The Rediff US Special/ Suleman Din
Sometimes, it is too difficult for Leena Patel to visit her brother Sandip at the nursing home.
Old age has not brought him to the attention of nurses and endless hours of lying in a bed; he is only 26. Sandip is unable to move because a bullet ripped through his spinal cord, paralyzing him neck down.
Richard Baumhammers, an immigration attorney with a history of mental illness, went through Pittsburgh on April 28, 2000, and shot six persons, all minorities. Only Sandip survived.
It was announced on Friday that Baumhammers would receive the death penalty for his crimes. Yet, even the guarantee of an eye-for-an-eye retribution cannot calm the anger Leena, 30, feels when she thinks of Sandip's assailant, or heal the wound that tears her heart every time she looks at her brother's tired, weak frame, forever robbed of a life of promise.
"I always tell [Sandip] he should be glad that he survived," she says. "And he tells me, 'What is the sense of surviving in this condition?' He cannot do anything... even if he cries, he cannot wipe his tears... he doesn't have any hands, he doesn't have any fingers, legs, he cannot walk, he can't go out, he cannot even drink water by himself. Nobody wants that kind of life. Even I pray to God that nobody else should have this kind of life."
In a perverse twist of irony, Baumhammers and Sandip now share the same fate. Both are condemned to a life of imprisonment, waiting for death -- Baumhammers in a jail cell, Sandip in his own body.
"We want Baumhammers to suffer like my brother has been suffering," Leena says. "It's been a year now, and we have seen how my brother lives in the condition he is in. He has to be on the ventilator, or he has to be on the breathing machine... sometimes even for days the nurses don't give him water... it is really hard to imagine that kind of pain... and that's what all of us want, just like they do in the Middle East, just cut off Baumhammers' hands, his arms and legs, and leave him like that for a couple of years. He will automatically tell people, 'Okay, give me the death penalty, because I don't want to live in this condition.'"
Sandip was in his sister's Indian grocery store that afternoon, minding the shop while Leena's husband Vijay left to do an errand at the airport. Leena says her brother was there to help out, and to learn.
"He wanted to open a business like me," she says. "All of my family have opened up businesses, so he wanted his own. He was getting training, and I wanted to teach him how to run a business, from dealing with wholesalers to taking care of your customers."
As his older sister, she looked after him, hoping that he would think about settling down. "We were trying to get him married, you know. We were telling him that this is the time to get married," she says.
Her wistful reminiscence is quickly shattered, her voice sharp with anger.
"Baumhammers ruined my brother's life totally," she says. "Sandip was an active guy, hard-working, smart; he had a lot of dreams ahead in his life to fulfil. And within one second, Baumhammers messed up his life. My brother is now completely dependent on others. He needs round-the-clock care and nursing."
She explains that Sandip's failing health keeps him coming in and out of the hospital, suffering from complications such as pneumonia and bladder infections. His condition also prevents him from coming home, she says: "It is very hard; we need at least three nurses to be on hand. Everything in the house has to be accessible to him, and my house is not like that."
Now, from morning until night, Sandip's mother and father, who are 54 and 60, respectively, stay by his bedside, comforting him. "I'm just giving my parents shelter and feeding them," Leena says. "They stay at the nursing home with Sandip. Only in the night, to get dinner and sleep, they come home. They are parents; they just don't want to leave him like that. But my parents are old."
Fortunately, Sandip is receiving financial support to help with the medical bills. Allegheny County is providing funds for most of the medical assistance he needs, Leena says, and Pittsburgh's Indian community has covered other expenses. "A lot of other communities, like the Chinese community, have been doing fund-raising for Sandip as well," she says. "But this is a question of all his life, this is not just about one year or two days."
To focus on caring for Sandip, the family had to give up part of their India Grocers chain as well. "When my brother used to be there, we used to run three stores," Leena says. "But because I don't have my brother's help anymore, and my husband is also alone and cannot handle too many stores at the same time, we had to shut down one."
Leena admits that work is all that's left in her daily routine ever since the shooting. "We just are uninterested in doing anything now," she says. "We haven't been to any restaurant; we haven't gone to see any movie. In the morning we go to the store, in the evening we come home, have dinner and go to bed. We don't do anything; we don't have any fun now. We feel too upset to do anything because my brother is not there. Last month, my daughter had her birthday, but we didn't celebrate it. All I could think was, 'My God, Sandip isn't here.' Without my brother I can't do anything."
When pressed for an explanation, Leena says she feels guilty for the condition her brother is in. "One thing that really hurt me is that it happened in my store," she says. "My parents sent Sandip to be my responsibility, and I couldn't take care of him. Sometimes I blame myself... he's my baby brother, it was my responsibility to take care of him, and I couldn't do that.
"When I hear my brother say, 'Oh, if only he could have shot me in the chest it would have been better, because I would have died,' ... to be honest, and I shouldn't say this, being a sister ... in the beginning, when he was suffering a lot, in the breathing machine, and in life support... I saw him fight for his life, and I thought, it's better to let him go.
"But now, since it's been a year, I'm being greedy -- somewhere I have hope, that God has some plan for him, that maybe after 10 years, he will be all right. So I cannot think like that now, but at the beginning, I thought, just for a second... I used to pray, when he was in the ICU for 22 days, he was in such a bad condition, I used to pray to God to take him away... but I never thought to take out the ventilator from him. I believe in papam [sin], that God is going to curse me if I think that way."
The family, including Sandip, is satisfied that justice will be done, Leena says. But she feels that Baumhammers's parents should also be held accountable for the crimes of their son.
"Since my brother is permanently handicapped now, I'm hoping his parents should take some responsibility to support my brother, the lone survivor," she says. "Every time he needs some financial support, they should get it for him. This is their job now, because their son did everything. I know this won't happen, but I still think they should take some action." (The Patels, along with the families of the other victims, have already filed a civil lawsuit against Baumhammers's parents.)
Leena feels bad for Baumhammers's parents too, despite her anger at them for not taking care of their son. But there is no pity in her heart for Baumhammers.
"I was glad they found him guilty, and my brother Sandip was also happy," she says. "We were all hoping that Baumhammers would get the death penalty. I don't believe in life imprisonment and all that. This guy has to be just executed, that's it. Just get it over with.
"Whenever I saw him, I would get so angry, I would think, let me go and beat him, punch him, and I just have a question: 'Why did you do that, why did you pick out all these minorities? Why didn't you just kill yourself, if you had that much frustration, if you lost your interest in life? You should have killed yourself; you don't have any right to stay in this world.'
"It doesn't matter if he's going to get the death penalty in five years, or ten years. At least he will get it, and this will be over."
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