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Friday, 17 May 2013

My Father’s Last Days – I

My father and mother
This photo was taken  a day before father's surgery

I don’t know when it all started. I was a small boy then. Father started having problems in taking hot food. ‘Hot’ not only meant hot from heat, but also hot from chillies. He thought the outer layer of his tongue has probably got damaged. And everybody else thought so, too. It was not then a very common practice to visit a hospital or clinic for every small illness. This was ‘a small’ problem from which he would recover on his own. But he didn’t. Mother used to cook vegetables separately for him without adding chillies. This practice continued for several months, maybe years. It had become a kind of accepted norm or routine. And the problem didn’t give him any other trouble, so father let it be, and so did everybody else.

One day father had to go to Kaithamattam hospital near Kottayam with Valiyaphan (father’s elder brother). This hospital was run by a Namboothiry family from their home. All the doctors belonged to the same family. One peculiarity with this hospital was that one could get any kind of treatment, since the hospital had Ayurvedic, Homeopathic, and Allopathic doctors.  The family has also been known to our family since they were distantly related. Having gone to the hospital anyway, father decided to discuss with them the problem of his tongue. After some initial tests, the doctor there directed him to go to Vellore, Tamil Nadu, immediately and to undergo treatment at the Christian Medical College and Hospital there. This hospital was the best for treatment of cancer those days, the importance of which didn’t strike us then.

To reach Vellore, one had to travel by train to Katpady, which was the nearest railway station. The journey would take about ten hours from Aluva, at a distance of two hours journey by bus from our home. Father had, in his heydays, worked as a priest in a temple at Santhanpara, a few kilometers into Tamil Nadu state from the Kerala border. That was the only occasion when he had travelled outside Kerala. And I don’t think he had ever travelled by train. Also, as explained earlier, except that he was unable to take ‘hot’ food, the disease did not give him much trouble. All these facts made father not to give much importance to the doctor’s advice. And he deliberately forgot the whole episode.

After a few days, however, one of our relative-neighbours visited the same hospital. The doctor asked about father, and whether he had gone to Vellore or not. When he was told that father had not gone to Vellore, he got very upset. He advised this relative to tell father strictly that he should not delay going to Vellore. When he came back he passed on the message to father and explained how angry the doctor was.

Father then decided to do something if only to satisfy the doctor. There was during those days a very famous hospital at Pazhanganattu near Aluva. It had the most modern facilities and very efficient doctors similar to those of a medical college. Father thought it would be equally beneficial to go to this hospital rather than going all the way to Vellore. He, therefore, visited the hospital. Doctors there took out some samples from his tongue and said they would send it to a medical college for detailed testing. The result would be available in about a fortnight or so.

But during the intervening fortnight, something terrible happened. A high ranking army officer, maybe a Brigadier, got his dear wife admitted to the hospital for delivery. The woman had become pregnant after several years of their married life, and after undergoing several treatments, and conducting prayers. When he found that she was pregnant he took extra care of her. He left no stone unturned to see that his wife was safe and comfortable. He was eagerly waiting for the arrival of his offspring. When the time for delivery approached, he got her admitted to the best hospital in the vicinity, the Pazhanganattu hospital. Due to whatever reasons, the woman was unfortunately left unattended on the delivery table when she gave birth to the child. The child fell down on to the floor and died instantly.

When the father came to know of what had happened, he could not control his anger. He caught hold of a couple of steel chairs and started destroying whatever or whoever came in his view, be it hospital equipment, beds, doctors, or nurses. Nobody dared even to try to control him. The police was called in. But by the time they arrived, the hospital had been turned into shambles. He was arrested and taken to the police station. The army officer was released without punishment. Father said that the inspector told the army officer that if he had been in the latter’s position, probably he might have reacted the same way. I don’t know the rest of the story, but we were told that the hospital ceased to exist from that day onwards.

And father’s tests and treatments ended half-way, along with his forced enthusiasm.

It was several months later that the same doctor happened to visit this neighbour-relative of ours to attend some family function. He hadn’t forgotten about father’s case. He demanded to see father. It was with great reluctance and apprehension that father went to see him. And as expected, he was given a good tongue-lashing by the doctor. He also asked if this could have been dealt with by Pazhanganattu hospital, why did he at all ask him to go to Vellore?

Now, father had run out of his options and excuses and at last decided to go to Vellore.

The ChristianMedical College and Hospital, one of the largest and best in Asia, was founded by the American missionary-cum-doctor Ida Scudder. The hospital serves thousands of in- and out-patients daily.

I have no details of how father went to Vellore, who accompanied him, or such other details. That is because by then I had already moved to Delhi working in a government office. Also, father or mother did not keep us informed in detail, because they thought it would serve no purpose other than getting us worried. Both father and mother were always like that. They were comfortable and glad suffering and facing problems, but not in informing us children of those. I only know that once he was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed as suffering from cancer, several people including relatives and acquaintances went to visit him.

I took leave and stayed with him in the hospital when he was undergoing radiation. The left side of his face including part of his head and neck was marked. He was an outpatient then. We used to stay in a lodge and go to the hospital at the appointed hour for the radiation. He was in no mood to go out of the lodge except to the hospital. He was, kind of subdued. Mother also said he did not like to go out. This was very unlike the father I knew. Father used to be carefree and fearless. He would do what he thought was right without bothering to speculate on others’ opinions. But he had changed now.

I decided that I should try something to bring him out of his melancholy. One evening I insisted that we (father, mother, and I) go out for a walk. We had to, kind of, persuade him. It was mainly because of the black markings on his face that he was hesitant to go out. I told him that it didn’t matter in this hospital city. Also nobody would pay any attention. And even if they did, we need not bother. At last he hesitantly agreed.

Mother and I took him to an old fort in Vellore, about a kilometre from the lodge we had been staying. We roamed around for a couple of hours. I was glad to find that by the time we returned, father had changed. After that day, his hesitation to go out had markedly reduced. It could be because he realized that nobody was actually bothered about the markings on his face. Also, we noticed a couple of others, also marked for radiation, strolling in the fort.

His melancholy soon began to vanish and I dared to take him and mother to watch a Hollywood movie ‘Poseidon Adventure’! They were watching a Hollywood movie for the first time in their life. No Malayalam or Tamil movie, which they could have enjoyed better, was running in the nearby theatre then. Off and on I explained to them the story (as much as I understood, for I did not get the conversations fully, either). I was very glad to find that in about a week his hesitation to go out had completely vanished and he was, kind of, eager to go for a walk in the evenings. Once the radiation sessions were over we returned home.

After a few years he was again admitted to the hospital. Despite the radiation, the virus had not died and resurrected. This time the doctors said he had to be operated upon. Part of his jaw had to be removed. Thus exactly half of his jaw, right from below the left ear to the middle of the chin was removed by surgery. As a result, except for the cheek, nothing remained on the lower left side of his face. The operation affected his neck which had become extremely tender and weak. Every time he lied down and got up, he used to support his head with his left hand. The neck had become so weak that it could not support his head.

I was not beside him during the surgery. Mother was with him and many of our relatives visited him regularly. He was admitted in the hospital for nearly a couple of months then. I had known about the extent of damage happened to his face as a result of the surgery. However, the first time I met him after the operation when I went home on leave, I was in for a rude shock. He had only one side of the face! His cheek on the left side from under his ear to middle of his chin, had gone right into his mouth. Half of his tongue too had been removed. It seemed as if half of his neck did not exist at all! I thought I was looking at a stranger! This cannot be my father! But that was, and I got familiar with his new figure soon enough.

Later father told me that it was only because of mother’s very dedicated and loving care that he survived. He said a few people who visited him in the hospital, too, commended on her efforts. For several days after the operation, he could not use his mouth for anything. He could not spit or even move his lips properly. Pus used to fill up his mouth constantly which had to be removed nearly every half hour. Several kilogrammes of cotton were used in this activity. A stick several inches long used to be covered with cotton. Mother used to remove the pus from all over father’s mouth. If pus was not removed at regular intervals, it would have choked him. Mother did not have even an hour’s continuous sleep for several days after his operation. He said pointing at his body, “But for your mother’s dedicated service, you would not have seen me like this.”

But all of mother’s love, care, dedication, and prayers could not save father.

[To continue]


  1. Father janmadatha is an important person in ones live. when we realise his value he is no more in our lives.
    Mathru devo bhava Pithrudevobhava aacharya devo bhava
    Perugu balasubramanyam

  2. A touching story, Jayanthan. Unfortunately, cancer is a scourge affecting too many people.

    1. Thank you, Beryl, for taking time to read my post.