My grandmother was never convinced that she slept well. There were medications that her doctor prescribed there were ayurvedic tinctures and tonics, there was TV before sleep where the content could be anything if the form was soporific. I understand now that sleep was not an absolute but a differential thing. It was a measure of equilibrium, of homeostasis, a sign that for a little while the pain inside her was not that much more intense than people’s ability to perceive it. It did not matter if Dida slept, technically, for four hours straight because the twenty remaining hours did not give her a moment of unadulterated respite. If her gout didn’t make her feet swell beyond recognition, it was her digestion that had betrayed her since a gallbladder surgery.
Her chronic asthma is one of the earliest memories I have of her, smiling through frantic gasps, trying to reassure a six- year- old that all was well. Later, in my teens, I wrote a poem where I imagined exorcising all the different kinds of pain out of her, and they appeared to me as a dark, leaden cloud shot through with crimson lightning. The poem rightly remains in a junk folder on my computer back home, but I was being honest about that image, and maybe one day I will write something better about it.
When I talked to her on the phone, I would ask how she was doing. It was either her feet or her lungs that were the source of most of the trouble
“Don’t forget to take your meds”, I would say, “You’ll sleep better tonight.”
“What about you? Don’t stay up too late.”
“I’ll go to bed as soon as I hang up”
I would call her when it was night in my hometown in India and midday here in New York. When I left home back in 2016 for doctoral studies, she thought I was going to Delhi, where I had lived before coming to the US. I didn’t correct her, and my family didn’t question the rationale behind this lie because to them the extreme lengths to which my grandmother’s worries about me could reach were well-known.
My relocation to Delhi in 2011, a mere two and half hours by flight, had precipitated a nervous breakdown and it took a long time for her to recover. We would begin conversations about her anxiety, I broached the subject of therapy twice and she dismissed it with something along the lines of “people of my generation don’t need therapy”. It was a humbling and disorienting thing to be loved by her, she loved from her guts and my loving her back always felt like a thing I did merely with my mind. So the day I left the country, I coaxed her out of accompanying me to the airport, and I asked my parents to tell her that I had arrived safely two and a half hours later, instead of twenty two hours which was the time it took me to reach New York.
For a while the lie seemed to belong to a larger genre of obfuscations, like never telling my parents about health crises I have had here, something that I know some of my friends who are students abroad, also do. Then I realized how strange it was, objectively speaking, when I saw a friend watch me open-mouthed as I described a muggy Delhi night to her while it was a snowy morning where I lived. Dida might have accepted a general fuzziness in things to do with me: I was in a geographical location that could be Delhi, the end of the program that kept me from home was in the control of obscure gods. When I visited home last time, our exchange about my plans was simple enough.
“When do you come back for good?”
“As soon as I finish my program”.
I grew up in a culture where studying abroad was an often an easy metric for apparent success, and it had some ruinous effects. Since I joined the group of cousins and neighbors’ kids who went to the US to study, that metric has often fudged the putative end of my Ph.D. program, along with the unfriendly academic job market and a burning world. Objectively speaking, on my calls to my grandmother, I had told her “Everything will be alright” one too many times. But this time before I left, I sat at her bedside ashamed of my relatively healthy body and the fact that all I felt was butterflies in my stomach in apprehension of the long flight. It was a good day for her she had battled and reasoned with the leaden cloud and won, and I told her that this time I was going a bit farther than Delhi.
She died this May, the same night Cyclone Amphan laid waste to my home state. I sat at my desk in Washington Heights sweating through a still and stifling night while I tried to keep talking to my parents, trying to ignore the groaning winds and shattering window panes I could hear over my father’s best attempt to convince me that the storm wasn’t really that bad. Then I lost all contact with them until late next morning when my mother told me what had happened. She told me that although Dida’s pain had been unbearable for a while, in the end she passed away in her sleep.
As India went into its COVID lockdown, it had made little difference to her, trapped as she was inside a body that bit and stung her every time she wanted to talk or tried to get up from her bed or tried to reach out to the world in any way. But it also meant that towards the end, sleep had stopped mattering as much to her. Whoever it was at home inside her, loving and sentient, once a child who skipped around all day and could sleep through a storm, had her back against the wall. As for me, I used to actively hate sleeping for a long time, it always felt like a boring placeholder for more interesting possibilities. I miss it now. Its truancy is a differential, between the pandemic, the fact that I didn’t get to see her in the end, and the fact that I will never see her again.
Saronik Bosu is a doctoral candidate studying economic writing at New York University. He also co-hosts the podcast ‘High Theory.’