Essay: When Is Kaka Coming Home?
Kaka, my grandfather, was still sleeping when I got to his hospital room. I was home from graduate school, visiting for the holidays, and I was eager to see him. His organs were failing; his body seemed tiny under the covers, and I could hear his chest gurgling a bit as he breathed. When I hung up my coat, he slowly stirred, opened his eyes, then flashed his toothless grin.
“Hi Kaka. I’m here for breakfast,” I told him. “The sunrise was amazing today,” I went on, as I pulled the tray table over his bed so he could reach his breakfast. “It looked like the sky was on fire. Pink was everywhere.” Pink was Kaka’s favourite colour. He lifted his eyebrows and tilted his head, listening happily.
We spent a quiet morning together. I fed him yogurt and he asked me to sing him a devotional song. I sang it softly, my lips right next to his ear. With the first lines, jaaoon kahan taj charan tihare (“Where would I go if I left my place at your feet”) he shut his eyes, then drifted off to sleep.
These peaceful hospital visits were a stark contrast to the atmosphere at home. There, my grandmother (Kaki), would ask question after question, often repeating herself at the top of her voice “Kaka coming home?!” she’d demand, as soon as she saw me. “Hi, Kaki,” I’d answer. “Kaka may be coming soon, but not today.”
“Today not?? Why not?”
“No. Not today. He needs to get a bit better.”
“Oh. Kaka not coming.”
“Don’t worry. So, Kaki, what are you up to?”
“Me? Reading Geetaji!” The Geetaji is the Bhagwad Gita, the Hindu holy book. Hindu traditions and Indian culture were central in my home, even though our family no longer had much physical connection to India. Kaka was born in Tanzania. Kaki was born in a small town in India, but moved to Tanzania after she married Kaka. That’s where my mother (Kaka and Kaki’s daughter) was born. My father’s family had similarly migrated from India to East Africa generations ago and eventually, my parents met (in England), and moved to Canada along with my grandparents when my father got a job there.
Yet despite being far from India, my now-Canadian family’s link to our rich heritage was never lost. Having my grandparents with us, especially Kaki, was key to maintaining that link. She was a living manifestation of Indian tradition—she spoke primarily Gujarati, wore only saris, and cooked Indian food. When I was a girl, she put me to bed with stories from Hindu mythology. By day, she sang Hindu chants and prayers, reading her Geetaji, as she was reading now.
“Will you read it aloud? I’m listening.”
“Out loud read? OK…. Oh, but wait! When Kaka coming home?”
“Soon, Kaki. Read your book!”
“Wait, I asking something—ah, Kaka coming home today? When?”
“Not today. Read the book, Kaki!”
“Tomorrow coming? What has happened to Kaka?”
And on and on. Kaki’s mobility was limited because of knee problems, and it was hard for her to visit Kaki in person. To help ease my grandmother’s anxiety, we arranged for her to speak with him on the phone during the weeks he was in the hospital, so she could hear his voice. But as his voice became weaker, she couldn’t always understand him. Worse, like us, he grew tired of her constant questioning: “When are you coming home?!”
How will we tell Kaki? The thought sent a thick, icy sensation through my body. How would she react? I wondered. Would we be able to console her? Would she keep on forgetting, continually reliving her loss?
My then-84-year-old grandmother had been obsessed with Kaka for 64 years. Long before she was diagnosed with dementia, she would nag him ceaselessly about whether he’d taken his medicine or eaten. From time to time, his temper would flare, but I’m certain that he found her fanatical preoccupation with him endearing. He was her world.
On the evening of December 15, 2015, my brother asked if I wanted to have dinner with Kaka at the hospital. “I’ve already been this morning,” I said, but went along anyway. My mother turned up on her way home from work, and we all discovered that Kaka’s condition had deteriorated. Still, he was awake and alert, communicating through his eyes. I know because I joked about how slowly my thesis was progressing, and he smiled and shrugged as if to say, “Don’t fret.” Then, the nurses came in to check his oxygen levels, and there was a sudden flurry of activity. My mother put her hand on Kaka’s forehead. My brother clasped his hand. I was standing near his feet, which began to flap back and forth, so I grabbed hold of them. In an instant, his heart stopped beating, and the sound of his labored breathing faded.
How will we tell Kaki?
The thought sent a thick, icy sensation through my body. How would she react? I wondered. Would we be able to console her? Would she keep on forgetting, continually reliving her loss?
When we arrived home, I could see a glow of light down the corridor from the room where Kaki sat, tiny in her bulky brown leather chair, the low murmur of the television in the background. As I entered, I saw her head peeking over the top of the chair, her thin braid hanging down. Twisting her body around, looking at us with her huge, glossy eyes, I could tell she knew that something was different. “How is Kaka?” she asked. “Coming home…?” My mother shut off the TV and sat next to her, gazing at her steadily. “Kaka will not come home anymore,” she told her. I braced myself. There was a pause, as Kaki furrowed her brow and looked down at her lap. I saw her breathing quicken. “Why?” she asked. But she knew the answer.
“He won’t come home anymore,” my mother repeated, holding Kaki’s hands and looking at her squarely.
“Yes. Kaka is gone.”
Kaki’s mouth quivered and her eyes shone with disbelief and fear. She didn’t say anything for a while, then began muttering, softly, “No. Kaka would not leave me.” My mother and I were silent. I began to feel an intense pressure in my chest.
“Would you like to go to the hospital to see him?” my mother asked, after a while.
“Yes, I go hospital…Kaka gone?” She looked up at me. I nodded, then knelt in front of her and rested my head in her lap. She put her hand on my head. When she’d tell me those bedtime stories, afterward, she would gently pat my head until I drifted off. Now, she cried softly as she played with my hair a little.
We bundled Kaki up against the weather and took her to the hospital, wheeling her into the room where Kaka’s body still lay on the bed. In the background was a recording of a Sanskrit chant called the “Mahamrityunjay Mantra”—the great death conquering mantra. As Kaki approached my grandfather’s body, she began to weep, and touched his face. She asked my mother if we could call the doctors to see if anything else could be done, a question I found heartbreakingly innocent. She asked her to record the time of Kaka’s death for the sake of the last rite rituals. Finally, she rubbed the vermillion mark from her forehead, signifying that she had become a widow.
Later, I held her hand, and she smiled at me. “Kaka love you, too much!” she reminded me sweetly. She knew that I would be hurting too, and she wanted to help. For those first few hours, Kaki’s dementia seemed to have drifted away. She was perfectly coherent, quiet, and accepting. She was grieving with an immaculate poise, which lasted throughout the traditional 13 days of mourning, when guests would come to our home to sing devotional songs and read through the Bhagwad Geeta together. Usually, Kaki was overwhelmed by this much activity but she participated perfectly, singing songs and reading aloud, giving comfort to everyone present. Once, after I had sung, she suddenly started clapping, exclaiming “Very good, Nayhoo!” and instantly lightening everyone’s mood.
At Kaka’s funeral, she sat patiently, listened to speeches, accepted condolences and offered her own to others. And during my grandfather’s last rites, when the priest, my parents, and my brother and I entered that tiny cold room where the cremation would take place, Kaki opted to simply wait outside. Kaki is not the kind of woman who waits, but she did that day. When it was over, she just looked at us and said, “I go home.”
Two years later, she still asks about Kaka several times a day. “Kaka gone Bhagwan (God) house?” she’ll usually mumble, to herself or whoever happens to be around. She often reminds us how he cared for her, and grumbles about having to sleep by herself. She never forgets that he is gone. As I witnessed her grief, I stopped defining her by her dementia, as I had for the past few years. Instead, I was once again seeing her as the woman she was, and still is: a devoted wife, a doting grandma, and a wise old lady who committed her life to her family.
Nayha Acharya recently completed her PhD in law at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada and teaches law classes there. This is her first published personal essay.