On Death: A Researcher’s Notes from the Field

by Heena Shah

Five years ago, on mother’s day, my dad died. My mom sent me and my sisters hurried texts as things unfolded:

We are at the hospital; they managed to resuscitate him in the ambulance.

His condition is somewhat stabilized, but he’s still not conscious.

They are putting him in an ice bath to make sure blood goes to his brain.

And the last one, as the plane we were hurrying home on was about to take off:

His lungs are filling with fluid.

I grabbed my sister’s hand and held it tight as we sped down the runway.

In the month after he died, I got married. In the week after I got married, I got pregnant. When my son was 9 months old, I earned my doctorate.

Each of these moments was imbued with both my dad’s presence and his absence. During her wedding toast, my younger sister shared a story about my dad that I had shared with her: after two weeks in India, my dad observed with delight that my white, southern (now) husband happily ate vegetarian Indian food for every meal.

It’s like he has a white armor, but he’s Indian inside!

We didn’t talk for two years after I told my dad about Barrot. So that offhand comment left me elated.

When I crossed the stage to get my degree, I forgot for a moment and scanned the crowd for him. As a physician, he had desperately wanted each of us to become physicians too. Instead, he had raised a psychologist, a public health researcher, and an artist who does anti-racism work.

Moving through these big moments left me wondering if there was a way that we remained connected to each other. And for the first time in my life, I felt compelled to define my beliefs around death.

As a child, I lived among scientists: my parents, uncles, and aunties were all physicians. Often, I visited my dad’s office, poking the model heart on his desk while he purposefully bustled between clinic rooms in a white coat, with a stethoscope looped around his neck. Many family gatherings ended with aunts and uncles perched on the edge of the couch and dispersed across the carpet, bellies full of hot and homemade rotlis, shak, dhar and bhath. There were animated discussions about patients. I would snuggle next to my mom on the L-shaped couch, my head on her shoulder listening intently to all my relatives laughing and shouting over each other about difficult cases and hospital drama. I never attended any camps as a child, but the one I did go to was a two week Math, Science and Technology camp at Michigan State University, where I learned about debate in a bioethics course, how to play Dungeons and Dragons, and what it meant to program computers.

At the same time, every spring, I would laugh raucously as I threw colored powder at my cousins in celebration of Holi, which marked the start of spring, but also the survival of Prahlad, who was put into a fire by his father, a king who didn’t want him to worship God. During summer holidays, we would overheat the VCR watching episodes of Mahabharata. I was responsible for putting in the next tape, after which I would force space between my mom and grandma on the couch, both of whom wore oversized glasses to better see the series for the umpteenth time. As summer drifted into the spectacle of color that was fall in Michigan, I would excitedly anticipate another joyful display of color-Navaratri, nine nights of dancing in swirling circles to mark Ramayana’s defeat of the demon Ravana.

As a child I keenly believed that Ganesh, the elephant god, could use a tusk to write an epic story about the beginning of things, as told to him by an old poet, but I dismissed the idea that Santa Claus could visit all those houses in one night with flying reindeer on the grounds it wasn’t scientifically sound. Those ideas somehow sat very comfortably next to each other.

As an adult, this comfort with contradiction fell away and in its place came a deeply practical way of thinking, reinforced by courses in graduate school that taught me to be a keen and methodical observer and seek evidence for hypotheses. And, while I was ambivalent about whether Hindu goddesses and gods existed, the stories of my childhood created a love for narratives and a space for the idea that maybe there are things we don’t understand with just our senses.

My reflections on what happens after we die, how we remain connected to our ancestors, forced me to live inside that discomfort with contradiction: it kicked up a conversation between the scientist and the child who had believed in stories from the Bhagvad Gita.

About two months after my dad died, I tried having a conversation with him. I self-consciously talked out loud, telling him about my wedding, which he had been intimately involved in planning: how lovely my mom had looked in the sari he had helped her pick, how ethereal the sunlight had been on a day that it was supposed to rain, how comforting and jarring it was to see all his best friends from medical school sitting at the same table laughing at jokes funny only within their tightknit circle, how strange it felt for it to be both my wedding day and my first father’s day without him. I finished by sheepishly asking him for some sort of sign.

That same day, I ventured out to explore Kuala Lumpur, where we were on honeymoon. I swung by a mall to get a SIM card. I happened to glance at the nametag of the person behind the counter — D.O. Shah — he had the same last name and first and middle initial as my dad. Later, sitting poolside, I scrolled through old email exchanges between my dad and me. I found an email he had sent me four months earlier, marked unread, about the seven Hindu temples that protect Bali, where we would be travelling next. There, we visited Tanah Lot, an ancient Hindu pilgrimage temple. I sat by the ocean, deeply sad and happy at the same time, and threw a creamy white fragrant frangipani that the priest had given me out to sea, wondering what it all meant.

When I found out after my honeymoon that I was unexpectedly pregnant, it tipped off an almost comedic family debate about whether this new family member was my dad reincarnated. Many of my uncles and aunties emphatically believed it was. My mom sharply rebuffed that notion, asserting that my dad — who had meditated twice daily and gone through a radical transformation — had done enough spiritual work to achieve enlightenment.

I still didn’t know what to think.

Not until after Sahil was born.

Because the way Sahil’s life began seems completely intertwined with the way my dad’s ended. Like it’s all part of one story. I only remember snapshots of my labor: flowers in my hair plucked by my sister as I walked in a rose garden near our home. A hug from my best friend. My mom making chai. Time in a lukewarm tub. My husband’s voice counting through contractions. Hours of pushing.

It’s the part where Sahil emerges into the world that snaps into sharp focus. There was no crying. They cut the cord immediately and whisked him away. He was quiet, pale and white, with a large, red bump on his head. His heart wasn’t beating. All I could see was the pediatrician lifting his arms up and letting them fall flaccidly to his sides on the tiny cart. While the doctor cleared his airways, my mom, a pediatrician herself, quietly stepped in to do chest compressions on his tiny body, the same way she had when my dad’s heart had suddenly stopped beating.

After what seemed like an eternity, Sahil took his first breath. A process that went in reverse to my dad’s took place: lungs that had been previously filled with life sustaining water filled with air; a heart that hadn’t been beating pumped its first beat out in the world. Several hours later, Sahil started crying incessantly. One of the reasons I had pushed for so long was because Sahil’s head had gotten stuck. The x-ray results revealed that his skull was fractured. We anxiously waited through a follow-up test, this one to see if there was any bleeding below the skull, a fact that could mean he had damage to his brain. I felt my stomach turn and tighten the same way it had when I had learned about my dad’s brain scan.

It turned out that Sahil was okay. He was more than okay. He was perfect.

In the early, blurry days after Sahil was born, my mom was feeding me sheero, a cream of wheat porridge with cardamom, sugar and butter, while I lay on my side, still trying to recover from the taxing delivery. As she scooped a warm bite into my mouth, she said:

They say that when it takes a long time for a baby to come out, it’s a soul that isn’t ready to return to the world.

At four and a half, Sahil often reminds me of my dad. The specific way he uses his hands to eat, his obsession with a certain Kishore Kumar song, one that my dad and I loved together, his insistence on locating the moon in the night sky (my dad used to point out the moon to my mom on their evening walks) makes me feel connected to my dad. It gives me immense joy to think that my dad, who grew up in profound poverty and worked so hard to make sure we had everything, is somehow here and being taken care of by us.

My musings on death have evolved, paradoxically, into both a firm knowledge and a steadfast uncertainty. I find myself returning to that childhood version of me, the one who is comfortable making home for two disparate ideas, holding knowing and not knowing at the same time.