedding that we can. There’s only so many times that your friends and neighbours would be willing to rabbit-sit for you for days, before it becomes an embarrassment even to ask them. And so we decided to leave the rabbit back at our hometown, at my mother’s house. They already had a menagerie of 7 cats; one little rabbit wouldn’t be a bother. And then my sister decided that the poor thing was lonely, so she got another little rabbit, a female one, for good furry company.

So it came to pass that our boy became pet-less once again. And every so often, just like today, he declares he hates the house. On other days, I remind him of all the reasons we can’t have a pet, I remind him of how cruel it is to imprison birds in a cage and lock up fish in a glass box. I remind him that we have free birds as pets, the pigeons who’ve been using our balcony as their nesting ground since the beginning of this year. On any other day, I would have said all this.

But not today.

Not today, because I’ve spent an angry evening wondering at the constant battle that motherhood is, at the constant fighting, nagging and tug-of-war that is woven inextricably into mealtimes, homework times, teeth brushing times and generally all those times when he is required to actually do something that is good for him. I’m angry and upset.  So when Hasan reiterates, “I hate this house!” I want to snap right back—“I hate motherhood!”

“I hate this thankless job where no matter what I do, it’s never enough. Never quite right. I hate all this non-stop surveillance and negotiation and threats and yelling. I hate having to deal with you.” That’s what I want to say, but I can’t say it aloud. I just lie down silently beside him, simmering within.

“Don’t come close to me!” He sulks some more. “Door hat jaiye.”  Get away! And proceeds to roll to the far end of the bed.

“Fine!” I reply huffily, turning my back to him and sulking in my own corner. “I won’t come near you at all.”

I’m upset. Not by what he said, no. He’s a little boy. His anger means nothing. But I’m upset that no matter what I do, I can’t seem to make my son happy. No matter how hard I try, he always has something to complain about. No matter what I do, I can never get things done on time, no matter what I do, I can never get things done without a fight. I continue to sulk.

Five minutes go by and I feel a hand on my arm.

“Mummy, turn this side, please. Don’t turn your back to me,” a little voice pleads from behind my back. I sigh. Then turn over, putting my arm on his body and holding him close to me.

“I love you so much but you don’t love me,” I say quietly, a little sadly.

“No, no! I didn’t mean I hate you! I just meant I hate this house.” He tries, in his 5-year-old way, to undo the damage.  I smile a little and hug him.

“I don’t know why I say these things! I don’t like it when I say them!  Main kyun kehta hun ye sab?” he’s almost agitated at himself.

“It’s okay, honey. Koi baat nahi.” I stroke his hair. “It’s alright. I understand.” And then I tell him, “I don’t like it either, when I hit you. I feel sad when I slap you or spank you in anger. I don’t want to do it at all.” I confess to him, sadly. He hugs me tighter.

A few minutes pass by in silence.

Then a little voice asks, “Mummy, mere aansu kyun nikal rahe hain?” Why do I have tears in my eyes?

Again, I’m not surprised. I am the mother of an emotional boy, and sometimes his eyes brim over without him being able to make sense of what exactly it is that’s making him sad.

This, for instance happened a few days ago: We were sitting together, and as I watched him while he played, I suddenly felt a deep surge of love. “You know Hasan, when you grow up, I’ll remember all these games you used to play, and the things you used to say.”

“Oh, don’t worry, I’ll be saying the same things even then,” he declares without even looking at me, busy in his toys. I burst out laughing at his comical reassurance.  But later that night, as we lie together in the darkness, he says to me quietly, perhaps a little sadly:

“Mummy, when I grow up, you will miss the things I do now?”

I’m surprised. I hadn’t thought he would pay so much attention to my statement, much less be thinking about it many hours later.

“Oh no, honey, I didn’t mean that I’d be thinking about them sadly, I meant I’d be remembering them happily, in a good way,” I hurriedly reassured him. “You know, the way I sometimes tell you about the things you did when you were a tiny baby. They won’t be sad memories, sweetheart. It will make me happy to think of them.”

“Oh,” he says, but his face is still crumpled. I can’t see him properly in the dark though, and now he asks, “Mummy, mere aansu kyun nikal rahe hain?

Mummy, why am I crying?

I’m quite astonished because my simple statement of remembering his childhood wasn’t supposed to carry so much gravity.

I hug him tight. “You tell me, beta. Tell me what’s making you sad. Tell me what are you thinking?”

And I get to hear a fascinating tale.

“Well, I was watching ‘Veer- The Robo Boy’ yesterday, and Veer’s grandfather is attacked by a chemical that reaches his brain. Dadaji (grandpa) faints then, and Veer is not able to wake him up..” he narrates, his voice breaking suddenly as begins to cry.

“Yes, and then?”

“Veer keeps trying to save his Dadaji. And he remembers the things from his childhood, how his Dadaji used to play with him and take care of him when he was a baby,” sobs my boy. “Veer is afraid his Dadaji will die…” The tears fall freely now.

And I understand.

My little boy has figured out the connection between memories and sadness.

How missing someone is an inherent part of grief. How we think of the past most often when we’re sad.  So when he heard his mother talking of ‘missing’ the things he does as a kid, he immediately made the connection to sadness. I had to explain to him then, how memories can make us happy as well, how we can think of the past not just in grief but in joy as well. He needed me to help make sense of all the new things he’d discovered and experienced, among them the newfound experience of empathy—being able to cry for a grief that’s not your own. Making sense of emotions and experiences is not easy even for adults, much less for 5-year-olds.

And so now, when he again asks me the question, “Mummy mere aansu kyun nikal rahe hain?”  he expects me to make sense of his feelings.

But a woman can’t always be just a mother at all times. She’s a human with her own feelings too. She isn’t always the guiding light and comforting cushion, she’s also a person with her own vulnerabilities.

“Mere bhi aansu nikal rahe hain,” I surprise myself by blurting this out to him. “I’m crying too.”

Suddenly, he’s very still. His voice is very alert. “Why? Why are you crying?”

“Because I hate yelling at you and beating you and I wish I never did it.”

He nods, very sagely. “Yes, just like I hate saying horrid things and I don’t wanna do it but I can’t stop myself.”

I’m surprised at my little boy and how much he understands.

“I’m sorry.” I say to him.

“I’m sorry, too.” He says, and we hug each other tight, before he drifts off to sleep.

I suppose we may be doing a good job together after all.

We’ll do just fine.