In a sunny flat overlooking a river in Baltimore near Johns Hopkins
Hospital our family spent this last month watching my handsome brother
Varun, his tall powerful booming voice and body being ravaged by cancer.
We played a lot of scrabble and chess. We were all merciless when it came to
the game. It was the way he liked it. No pity. No second chances. Checkmate
was checkmate. Sometimes when he got too tired to play I would hold my
brother's hand and he mine. Together we would look at our interlocked
fingers. His hands were twice the size of mine, but the skin, the shape of
the nails, the shape of our palms, was the same. Same hearts and bones. I
would press my cheek next to his, feeling the warmth of our skin not knowing
where I ended and he began. The hollow inside me an echo of his. There has
to be a lesson in this, I thought, even though I didn't know what it would
After his cancer prognosis six years ago through thirteen surgeries, the
long chemo sessions that he described as a nuclear attack in his head, even
when he was in remission, the light in his eyes dimmed. I always thought of
the human spirit as concept but I saw how empty eyes are without it.
We never acknowledged the bravery of living knowing you are dying. Because
we were born to live, not to spend time dying. It was only in December that
I acknowledged the wall between the living and the dying. We don't realize
how much of our zest for life comes with faith in the future. I talk of the
law degree I've begun. It doesn't register. His niece buys him a calendar
for Christmas, and he tells her quietly he won't need that.
Even with our arms around him physically, emotionally we were sitting on
separate boats, a man and his family drifting apart, us doubling over with
the effort of stretching our hands out to him. But the tide pulled us apart,
us to the living, and him towards the opaque mist.
In the end, with morphine he was restored to his essential self, and it was
as if we were children again calling one another long forgotten nicknames,
and our parents loomed strong and protective.
He died four days after Christmas, and the lesson is dawning on me. Being
with someone as they die is a miracle when there is no pain. As he took his
last breath he smiled. And afterwards, he looked as handsome as he was as a
17 year old. Fear in the living is the only thing to be afraid of.
That's how Varun lived. He may have been afraid but he never lived as if he
was. From the time he was born in Calcutta in 1961 he lived vigorously. Once
when we were children, when our father, an Indian army officer, was posted
from Chandigargh to Simla. My mother was packing up her precious crockery.
Varun betted with me that he could jump over the lot. Before my mother could
forbid him he charged and landed in the middle of her precious crystal and
there was glass everywhere. It was the same fearless leaping that made him
so headhunted in the construction industry, expertly turning around dying
companies quadrupling sales, breaking into new markets. He defied my
fathers' predictions that he would be a truck driver, walking away with a
brilliant upper second construction management degree from Reading
Once he was married for a week. Sometimes he made it, sometimes he didn't
but he always jumped in and out again as if there was no tomorrow. He had a
huge life, in three continents, spoke three languages. The world embraced
his Bollywood charm and looks. His heart was in India, he loved the snowy
mountains of Simla, leaped about army training grounds in Bangalore. His
found love on a seaside town of England in Plymouth, in Costa Rica, and
Trinidad. As the plane rocked on my way home after Varun died on December
31st, I forced myself to look at the dark clouds without fear.