My Mother Doesn't Know My Name Anymore

One call can change your life. I answered that call at around 4 in the morning on June 1, 2014. As a journalist, I answer all calls, no matter how unearthly the hour. Sometimes, I don't recollect what I said or who I spoke with. But as a matter of habit, I always answer calls.

I was in New York. It was my sister. My parents had met with a road accident in Bengaluru. Father was fine, but mother was unconscious. I sat up in bed, listening, shaken and yet very very quiet. My sister broke down. I tried calming her.

I was wide awake by now and I sat still for three hours before I heard from my sister again. Mom had slipped into a coma, was on the ventilator, with a lot of blood loss and multiple head injuries. I could sense fear and panic as my sister said things were not looking good. The next 48 hours were crucial.

I called a doctor from Bengaluru who I had met recently at Harvard University. My mother scored 3 on a scale of 15 on the Glasgow Coma Scale. Things were bad. He indicated as much. I wanted to move her to the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), the best place for neurological cases. I was advised against it. Moving her in her very fragile condition was a huge risk. Fortunately, she was rushed to a hospital that specializes in accident cases, and a had good neurological team on board.

Two people helped my father within minutes of the accident and my mother was brought to a hospital in a tempo carrying vegetables. There was no time to wait for an ambulance. But the hospital delayed the admission. That meant a lot of blood loss. My mother lay on a stretcher, bleeding and motionless. The hospital refused to admit her before Rs 25,000 was paid up front. My father had no cash. He offered his credit card, but they refused. My brother eventually got there some two hours later. The hospital was 60 kms from home. The traffic a nightmare in Bangalore at almost at all times, did not help matters.

I decided to stay in NY till I had some assurance of her stability. I eventually mustered the courage to leave. In five days, I lost 6-7 kilos. The journey home was my longest ever. I feared the worst when I landed. I warned God, I begged God, and I prayed every moment.

Finally, I was home. Two years after I left for New York for a Master's Degree from Columbia University, I was seeing my mother. She was lying in bed, her mouth wide open with a huge tube to help her breathe, a dozen-odd wires sticking out of her body. Monitors beeping and blaring in a rather cold and intimidating room. My mother was motionless. I was numb. My father was with me. He began howling the moment he saw her. I stood there staring at her. I'm not sure if I was thinking or processing what I saw.

A doctor asked me to communicate with her. I couldn't find my voice. It was an over-whelming sight to see the strongest woman I have known, lying naked, wrapped in white sheets, struggling to breathe. I called out to her. I told her I was back with a quivering voice. There was no movement, her eyes were closed, her hair a mess. The only movement I sensed was her breathing or trying hard to. She was struggling. I told her "Breathe mom, breathe." My father walked away and I stood still, fighting back tears. And I watched her helplessly.

Mother could not be operated upon to remove the blood clots in her head. The complication was that there were several at different locations. There were more injuries - a broken arm with a bone sticking out of her elbow, broken ribs, a punctured lung and a severe urinary infection. The more time she spent in the ICU, the worse things seemed to get the infections kept multiplying. I stood by her bed all night. I jogged on the spot to stop myself from dozing off. I never gave up. None of us did. I know life can be unfair but I didn't expect it to be this cruel. My mom raised five children under the most trying circumstances in life and finally, with all of us grown up, when she could reap the benefits of her investments, sit back and enjoy life, she was lying in an ICU battling for life.

After two odd weeks, my mother opened her eyes. We began to see hand movements and she progressed, doctors said, from a deep coma to a semi-coma state. Relief. Maybe the worst was over. I could also sense my mother was trying to communicate. All I could hear was gargling sounds. We felt helpless not being able to understand what she needed. We weren't too sure if the lower body had any movement. But Mom was breathing on her own. She was being fed by a tube. She had to be tied to the bed because she pulled out every wire stuck to her, even a feeding tube. She had become aggressive. She screamed and spat at us, tried biting me when I held her down in bed. She slapped my brother, kicked my father. She did not recognize any one of us. She refused to wear clothes, refused to eat, was restless and tossed and turned on the bed every second, all night long. It was not safe to sedate her.

We finally brought her home. We were nervous, but none of us could stand anymore to see her tied to the hospital bed. Maybe her home and grand-children would have a magical effect on her. By now, Mom was speaking. There was a fair bit we had begun to understand. The challenge was to feed her. Her mind was blank and her neurosurgeon told me, "You are taking home a baby. She needs to be taught everything."

Roles reversed. I played Mom. When I put liquid soap on her hands, she put it in her mouth. I panicked and stuffed my kurta in to wipe it off her tongue. The doctor was right. She was a baby in my arms. Mom still did not remember us. There were days when she asked me to leave. She was suicidal when she had to be hospitalized again. She once asked me for a saw to cut off her leg because she felt it was heavy. We monitored every move.

I decide to stay home for a year to take care of her. I was single, unlike my siblings, and could devote all my time and attention to her. I had left New York anyway. Fortunately, I had completed my course. It's strange how things work out.

I eventually left Bengaluru to return to work in Delhi to see if my mother's survival instinct could kick in. It did. She fought a tough battle by herself in the ICU, where she had been readmitted for an emergency. She is back home now. She still does not remember my name. But she recognizes me, watches my newscasts, eats on her own, walks and is completely independent. These, for us, are victories.

It has been tough to share this. But I do it for my mother. As some sort of tribute to her. To acknowledge her story - that of a fighter. She is my inspiration, my life, my universe. Even now, when she is in some ways so limited, I learn from her, my greatest teacher.

(Um-E-Kulsoom Shariff is Senior Anchor and Senior Reporter, NDTV.)

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