The Telephone Grizzly

People don’t realize that the telephone is the first lifeline that snips when a parent takes ill. When my mother’s cancer seeped into her brain, she didn’t know to ask for her black diary. That’s where she stored my phone number and those of all the people she called every day for something or other.

A decade later, when my father, the late Daddykins, dissolved into his illness, he stopped going to the phone. Instead, it went to him. It went to him through the person of the deputy secretary of homeland security, Vinayagam.

The young man would take the cordless phone to the rust-orange sofa by the window where his boss sat, newspaper on his lap, buried in the fog that separates the dying from the living.

“Saar, it’s your sister!” he'd say to Daddykins. “It’s your sweet sister from Kerala, Saar.” And my father would intone into the phone, fielding my aunt’s endless questions like an iPhone Siri, incapable of a laugh, a cry, a chortle, a snicker, a squeal, a surprise, a chuckle or a point of view.

Those of us who have lost a parent know that the day of demise isn’t the day of an actual, physical, blood-congealing death. It’s the day following which the parent will not come to the phone. It’s the day the parent is taught, by someone else, to greet the child.

For me, the telephone, especially my landline, is a grizzly monster, a demon that screens and permits incoming calls only from those on earth. For instance, it didn’t ring the morning of my birthday when, like the Times Square ball, Daddykins’ call would be the first one to drop so I could begin my life anew.

But I know one man is trying hard to keep my father alive. When I called Vinayagam today, four days after my birthday, he did what Daddykins always did. He sang into the phone exactly the way his boss used to, like a broken record. He sang the first two lines: “Happy Birthday to you, Kalpana. Happy Birthday to you, Kalpana.”

For those eleven seconds, for exactly those cadent but unmusical seconds, Daddykins was alive, again.

~~~For reactions to this post on Facebook, go to

White Lies

Every few months, I have a long conversation with this Chinese-American who lives a few doors away. This morning, I happened to run into her during the course of my walk. She told me she was juggling a lot. Her son was in the toughest years at school. Her mother was suffering from advanced cancer.

Figuring out doctors, therapies and schedules were only part of the family’s struggles. The big challege was coming to terms with her mother’s pressing need for secrecy. She didn’t want any of their relatives to know about her condition. When relatives called to chat, she evaded and prevaricated, fabricating new stakes of fibs to bolster her phantasmagoric tent of white lies.

My neighbor was embarrassed and exasperated. “Now, whether I like it or not, I have been co-opted into all the lies and cover-ups.” She was caught between her duty to her mother and her own conscience.

“Is it a problem only with folks in the Asian cultures, this need to lie about one’s health?” she asked me. I wondered about it. Where I was from, a broken leg evoked extraordinary sympathy. A disturbed mind? Well, we tied an invisible wrist-band to the patient and tagged it with markers like “past sins”, “stigma” and “silence”.

I told my neighbor about my emotional struggles with regard to family members, some of whom valued secrecy for today over wellness for the long term. We saw no solution in sight. People were all different, we decided. Who were we to say that one way was the right way to live? And who were we to tell someone, even one from whom life was leaking out, how he or she must think?

~~~For reactions to this post on Facebook, go to