Seven years after my father died, I have a nagging cough I keep dismissing as allergies in the middle of a pandemic. I buy a new bottle of Robitussin each week, hoping the tickle in my throat quickly vanishes as if nothing happened. But, like the virus, his death doesn’t let me forget that it takes one domino to trigger the rest. As we rang in 2020, a cough was just a cough. But now it’s a symptom of a global shutdown. It asks us to witness how the ordinary changes in an instant.
In December 2012, long before coronavirus, my dad had a cough while on vacation in India. A couple of weeks later, he walked into a hospital with pneumonia, and, by the time I reached Mumbai, he was on a ventilator. I had no idea that a 69-year-old man in perfect health could deteriorate so quickly.
I sat by my dad’s side in the ICU, his eyes fading between open and closed. The ventilator helped him breathe, and a tube in his nose fed him throughout the day with no delineation between breakfast, lunch, or dinner. With the off-beat, non-stop beeping around me, I couldn’t think of what to say. I wondered if the environment was too sterile or if I could single-handedly manifest his survival by refusing to speak my “last words.” But the silence wasn’t too different from when he wasn’t attached to a ventilator. He wasn’t much of a talker—we didn’t have deep conversations. Still, as my father approached the edge of life, I worried if my inability to offer words of comfort made me a disappointment. While navigating this literal and not-so-literal cacophony, I started spouting things I heard in the movies like, “You have to stay with us. We’re a family,” and “I want you to see your grandkids,” but it felt misplaced. So, I eased into our normal, leaning into the quiet.
A couple of days later, his doctor told my mom and me he went into septic shock—his infection was ravaging his body, causing his organs to fail and leading to dangerously low blood pressure. My mom asked the doctor a million questions, trying to find some loophole or statistic or medicine that would heal him back to who he was, but I knew that his life was probably over. It’s not that I didn’t want to have hope. But after working as a speech-language pathologist with ventilator-dependent patients, I knew the deal. Except this time, I knew the patient before he couldn’t breathe on his own.
My dad stood 5’7” and weighed no more than 160 pounds. His silky, black curls had turned white over time, thinning out and receding into an M shape at the top of his head. I can still see him twirling his steadfast mustache incessantly, making him look smart or sophisticated or I guess just pretty adorable. A dress shirt collar perpetually framed his thin neck from morning until night. He loved the security of having it there along with a pocket to stick a ballpoint pen and pad of paper in to document illegible notes, saving them near his heart. He knitted himself together, using these props to enclose his body.
My dad’s ventilator prolonged his life, though he died hooked up to it. It gave me six days to sit by his side, squeeze his hand, watch him nod affirmations or rejections, and try to talk to him, though he couldn’t respond. Each night, my mom and I, exhausted, crawled into forest green vinyl cots at the hospital. And each morning, I woke up attempting to believe in hope.
The night before he died, I had a gut feeling the end was near. I stared blankly at the cot above me, listening to the faint steps of hospital workers while ignoring the awkward angle of a fluorescent light nearby, and I questioned the meaning of our relationship. We never had the sweet daddy-daughter relationship I saw on TV. I felt like I lost out on one of the most important relationships I thought I needed. I wondered if I would’ve been more confident or secure had he made more of an effort to tell me how he felt, to hug me, to assure me that I was enough.
I never spoke up about his scant communication while he was alive—I adjusted to him as girls are taught to do. In the span of seven years, I’ve had space to think less about what my dad didn’t say and more about what he did. I hear him singing his morning Gujarati “wake up” song, “Jaaaagooooreeeeee!” teasing my brother and me to get out of bed. I hear him giving his speech during my wedding, calling me his “little girl” for probably the first, and definitely the last, time. I hear him awkwardly asking me, “Do you have your menses?” as I helped him move my twin bed from one side of my bedroom to another when I was 15. Mortified that my dad would dare to ask me about my period, I quickly answered no and scrambled to leave my own bedroom as quickly as possible. My dad said “menses” to his teenage daughter. He risked embarrassment and error out of concern for his daughter. I never gave him credit for the sincerity that willed him to speak, and I want to remember all the times he used his heartfelt voice before it was taken away.
It wasn’t what I said to him, as I sat by his deathbed, that mattered. It was how I judged him by his lack of speech instead of thinking of how he held my family together. So often I internally criticized him for not expressing himself instead of admiring his sacred routines, tenacious negotiating skills, and ability to sit in isolation and think without distraction. Losing him revealed a new family: my mom, my brother, and me. Without him, we lost our buffer. This showed me how silent characters aren’t invisible, they have a role.
During this quarantine, I constantly think about my dad. I no longer just pass by his pictures sitting on my bookshelf and dresser—I pause to look at him, to glean another chance. I think about how his death showed me a side of him I never saw before. It’s hard to think of this new father and not see the pandemic as an opening, a place to reshape what we thought we knew about the world.
Weeks ago, I walked from the bus stop to my home, stopping to pet puppies and not bothering to move out of the way as I passed others on the sidewalk. Now, I’m rude if I don’t anticipate creating space between us. I never perceived my home, my friends, or my park to be infested with anything but comfort and joy. How these changes feed into our future is unknown, but how we accept and watch it unfold makes all the difference.
A pandemic twists how we see our routines, our security, and ourselves. Home becomes work, work becomes home. With a flip of a switch, later is now. I keep hearing about “getting back to normal” and “recovery” as if this is a mere scab or a broken bone and not death. There was no “getting back to normal” after my dad died. His “recovery” never happened, and after seven years, my recovery feels less like a staggering rise on a graph and more like a complete unraveling and renewal. It defies a two-dimensional chart. It crawls off the page and flails in every direction before taking an entirely different form. Our current suffocation also begs us to grieve, to discover new sympathies for essential workers, to ration our use of everyday household items. Danger magnifies new landscapes. We have to reckon with what brought us here while floating in the thick of it.
My mom once told me, “the currents can change,” and I just rolled my eyes. But she was right. Those crests and troughs can flatten to a gentle swish on the surface, with a looming rumble on the ocean floor, or they can rise into a tsunami wave. Either way, something’s going to give.
The day after my dad died, my mom asked my brother, my then-husband, and me to hold hands and stand in a circle. She said, “What is most important now is for us to stay together. I have seen how this changes families, we can’t let that happen to us.” I couldn’t understand what she meant, but I figured her words would seal our unity. Meanwhile, my husband was acting out in ways that a wife never needs to manage days after her father dies. He made the loss about him, forcing me to juggle my grief, my mom’s needs, and his complaints in another country. I had no idea that less than a year later, I’d ask for a divorce. History showed my mom the warning signs, and my husband embodied them. Today, there is an ocean full of warnings, their currents gliding beneath us.
Sickness, loss, and isolation teach us that, after trauma, nothing is what it was. Not our way of life, not what we believe to be important, not what we truly need. But, in this moment, there is a gateway for the tides to turn. If we move with the shape of this water and allow the Earth to guide us, we will see that we were never separate from its wisdom. We have a chance to see it in a new light, one that shines brightly upon everything we’ve ignored. If we don’t, we will only be spurning ourselves.
When I was little and had nightmares, I would scream until my dad came to my room. If two screams weren’t enough to get him out of bed, I screamed again even though the nightmare was over. He always came eventually, sitting upright against my dark, wooden captain’s bed. He never told me any bedtime stories, and I never wanted to hear them. He just sat and kept me company. His stillness tucked me in.
Years later, it was my turn to sit next to his bed in silence, accepting his fate. Just as I crawled into that forest green vinyl cot on those nights my dad fought for his life, we must be still when we put ourselves to sleep on these pandemic nights. But let this not be a refuge, we can’t hide from what’s right in front of us. It is time to ride this wave, honor its flow, and allow it to reclaim itself. For only in this stillness, can we see what grows.
Nisha Mody is a writer and librarian living in Los Angeles, which has greatly weakened her Chicago roots. Her writing has been featured in The Rumpus, The Times of India, Zora, and Greatist. She also hosts MigrAsians, a podcast about creative and political Asians and how their story of migration informs their work. Most importantly, she is a cat mom to her beautiful sister cats Sonya and Vera. Find her on Twitter @nishamody.