A litany of loss and gain

On April 17, 2020, as my mother calls me incessantly to come have lunch with her during work hours, I shake my head in disbelief. Just six weeks ago, I was certain I would never hear her say my name again.

I have two very vivid memories of my mother’s sickness, beginning fall of 2019. In the first, I sit by her hospital bed after midnight as she lies with her eyes wide open and her mind blank. Her fingers keep fidgeting as if she’s trying to catch something in her hands. She is not aware I am by her side, or who I am. I take her soft, shrunken hand in mine and keep talking intermittent nonsense so she doesn’t feel alone. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t care. In that moment, through tears of frustration as I watch anxiously for a single sign of recognition, I have already lost her. She’s breathing, staring at something I can’t see, but she isn’t alive as she once was. I am certain she will never be.

The second memory is from an afternoon months before that night. I am in my bedroom in my parents’ home, trying to take a nap. I pull myself up from the bed to look at my mother standing at the bedroom door, looking at me uncertainly, a hot cup of tea in hand.

Tumharey liye chai banayi thee,” she says sheepishly, half expecting me to tell her to leave me alone as I have so many times before.

But this time, I jump out in alarm.

“Ammi! You’re not supposed to take the stairs alone, definitely not with chai!”

I take the cup from her and gently lead her upstairs, where we sit at the kitchen table and drink tea in silence.

One would think my memory of the night at the hospital with my mother not remembering me would be worse, but it is this moment, seeing her standing on her feet with that cup of tea that haunted me more as she got sicker. It made me never want to sleep in that room again. Because in the days following this encounter, Ammi would soon lose her ability to walk, let alone take stairs, and eventually, to turn the stove on or make tea. She would forget how to write a full sentence, or read one, or all of the prayer verses that once flowed from her lips five times a day. Her mind, once a reliable treasure trove of names and dates and medical facts would become blank as a baby’s. Just a few things would remain. That she was a mother of three, and that the year was 1985 in Karachi, the town she left a decade ago.

This story has an unexpected ending. My mother came back to me. Amazingly, the tiny yet lethal tumor in her brain that was incorrectly diagnosed as late stage dementia is no longer presiding over her physical and mental faculties. It’s not completely gone; about five percent of it continues to live, sitting right next to a facial nerve as a forever reminder of what she went through. But a whirlwind medical intervention that’s the stuff of a Hollywood film saved her life.

My brother, her first-born and only child to follow her footsteps in the medical profession, discovered a study conducted at McGill University linking her supposedly benign tumor to a series of rare impacts on her memory, balance, and cognitive ability. Within weeks, he convinced her surgeon to consider the study in her treatment plan, and to perform a risky brain surgery that his team was only half confident would work. In true Amitabh Bacchan fashion, my brother saved the day just in time before our lives went up in flames — an understated description of what losing my mother would have done to my family.

For months my brother, sister, father and I had been saying a long, painful goodbye to the woman who held our often at-war family unit together. Through her rapid memory loss, frequent falls, and eventual decline into complete physical and mental disability, we had prepared ourselves for her loss in ways familiar to the family members of Alzheimers and dementia patients.

During the month she stayed at the George Washington Hospital’s neurosurgery unit, I would spend the day with her while other family members took the night shift. After long days at the hospital, I would often turn up at a close friend’s apartment, crawling into a bed miles away from the bedroom where my mother’s ghost stood at the door with a steaming cup of tea.

That bed was my solace in weeks and weeks of hospital duty. Sometimes, I’d cry myself to a few hours of sleep. But most times I would lie awake all night, silently counting hours until I would drive back to the hospital.

Ten days after her surgery and in the middle of a global pandemic, my mother returned home, on her feet. I hesitate to say she is back to her old self because there are some parts of her she may never regain. Like her old physical strength and large swathes of six months that are blank spaces in her head. We’re talking Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind blank. That’s not a bad thing. I sometimes envy her for losing those spots.

Literally everything in my life took a backseat during my mother’s illness. It has now relaunched in strange ways. Work, friendships, love, introspection — everything was on hold as I dug a giant hole in my universe in the shape of my mother, fully expecting to lose her. As I catch up to the new ravages of 2020, I’m going to try and keep in mind the best lesson this past year taught me: it’s a gift to suck at predicting the future.

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