We had some really good times in the past five years, with at least a few of them by design.
I started interacting with her while she was in the kitchen, even if I had gone there just to fetch my coffee or food. While earlier my jaunts into the kitchen would be purely transactional, now I started hanging around for a few minutes, doing something playful with her, or offering to help her in some small way. Done in the lively early mornings, these memories really stand out fresh for me.
I got her interested in watching cricket and both of us spent many hours watching one day matches or T20 games. It could be amusing and annoying in turns trying to answer many of her questions, but that was really part of the fun. During some of these games, each of us would challenge the other to predict a score for the batting team, and it was fun trying to see which of us got it right. During many of these games, she felt sleepy and would want to leave, but I would deliberately ask her to sit back until the game was over – which she did most of the time.
Amma always wanted India to win in cricket. But I suspect patriotism had only partly to do with this desire. As she was never sure who our opponents were, she just rooted for the only team she recognized! She was a patriot by default.
It is fairly obvious that loneliness could create distress in old people like amma. 96 Even though her mobility was significantly constrained owing to her old age and weak heart, I ensured that I took her to important family events, to our native village, and to the local temple as many times as possible. She cherished meeting people, and all these occasions and locations overflowed with this rather abundant Indian commodity!
Whenever I had to buy clothes for myself – and this was not too frequent though – I ensured that I took her along with me to the shop. Once there, she would start bossing over me and ensure that every single thing that I chose – right down to my undergarments! – was approved by her. She enjoyed it, and I was happy because she was happy, and also because I had never liked shopping for anything.
Sometimes, I used to play guitar sitting next to her bed. While she was not much interested in music, I would ask her to identify some popular Tamil song or devotional song I played, and she would try to.
I took extra efforts to ensure that the baby of the house – my baby nephew – played with her as much as possible. She loved him. Many times, just having the mischievous fellow around made all three of us have a fun time.
Fig 29: Amma with my baby nephew when he was about a year and a half old
Memorable experiences were designed on the fly at times. About five years back, my niece who was then studying medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, came to stay with us along with an American friend of hers, Jessica. Jess, as she was called, is one of the most patient people I have seen in my life, so different from the typical modern young woman, and that too someone Ivy League all the way – she did her undergraduate from MIT and was doing her further studies at UPenn. 87 I was surprised that Jess was so much at ease in an old-fashioned middle class Indian home. Amma liked her a lot, and Jess even helped out amma in the manual pumping of water. As amma could never get the name Jess right, I told amma that her name actually was Chess. To our amusement, amma kept calling her Chess the whole of the ten days she stayed with us.
And I should tell you about that special day when I picked up loads of flowers for her. We have this wonderful Parijaat (Indian night jasmine) plant right in front of our house – small-sized flowers, but dynamite when it comes to fragrance. Amma usually picked the flowers from the plant every morning to be offered to the gods. One day about a year and half back, a Sunday, she asked me to pick flowers as she was busy. Most times when I was asked to do this, I would pick up perhaps two dozen flowers that had fallen to the ground and be done with it. That day, I wanted to really impress amma, and decided to pick every flower on the ground and on the plant. I was so determined that I looked at every nook and crevice on the ground, and every small branch on the plant, to ensure that I had not missed a single flower. After finishing what was in our compound, I jumped over to our neighbour’s compound and picked up every flower from the plant that had fallen over there. Along the way, many times, I heard amma’s impatient voice from inside the house asking for the flowers, but I pressed on. After perhaps 30 minutes, she came out to see what was going on, and found me crouched in our neighbour’s compound, looking for more flowers under the grass and shrubs. It was fun hearing her curse me for being such an adamant and unreasonable fellow – all she wanted was about a dozen flowers!
After almost an hour and fifteen minutes, I had collected every Parijaat flower in the vicinity – 875 in all (yes, I actually counted to keep my motivation going). Amma simply could not believe it when I handed over a huge bowl full of the fragrant flowers. She once again called me an obstinate fool, but I knew she liked the fact that I was trying hard to impress her. What memories!
Fig 30: One of my flower picking sessions, along with the baby of the house
The one activity that I’m really glad that I designed well was reciting together for 30 days, every year for the past five years, a set of Tamil religious poems called Thiruppavai, in the months of December and January. 98 The entire poem comprises a set of 30 stanzas. Each stanza in turn contains eight lines. While reciting these, amma and I took turns. The rule is that I would recite the first four lines of each stanza and she would, after me, recite the last four. Every day, it took in all about 30 minutes to recite the entire set, with appa joining us a few times. It was 30 minutes every day of engagement in an activity that gave her immense satisfaction, and me immense joy. For those keen on engaging with old parents who are from a completely different generation, I see this as an example that could be generically extrapolated as: Identify a 10-15 minute daily or weekly activity that you your amma or appa value immensely, one which you enjoy doing too, and which can be done interactively. I can vouch for the high satisfaction you will achieve from this.
Thinking back, I realize that my approach that revolved mostly around simple activities, with many of them being on-the-fly, was actually quite effective, especially given my poor temperament.
What’s so special about a special moment? It’s our realization that it is special and valuable, which implies that any moment can be special if we want it to be. Special moments thus can happen around everyday tasks, looking at family photos, singing songs or religious hymns together, doing silly things, 99 going on a local tour, talking about old days…
The good times designed by me for amma were thus mostly more out of intuition and a subconscious desire to keep her life engaged and enriched, and not really ones that were well-thought out and planned – though a bit of planning and thought would definitely have made these a lot better.
On balance, I would give myself 5/10 for taking efforts to design good times between the two of us. Not a bad score for a socially reluctant person like me who would have scored an absolute zero just a few years earlier.
Doing some of these activities – especially taking amma out – could be quite a drag because I had to be very careful about how I guided her around. Many times, it significantly constrained my freedom.
Had I been my normal me, I would have rarely, if ever, taken her out in her poor health condition.
But as I realized then, and am convinced now, the real value in a relationship is created not when the people involved have the freedom to do whatever they wish to do, but when they make a concerted effort to do things together.
The satisfaction you get from taking these extra efforts is immense.
96. A 2012 study in fact inferred that loneliness could be a predictor of functional decline and death in old people, with loneliness being associated with an increased risk of death (23% for very lonely vs. 14% for those who were less lonely) – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22710744/
97. MIT is not technically Ivy League as it is not a formal member of the Ivy League.
98. Thiruppavai is a devotional poem by the Vaishnavite female saint Andal. Part of a collection of Vaishnavite works called the Divya Prabhandam, it consists of thirty stanzas in praise of the Lord. The entire poem is sung on each of the 30 days during the Tamil month of Margazhi, which falls in December and January.
99. I did many of these, with some of them being really clownish – she liked these a lot. Just a few days before her death, I wrapped the BP meter around her calf instead of around her left arm just for fun, and actually found that the blood pressure in our arms and legs are quite different. Her systolic blood pressure reading in the calf was about 25 higher (115) than that in the arm (90). The trend was similar for me too – systolic calf pressure about 20 higher than that in my arm. Further research showed that this difference is not uncommon, though opinions differ among experts for the reasons behind this difference!
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