Discovering the essence of a rose


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Category: Reflections Date: 21 Oct 99

“This is what Grass’s great novel said to me in its drumbeats. Go for broke. Always try to do too much. Dispense with safety nets. Aim for the stars. Keep grinning. Be ruthless. Argue with the world.”

Salman Rushdie on Gunter Grass winning the Nobel Prize for literature for The Tin Drum.


When I was a child I would pick apart flowers; not just any kind, roses - sitting on a swing, in a pathway, on the verandah, from a carefully tended garden. It sounds like a harmless, silly, girly thing to do but was actually a brutal act of destruction to this prized, aristocratic, fragile flower of any garden.


I demolished all kinds: flawless tea roses, full-bloomed buttercup yellow ones, nauseatingly gaudy pink ones, cream coloured buds. The stem, which I knew gave it life, would be bent till it cracked. The rose was yanked off. Grubby fingers would pull out its delicate petals, and when it was completely shorn, I would pull out the thorns, watching with fascination its revenge in the form of drops of blood on my fingers.


Grubby little fingers would sluice the rest apart. Eventually I would scrunch up the petals, rake my nails through them and rub the bruised mess on my face, trying to soak up the softness and fragrance before flinging it to the earth, where its spoils were trampled on underfoot by a dozen uncaring feet, before it rotted and meshed into the earth.


This year I watched two people I loved deeply die, not swift deaths, but slow painful ones where they had long lonely hours to contemplate that frightening great unknown. The worst part of their deaths was that both these people were already given to introspection - they were the sort who were not afraid to wrench out the sticky hardening molasses of terror from their shaken souls and examine it. They lived their impending death as fully as they lived their lives: argued with it, tried to understand it.


In both cases, their dialogue was deeply private. The face they showed to the world was that of courage. In the absence of being able to eat proper food, both hung in there with a staple diet of hope and humour. Bed-ridden, the one who was the first to go said with a dry smile days before she died: “Dying is so boring.” On these words, her personality hung her frenetic entanglement with life, her curiosity, the way she squeezed dry every moment. She hated waste, and idleness. She had things to do. There was no self-pity. She was just bloody bored with not being able to engage with the world.


For some reason this bruised, crushed, inhaled image of the spoils of rose petals niggled at me after the full realisation of their loss hit me. Roses, as lovely as they are, bud, bloom, give pleasure, but inevitably die. The image of a real rose is as nauseating as it is lovely: its fragrance too much, too perfect, too pretty, too fragile. It’s also about longing and frustration and despair. There is rage, too: its beauty belies its mortality - this too will die.


Each time I arrived to visit 10 minutes after they died. The first time I entered the room with a sense of dread, trepidation - all the bogeymen of death. All I saw was a beloved face: a woman with her eyes closed, the happy slumber of a child, an absence of pain.


On hearing of the second death, I bounded up the stairs absurdly - as if to defy those 10 minutes with my present speed. I entered the room and simply saw another beloved face, now simply quiet. I held his hand, still warm, and whispered my goodbyes, love, thanks, respect. Not the sepulchral type, but respect for his huge personality that I knew instinctively had burnt into every corner of his house and in the people he loved. The hand I held was still that big strong hand. He looked like he would wake up after his nap, smile wickedly, delighted at having us worry over him and say, “I feel good now”.


But in order to go forward, you always have to go back. In coming to terms with death there is the denouement, the unraveling and rewinding, the regrets for missed conversations, for unasked questions.


I have discovered in my limited but intense experience of death that people die as they live. Both long outlived their prognosis by months, years, befuddling doctors, making medical history, running on empty but not quite.


I was privileged enough to see at close quarters that it was not the medication (in one case, 22 tablets each morning apart from all that other painful medical stuff;  the IVs, the blood replacement, the chemotherapy) that kept them going but a bright tenuous rope made up of a strong will, and a stout soul. They never gave up on life when they were physically “healthy” and they were not going to give up now.


People live as they die. They die as they live. In allowing us to share the whole huge experience of their dying, for larger-than-life people, is as intense as it was while they were strong and healthy.


The death watch (sounds brutish, but that’s what it becomes towards the end, and these people were the sort who would never call a spade or a rose by any other name) was a reflection of their lives.


To my surprise, out of the ashes of impending death rose the purest kernel of life. We went there in twos and threes. Some stayed the night. There was no time for platitudes and hypocrisy. The barriers were down. We went down into the depths. Here, people of all ages and different lives, we found pain, warmth and bonding. We found commonality. There was intensity. With it came tears, and even laughter, but it was real. All false husks were shed. In his lifetime, he influenced us individually. Even as he was fading, he brought warmth to the living.


I knew, from the time I entered both their bedrooms, 10 minutes after I was given the euphemisms that they had “left us”, had “passed away”, that they hadn’t actually. A solid invisible baton had been passed on to those close to them. What was this baton made of? I was still picking apart the rose, distilling its essence. I went to the funerals, but in the second case I was given the honour of being able to crush the essence of their life and death to me. I was given the honour to accompany his closest family to the scattering of the ashes, which was to take place in the Gulf of Paria.


For one bitter moment, on the boat, on that hot day, looking at the small urn, I thought, “So this is what that huge life, those conversations, these positions and honours, these everyday struggles come to then”. The whistles blew, and it was time to empty the urn into the gulf.


One by one, we held it, and began emptying the urn into the sea. I looked down and saw that the ashes were actually lovely, a streaming powder of soft gray silk. If that stream was his body, and hers, then what of them throbbed in my soul? In that moment I discovered the essence of the rose. The bitterness vanished, and the space was filled. He hadn’t taken anything of his with him; not his favourite pen, book, research paper - for these meant more to him than his home and bank accounts.


She hadn’t taken her orchids, books, music or homes. But they both left something of themselves behind in the humble and great: children and adults, close family and friends with whom they came into daily contact. And it was as simple and essential as this: a belief in ourselves because they believed in us. That alone showed their generosity. Their lives were never about them alone but about other people. In that belief, there are huge expectations to which we now have to life up to: pushing ourselves to be the best we can be. We need to be strong ourselves, so we can be strong for others. To betray that would be a personal betrayal to the people we have physically “lost”.


The lives of people who are “larger than life” to each one of us individually can be strained into liquid gold; silken ash; their rose petals are pressed into our skin, until they become part of us.


They died as they lived. And lived as they died. Giving. And so they stay with us.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur