by Aneeta Sundararaj
“You promised. Remember?”
My blood ran cold. The voice in my ear was scratchy, as though the man was speaking for the first time after being extubated.
Jolted awake, I couldn’t move. My chest felt heavy and I wondered if I would ever draw breath again.
“Yes, I remember,” I whispered into the darkness.
In seconds, I could breathe once more.
Why the hell was I still waking up in the middle of the night because of a man who’d been dead for five years?
Standing by the window of my high-rise flat, I stared out at the city bathed in ambient light. Even though the Klang Valley in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, seemed deathly quiet, I was certain that news reports from the night before were true. I strained to hear City Council officers trawling the dark alleyways to round up the homeless to prevent social ills.
What on earth did social ills mean? One drug-addled man having his way with a semi-comatose woman in her cardboard box under a bridge? Try as I might, I couldn’t hear a thing at this hour before dawn.
These were all frivolous thoughts. A desperate attempt to shut out the more serious ones: Daddy’s dementia’s becoming worse; Mummy’s alone; so far, far away from them; will I ever sleep through the night again?
I shivered and mentally ran through my checklist for when the inevitable happened: ask my cousin to drive me home; call my editor to reassign the work she’s given me; have a full petrol tank in the car.
What if I were overseas, though, when Daddy died? Must have enough money to buy a ticket home; must arrange for someone to help Mummy call the doctor, report the matter to the police and do all the paperwork; Daddy must be taken to the mortuary until I was home; I have no brothers or husband; I will have to light my father’s funeral pyre.
Such morbid thoughts.
Still, I learnt months ago that, in the dead of night, when worry and fear threatened to consume me, it was best to be practical and think of all that needed to be done. This mental activity was exhausting and shut out emotion; the body and mind eventually succumbed to sleep.
Even then I knew that I’d lost my father two years before he actually died. He had suffered a severe bout of pneumonia and was hospitalized for two weeks in November 2014.
“Ma,” he had said, calling me by the Tamil term of endearment.
I had hurried to his bedside and helped him to push away the sterile tubing of continuous infusion of antibiotics before he had said, “When it’s time, you let me go. Don’t let me suffer. I don’t want to lie in a bed all the time.”
Without hesitating, I had responded with, “When your suffering to live becomes more than my suffering to let you go, I promise you, Daddy, I will let you go. For now, let me have the pleasure of looking after you.”
He had smiled brightly, cupped his hands below his chin and closed his eyes.
Seated in the plastic chair, I’d watched my father sleep for the next hour and, thereby, heal from within. I’d also begun bargaining with God:
Let Daddy come home and I’ll write the name of Lord Shiva 108,000 times.
Let him recover and I’ll turn vegetarian.
Let him live and I’ll recite the Mahamrityunjaya mantra 108 times for 48 days.
Daddy had pulled through and was discharged on his birthday, 23rd of November. But he was never the same again.
Two things happened in the last months of Daddy’s life which made me anxious. The first was the morning after I returned to the city for work. While I was at Village Grocers in Bangsar, the maid called and pleaded, “Talk to your father. He is crying all morning.”
Back in my flat, the moment I put away the groceries, I dialed the number for the landline in the house.
“Why are you crying, Daddy?”
“S-o-r-,” he choked on his words. I didn’t need to hear the rest of his apology to understand that in a moment of incredible lucidity, it had occurred to him that for the two weeks I’d been home, he couldn’t remember who I was. He’d tortured himself all morning assuming that I was upset.
“Daddy, don’t cry anymore. Don’t worry about this. Please,” I begged, unable to bear my father’s emotional pain.
“Promise me visitation rights. Okay? When I’m gone, you let me visit.”
“No,” I cried out. “No such thing. If you keep coming back, the whole world will laugh at me. As though I didn’t do all the proper prayers for you. No visitation rights.”
Daddy hung up on me. I knew he was angry, but there was no way I was going to make a promise that he could stay around with us in spirit form.
One morning a few weeks later during my monthly visits home, Daddy called me to his room after he’d woken up.
“Say good morning, Ma.” Pointing to the end of his bed, he said, “We have visitors.” Turning to look at me, he added, “Later, when I visit, you give me coffee, ok. Promise?”
“Hmmm… Yes. Promise.” I didn’t have energy left to argue. I’d already read stories that the dying will report visions of angels, deceased loved ones, or religious figures.
I will not let this happen.
I refused to be defeated by our visitors.
I guided Daddy to his spot at our dining table. After I poured the brewed coffee into his mug and was convinced that he was happy with his breakfast of boiled oats with berries and slices of papaya, I returned to his room under the guise of tidying it up. Going to the foot of his bed, I imagined that that there was a person standing in front of me. In that moment, I decided to call him, ‘Someone’. Granted, it was an unimaginative name, but my world was falling apart and there were only so many grey cells I was willing to exercise at the time. Pretending to stare into Someone’s eyes, I said, “It’s okay. You can be here for now. Keep Daddy safe. I know why you’re here.” Wagging my finger at Someone, I implored, “But you wait, please. A few weeks also can.”
At the threshold, I turned back to Someone and said, “Actually, you can take longer. No need for you to hurry. Okay?”
I’d like to think that Someone listened to me because nothing happened for a long while, meaning that Daddy didn’t mention the presence of visitors again. Instead, he continued to heal and our little nuclear family of three was happy in each other’s company. Such was the improvement in his health that weeks later, Daddy was hale and hearty enough to make the five-hour car journey to my flat in Kuala Lumpur. I wanted medical experts in the city to assess him and made all the necessary appointments.
During the consultation, the cardiologist picked at a xanthoma peeping out of his shirt collar while he scanned Daddy’s lab reports. After tension-filled minutes, he declared, “Wah, Uncle. Your blood results are very good. Better than mine. You’re doing very well.”
Next to me, Mummy exhaled, relieved.
When he then said, “See you in six months, Uncle,” I heard a soft voice in my head say, “It ain’t going to happen. We’re never coming back here.”
Dismissing it, I helped Daddy with his wheelchair so that we could leave the medical specialist’s room. Our next stop was the institute’s pharmacy bursting at the seams with a cross section of Malaysia’s obese and diabetic citizens suffering from all manner of heart ailments. Daddy came home that day with more than the requisite medication – he came home with a bug in his lungs.
Two nights later, when I was helping him to get ready for bed, Daddy asked me, point blank: “Who are you?” I smiled and continued to rub the night cream for his dry skin.
“See Appa! See Meneka!” he said, pointing to the end of the bed. “She won’t tell me who she is. But I have to let her touch me. So shame-shame.”
I held my breath, angry.
The visitors were here? In Kuala Lumpur?
They had the audacity to sit on the bed? My bed. Next to my father.
This was too much.
Logic dictated that this rage was unfounded. Clearly, Daddy’s dementia had progressed to the extent where he no longer knew me, but he could name his childhood playmate and my grandfather who had been dead for more than forty years.
When my father was intubated and placed on life support five days later, I didn’t dare bargain with God anymore. A miracle had already taken place: I’d fulfilled Daddy’s wish and brought him back home to Alor Setar. He was so frail that I feared he would die in the airport. But, like magic, everything fell into place and his final journey home went off without a hitch.
I knew that any medical intervention at this stage such as kidney dialysis could keep him alive, but would have rendered him bedridden. It was time I kept my promise. My task was not merely to let my 86-year-old father go, but to help him let us go as well. I steeled my nerves, let go of my selfish desire to keep my father alive at any cost and silenced the voice of my sorrow.
I turned to friends and explained that for the last two years, my father had become a ‘child’. I became his ‘parent’ and cared for and loved him. Now, as the finality of what was going to happen fast approached, I was worried. Would he be safe? Would he be cared for? I asked that they pray for me to have the strength to go through one of the hardest things ever. How kind they all were, regardless of color, creed and faith: Catholics recited the Rosary, Christians prayed and Hindus chanted the mantras with me.
I can count on one hand the number of people I informed about Daddy’s worsening and terminal condition. Yet, word spread fast. Uncles, aunts and many friends dropped everything and rushed to be with us. The makcik who sat next to me on the plane during a quick dash to Kuala Lumpur to shut down my flat comforted me as I wept. My co-workers sent cards and comforting messages.
I held back tears when the ICU nurses told me that long after Mummy and I left the hospital to get some rest, consultants from other hospitals visited him. As a former medical superintendent in the government’s health service in the 1970s, Daddy was once upon a time their boss. They wanted to stay with him on those nights when he was alone with nothing more than a beeping monitor for company.
I chose to believe that in those last five days of his life, Daddy came back to us. Although physically helpless, he knew who I was. And we learnt to communicate without words. He smiled when I promised to look after Mummy. He squeezed my hand when I asked for his forgiveness for all my wrongs. Tears flowed from his eyes when I thanked him for giving me the honor of being his daughter. When I told him it was time to rest, he gave me a firm nod.
Finally, on the morning of 17th of October, when there was no longer any cognitive function and Daddy was slipping away, we gathered by his side.
At one stage, I whispered into my father’s ears. “Daddy, if you can see, look around you. I’m here. Mummy is here…” and I continued to name all the people standing around his bed. I imagined that, like in the movies, Daddy’s astral being would rise up and see us all.
“Daddy, pray to Amma,” I urged him. This word ‘Amma’ had a double meaning. For one, Amma was his ishtadevam. It was also what we called my grandmother and I hoped that she was a last-minute visitor to help Daddy in his hour of need.
Daddy opened his eyes and glanced at all of us. It was the validation I needed that he had heard me and knew that he wasn’t alone. I looked into my father’s eyes and whispered, “Visitation rights, Daddy. You have them. Promise.”
When my father closed his eyes for eternity, I surrendered his body, heart and soul into Amma’s hands.
As Mummy and I got used to our new reality and I told people about the perfection of my father’s death, it was impossible to shed any tears. What right did I have to cry when the entire sequence of events was a testament to the fact that every one of Daddy’s wishes was granted? He died peacefully, surrounded by the people who loved him body, heart and soul, and in a town where he’d earned enormous respect.
In time, my mother and I collected happier memories, such as my marriage to a Catholic man to whom I hadn’t told the details of my last words to my father. It wasn’t that I was keeping secrets from my husband. I didn’t think Daddy would hold me to a promise I made when he took his last breath.
Our son, Johnny, was three years old when my husband and I decided to move to our new home, a corner lot in a row of suburban terraced houses. The garden was large enough that we could plant a neem tree without worrying that its secondary roots could damage the foundations of what I was determined would be my family’s sanctuary.
We converted one of the four bedrooms into a playroom for Johnny. A beautifully functional room, it opened out into our kitchen. This meant that while I was busy preparing our meals, I could still hear my infant’s mostly garbled sounds as he joyfully played.
“What to do?” Johnny said, one day a few weeks ago. The mid-afternoon sun was way too hot for him to be playing outside. I’d put the air conditioner on in the playroom and my son seemed happy enough.
“No, cannot,” were my son’s next words.
Something wasn’t right. I turned the stove off and listened. After a while, it occurred to me that my son wasn’t merely talking to himself. He was responding to someone talking to him. Could it be his imagination?
I walked to the bedroom and leaned against the doorframe to watch him. Johnny wasn’t looking down at his toys when he spoke. Instead, his head was raised and eyes wide open, as though he were looking into the face of someone seated on the floor playing with him.
“Who are you talking to, Baby Boy?”
He turned to me, dimples denting his cherubic cheeks. Pointing to nothing in front of him, he said. “Someone.”
Someone? Dear God, help me.
My breath became labored. Should I pick up my baby and run? But where to? Was my baby going to die? Was Someone here to take him away?
I blinked again and whispered, “Who?”
My child turned back to this invisible being and, ever so politely asked, “What is name, please?”
A moment later, he turned to me and said, “Tata.”
I stood stock still.
Could it be?
Tata would have been the way Johnny addressed his Tamil grandfather had Daddy lived to meet his grandson.
Was it even possible that my son and Daddy were having a conversation?
I turned on my heel and walked away, stunned.
In the coming days, I said nothing. But every afternoon, in the kitchen, I sat with mug of coffee in hand and listened to this one-sided conversation my living, breathing child had with my seemingly dead, lifeless father.
Then, I made a huge mistake – I share what happened with my husband.
“What?” he practically shouted at me. “Don’t be ridiculous. I don’t believe in all these hocus pocus, mumbo jumbo, bullshit.” Although I didn’t mention ‘Tata’ again, my spooked husband called his family for a meeting and a unilateral decision was made to contact the church elders the very next day. A priest was commissioned to come to our home and help us mere mortals.
I almost blurted out, “He’s my father. Not the Devil or a demon,” when I saw Father Michael gripping his crucifix.
Who would have thought that Catholics were prone to following shamanic rituals? Here I was thinking that it was only ‘my kind’ (Father Michael’s words, not mine) that made sacrificial offerings of slaughtered goats to Hindu gods and goddesses to appease them. Three nights in a row, Father Michael came to our house, garlic in one hand and the bible in the other. With Johnny on my lap and my husband seated on the sofa next to me, we were given lessons from the Bible about our sins by a celibate priest who hadn’t let go of his Hindu roots. On the fourth, fifth and six nights, we slaughtered kampung chickens, mixed their blood with holy water and sprinkled it all around our house.
“So that the spirits don’t take another life,” he explained.
The dead chickens, which we had to buy daily from the wet market so they were ‘fresh’, were taken away by Father Michael. I never dared to ask what he did with them. Maybe, the nuns in a nearby convent made chicken stew. Maybe, the school-going children in the Church-sponsored orphanage had fried chicken for dinner. Who knows…
On the seventh night, a time to rest, we hosted a dinner for Father Michael, a few parishioners and my mother-in-law. “It’s all sorted,” he declared after he arranged his billowing robes and we bent down to kiss his ring. “Everything will be fine from now on,” he insisted, comforting my mother-in-law as she lay a hand on her chest and sighed.
Three days later, I vowed never to confess to my husband that all his family’s efforts had been futile. You see, within twelve hours of Father Michael’s failed sort-of exorcism, I sat with coffee mug in hand and listened as my son and father resumed their daily conversations.
“Mummy,” my son appeared at the entrance to the kitchen, a week later. “Come, come,” he said to me.
I put the mug down, took his outstretched hand and let him lead me to the playroom. He rushed to sit down on the straw mat and looked up at his playmate who was invisible to me.
“You tell her,” my son said to him.
“Tell me what?”
“Tata said he’s shame-shame to tell you.”
Shame-shame? Oh Daddy. Nothing’s changed.
Oblivious, my son added, “He said to say thank you.”
I swallowed. “For what? Please ask Tata?”
A few seconds later, my son looked at me and said, “For letting Tata visit.” He was about to turn back to play when he added, “And my name, Mummy. Tata said thank you.”
Turning on my heel, I left my son alone and staggered back to the kitchen. Shaking from head to toe, I quickly pulled out a stool and sat down. And then I sobbed for I was now aware that my father knew all along what I’d done.
When my child was born, I’d insisted that he be given a Hindu name in addition to the Biblical one my mother-in-law chose for her first grandson.
“Please,” I’d begged my husband. Mercifully, he’d agreed.
“His name,” I’d said to Father Michael a month later, “is John Sunder Pillay.” Watching the priest pour water from the baptismal font over my child’s head, I’d closed my eyes and silently added, “With God as my witness, I will teach this baby to be deeply honored to carry his grandfather’s name, Dr. Sunder Menon.”
Visitation Rights by Aneeta Sundararaj was first published by Livina Press
About the Author
Once upon a time, Aneeta Sundararaj created a website and called it ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. She has contributed feature articles to a national newspaper and also various journals, magazines and e-zines. Aneeta’s bestselling novel, ‘The Age of Smiling Secrets’ was shortlisted for the Book Award 2020 organised by the National Library of Malaysia. Throughout, Aneeta continued to pursue her academic interests and, in 2021, successfully completed a doctoral thesis entitled ‘Management of Prosperity Among Artistes in Malaysia’.