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The sheer pain of losing my father

By Vaihayasi Pande Daniel
Last updated on: December 13, 2018 15:30 IST
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Time unkindly has a sole endeavour: To drag the person, whose death you are mourning, further and further away from your presence, to some far edge of your falsely anesthetised mind.
So your memories are drained of colour, growing faint and grainy.
You are left with a more and more distant recollections of that person, their laugh, their embrace, their voice and the moments surrounding their final departure.
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel mourns her beloved father who passed away one December morning last year.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

They call Time many names.

A thief. Old gypsy man. The greatest teacher.

A circus, always packing up and moving away.

You are most often, grandly told, that Time is the Great Healer.


It's a soubriquet I dispute.

What healing?

Time certainly takes the edge off your sorrow.

When you lose someone dear, the sheer physical passing of days lessens your tears. Later Time dissolves them.

But Time, why would I want you to do that?

Why would I wish you to take away my tears?

I want to be able to continue to mourn with tears.

Tears are comforting. Tears, like dreams, bring back the person in front of you, in focus.

I don't want my tears to dry up.


Raw grief is more real. That pain is a constant twinge in your heart that makes you remember that you have lost someone who meant the world to you, without whom the world is so much more empty. It doesn't fool you.

The painful, dry sobs that rack your soul, achingly, are not the only deep sorrow I want to be left with. I want my tears back.

Time unkindly has a sole endeavour: To drag the person, whose death you are mourning, further and further away from your presence, to some far edge of your falsely anesthetised mind.

So your memories are drained of colour, growing faint and grainy. You are left with a more and more distant recollections of that person, their laugh, their embrace, their voice and the moments surrounding their final departure.

And how big a body-blow their death was for you.

I learned how little I liked Time after my father died.

How it was both time and death who conspired to take him away so suddenly, so far, leaving me bereft.

I have since learned a lot of other things too. Stuff I never had clue about till then. Truths that you should know.

The death of a father is a milepost in a daughter's life. There are so many aspects, large and small, about a daughter's relationship with her father you figure out only after he has gone.

Like I am sure a daughter's wedding day is a bittersweet occasion for every dad. Every father must feel that he has lost part of his role in his daughter's life when she gets married.

But a husband never replaces a father. A husband only crucially expands your family and group of significant others. It is not a substitution. I wish I could have told him that. Not that he probably didn't know it. But it might have been soothing for a father to hear that from his daughter.

A father for a girl is her last bulwark against the reality and rudeness of life. That's something a husband will never be, simply because he is not your father.

Till your father dies you are always his little girl. You really finally don't grow up, no matter how old you are, because he is there.

With his death you are expected, within minutes, to grow up and actually face the world, that you hadn't till then.

A father loves his daughter unconditionally. He is the man whose face shines with a special, beautiful joy that's all for you, only for you.

The man who thinks the world of you, whoever you may be. The man who is most interested in your little life, your views, struggles and your simple achievements.

My father died suddenly one sunny December morning, last year, half an hour after he went to sleep, shortly after he got off an early morning flight from America, with my eldest daughter. He was days away from being 91.

When my devastated daughter frantically called me to his room, hardly minutes after he died, his face looked so peaceful. He was still warm and I could not believe he was dead, as I held his hand, talked to him and wept at his bedside.

He had just tiptoed away, leaving me alone, fatherless, parentless, unequipped at the threshold of the next stage in my life.

Everyone tells you that's the best way for your father to go.

He was a rather healthy, super active 90, having spent hardly a day in bed. Most people thought he was in his 70s. He had no mental or physical disabilities, apart from a pronounced limp from a childhood attack of pneumonia.

He was bursting with energy, a zest for living and possessed a big booming, heart-warming laugh, a hearty appetite, a lively mind right to the last minute.

That's the way your father should exit they tell you. Not when he is decrepit, bent-over, bleary-eyed and bed-ridden with no awareness of his environment.

That's the way your father should exit they tell you, without pain, surrounded by the loved ones who cared for him the most.

That's the way your father should exit they tell you, having lead a great life, between two continents, as a doctor, psychiatrist, teacher, scholar and family man.

Except there is no age when a daughter is ready for her father to exit.

He exited too soon for me.

I was not prepared for his life to be extinguished so quickly.

I didn't anticipate a man full of life to be gone tomorrow.

I did not expect a father, so colourful, so mad, bursting with drama and huge plans, to slip away so quietly, so softly in death, a complete contrast to the noisy manner in which he went through life.

He exited before he had crossed off another 45 things from his wild bucket list that had 35,000 exotic things on it still.

We were planning another trip to the tundra of northern Sweden together and holidays in Goa and on the Narmada.

He was publishing a book; the manuscript was ready. And he was writing further.

There were poems and letters to the editor ready to be dispatched to The Atlantic and The New York Times among his papers, I later discovered. And an unposted letter to Rahul Gandhi on how he wanted to meet and talk to him about India.

He lectured every winter at an institute in Ranchi and was expected to give a bunch of talks after his arrival, where he had students of psychiatry analyse films psychologically.

He had Christmas gifts lined up for everyone and gifts for my mother in law's 80th birthday, which they all received posthumously.

He exited before I could spend enough 'quality time' with him. Our pace of life is such that you are always stupidly in a hurry.

The time you actually spend with your parents decreases, instead of increasing as you too easily, too awkwardly cite pressures of work and home, lack of leave etc to not extend that valuable time.

Later you are, too late, filled with regret for not giving that time, that was actually so easily available for them.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

My father, a savant, who had a personal library of over 7,000 to 8,000 books on every topic, a span of mind larger than several city blocks and curiosity in his 90s of a two year old, was the most scholarly person I ever knew. He taught me that the most valuable commodities in life are learning/knowledge and the uprightness of your beliefs.

My father, born in British India to a freedom fighter father, holding an American passport (not able to get a PIO because of Indian embassy bureaucracy), with his strong Indian accent, love for anything Hindustani, his fervid belief in the country of his birth, was the most Indian Indian I ever knew, as well as the most genteel Baltimorean too, showing that nationality is a just a notion.

My dad, whose eyes always sparkled with a zeal for life and whose grey beard bristled with a certain liveliness, was one of the most loving fathers I ever knew, brimming over with affection and bear hugs for his children and grandchildren.

My father was also the busiest man I ever knew.

Every time I called him, or rather he called me (many times a week), he would always tell me "Beti, I am very busy. So many tasks to do and not enough time" as he was exiting his house to get into his monster of a shiny black Toyota Explorer that he drove way too fast, like a terror about Baltimore, where he had lived for 50 years plus, cursing all the other "bloody bastard" drivers, his car stereo blaring either Rabindra Sangeet or Arvo Part or some bawdy Munni Begum song.

Those tasks could include anything from: Heading to get another 20 pictures of my late Estonian mother enlarged to a three foot by four foot size for framing.

Picking up 20 rotis and lauki (doodhi) glistening with oil from Pavan Foods or "nice gobhi" from Whole Foods to cook.

Driving 10 miles to the main post office to personally mail a letter (he belonged to that generation that had to see a letter franked and put in the box at the general post office).

Finding some strange store to locate a rare gift for my boss.

Going to the bookstore for a new volume on cross-culture behaviour or to Apple to update one of his gadgets (he was active on every device, and even on Twitter and online shopping sites).

Travelling to a fashion outlet to personally select my or my sister or my daughters' 101th pair of exotic earrings.

Stopping in at Baltimore Coffee and Tea Company for his daily fix of caffeine or Wine Source to choose a rare malt either for himself, or my husband or his favourite Ranchi student.

Now every time I recollect my father -- tiny little things poignantly spark his memory umpteen times a day -- and his unique, larger-than-life personality, his affection, his brand of intellect mixed with utter wackiness, I am always struck by the fact that, in spite of the glaring foibles, I did not know just how towering and essential a presence he was in my life.

I loved him dearly, he knew that. He was special for me, he knew that. He was important to my life, he knew that.

How monumentally important, he didn't know. Neither did I.

There are other riddles I have only mildly fathomed. By the time you are old enough to understand your parents and even their appalling weaknesses they are gone -- there were things they did, that seemed utterly crazy to you when you were 20 or 30 or 40 that you now realise was the only way to do things.

With age your understanding of your parents increases and expands but you are left with less and less time (just a fraction) to make use of that understanding, because life whizzes past -- he always said a life went by like the blink of Shiva's eye.

As a movie recently showed me, you have a certain perspective and impression of your parents in your childhood. That alters and changes as you get to re-know them as an adult. That perspective changes even further after they die. And you value them more for what you didn't understand in their lifetime.

Most of all, I miss all the never completed conversations with my father.

The things I never got to ask him. The parts of his mind I never explored. His views on subjects I forgot to enquire about. The depth of his knowledge I did not plumb.

There are so many little-little things too you didn't get to know or do either -- ask the identity of a few people in a family photograph on the wall, enquire about his opinion of someone we mutually knew or check about some Hindi mohavre he would often spout off, or get the name of the shop where he bought his pens, or have the chance to feed him a special type of chaat or samosa you had found the recipe for.

Or the biggest bear hug of all I didn't give him, that could have conveyed to him then, the realisation of how much he meant to me, that has come to me now after he has gone.

That's the futility of life.

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Vaihayasi Pande Daniel / Mumbai