When the child becomes a crisis manager
A Masters degree from Delhi University, big city upbringing, robust career as a journalist in the nation's capital: these are multiple roles that I have played in my life with some degree of success. And yet nothing, absolutely nothing prepared me for the role of my parents' sole care-giver when life thrust it on me almost eight years ago. In those long, lonely years, the meaning of life changed in a way that I could almost not recognise what it meant to live a normal, everyday existence. Every day, sometimes every hour, there was a crisis to handle, an out-of-control event that needed everything from ingenuity to false bravado to fatalism to help resolve.
There are no books, no manuals, no coaches for what is my generation's biggest challenge: coping with old and often ailing parents without any support structure in place. The old safety net of a joint family no longer exists. The Western amenities aren't available here in India. And lack of any social security means that all of us, young and old, weak and strong have to earn a livelihood.
And that's how my story began. My two older sisters, long married and living far away from Delhi, were just visitors to their own parents, not because that's how they wanted it to be, but that's how it is meant to be. Children, specially daughters, grow up, get married and parents are left to fend for themselves. Children come when they find time from their careers, families and pause momentarily to look up old parents. It was no different for my parents. Their life revolved around waiting to see their children.
By some quirk of fate, I hadn't gotten married and lived at home. My parents and I often disagreed over big and small things. There were fights, specially between my father and me. I was impatient with his way of doing things, he with mine. And we all lived in this state of familial warfare until one day my father's health took a turn for the worse.
I had just joined The Times of India and was being sent on a trip to Sikkim, a place I hadn't visited before. It was night time and I was packing my bags and realised I didn't have a lock for my suitcase. I walked into my parents' room and asked my father if he had a spare lock that I could use. My father who was seated on the bed tried to get up but, instead, just kept moving his hands in an uncoordinated, inexplicable fashion. Startled, never having seen him behave this way, I kept calling out to him but it was as if he couldn't hear me, his body unable to respond to what I was saying.
As inexplicably as it had started, my father's strange movements stopped. He couldn't make any sense of it and I didn't know whether I should leave him and go the next morning to Sikkim. Phone calls between my sisters, a neighbour's layman opinion (it was close to 11 in the night when this happened) and my father's own protestations that he was fine all added up to me taking that flight to Sikkim early next day.
The three days in Sikkim were stressful as I kept beating myself for leaving my parents alone. Poor phone connectivity made matters worse as getting through to Delhi and to my sisters was often difficult. The beauty of Gangtok, the serenity of the Rumtek Monastery, the warmth and cordiality of the people was lost on me as all I could think of was my parents and the fragility of their health. And the question whether I had been less of a daughter to my parents dogged me throughout the trip.
Back in Delhi, I was relieved to see my parents safe. Maybe I had beaten myself up without any reason and that episode with my father had just been a minor aberration. After dinner with my parents that night, we all went to bed. I felt lighter than I had that entire week.
Morning changed all that. My father woke up and started doing some pretty unusual, repetitive actions which no matter how much I exhorted him to stop, he wasn't able to. My mother who suffers from schizophrenia started getting more and more agitated with my father's behaviour. Here I was with both my parents in different stages of abnormal behaviour and not knowing where and whom to turn to in this crisis.
This is where my journey started, where my life changed forever. From a daughter I became a caregiver. I went from being carefree to being tied down by a simple circumstance of chronic and serious ill-health. From being in control of my life, I was now controlled by what life was showing me. I couldn't run away, abandoning my helpless parents, staying back in this new role was so frightening. I think, some might say, the decision was made the day I was born to my parents. I stayed.
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More about Archana Jahagirdar
Archana Jahagirdar has been a journalist for almost 20 years having worked for some of the most prestigious names in the media business like The Times of India, Outlook and India Today. Her last full-time assignment was with the Business Standard where she also wrote a column on luxury and fashion. She has done her Masters and Bachelors in English Literature from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University.
‘My Parents’ Daughter’ will be a weekly update, narrating Jahagirdar’s experience in taking care of her chronically-ill parents over the last eight years. From dealing with doctors and hospitals to taking decisions regarding medical treatment to changing dynamics in other family relationships – this blog notes the journey of a caregiver.
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