The end of another universe

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Not very long ago, I wrote about how, as doctors, we will get to see the end of so many little universes around us and yet, still be able to sit comfortably in our rooms, sipping on a cup of freshly brewed coffee. Little did I know that soon enough – as a medical elective student – I’d get to see a tragic such end

*Sarah was a twenty-three-year-old young woman. Having delivered her second son – after a gap of twelve months only – just ten days ago, she was brought to the ER with complaints of headaches, drowsiness, and vomiting. The MRI revealed a left MCA, ACA infarct that had damaged an alarming 80% of her left brain; a possible result of Pregnancy Induced Hypertension. She was on the ventilator when I saw her in the I.C.U. the next day. Needless to say, things did not look good. They were not good. An E.E.G. – a quick test done to determine the brain’s activity – confirmed what every medical personnel in the I.C.U. already knew; Sarah was dead.

As I stood there, watching her pale face dim away from the life that she had just brought into this world, my heart ached for this young woman.

That young girl could easily have been me. Or you.

Instead of heaving a grateful sigh at my promotion to the fourth year of medical school – a privilege that not many are blessed with – I could have been Sarah, lying there comatose, oblivious to the hungry wails of her newborn, and the empty, searching eyes of her eldest. Instead of having a father who is my biggest support system, I could have had a father who found himself helpless in the face of abominable society rules that did not even allow him to take important decisions regarding his daughter’s health, but dictated that he waits for her husband and father-in-law to do so, who sadly, blamed it all on black magic, delaying medical help. Instead of a life that has granted me my basic rights, I could have had a life of non-existence, much like that of so many of my fellow countrywomen.

In those moments of watching a mother’s warmth die away, I said a small prayer – more as an act of resolution than as a cry for Divine help – for all the Sarahs of our world: may our women learn to prioritise their health, may our women not raise helpless sons like Sarah’s father, may our women not be wives of uneducated men like Sarah’s husband. I hope you, too, breathed an ‘amen’ to that.

And then I went home and had my evening tea and carried on with the mundanity of what life had to offer to a medical student. Winters were approaching. The ground was a blanket of orange and yellow leaves, all dry and withering. Like Sarah’s motionless body.

* Name has been changed for reasons of privacy.

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A doctor’s heart

 

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Hurried steps from one ward to another. Long working hours at a stretch. Difficult night duties when on call. That is the real life of a doctor. I knew this, of course. But they very rightly say that experience is truly the best teacher. There’s something very powerful about experiences and empathy that takes our understanding to the next level, or the right one, let’s say. That is one of the many things that working as an elective student taught me. And for good.

It’s very easy to imagine that the life of a doctor is that of prestige and wealth. That may be very true. But what we very conveniently forget is what goes behind all this grandeur.
Imagine having to wake up every morning and rush to the hospital to attend to ailing bodies, often missing out on your son’s parent-teacher meeting, or your daughter’s sports day at school, or your own mother’s appointment with the doctor. Imagine having to miss out on attending your best friend’s wedding, or a night out with your cousins because you have a night-shift that may stretch into a 12-hour post-call. Imagine having to be on your feet all day, your wits intact, as your back aches and your feet shout for a rest. Imagine having to make important, life-saving decisions on empty stomachs and full bladders. Imagine losing a patient in the face of the complexity that the human body boasts of, and not blaming yourself for what was predestined. Imagine breezing through life as you watch little tragedies and big miracles every day.
Yes. That is a small window into what the real deal is.

Perhaps, it’s in these larger than life paradoxes that the simple secret of life lies in.
Seconds melt into hours and days into years. Between one summer and one winter, more than a few showers of rain grace this soil, either washing away fragile homes of mud-bricks and straw roofs or watering a healthy rice field. Someone, somewhere, crushes the autumn leaves. Someone, somewhere sings the songs of spring. And a doctor, a messiah, does all of that in the heartbeat of a moment.

The Lamp

 

The Lamp, Husain Sharif

 

I found this painting, ‘The Lamp’, by a U.A.E. based artist, Husain Sharif, in an old copy of Arts & The Islamic World (Volume 3, Number 4. Winter 1985, Spring 1986. Special Issue). It’s just a simple lantern painted with a striking mixture of bright and dark. But there’s something about it, something quite moving. Perhaps, it’s  the tilt of the lantern that caught my eye. That’s pretty much life, isn’t it? How we are supposed to be? Be the light in this dark, chaotic world. And the ones who are that beacon of light, are more or less trying to hang in there, too – everyone is – tilted like this lantern, afraid of the eerieness that could follow this glow, the silence that could haunt once the festivity ends. The dark after the light? Or the light after the darkness? And the answer to that lies thumping within our little souls.

He alone has the right to break,
for He alone has the power to mend.

He that knows how to sew together,
knows how to tear apart:
whatever He sells,
He buys something better in exchange.
He lays the house in ruins;
then in a moment He makes it
more livable than before.
 – Jalaluddin Rumi. Mathnawi I, 3882 – 86 

Chrysalism

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It’s such a strange world, isn’t it? The marriage of profundity with the seemingly mundane is not celebrated as it should be. And that’s sad because that’s missing out on what makes this gift of life so beautiful – the significance of the apparently insignificant.

Every morning when I head to work, I squeeze in a few extra minutes in my schedule to celebrate what truly marvels me: the quiet chirping of the birds, the cool breeze hugging the trees, the orange-yellow hues announcing autumn; all of this creating a magical, almost mythical, atmosphere as I sit on the freshly cleaned benches and pour out gratitude and paint heartbeats on to a sheet of papyrus, for Him. It’s in the solitude of these little moments that I reflect on what memories I wish to be looking back on when I’m breathing my last. It’s in the solitude of these moments that I am able to appreciate the gorgeous asymmetry of life as a comfortable sense of chrysalism descends upon the tranquillity of my being. It’s in the solitude of these moments that I am able to appreciate the courtship of medicine and literature – of human suffering and relief that resuscitates the sensitivity within the men and women of words, inspiring us to produce poetry that mirrors the ions within us, the lyrics to the songs which the angels dance to. It’s in the solitude of these moments that you realise, my friend, where the centre of your universe lies.

Belonging

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There are certain endless motions that bring with them an element of belonging. Like waking up to a house of those you love, brewing some good ol’ coffee for them, getting dressed for the work that you love doing, talking to your person, or merely sitting under the canopy of trees as the universal rituals of mornings begin. Things like that, you know? Perhaps, that’s also what the universe is trying to tell us – that we belong here, in this world. Or maybe not, because one day, the sun will never rise for us. But till it does, there are things to be felt and made to feel and things to be forgotten and others to be remembered. It’s like there are spaceships waiting to be boarded by us but we’re all too scared to leave the familiarity of the earth and yet, we crave to hug the stars.

Empty Beds

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We all labour against our own cure; for death is the cure of all diseases.
– Thomas Browne; Religio Medici, 1642

For a doctor, hospital beds more than often become living, breathing humans, and humans become the bed numbers. So when one of these hospital bed ‘dies’, or when a human becomes ‘empty’, how do you react? Do you mourn the loss of another life lost? Do you let those fixed, dilated pupils remind you that there is much that you can not do in the face of Nature’s game? Do you acknowledge your own fragile limitations? Do you push aside your busy schedule and utter a small prayer that is meant more for yourself than for the departed soul? Do you take out a moment to simply offer compassion and empathy to the grieving family standing in front of you? Or do you carelessly, insensitively throw out a command that is supposed to ensure that the hospital dues are cleared before the body is taken home, before moving on to make a politically incorrect joke with a bored colleague?

These empty beds where once someone’s dear one lay, are more than that, really. And what exactly it is, that is for us to feel.

 

flowers that will lighten / the burdens for many a mile

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Just a kind word or a greeting;
Just a warm grasp or a smile—
These are the flowers that will lighten
The burdens for many a mile.

– Leigh M. Hodges, Give Them The Flowers Now

 

“Ammi, yeh sweater ley lyn?”
(Mom, can we buy this sweater?)

“Beta, yeh tou aapka size nahin hai, yeh bohat barra hai!”
(Son, this is not your size, this is so big!)

“Yeh myn apnay liye thori ley raha houn!”
(I’m not buying this for myself!)

“Phr kis keliye ley rahay hain aap?”
(Then for whom are you buying this?)

“Yeh myn Maali Baba keliye ley raha houn. Woh bohat booray hain naa tou unko sardi bhi ziyada lagti ho gi. Aur phr unke bachay bhi yahan nahin hain tou phr unka khayal kon rakhay ga? Issi liye myn ne socha unke liye bhi kuch ley lyn, woh khush ho jaeyn ge!”
(I’m buying this for Maali Baba*. He’s very old so I’m sure winters are harder for him. Besides, his children aren’t here with him either so who will take care of him? So I thought I’ll buy him something, he’ll be happy!)

*Gardener Uncle

Happy birthday, Abu!

Dear Abu,

 
A little more than two decades ago, as a young man held his firstborn – a baby girl crying at the top of her lungs – a father was also born. In that moment of joy overshadowed by a love so strong that it shone through his kind eyes, this young man resolved to give his daughter the best – the best education, the best morals, the best life; the best of the best. He knew that he would have to work hard, often late in the night, but that didn’t take the smile off his face. This little girl that he cuddled in his arms was going to grow up to mirror him in more a than few ways.

Time did its job right and flew by. The girl who would hold his finger to take her first step grew up to dream big, to dream fearlessly. His little girl who loved listening to him tell her stories of zoo animals attending her birthday parties, and of flying buses, and incredible stories of the vastness represented by the globe, grew up to spin her own tales as she lovingly toyed with words.

Thank you for being the best father to this girl, Abu.

To give words to the bond that exists between a father and a daughter is like trying to explain the science connecting the earth and the sun. So, I won’t try except for this – you’ve done the best for me, always. You’ve given me the confidence to truly be me, to dare to listen to the rhythm of my heart, and the courage to find my own way.
Abu, thank you for giving me the world that you have.

Happy birthday, my hero!

Love you always.

Your daughter,

Arfa.

 

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Why I read

 

Life, in all its forms, is very beautiful. A million sides to each one of us; doctor, reader, writer, painter. And this gift of life is our ‘one and only’. In our quest to find the One, in our quest to live these hundred lives, what do you do?

You read.

Your eyes lavish the words thought by wise men. Your heart skips a beat every time you see your reflection on the crisp pages. Your breath – already uneven – quickens. You frantically look around for someone to share this glorious piece with.
You read. And you read.

You read. And you read.

And as you read – desperately, lovingly, wisely – you live a hundred lives. A dervish, sometimes. Sometimes, a little boy playing by the lovely stream. A pilot one day, a broken heart another. As you live all these lives, breathing the air all these people have graced, you find something new to marvel about Him. Every day, every time. You discover a season that you like, you dodge a pungent smell.

And as you read – desperately, lovingly, wisely – you live a hundred lives. A dervish, sometimes. Sometimes, a little boy playing by the lovely stream. A pilot one day, a broken heart another. As you live all these lives, breathing the air all these people have graced, you find something new to marvel about Him. Every day, every time. You discover a season that you like, you dodge a pungent smell.

You discover you. And somewhere along the way, you discover Him.