The Tyranny Of Vanity

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Day 17, in my office parking lot:

It was 9:30am when mom called. I answered wondering if I would hear “It’s over, Richa..”. Something I have been dreading since Nana fell down outside her bathtub resulting in multiple hip fractures.

I had just parked by car and stepped out, and when she told me that nana wanted me to visit her at the hospital, I had to ask her a second time what she had just said.

Quickly back inside the car after an urgent text to my director, I headed to the ICU with a lot of thoughts in my head. Why me, when she had a dozen other people – my aunts, uncle, cousins arriving from all over the US as if they were summoned to get ready for the final curtain call. Of course, they were here to give my mom and aunt Sheila some much needed moral support so they won’t have to go through the motions alone. 

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Same day, at the hospital:

Outside nana’s room, aunt Sheila was standing guard. It was her turn this morning, after my Toronto uncle had pulled off an all-nighter. My parents and my aunt’s family lived 2 houses down the road, right in the middle of which was my grandparents’  home, making them next door neighbors to us pretty much all my life.

I passed her with mute glances and went into nana’s room directly. Her short white hair looked like a parched lawn, somehow the grass still being held by the loose mud underneath. It had lost its entire luster, and was combed back in a hurry into a wiry ponytail directly at the top of her head. Her scalp was visible; spots of brown freckles filling it lushly. Her mouth looked dry and particularly wide open because there were no dentures. For a moment I felt I could reach into her stomach by putting my entire arm inside. The pale green hospital gown with front buttons was hanging onto her for its dear life.

If not for the beeping Electrocardiograph Machine, she looked like a dead body attached to the bed with the help of wires and electrodes. As I stared at her, she opened her eyes and tried to focus with her dilated eyes. I scrambled to get closer as if to make the most of her conscious mind.

She slowly licked her lower lip to gain control over her words, and said, “The end is here.. Richa.. Don’t worry about me, take care of yourself and your mom.. I think I have written my final words, I cannot anymore..”

She then indicated at a green box was resting inconveniently on the side of her stomach and the bed, I took it into my hand, reaching for it as if I realized the purpose of my visit. I opened the box and it took me a minute to realize that what I was looking into was nana’s makeup kit. A travel sewing kit, eye liner, a small mirror, cotton balls – dirty looking, most of them. I recalled as I looked into it, this is the box that is always present in my childhood memories, a sight I had always remembered from Nana’s home. Meanwhile, Nana pressed a button to request her to be propped up on the bed in a sitting position. The nurse walked in, did what she had to and left just as quickly. 

Now, nana asked for the box and handed me over the mirror and proceeded to wipe her hands through her scalp and clean her face with a cotton ball. She asked if I could put eye liner on, while she closed her eyes. I was a little surprised at her request but I was glad to oblige. As I applied “makeup” on her face, I could see what I felt was an attempt at bringing her lips together as if to show the slightest indication of a grin. As I moved away from her to hold the mirror in front of her at an angle that was convenient to her, she mouthed the words “Thank you” and went back to closing her eyes. I contemplated my next move, feeling a little frustrated that I had only 2 minutes of her attention, a minute fraction of the time I spent driving up here after skipping an important editorial review meeting at work. Was she sure, my mom, that I was the one nana wanted to see?!! Aunt Sheila was certainly readily available if she felt the need to request a touch up for her face. I left the hospital baffled and holding the green box and a scribble pad that she managed to hand me during my brief visit.

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Day 20, at the hospital:

After that day, she never regained consciousness; her organs shutdown one after the other. The doctors, who just a day earlier had said they were getting ready to operate on her this week, said her body simply did not have the energy to recuperate after fractures of this magnitude.

The weekend had gone away in a blur, we showered, ate and slept taking turns because we had to do our best during duty time at the hospital.

We had a lot of visitors, well-wishers who were there with food, with kind words of enquiries about her. She was the most charismatic principal of my high school, 20 years before I stepped into it. But her words and quotes were everywhere..

Her words.. They were EVERY WHERE..

Eventually, we decided at the advice of the doctors in the morning that she would have to be taken off life support, as she would not be able to survive without its help anyway. It was a tough decision but something my parents and my entire family agreed to was the best one in this situation. Soon after the ventilator was turned off, nana breathed her last at 4pm that evening.

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The day after, at nana’s home:

At 10 in the morning, we were all dealing with exhaustion. But we were slowing wading through our task list. An obituary notice, the phone calls to be made notifying family and other formalities associated with the funeral.

Uncle Nish walked into the room, where we had all piled up since we got home. He was the only guy in the house at the moment; dad had gone to pick-up groceries and some food for all of us. “I was thinking if we should start cleaning up mom’s stuff?” He had a certain twist in his lips, of someone who had already made a decision and was not looking for any suggestions.

“But Nishi, it has been only half a day or more since she passed?!” Mom looked frustrated and sad.

“Well, you know, I am not asking to clear up this place and throw it in the dumpster. I am simply saying that there might be stuff in the refrigerator and other places which need to be taken care of. You have to keep in mind, maa was in the hospital away from home for 20 days.”

There was no way to put it, no way to avoid it either, so we started clearing stuff up that evening. With a double major in Journalism and Media, I was a natural choice to be the one to handle any and all pieces of paper, documents and plaques lying in the house. Mom decided she will take up the vanity, as she was in charge of grooming nana in her final years.

I followed her into nana’s bedroom, as she walked into it slowly as if an escaped convict was being brought back into prison amidst intense media spotlight. I was feeling the same trepidation. I have seen the same room, in its glory for 35 years after all, so filing into the room felt like a gloom hanging over our heads with unbearable force.

On a large coffee table, touching the bed, where otherwise would have been a night stand, I could see a small microwave, her medicines, a pair of glasses, disposable cups and what looked like a calcified round container with a tight lid. Looking at it closely, I knew, it was a box of emptied Bath and Body Works shea butter that I had given to her for storing her dentures.

As I walked along the walls of the room, there was the smell of dirty old newspapers that filled the room. It was a familiar smell from the editor’s desk that I work at, would kids of the millennial generation know what it is like, I wondered. Suddenly, I realized, I felt alone in the room. That is the beauty of etiquette, I thought, of the world we live in. Mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, not wailing or crying out loud in the middle of streets mourning the loss of dear ones. Mom and I were mourning, but each in our own way, and without a single spoken word between us. Reaching out to hug her now, felt more painful than just not looking her way and making eye contact. We were sorry for each other and for our family and we knew it.

She handed me over a notebook that she came across as she opened the bottom shelf of the dresser. I reached for it and sat myself at the end of the bed, close to her, as if to be at arm’s reach, should mom need me again.

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The book felt old, not because of the way it looked, but because there was no gov.in or any website listed on it. Inside it was filled, with beautiful handwriting, as if each letter was dropped down from a crane with the greatest precision.

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(And so it went, with a few blank sheets here and there, until, the last one on the 100 page book was)

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Tears trickled down threatening to drench the pages as I read them. I looked up to see the open cupboard from where mom pulled this book out; there were scores of them sticking out of the carton, many of them in different shapes and sizes than the one in my hands. It dawned on me that the final book in this epic saga of food journals my nana so meticulously kept was now in my possession, neatly tucked away in my car!!

I was desperate to find it and see what was in it. A woman of 84, certainly on her death bed, wouldn’t have gotten much far with all the details. My brain was foggy, as were my eyes with water at the thought of the exact location of where I had kept it after I took it from her bedside that morning. I ran outside to my car; 10 minutes of digging into the back seat yielded nothing. The thought of misplacing it sickened me and I dropped down to sit with my back to the dirty left rear wheel.

As I gathered myself back on my feet, I let my gaze fall on the one place I did not search in the car. As I opened the glove box, there they were, the box and the scribble pad, exactly where I had put it the day I went to meet her at the hospital.

The journal started with the entry of

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(I scanned through it quickly, finding the same meticulous details up until.. )

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Dec 14th – The last day she was home, and filled up until the last entry before her fall. That followed a blank sheet of paper and then a half of it.

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And on a loose crumpled up paper inside the journal..

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(Pretty sure, she meant it to spell soup. Not sure when she made those entries, certainly must have been at the hospital, but I am sure she did not recall the dates as was clear in the journal)

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That night, still at nana’s:

At bed time, staring into the ceiling, I thought about Nana.. fondly. Never the one to lose her independence, she was strictly secretive about her personal life. We never knew if the strain of losing her husband 24 years ago ever bore her down, because she managed to live through it and some more. Uncle Vik, the oldest of all the children and particularly close to my mom passed away after 18 months of struggle with prostate cancer. She cared for him, visiting him at the hospice when she could manage to hitch a ride on the seniors free shuttle program or when mom or aunt Sheila were around to take her along.

In the affairs of the heart, my nana won because she managed to keep a “secret”, the struggles of every woman with diet and beauty choices, all the while never giving away her true sense of self-worth. And what was surprising was that she trusted me with her make up kit and for some reason it felt good. I felt a connection, like we were girl friends who had the same insecurities about our appearance. It made me wonder how she felt when she knew the end was here. Was she fearful of losing her vanity – her dignity, to the handful of hairs growing wildly around her chin and mouth, or conscious of the jiggles in her belly when she was cracking up about something funny? I felt the vanity kit held all the answers to my questions.

For a girl of my generation, a food journal, moisturizing mascaras, nail paint that would not chip off in an apocalypse, the countless video diaries of girls around the world sharing their makeup tips, the shared Google docs, the Weight Watchers, some private notepads on desktops because of the shame of too many entries of “cheat foods”, the fascination has been endless. The most frequently brought up topic by my girlfriends next only to the brand of contraceptives we used, the delirious confessions at GNO (Girls Night Out) tables; the rambunctious laughter over each other’s entries on our phones was part of my generation. I wondered if anyone of us ever understood that we all had one common enemy and it is the TYRANNY OF VANITY.

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Dedicated to both my grandmothers – women of strikingly different personalities, who showered me with unconditional love, taught me the value of patience, kindness and by their gentle maneuvering through overbearing relationships shaped me as the woman that I am today.

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