My Father’s Body, at Rest and in Motion

Siddhartha Mukherjee in The New Yorker:

SidThe call came at three in the morning. My mother, in New Delhi, was in tears. My father, she said, had fallen again, and he was speaking nonsense. She turned the handset toward him. He was muttering a slow, meaningless string of words in an unrecognizable high-pitched nasal tone. He kept repeating his nickname, Shibu, and the name of his childhood village, Dehergoti. He sounded as if he were reading his own last rites. “Take him to the hospital,” I urged her, from New York. “I’ll catch the next flight home.” “No, no, just wait,” my mother said. “He might get better on his own.” In her day, buying an international ticket on short notice was an unforgivable act of extravagance, reserved for transcontinental gangsters and film stars. No one that she knew had arrived “early” for a parent’s death. The frugality of her generation had congealed into frank superstition: if I caught a flight now, I might dare the disaster into being. “Just sleep on it,” she said, her anxiety mounting. I put the phone down and e-mailed my travel agent, asking her to put me on the next available Air India flight.

My father, eighty-three, had been declining for several weeks. The late-night phone calls had tightened in frequency and enlarged in amplitude, like waves ahead of a gathering storm: accidents were becoming more common, and their consequences more severe. This was not his first fall that year. A few months earlier, my mother had found him lying on the balcony floor with his arm broken and folded underneath him. She had taken a pair of scissors and cut his shirt off while he had howled in double agony—the pain of having to pull the remnants over his head compounded by the horror of seeing a perfectly intact piece of clothing sliced up before his eyes. It was, I knew, an ancient quarrel: hismother, who had ferried her five boys across a border to Calcutta during Partition and never had enough clothes to split among them, would have found a way to spare that shirt. Then, too, my mother had tried to play it down. “Kicchui na,” she had said: Look, it’s nothing. It was a phrase that she, the family’s stabilizing counterweight, often clung to. “We’ll manage,” she’d said, and I took her word for it. This time, I wasn’t so sure.

Twenty hours after my mother’s phone call, I landed in sweltering, smog-choked Delhi. I went to the family home from the airport, flung my bags across the bed, and took a taxi to the neuro-I.C.U. The unit was arranged in four pods around an atrium. Part of the floor was being repaired—the polished terrazzo had a gash like a busted lip that exposed the building’s pipes and electrical conduits, and pieces of jagged concrete were strewn across the corridor. If you tripped and bashed your head on the floor, I noted, a neurologist would be waiting conveniently for you around the corner. My father was densely sedated. I called his name and, for a moment, I thought he swung his head toward me in recognition. I felt a burst of joy—until I saw him swing his head back and forth again, and realized I was seeing an automatic movement, repetitive, rhythmic, patterned. His brain seemed to be slipping down some evolutionary chain, through a series of phylogenetic trapdoors—thud-thud-thud—toward a primitive, reptilian consciousness. Over time, I began to regard that vacant, circular motion as a semaphore that you might send up from the lower reaches of Hell.

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