“A mother is she who can take the place of all others but whose place no one else can take.” -Cardinal Meymillod
Our parents have been there since the moment we were born and even though, intellectually, we know they will relinquish life someday, how do we imagine something that has always been there, suddenly being gone?
It does not matter whether parents live close by or distant, or whether we are emotionally close or detached from them, the reality is that they ground us in the world. While they are alive, we do not celebrate them as an unseen anchor, but in truth, they hold a place of paramount importance in our generational timeline.
I continue enduring intense emotional pain two weeks after my mother’s tragic loss to complications from COVID-19. My mother, Rita Negi, was a motivational figure to everyone she interacted with. She was the most compassionate person I have come across. She had a vibrant and altruistic personality. Her mantra was hard work and dedication. Having taught in a private school for thirty-five plus years, she realized that dreams do come true but you have to strive in order for them to materialize.
I vividly recall having conversations with my parents a few days prior to my mother being hospitalized due to relentless cough, fever, and shortness of breath. The moment my brother and I got the news about my mother being in the hospital, both my sister-in-law and I without a second thought promptly arranged for airline tickets to Delhi, India, packed our bags, and instantly sought COVID-19 rRT-PCR (Reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction), a test that is a prerequisite for international travelers visiting India.
The moment we landed in Delhi from Newark International Liberty Airport, I tried contacting my mother, not realizing the acuity of her condition. On the advice of healthcare professionals, our conversation ended abruptly, but I still remember her gasping for air as she spoke. My mother was a big fan of social media, especially WhatsApp. Within a few seconds of her hanging up, she sent me a message, reflecting her desire to live. Even during those trying moments, she wrote how proud she was as a mother and my sister-in-law, who she considered a “part and parcel” of her life.
The one hour connecting flight from Delhi to my native place, Dehradun, seemed like an eternity. A myriad of emotions raced through my mind as I approached my destination. The moment we landed in Dehradun, my cousin, a strong pillar of support for my entire family, called me and advised us to rush to the hospital as my mother’s health had precipitously declined, prompting her to be transferred to the intensive care unit. We instantly drove to the hospital from the airport.
Witnessing my mother in respiratory distress, despite wearing a high-flow oxygen mask has been one of the most disquieting events in my life. The moment we were at my mother’s bedside, she grabbed my sister-in-law’s and my hand steadfast and once again expressed an aching desire to continue with her life. Prior to that, she had tested negative for COVID-19. However, I questioned the veracity of the test result as her symptom profile mimicked someone who had been afflicted by COVID-19. It was difficult to control the floodgate of tears at that moment, coupled with profound feelings of helplessness.
After seeking consultation from family members, friends, and experts dealing with COVID-19 in India, we made a collective decision to transfer my mother to Medanta, a tertiary level hospital, located in the outskirts of Delhi. Repeat COVID-19 testing done at Medanta Hospital revealed she had the virus, which so far has caused approximately 2 million deaths globally and inching closer to 350,000 deaths on the first day of 2021 in the United States.
I rode the ambulance with my mother, while her breathing was assisted by a ventilator. I was high-strung throughout the five-hour ambulance ride, which seemed like an eon, primarily worried about my mother’s fragile medical status. Due to sedation associated with being on a ventilator, her level of consciousness waxed and waned. I held her hand, seeking comfort from the person who provided me a nurturing touch, empathy, empowerment, and unconditional love. As the ambulance drove through crowded areas and road closures, the ambulance driver turned the siren on. The wailing sound of the ambulance siren and the bells and whistles associated with the ventilator machine haunts me today.
Both, my sister-in-law and I maintained hope till the very end, praying for a miracle to happen. The medical team at Medanta Hospital pursued all treatment options to salvage my mother’s lungs that were severely damaged by the COVID-19-induced cytokine storm, but all their efforts went in vain. Stuff that I read in newspapers and articles that critically ill patients with COVID-19 are dying in isolation without the comfort of their family or other social support in unprecedented numbers, hit home.
The hospital permitted my father, my brother, and me to view my mother’s body, prior to transferring her to the cremation ground. All three of us clad in personal protective equipment (PPE) entered the morgue, to view the person all three of us treasured the most. This was a poignant moment as in addition to seeing my mother lay in such a state, I also witnessed my father, who has always portrayed a stern image, bursting into tears. It was at that juncture that I was able to cognitively reconcile with the notion that death is irreversible.