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“If this many people love you this deeply, do you ever really go anywhere?”

Wooden slats form a path on green grass
By Avni Bhatt

United Kingdom

Before two knee replacements and a triple heart bypass stole his mobility, my grandfather could be found in the garden. Not gardening — that was my grandmother’s domain — but simply walking up and down the length of the grass. He would kick off his sandals and sink his bare feet into the soil, and walk.

As a child, I used to ask him incessantly about this. It seemed odd to me, that anyone would want to feel the damp blades of grass in between their toes, or to tempt the insects that called it their home.

He used to laugh at me when I asked him. “Do you know why I do it?” he would ask, waiting until I was captivated before he broke the secret. “It’s the only way to keep your mind happy,” he told me finally, brown toes firmly planted in the green grass. “It’s the cure for depression.”

Today, I know about depression in both the chemical and personal plane. I know it can’t be cured by soil. But in the two years after his surgeries, after he stopped walking in the grass, I couldn’t help but wonder — was he right?

It was the day before Christmas Eve, the first time that we took him to hospital. His eldest son at his back, his youngest at his front, it took them half an hour to get him down from the top floor of his North London house. In my own house, I sat between my parents and did my best not to worry. He’d had the vaccine, we told ourselves. Neither of my grandparents had been anywhere in the past month, save for a few trips to the supermarket. We’d all kept them so safe. They had the flu, but not the coronavirus.

My grandparents come in a pair. It is the only way any of us have ever known them — four children, six grandchildren, two great grandchildren — and each of us from the oldest to the smallest call them Mummy and Papa. My grandma, under five feet, and my granddad, [reaching] six feet and towering above her.

In the last two years, the roles have been reversed. My granddad sits in his chair and watches the world around him, and my grandma brings him what he needs. One of us would sit next to him when we visited, or the babies would crawl over him, but he would stay seated.

Out of all the grandchildren, I am the hungriest about their history. I want to know; what was it like, growing up in Yemen? Did it feel weird, when they came back to India? Can they tell me about the first house they lived in in Finchley, seven of them in three rooms?

He doesn’t talk about his past too much. I know little things, like how he once saw someone being burned alive in Yemen, how they lost their second daughter to carbon monoxide poisoning in London, how he loved to collect stamps.

They discharged him from  [the hospital] on Christmas Eve, after a night spent in A&E [the accident & emergency department], with a drip hanging off his arm. “The scans all came back clear,” my cousin told me over the phone, the barest relief coloring his tone. “They’re sending him home.”

For the next two nights, my youngest uncle slept on a mattress on my grandparents’ bedroom floor. My dad and I went every day, to drop carrot juice on their doorstep and wave at my grandma from the window. A doctor called them once they were discharged and told them that they had tested positive for the coronavirus.

“I am going to die,” my grandma told me on the second day, one of her hands pressed against the glass. “This is going to kill me.”

She hadn’t had the vaccine, but this was the woman who could still climb three flights of stairs without batting an eyelid, who had almost singlehandedly raised five children in three different countries. She was invincible. She was not going to die.

She got better, slowly. Little by little, we forced her to have a bit more dal every day, another sip of juice. My uncle stayed in their room as my grandfather got worse. In the bedroom below them, my other uncle began to cough. He tested positive, and then my aunt. Then my other aunt tested positive, the one who hadn’t even seen them. By this point, an estimated 1 in 20 households in London had the virus.

And suddenly we were the only negative bubble. Life became a series of dropping off food and picking up shopping. More than that, it became about the anxiety of waking up every morning and checking symptoms. Who was better? Who was worse?

“You have to sit up,” my cousin urged by grandfather in the early hours of January 6. “Don’t close your eyes, don’t lie down.”

He’d worked on COVID-19 wards before. He ignored my uncle and grandma urging him to let my grandfather rest, ignored my grandfather’s own shouts to leave him alone. Four hours after they called for the ambulance, they blue lighted [took by ambulance] my granddad to [the hospital].

Three hours later, my eldest uncle was in A&E with him.

My grandfather was supposed to die on that Wednesday. There was fluid in his lungs, and he was having a continuous heart attack. We could hear it when he breathed, the ugly rattling of his lungs full of water.

It is two Wednesdays from then now, and he is still here. His son is on a ventilator, three floors below him, stuck in the ICU [intensive care unit] with no idea whether his father is dead or alive.

My grandfather has hours maybe, or a few days.

I could write an entire book about my grandfather. I could write about his life, which has spanned multiple continents and is extraordinary. Mostly, I would want to write about his love. Raising so many children is not easy. Raising them in the way that my grandparents have, is something else entirely. We love them, and they love us. If this many people love you this deeply, do you ever really go anywhere? I would like to think not, but maybe I’m just trying to comfort myself.

This is not an obituary because he is still here. Despite everything, he still recognizes every single one of us, still has enough breath left in his body to tell us how proud he is.

It will have to be enough. Every time he opens his eyes — every breath, every smile — it is a gift. I do not take it lightly.

I want to say thank you, to everyone at [the hospital], who fought so hard for him, and are fighting hard still for my uncle. To the doctor who found my grandad a private room, just so my grandma could sit with him and hold his hand to try to bring him some peace, after six decades together.

Thank you to the nurse on his ward, who asked us gently how we were holding up. To everyone who tried to get him to eat and drink a little. To my cousin and my uncle, who were pillars of support for the entire family. It can’t be easy, to watch our Papa like that.

And most of all, thank you to my grandfather, for giving us so much love we can’t quite see how to live without it. We will always fight for you, for as long as you fight to stay.

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