ICU Stepdown


“Time is in slow motion here. Every painful minute dragged out in 60 slow seconds. Every 30 minutes an eon, every hour an eternity.
They are all laid out in rows – old, shrunk bodies, their life drawn out of them, almost sucked dry…
The first night that Baba was admitted in this ‘ICU Stepdown’, it was such a ghastly sight! Seeing those rows of shrouded bodies, all with their eyes closed… made it seem like purgatory...

I was reminded of Ma just 18 months back – in the 3rd and final day of her coma, her face distorted, her belly bloated, her entire left side stiff as stone after the cerebral attack... a misshapen body that was once a mother. She, too, was sleeping in the midst of such rows of bodies on either side. Thankfully, her stay was short in that purgatory…

Already, in this one week here, some patients have gone… who knows where?… and I see new faces in their stead. I remember two people whom I can’t see anymore: there was this woman, who looked so ancient it was a miracle she was alive at all. She was visited in the mornings by a son who was very old himself. Another patient made painful sounds at night (that disturbed Baba no end), but fared better in the mornings. Later in the week, I actually saw him in a different part of the room, much recovered. Even in sleep, he’d looked imposing. Must have been someone everyone revered, or perhaps, was downright afraid of. He was tall, and when awake, spoke with a raspy voice. He had a hurt expression on his face that seemed to say: “How can life do this to me? This is not me!”…

The others in the room are way beyond such emotions. They have no energy, no feelings, nothing left. They are just aware of the discomfort of their bodies… they just want to sleep sweet sleep”.

I wrote the above bit in mid-Feb 2018, on my newly gifted mobile, while waiting to see Baba during “visiting hours”. He had fallen asleep, I was told, just before I came in at 11 am to meet him. I didn’t want to disturb him… so I just waited… and while I waited and looked around me, to the other patients in that room, I typed on my Samsung 'Notes', to keep my mind from straying into dark thoughts. Darker, that is, than what I was recording.

Baba had had a freak kidney failure a week before, suddenly one night, and was admitted to that facility within a few hours. 12 days later, he was shifted to one of the biggest private hospitals in the city, where he stayed for another 3 weeks. Most of that time was spent in the ICU. At one point, the doctors seemed to run out of options... and then, miraculously… he recovered. He was bed-ridden for a few months upon returning home, but was back on his feet thereafter, though still confined at home.

He is now as normal as we can hope him to be at 84. I’ve not seen a more disciplined octogenarian. He follows his daily routine with clockwork precision: from meals to taking medicine (which is a lot), from doing his rudimentary exercise to reading headlines with a magnifying glass in the sun and watching a particular Bengali soap every evening (this last surprises me no end, given his lifelong disinterest in TV). I’ve also not seen a busier man – he can somehow spend the whole day just being preoccupied with himself! He even seldom talks over the phone with the few younger friends (his peers have all died) and the one sibling he is left with.

Part of the reason that the whole day is gobbled up just doing necessary things is that his body has slowed down. Whatever he does, he does at a much slower pace than before. Hence, the littlest of things take the longest time. He is a stoic and has always accepted life’s realities without any complaints. But there are certain things he misses, the small joys of life… like making tea. He wouldn’t even trust Ma with that (after his retirement, ie). Now, on the rare occasions that he has to make it, he feels utterly exhausted by the task. But he doesn’t enjoy the tea that is served to him twice a day either. None can do it exactly right. He has always been a great connoisseur of (Bengali) food; the kind who would discuss dinner while having lunch, and that very ‘Bong’ variety whose chief duty as householder was to do the ‘bajar’ (grocery), so that he could get just the things he wanted. Given this history, the many restrictions that his medical condition imposed on him was not easy for him to take. But I feel it is the tea that bothers him more. Life’s beauty, for him, has gone down yet another notch because of it. That’s a “stepdown”.

Life in general, for an octogenarian, is a stepdown. Is it not?

I MUST add here, though, that till 82, till that freak kidney failure 2 years back, Baba defied every stereotype of old age, with his enviable energy and self-sufficiency. Now, however, he is like most others his age. He is an old man!

Since, for the longest time, he didn’t behave as one, I’ve had great difficulty in accepting his current condition. Especially, the physical part: he is thin as a stick, with hollow cheeks, shrunken eyes, near toothless gums, and a totally bald head (that for most of his life was only half bald). He is a shadow of himself…

And yet, and still… he remains my rock…!
(PC: Gerry Roy)