Last December, my grandpa passed away a day prior to my wedding reception. Bed-ridden for months, he was in a lot of anguish. The beige color of his skin matched the peeled sections of the bedroom wallpaper. His head, resembling the plucked breast of an owl, bobbed up and down whenever I visited him. It housed a set of yellowing teeth that clacked incessantly and a pair of beady, untenanted eyes.
On good days, he would remember the names of people he cared about. He gulped down a lungful of air and fought hard to recall specific interactions he had with them. But it seemed like muscle memory.
He may have been technically alive, but it was as though I was talking to a ghost.
My grandpa was the only role model I had. When I was kid, he had taken me under his wing for a very short period. He made an indelible mark in the way I perceived the world.
His impact was felt by others too.
As a writer, a journalist and political activist, he inspired his readers to stand up for what they believed in. As a professor and a scholar, he empowered his students to break the mould and build their own legacies. Many continue to credit him for having found their paths to success.
His wit was perpetual. His fondness for one-liners had him cracking life’s complexities with a devilish grin on his face. I thought about one of them when I first heard he had died.
“Losing while defending something that matters is a victory unto itself”
His death may have been a huge loss, but I was comforted that by escaping the pain – in some way – my grandpa had won.
I had precious time to grieve because of the prep work for my wedding reception. I had already gotten married in November. I exchanged vows, rings and laughs with a songbird called Silvia. Since it was a private affair, we were hosting a ballroom dinner for a larger crowd.
I was excited and nervous about the big evening. I tried to keep my grandpa out of my mind so that I could focus on the tasks at hand. But it was like blindfolding a wooden horse in a merry-go-round to make it go faster.
I realized I had not even begun to deal with his death.
With only two hours left for the guests to show up, I caught up with Raju – my hair stylist. I was to get preened and pruned in the hotel room.
While getting ready, I noticed that Raju was quiet. It seemed uncharacteristic. I have known him as the town crier for 15 years. He could not keep quiet even when he was by himself. When I asked him if something was wrong, he shrugged his shoulders. Normally I would not have second-guessed it. But for some reason, I kept questioning him.
Finally, he blurted out that our close friend, Greg, had suffered a heart attack a few days ago. He was in the ICU, but he was safe. Greg had told Raju to break the news to me once the reception was over.
I was collecting details when the wedding photographers rushed in. They informed me that my wife was waiting in the hallway. Raju asked me to quit worrying about it, and he egged me to leave the room.
I stepped outside to meet Silvia. All decked up, she looked breath-taking. Grinning uncontrollably, I went up to her and planted a kiss on her cheek.
Our festive garbs made it tough to saunter around with grace. We firmly held hands, out of love and the equilibrium of balance, and entered the dining hall. There were many people I had not seen in years. We felt thankful they had shown up. We walked around to greet each one of them. I shook everyone’s hands. Considering how much I sweat, there was nary a dry palm in the hall.
We then made our way to the stage and sat down on throne-like sofas.
A few of our loved ones addressed the crowd. They articulated, beautifully, how they had felt about our union. And then, the band played, as our guests – bearing gifts – queued up to congratulate us. Everyone had something nice to say. I got some of their names wrong, but they did not seem to mind.
When the guests had dined and left, Silvia and I were exhausted. Our legs and cheek muscles were aching. We had a lot on our minds. Even though we had been officially married for two weeks, it had not sunk in until we saw the empty ballroom. We knew then that we were in it for the long run.
We held hands again. This time, only out of love.
The next day, I contacted Greg’s wife to find out how he was doing. She told me he was semiconscious, and that he would be discharged soon. So, I decided to meet him in person on the day of his discharge.
On the night before we were supposed to meet, Greg sent a text message to me.
“Just got out of cardio care unit. My veins are fucked because of angioplasty. Would love to meet you”
In the morning, I received a call from Raju. I could not understand him at first. It took me a while to figure out he was crying. Deep down I knew what was coming. Minutes after completing the exit formalities at the hospital, Greg had suffered another heart attack. It was fatal.
It only sunk in when I was driving to the hospital. The traffic was bad, so I had plenty of time to grieve.
Greg had been my close friend for nearly two decades. I met him during my college years in the early 2000s. A year into our friendship, he had to quit his studies because his dad was paralyzed due to multiple strokes. Greg had to take over the family restaurant.
He had been helping his dad from when he was a wee lad. So, he knew the ins and outs of the business. While his friends were getting wasted and going on frivolous adventures, Greg was in the kitchen to make sure the soup tasted right. He was interacting with his customers to keep them coming back. Then, he went home to take care of his dad.
We were proud of him because he was the first in our group to single-handedly deal with financial and social responsibilities. In the mid-2000s, he had gotten married to one of my friends. Together, they had a precious daughter.
In the late 2000s, Greg’s mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. With his dad’s condition on a steep decline, he had to stay remarkably strong to hold the rest of his family together. His parents passed away within a year of each other.
I was by his side when he had buried them. After his mom’s funeral, I had told him to never forget that I was a part of his family.
Entering the hospital ward, I glanced at the last text message Greg had sent. I tightened my grip on the phone. I felt a pang of guilt. In the recent past, our careers had taken precedence over our friendship. We would only catch up once every two months to talk about the good old days. Besides these fleeting moments, our relationship was resigned to drunken calls and YouTube recommendations through WhatsApp messages.
Before meeting his wife and daughter, I washed my face and collected my thoughts. I wanted to be strong for them. But as soon as I saw them, I burst into tears.
I could not believe Greg was gone.
Desperately I tried to recall the last time we had met but it was in vain. In fact, I could not remember any of our recent encounters. I still cannot.
Some of his friends then arrived to offer their support. I could see it in their eyes how much he had meant to them. Greg had loved them. He never had much of a relationship with his relatives. Besides a wife, a daughter, and a younger sister, his friends were all he had. We hugged each other and expressed disbelief over how abruptly his life had ended.
Once we received the necessary documentation, we began to cocoon Greg using white sheets. It smelled of washing liquid. The stench of death was unmissable too. We hauled him from the mortuary ward to the ambulance.
We invited people over to his house to pay their last respects. One by one, they came – bearing garlands, wreaths and sympathies. In the evening, we reached the crematorium for the last rites. We saw our friend being fed into the burner. Our fingers trembled over the rusted metal barricades, as we heard the loud hissing.
Hours later, Greg’s wife and I went to collect his ashes. We were pointed to a lanky, bespectacled man, who was squatting in front of a heap of charred bones and human dust. He was poking a stick into whatever remained of Greg; sorting out the bits to be deposited into the urn.
I was reminded of something else my grandpa once told me.
“Death is very plain. That’s why your life has to be special”
As 2019 rolled by, I was still grieving about Greg and my grandpa. I was also happy about my new journey with Silvia. I ached to keep moving forward, like Verve’s lead singer in the “Bittersweet Symphony” music video.
Birdwatching also played its role in the healing process. From 2013 onward, it has been am intergal part of my life – no matter which direction I headed towards.
Between January and March, I saw plenty of birds in my city’s outskirts. Much to my surprise, I spotted a handful of winter visitors. I hope to share my encounters with them in this space over the coming weeks.
The year’s most prized discovery, so far, has been an old friend of mine.
While scouting a bird sanctuary in my city’s outskirts in February, I chanced upon an Indian Paradise Flycatcher.
It was early in the morning. The leaves were still wet from the night’s moisture, as dewdrops precariously dangled from spiderwebs. In the middle of a marshy terrain, I noticed a cinnamon-morph female paradise flycatcher. It was staring me down. I was perhaps in its nesting habitat. I stepped back and sat on the cold floor to observe it.
I have some history with these birds. I have seen them a mere handful of times over the years.
It is why I could not resist the urge to revisit the spot about five days later. While surveying the treetops from a clunky watchtower, a long-feathered bird flew past me below. Shimmying down the steps, I was shocked to see a cinnamon-morph male Paradise Flycatcher dart out of a thorny thicket. It found a spot under a banyan tree.
Unable to hold my composure, I came unglued. A cinnamon-morph male had last appeared in 2017. My feet grew pogo sticks, and I jumped up and down several times. My heart turned into a crumbling red velvet cake; scrambling to sponge every bit of excitement in the air.
I knew I had to go back again. So, the following weekend – I arrived at dawn and patiently haunted the thicket. Over the next two hours, I spotted a Blue-Throated Blue Flycatcher, a Blue Rock Thrush, a Black-Headed Cuckoo Shrike and a pair of peacocks.
And then, it happened.
A white-morph Paradise Flycatcher landed on a branch near me.
The last time I had seen was in 2016.
There was poetry in the air. Its tail-feathers swayed with the grace of single-celled ballerinas. Its crest flared up and down, like a twitchy nose sporting a mohawk haircut.
Humbled by its appearance, I stood there in awe. For a fleeting moment, we were connected by something larger than the sum of our existence.
My mind had been emptied. Nothing else mattered besides the flycatcher.
It has since occurred to me that contentment is not always about building bridges to create long-lasting relationships. I must also break down walls to embrace transient moments.
I miss my grandpa and my best friend. I am devastated they will no longer be a part of my life. But that is what I sign up for when I connect with people or – for that matter – any other species.
Everyone comes with an expiry date. But I cannot hold it against them.
There is a sanctuary to be claimed while letting go of permanency. After all, freedom arrives fluidly only when it is unannounced.