Living vigorously


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Category: Profiles 14 Jan 07


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 be.


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 University, England.


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.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur