A Dying Wish
“Om namasivaya, om namasivaya,” the dirge floated like a ghost around the room, gathering substance from the vaporous fumes issuing from the burning incense in the clay lamp, the camphor on the little round brass tray and the incense sticks in brass holders. The women in their dark silk saris, singing and keeping time to the beat of the cymbals, eyes trance-like in sanctimonious rapture, droned on and on. Like a circle of vultures, they sat around the bed, their sombre religious fervour suffocating the woman who lay before them, eyes wide with despair. When she began coughing, their fervour grew apace. They began to push for the end and the mournful singing took on a frantic momentum. But instead of giving up the ghost, she got out of bed, walked to the window, pulled back the curtains, threw open the windows and, in her nightie, stood with her back to them breathing in the fresh air. She had broken the spell.
The women stared, nonplussed. Perhaps she was too ill to realize that all this was for her own good. Here they were, women with families, sacrificing their time to unite her to Brahman, the universal soul. But what did this woman know? They shook their heads in disapproval and muttering in Tamil about “Bushmen” and uncultured people, slowly began to disperse. They would come back later. It was their duty. After all she was part of their family by virtue of her marriage to Perumal and they owed it to him. They would do it, no matter how unappreciated their sacrifice and concern.
* * *
As they were leaving Pat, the dying woman’s sister, entered the room. Her powerful eyes took in the spectacle and disapproval could be read in every glance and turn of her head. The women filed out past her. Some shook her hand and made consoling noises. One woman, Devaki, who had stood throughout the whole procedure, indicating her rejection of it, was the last to come forward.
She whispered to the sister standing in the doorway. “This is wrong. It is very cruel. These people are singing songs for the dead.”
Pat put her arm around Devaki’s shoulders. “Dolores doesn’t understand the songs.” But Pat could see she was not convinced. After all, Dolores had been part of this community for nearly twenty years. Devaki turned to look at the skinny figure standing at the window and her eyes filled with tears. She slipped out of the room before she could lose control. Pat went up to Dolores and put strong, comforting arms around her and gently guided her back into bed.
“I’m so glad to see you. ” Dolores could hardly speak. “Have you spoken to Father Raymond? Will he come to baptize me?”
Pat looked sadly at her sister. “He will come to see you, but he won’t baptize you. Your husband and in-laws won’t allow it.”
Dolores looked distraught. “Daddy would have allowed it, wouldn’t he? I mean, now that I am dying.”
Their father, a Hindu man, had not allowed them to be baptized even though they had earnestly begged him when they were still teenagers. Their mother had been a devout Catholic but when she married out of the church, she was excommunicated. Their father had not wanted them to suffer as she had done. Like Mahatma Gandhi, he revered all religions and would have had no objections to his daughters becoming Catholics. In fact, they had attended church regularly with their mother. But they had all seen her pain at not being able to receive the Eucharist. He did not want to expose his daughters to the same kind of pain, especially as excommunication made no sense to him.
Pat turned to her sister. “Yes, Daddy would have allowed it.”
Dolores smiled. “When is Father Raymond coming to see me? Perhaps, he can do it without them seeing.” Pat didn’t know what to say. “Just sit by me. I want to take a small nap before Peru gets home for dinner. You must be here when I wake up,” she struggled to whisper. Perumal, Dolores’s husband, was a traditional Tamil man and she had always put his needs first. Even now, ill as she was, she wanted to be there, ready to serve his dinner, as he would expect, when he came home from work.
“Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere.” Pat assured her.
Dolores lay down to sleep but she coughed and struggled for breath. Pat did her best to make her comfortable. She wanted to call the doctor but Dolores would have none of it.
“I don’t want to be a nuisance. What a disgrace to have cancer. What a disgrace to Peru’s family.”
Pat said nothing. There was no love lost between her and her sister’s husband and in-laws. She had always felt that Dolores had thrown her own life away to slave for people who showed her no love whatsoever. Now she was dying, nothing had changed. The cancer that was eating at her sister’s throat was filling her lungs with pus, choking her and making it almost impossible to breathe. She had had a tracheotomy but still struggled to breathe and talk. Pat sat there holding Dolores’ hand and she eventually settled into a fitful sleep.
Pat heard a car drive up and knew that Peru was home. She braced herself, hoping against hope that he would not be drunk. But she soon heard him in the kitchen arguing with his daughter, Ramini, who had been chatting with her cousin, Chandra, Pat’s daughter. He was accusing her of running around with a young hooligan in the neighbourhood and she began crying. Chan, a chip off the old block, jumped into the fray and started defending her cousin.
“Shut your mouth,” Peru yelled at Chan. “You’re a bloody rubbish like your mother. You are teaching my daughter your ways.” Pat’s blood was boiling. How could they behave like that when Dolores was so ill? She was about to go into the kitchen and shut them up, when she felt a frail restraint on her arm.
Dolores’s appealing eyes were on her. “Please, help me dress. I have to prepare my husband’s dinner.”
“Don’t worry, Ramini has it all under control. Chan and I will help her dish up. Let me help you with your dressing gown. You can wait in the dining room.”
The atmosphere at dinner was tense but nothing untoward happened until the end. Throughout the meal Pat had been seething because there was so little consideration for her terminally ill sister. There was also rancour at the insult that Peru had hurled at her and her daughter. She was determined to bottle it all up for her sister’s sake but Peru put that out of the question. At the end of the meal, after all the dishes had been cleared away and they were waiting for Ramini to bring in the tea, he asked Dolores to pass him an ashtray. Dolores feebly pushed an ashtray towards him. Enraged, he picked up the ashtray and flung it back at her.
“Is that the way to pass me an ashtray? Pick it up and put it down decently in front of me,” he shouted.
This was too much for Pat. “What the bloody hell is going on this house? Who is the invalid here? First you come in and start a yelling match with the children and now you ask a sick and frail woman to wait on you? What’s the matter with you? Can’t you see that she is ill?”
“Get out of my house, get out right now.”
“Your house, your house,” Pat’s scorn was tangible. “My sister bought this house and everything in it.”
She would have gone on but she felt the frail hand on her arm again and she swallowed hard. Then she picked up her bag and walked out.
Chan came running after her as she marched to her car. “That was completely uncalled for. Why do you always behave like this? No wonder people call us Bushmen.” They got in the car and drove off. Pat had nothing to say to her daughter. If people called her a Bushman, it had nothing to do with the fact that her mother was Coloured. It had everything to do with the fact that she was not afraid to speak her mind. Why should she be submissive? Where had that got Dolores? Here she was dying and still not respected. At least she, Pat, respected herself and that was enough for her. She was sorry that Chan could not understand this. She dropped Chan off at her flat and went home.
Pat sat down with a cup of tea but couldn’t get Dolores’s intense need to be baptized out of her mind. She was not given to tears but couldn’t help herself as she thought of her sister, on her deathbed, being denied her last wish. Her father, also a Tamil man, had been very different. He had had a crucifix in his room and had studied the Bible everyday of his life, just as he had studied the Vedantas, the Koran and African religion. And she had thought all Hindus were like him, without religious prejudices. She felt helpless in this situation and it was not a feeling that she could tolerate.
A few days later, Dolores, who could no longer speak, struggled with pen and paper to ask Pat if she had been to see Father Raymond about her baptism. In the midst of all the women sitting around singing kirtans and funeral songs, Dolores wrote, “They can’t stop him.”
Devaki came up and whispered in Pat’s ear. “I went to see Father Raymond. He will be here soon.” Pat was amazed. She hadn’t approached the priest because she could not bring herself to ask him to involve himself in Dolores’ little deceit. But Devaki hadn’t hesitated. Pat’s father had forbidden baptism to prevent his daughters’ suffering and here was this Hindu woman colluding in the baptism of her sister, for the same reason. Pat found her own understanding of religion and compassion quite inadequate and she envied Devaki her ability to go beyond inhumane restrictions.
She indicated that Devaki give Dolores the news. Devaki whispered in the sick woman’s ear and a beatific smile spread over Dolores’s face. She no longer heard the droning around her and made Pat aware that there was something she wanted from under her mattress. Pat reached down and pulled out a rosary. Dolores took it in her hands and soundlessly began to pray. Pat looked around at the women in the room. They continued to sing. One or two noticed the rosary but ignored it.
Then the priest arrived. One of the elders of the family, a rather gaunt looking woman, stood up and challenged him. “Why have you come here? This is a Hindu home?”
“I understand that. I have only come to see Dolores and to pray with her. Will you allow me to pray with her?”
Devaki intervened. “The priest is only going to pray. He is going to join us in our prayers. There’s no harm in that.”
Pat looked at the priest with searching eyes. She couldn’t believe that he had agreed to the subterfuge. He was going to do something distinctly dishonest. She turned to her sister, saw her shining eyes, and said to herself, Perhaps it is dishonest, but it is right. I must learn to accept it as Devaki has. She made way for the priest who came and sat by the bedside.
The elder who had challenged the priest indicated to the others that they should continue with the singing. They began chanting and singing again, even more loudly than before. Pat was ready to explode; then she realized that if they continued caterwauling as they were, they would not realize what was happening so she turned her complete attention to Father Raymond and Dolores. The priest was speaking quietly to the patient.
“Dolores, I understand your deep desire to be baptized. And God is listening to you. I am only his servant and I perform his commandments. Sometimes, circumstances are so difficult that I do not know how to proceed. In this case, the family into which you married believes that you must follow its customs and ways. Though you have done so all your life, I know that that is not what you want now. But as I told you, God is listening to you. He feels the yearning in your heart and He will do what I cannot. Speak to Him and He will grant what you desire.”
She looked at the priest with questioning eyes.
“Pray now with me and you will feel His spirit enter into you and you will be baptized and blessed.” Pat could hardly hear what was being said. The noise of the kirtans and the cymbals was drowning out the priest’s words. But Dolores was listening intently and in her eyes there was clear understanding.
Father Raymond knelt down beside the bed. Devaki knelt on the other side. The singing of the women intensified. Pat took in the scene and suddenly felt impelled to kneel down beside Devaki. It seemed to her that a light enveloped them and nothing else existed in that room but the three kneeling figures and the woman on the bed. And Dolores, who had not been able to speak, raised her voice and clearly asked the Lord to bless her and take her into his care. She looked up and drops of water began rolling down her forehead. Devaki pointed in amazement and Pat stared in wonder. Dolores smiled and fell into a deep, comfortable sleep.
Suddenly Pat became aware of her surroundings again and she stared at the other women. The singing and chanting had continued unabated. They were not aware of any unusual happening. Had she been dreaming? She turned to Devaki whose eyes were filled with tears and they embraced one another. Father Raymond stood up and as Pat earnestly searched his eyes, he said, “She has been blessed.” Then he shook hands with them and left.
That night the cancer, which had grown like a rotten potato on the side of Dolores’s neck, burst and the stench of it overcame the camphor and the incense and sent all the singers scuttling from the room.
A month after Dolores’s funeral, Pat went to see Father Raymond and was baptized into the Catholic faith.