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Papa (far left) with his cousins. Gangtok, Sikkim, 1960s.

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The Ageing Of My Father:
A Reflection

SARBPREET SINGH

 

 

 




 

In ancient tomes some wisdom seek
Tales of havoc that old gods wreak
In the Name of the Lord some solace find
Beads of prayer sooth the mind

I know not what my state shall be
Of ignorance I am not free
Seeking my Lord your hallowed grace
Bereft of honor, humble, base


Sometimes the soul touches the sky
Sometimes the nether world is nigh
My soul it wanders, cannot rest
North, South, East and West

The soul forgets that death shall come
Greedily grasping in the scrum
Many are gone and I feel fear
Hark the burning flames are near


Friends are for naught and brothers too
Parents too nothing can do
Towards your Name does Nanak bend
It’s all that matters in the end

 




Hopkinton, Massachusetts, USA


My eyes are shut and the tambura plays. The swarmandal strikes the sweet sounds of Raag Ramkali.

The arrival of Guru Nanak will be celebrated at the Westborough Gurdwara today and I am to sing there. It is early morning and I prepare.

My mind has not been at peace for a while now and it is rare when it settles down enough to let me feel the pure joy that singing can bring.

Today, however, is different. As I sing the beautiful words of Guru Nanak, caressed by the sometimes somber and sometimes playful strains of Ramkali, I feel a warm feeling starting to settle on me.

And then, my nostrils are assailed by the now familiar, pungent smell. Of urine. I open my eyes, irritated, but keep on singing. My father has heard me singing and has wandered towards the music room. I look up and see him standing in the doorway and somewhat reluctantly wave him towards a couch.

My father, whose presence had always loomed large in the lives of our extended family ever since I could remember, was felled by a massive heart attack eight years ago. His heart had stopped and in the time that it took to revive him, his brain suffered massive, irreversible hypoxic damage. The man who had been the bulwark of so many, in an instant became completely dysfunctional. His body recovered, but his mind was never to be the same again.

Three years ago, I brought him and my mother to live with us. My parents had both been unwell. They were elderly. And they had been thousands of miles away. The occasional visits to India and the banal conversations over the phone had seemed completely useless. I remember being constantly plagued by a feeling of guilt which dissipated instantly when their immigration paperwork finally came through and I traveled to the subcontinent to bring them back with me.

I remember the glow of accomplishment and relief I experienced when I got home, my parents in tow. Finally I would be able to take care of them.

I had made a thousand plans in my mind. I would try to keep them busy. They would get involved with the gurdwara and the local Sikh community. They would take their place among the grandparents who enrich the lives of not just their own grandchildren but all the young ones in their orbit. Perhaps I would be able to find some volunteer work for my father who had despised idleness his entire life and had been the most hardworking person I had ever known.

How naive was I!

I had no understanding of the state that my parents were in. The short visits to India had hidden the extent of their deterioration. My father was unable to shower or dress without supervision. He was incapable of maintaining basic hygiene when he used the bathroom. He had no short term memory at all and was perpetually confused and agitated, especially when he first arrived. I was to learn from his neurologist that being uprooted from familiar surroundings and taken to a new context is frightening and hugely disruptive for the elderly who suffer from severe dementia.

My father’s agitation would express itself in unexpected ways. Without fail, every night I would be awakened by loud banging on my door. My father would be up, either subconsciously seeking company or demanding to be fed. I would explain to him that it was the middle of the night and lead him back to his room. Barely would I have gone back to sleep, before the banging would start again. My poor father would have no recollection of having done the same thing just ten minutes earlier. I would take him back to his room again.

As this pattern continued the entire night, my patience would start to wear thin and sometimes I would find myself yelling at him in frustration, after having spent a dozen sleepless nights in a row. Sometimes the yelling would work and he would go back to bed, cowed and not return for a few hours. I would feel deeply ashamed for having lost my patience.

Things did settle down a bit just as the neurologist, an exceptionally wise and experienced doctor, had predicted. My father got used to his new surroundings, settled down a bit and started sleeping through the night. My anger and frustration, however, despite my best efforts continued to bubble up to the surface.

Deep down within me there was a profound sense of sorrow. I could not bear to see the man who had enjoyed the utmost respect in his family and his community reduced to this. A man who had always been resolute and dignified. A man who had always been a leader. A man who everyone had come to with their problems. A man that many respected and many feared.

The loss of his dignity enraged me but who was to be the subject of my rage? Often, to my eternal shame, my poor father, who could control his actions no more than a two year old could.

Sometimes I find myself wishing that my father had not survived the heart attack. As I examine his very painful and circumscribed existence I feel that he would be happier if he had left the world in the prime of life, his dignity and self-respect intact.

Or at least that is what I tell myself. Often, I promise myself that I will never suffer this fate. My children will know that when I get old and start deteriorating, they will not try to prolong my existence when my dignity starts to fade. But this is arrogance! Who among us knows what fate has in store? It only takes a second for one’s life to be transformed.

Why do I write about such terrible things?

My father will pass. And these feelings of helplessness and shame will too. But I feel it is important to articulate them and share them.

For I suspect that I am not alone.

A million things rush through my mind as I continue to sing. I try to suppress my irritation but a wave of self-pity washes over me. Could he have not left me alone for a few minutes? Why am I not able to savor this brief moment of peace?

And then my thoughts drift elsewhere.

I start thinking of everything that my father has given me. There are several things that define me and give me deep satisfaction. One of my joys is public speaking. It is something that I started doing at a very young age. It was my father who wrote my first monologue for me when I was in elementary school. I must have been six or seven, but I vividly remember him coaching me as I prepared for my first public speaking engagement ever.

Ever since I was a child, I have loved to read. The love of books and writing has informed and enriched my life in profound ways. It was my father who gave me this gift. Gangtok, the small town I grew up in, didn’t have much of a bookshop. My father would come back laden with new books every time he went on a business trip. An autodidact, he had a rich and varied bookshelf, which I voraciously consumed with his blessing while growing up.

This very melody that I am singing is one I first heard as a child. My father had an extensive record collection and he had acquired a set of LPs that had the shabads of Guru Nanak, rendered by some of the best musicians and raagis of the time. Every Sunday, he would play these records without fail and of course, as a child, I didn’t pay much attention.

But magically, as if, these melodies of my childhood, heard so often, stayed with me. Much later, after I had immersed myself in gurmat sangeet, I had asked my father to make cassette tapes from these records and send them to me, which he did, before his illness. Over the years I have gratefully sung and taught many of these melodies. In a way, this melody that I sing today, which he listens to in silence, is a gift from him too.

I finish singing. He gets up and quietly walks away. I hear the sound of the TV turned on.

I sit in silence.

I am ashamed at my momentary irritation, but then the shame vanishes. It is replaced by a profound feeling of joy.

Despite everything I am deeply grateful that my father is here, surrounded by his family in the winter of his life. The opportunity to take care of him is a gift too, even if I sometimes have to remind myself that it is.

A few hours later, I sing the same melody at the Westborough Gurdwara, where the congregation has gathered to celebrate the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak.

The joy is multiplied, many times over.


ਰਾਮਕਲੀ ਮਹਲਾ ੧ ਘਰੁ ੧ ਚਉਪਦੇ
ਕੋਈ ਪੜਤਾ ਸਹਸਾਕਿਰਤਾ ਕੋਈ ਪੜੈ ਪੁਰਾਨਾ ॥
ਕੋਈ ਨਾਮੁ ਜਪੈ ਜਪਮਾਲੀ ਲਾਗੈ ਤਿਸੈ ਧਿਆਨਾ ॥
ਅਬ ਹੀ ਕਬ ਹੀ ਕਿਛੂ ਨ ਜਾਨਾ ਤੇਰਾ ਏਕੋ ਨਾਮੁ ਪਛਾਨਾ ॥੧॥

ਨ ਜਾਣਾ ਹਰੇ ਮੇਰੀ ਕਵਨ ਗਤੇ ॥
ਹਮ ਮੂਰਖ ਅਗਿਆਨ ਸਰਨਿ ਪ੍ਰਭ ਤੇਰੀ ਕਰਿ ਕਿਰਪਾ ਰਾਖਹੁ ਮੇਰੀ ਲਾਜ ਪਤੇ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥

ਕਬਹੂ ਜੀਅੜਾ ਊਭਿ ਚੜਤੁ ਹੈ ਕਬਹੂ ਜਾਇ ਪਇਆਲੇ ॥
ਲੋਭੀ ਜੀਅੜਾ ਥਿਰੁ ਨ ਰਹਤੁ ਹੈ ਚਾਰੇ ਕੁੰਡਾ ਭਾਲੇ ॥੨॥

ਮਰਣੁ ਲਿਖਾਇ ਮੰਡਲ ਮਹਿ ਆਏ ਜੀਵਣੁ ਸਾਜਹਿ ਮਾਈ ॥
ਏਕਿ ਚਲੇ ਹਮ ਦੇਖਹ ਸੁਆਮੀ ਭਾਹਿ ਬਲੰਤੀ ਆਈ ॥੩॥

ਨ ਕਿਸੀ ਕਾ ਮੀਤੁ ਨ ਕਿਸੀ ਕਾ ਭਾਈ ਨਾ ਕਿਸੈ ਬਾਪੁ ਨ ਮਾਈ ॥
ਪ੍ਰਣਵਤਿ ਨਾਨਕ ਜੇ ਤੂ ਦੇਵਹਿ ਅੰਤੇ ਹੋਇ ਸਖਾਈ ॥੪॥੧॥

 
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Sarbpreet Singh is a playwright, commentator and poet, who has been writing while pursuing a career in technology for several years. He is the author of ‘Kultar’s Mime‘, a poem about the 1984 Sikh Genocide. He is the founder and director of the Gurmat Sangeet Project, a non-profit dedicated to the preservation of traditional Sikh music. He also serves as a spiritual adviser at Northeastern University.


November 7, 2017
 

Conversation about this article

1: Balwinder Kaur (San Jose, California, USA), November 08, 2017, 10:22 PM.

S. Sarbpreet Singh ji, I am in the same boat since the last three months. I took my father in after my mother passed away a few months before. He is 89 years old, and suffering from dementia. I am helping him bathe, change clothes, etc. I have so many sleepless nights. It's not easy and I am thinking the same way as you do. But we should do our best since they are helpless. In the middle of the night he walks around and when I take him back to his bed he looks at me like a little child lost somewhere. I am wondering how is your mother doing because the last time you mentioned about her health too. Sometimes I am thinking about her too. It is always good to share because we feel relieved. This is how I feel now. God bless you all.

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