More Than COVID, I Lost My Father to Social Constructs

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‘He asked for his waistcoat and combed his beard. Instead of water, we sent him with a bottle of Zam Zam. The last of what he had bought with him earlier this year. While walking towards the door he reminded us, “Bury me at the graveyard nearby” ’

HE was always faint-hearted when it came to personal illness. Always thinking of extremities. Despite being a medico and treating numerous patients and ailments, and tending to a lot of relatives with trivial as well as life-threatening illnesses, he always exaggerated personal ones. Even a slight fever would take him to a point where he would say he was dying. Always.

It is another thing that he rarely fell ill in the first place.

With the outbreak of Covid in Kashmir, all the family members urged him to not visit the mosque anymore. Even though he staunchly believed that whatever is supposed to happen will happen, and that God will protect him, he did listen to us and stopped visiting mosque for prayers, unlike many others. It was more out of fear for his grandkids rather than his own. Out of love.

Yet he maintained that since we people keep going out from time to time and two people are medicos and hence have a high likelihood to contract the virus, we will be the ones to bring the infection home. Probably we did. Who knows?

It was only after Ramzan that he resumed Friday prayers at the mosque again. Only Friday prayers. He often went for short walks and to buy a few things here and there, while donning a mask. Even though it is alright to do away with one’s face mask in non-crowded places where one is maintaining physical distance from everyone, I once found him walking without one and we had a lengthy discussion about it over dinner. Wearing one made him hot.

Things started turning ugly in July though. A relative passed away and my mother was adamant on paying them a visit. Even though we tried hard to convince her otherwise, she had made up her mind. Father accompanied her. He always went for funerals, “If I do not pay the bereaved family a visit and help them out the best I can, who would come help me in case of any eventuality?” So he bathed the dead and prayed for them. Not in professional capacity, but to the best of his. It was 3rd of July. Since it was a Friday, he returned home alone, in public transport, so as to attend the prayers in time.

Everything was routine.

Only a couple of days had passed when father started having his first symptoms. Slight fever and fatigue. Like every other time, he told mum that this is the end of it. “Witch, mei tche khoran ungzie zeithemtchie” (See, my toes are elongated.) Mum rubbished these talks like every other time. It was like calling a fake wolf; mum didn’t pay heed. Since the symptoms were nothing major, he continued his routine, tended to the kitchen garden, played around with his grandkids, irrigated the garden, and all.

With each passing day, his fatigue got worse. So he asked the kids to walk on his legs, in hopes that this would relieve his cramps. He slowly started losing his appetite as well. Initially he ate less, then he started denying eating but would eat small portions on incessant insisting, and then he didn’t agree to eat at all. His fever started to get high and wouldn’t drop below 101. On a rare occasion when it did, it shot back in the afternoon.

Since he was at a high risk, he was already on medications prescribed to a Covid positive person. He was still at home because it is easier to take care, everyone was around him and his symptoms were manageable. Hospitals are contaminated and could have proved counter-productive. Better to be safe than sorry.

Five days in, he started fainting. He had no energy to move out of bed anymore and didn’t do anything apart from sleeping. On the rare occasions that he did, he complained of chills and cold. Once he looked at the kitchen garden from his window and lamented, “Yemi phiri tchum ni basaan bi batchi” (I don’t think I will survive this time).

Just to be on the safer side, we got a pulse oxy-meter to check his SpO2. Initially it was 91-92. Safe. Might as well have been happy hypoxia, but still, safe. The trauma started the next day when we checked again and it had dropped to 85. Everyone was suddenly on their toes. He was rushed to get a CT scan. Since the reports are instant, they help in understanding whether the patient might have Covid.

Father’s bedding was put into Sun, for gaining virusidal effects. Everyone thought they will be gone a while and till they would come back, everything would be back in its place. Somehow they came back soon enough for father to see his bed gone and it broke him in the sense that his family had already thought he wouldn’t come back. This regret still haunts my mother.

By this time he was getting breathless and lied down for a while till things were discussed with a doctor on call. His CT showed bilateral pulmonary effusion. Keeping an oxygen cylinder at home was considered but was unfeasible as a single cylinder would last mere three hours, forgetting about the cost altogether. Owing to his drop in SpO2, hospital was the best option available.

When brother told him that they would be going to hospital, father asked him to wait a while. Till he caught his breath. He asked for his waistcoat and combed his beard. Instead of water, we sent him with a bottle of Zam Zam. The last of what he had bought with him earlier this year. While walking towards the door he reminded us, “Bury me at the graveyard nearby; the kafan will be arranged by the committee along with everything else; take care of everything.” That was the last we saw of him.

He was admitted to SMHS. His oxygen saturation was stable as soon as he was connected to an oxygen point. His Covid report was positive, as suspected. Yet, he was talking to us on phone, audio as well as video, and brother was staying there with him. They had a private room to eliminate exposure to the virus further.

First two days went well. Only his sugar level was high owing to the medication and was put on Insulin. The third morning he had a drug reaction and was unconscious and unresponsive for hours on end. This became a recurrent event for next couple of days. Then the doctors’ strike along with no signs of improvement forced brother to shift him to CD hospital.

Even though father was stable with a high flow mask, he couldn’t maintain oxygen saturation without it. On admission to CD hospital, even brother was Covid positive. The relocation from SMHS to CD hospital exhausted and dehydrated father, to the extent that he slept whole of that day. He refused having anything at all.

The next day he had some juice and soup for dinner. And the next, he asked for coke. We were expecting recovery, for if not solid food, he was ready to have something and had a good humour. Probably that was the last anyone laughed. With hopes of his recovery and for his love of cold drinks.

A couple of days were spent like that, juice, soft drink and soup. Then he started denying food. Any and all food. He started getting restless and wouldn’t listen to anyone. Brother started making calls to everyone. After talking to one of us, he would agree to eat. Sometimes brother would scold him; sometimes blackmail him in the name of his grandkids. It worked for a couple of days. Only.

Then we got a panic ridden call, saying father is really really critical. Once he got stable, we got to know that he was still falling unconscious for hours on end, even though the initial 14 day period was over and so was the danger. Or so we thought. That day onwards he grew highly uncooperative. No number of video calls or appeals would yield any result. He wouldn’t maintain his oxygen mask. Brother was at the end of his wits. Nothing was working.

All of us were of the opinion that if he ate well and remained strong-willed he would recover. For the days he had something to eat, he used to be better.

But things were supposed to go downhill. A repeat test after 10 days was still positive. He had been pacing the ward all night, without his mask. He urged brother continuously to take him home. He even threatened him that in case of non-compliance, he would run away. He would ask for his nephew, in hopes that he would listen to him and take him home. He would ask for his elder daughter, for she might agree to take him home.

Since he was old, we thought he was not able to relax in a strange setting and hence yearned home. When he said the same to mum over a call, she asked him to eat and get better so he shall be home soon. That soon never came.

On July 26, because of not maintaining his mask, his SpO2 dropped to 46. Due to his non-cooperation, he had to be put on a ventilator. It was a difficult decision for brother as recovery of a Covid patient from ventilator is highly unlikely. Brother called his elder daughter, “Last time shaql dekh lo”. She went in in a proper PPE. After calling him multiple times with no response, she had started to break down when he opened his eyes and tried hard to recognize the face behind the mask. He asked her for water, had a few sips, said Alhamdulillah and closed his eyes. Those were the last words he uttered. After discussing with doctors for hours on end and denying consent, he ultimately gave in at 11 in the night.

A repeat test next day and father was negative. Probably because of plasma treatment. His vitals were also stable and things looked good. In a single night, from 100% on ventilator, he had resumed 20% of his lung function. Things looked promising. He was being fed liquids through tubes. We were hopeful that with some food, proper oxygen and some rest, he would be back on his feet within no time.

The next day wasn’t as good though. His potassium levels were high.

July 29 and his KFT reports were haywire. Keratin levels were too high. By this time his lungs had patches due to Covid pneumonia. At 8 in the evening he had a cardiac arrest which he didn’t survive.

His death wasn’t termed a Covid death because of the negative report and hence everything came easy. Brother’s test report was negative too so he could leave the hospital for the last rites. The grave was dug at the designated graveyard without any issues and even with the lockdown and everything, his funeral was attended by his close relations. In times when 6 people attend a funeral at maximum, he had at least 30 people there with him.

He could have been moving towards multi-organ failure as well, as is the trend these days. So is a cardiac arrest after testing negative. It might as well have been his lack of will to live too.

But still, a lot of people these days, when alerted about the extreme consequences of Covid, call the people alarmist. Yet, we are pretty much in the same situation as Italy was a few months back. There are no proper goodbyes, and some hospitals are not allowing any attendants inside the premises. As such people are dying without meeting their loved ones for the last time. Even without the last bath, without letting the family get a last glimpse of their dead. Even if people do not acknowledge, we are in grave situation. An extremely grave situation.

But more than Covid, diabetes, or the ensued cardiac arrest, it was society and its norms that killed my father.

Since the pandemic hit Kashmir, we had been taking all recommended precautions. Yet, the reason for the entry of virus into our household was because mum felt the need to visit a relative for condolence. “Teman gaseim malaal agar ni bi gayeis. Yi gasie galat” (They would be upset with me if I won’t visit them).

Even after a lot of requests, and telling her how dangerous the times are, she still went ahead.

We ended losing father.

Not one of these people she had so cared about even came to visit once. Even when brother explicitly mentioned that he needed someone to stay with him in the hospital, no one did. So what for listening and caring about what the society thinks or how it would behave?

Even in the time of condolences, when brother and I proposed not letting anyone come home, mum was thinking something else. “Timan agar wanav ma yiev, timan phuttie dil. Yein” (They would feel bad if stopped from visiting us. Let them come). Even after losing her husband, she is more concerned of what the society will say and how they will react.

Even my sister-in-law, who is a medico and often used to criticize people for their foolishness and the way they were behaving in the face of pandemic, is losing her mind. “Agar kahn aav, aeis ma karav timan darwaaz band. Tim kya wanan” (How could we deny entry to someone visiting us? They won’t feel good about it).

My question is simple. Why can’t we?

Nobody has Covid positive or negative written on their face. What if they bring the virus to us again? Who is going to stay in hospital and tend to the sick? How will things be managed? Why do we need to take such a suicidal risk in the first place?

Covid is a huge opportunity, if we look at it that way. A catalyst that can help us change things around. For the better.

It has quite effectively reduced the extravagant weddings of Kashmir. For years we have been doing things to show off wealth in the society and to feed the distant relatives. Calling over a 1000 people for Walima, 500 for Barat. For a valley which claims sainthood and the people claim to be religious, this is something that the religion does not preach. It is just a societal construct. And bad in many, many ways.

First, simple weddings are promoted in Islam, so it is wrong in the religion the people claim to belong to. Second, it puts undue pressure on a woman’s family. So much so that a girl’s birth is mourned upon. One can see people crying and wailing, as if visited by Azrael, when a girl is born. Third, whatever one does, someone still finds a fault.

So the virus gave everyone an excuse to stick to the basic and correct their act. Yet, we see more cancellations than simple weddings. Because, “Lukh kya wanaan” (What will people say?)

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Hirra Sultan

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