I'm sorry, Mum
I am not sure if I've been a good son to my mother. Twenty years after her passing, I still feel I owe her an apology, and this Mother's Day may be an opportune moment to write a note of mea maxima culpa.
This is the story of my epic journey on a wing and a prayer to save my mother who suffered a cerebral aneurism in a swathe of paddy fields. Help came from a labourer - a godsend and saviour - who took Amma to a village hospital, which took more than half a day to establish her identify and let my family know it was a suspected case of haemorrhage.
I was not in the know and was partying in Sharjah until late night on New Year's Eve in 1996. Tragedies invariably strike at the wrong time, shattering our beliefs that life's a never-ending party and bad things only happen to other people. The phone was ringing incessantly when I returned home in the wee hours of the New Year and opened the door.
"Mum's unwell. I've shifted her to a district hospital where doctors are suggesting a brain surgery. You need to come immediately." It was my brother. As I flew back within a couple of hours, I was yet to absorb the tragedy that had struck a woman who had slogged a lifetime to raise and educate five children in a joint family. I was sure she deserved a more honourable end.
I watched helplessly as the woman who brought me up as a humanist drifted in and out of consciousness, while the doctor was away celebrating New Year. Help finally came from the late veteran journalist Leena Menon, who traced him to a resort.
"Your mum is dying, like any other aneurism patient." He was as blunt as he was hostile. "The leaked blood in her brain will start to dry up. When a liquid dries up, it tends to cling to the surface of a solid material - in this case, the blood vessels. The blood will squeeze the vessels as it dries up, hindering the circulation in the brain. Death will come sooner than later."
After four hospitals and a road journey of 300km, my journalist-friend, the late PC Joseph, took us to see a neurosurgeon in the pioneering Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences & Technology.
"Dr Suresh Nair was on a Europe tour and was supposed to join back today. Check his room," said a receptionist. We found the doctor's room locked. Distraught, my brother and I walked the long corridor to the lift when I noticed a shadow at the other end.
I ran back towards the doctor's room, which was locked from inside. Through the ventilator, I could see the fan beginning to rotate. He let us in after we knocked.
"Rugmani is 70 now. Add a year each for blood pressure and diabetes. You want me to do a brain surgery on a woman who is clinically 72?" he asked.
"Yes." The resonance of hope and positivity in my reply shook him. I told him that a great fighter, who woke up at five every day and read till late night, shouldn't be allowed to go down like this. He hummed and hawed before speaking his mind.
"I feel a connect as both of us and our mothers share the same names. Bring her tomorrow and I will ask her to hold my finger to check her reflex. If she responds, we will go ahead." Amma proved her mettle once again but, unfortunately, the main water pipeline to the city burst, resulting in the suspension of most surgeries for two days.
"One more day without water will be fatal," Dr Suresh warned on the third day. As journalists piled pressure, the hospital cancelled all other surgeries and ordered day-long supply of tanker water. All's well that ended well, thanks to a dedicated team of doctors who performed the eight-hour-long surgery.
Years later, when she went into a coma again, I was preparing to shift to Singapore but decided to be with her as doctors believed this could be the last act. I spent days and nights by her bedside in a hospital, reading books and breathing nothing but her presence. She was motionless, her half-open eyes shining warmth and tearing occasionally, as if her inner self was able to read my mind. I had grown restless after a few weeks as I needed to relocate to Singapore as soon as my employment visa arrived.
"I need to go back to Dubai," I told a shell-shocked gathering of my sisters and brothers-in-law.
"Doctors say the end could come any day, so wait for a few more days," they said, and even arranged a doctor, a classmate of mine for five years, to talk to me. I stuck to my position that Singapore was my dream and I couldn't wait any longer. She passed away that night. The phone rang as I stepped into my house after performing her last rites.
"Mr Suresh, we have emailed your family visa, tickets and hotel bookings. Join as soon as possible," said the HR lady on the other end. I stood there numb as the white dhoti I wore for the funeral dripped wet. It wasn't the dream-come-true elation that made me cry, but the thought of whether she granted my wishes through nirvana or was driven to a mental implosion by my selfishness - a question that still haunts me. I'm sorry, mum.