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Shades of Grey

In memory of Samuel Bertram Bandara (Dec. 6, 1944 – Sept 25, 2006)

At my mother's house on Wellington Drive, there is a grey couch that sits in the part of the living room designated for telephone activity. It looks very ordinary compared to the other richly carved antique furniture in my mother's house. If there was a fire and I could only save one item it would be that couch. On that grey couch my father spent the last months of his life when he could no longer manage the walk from couch to bed. From that couch, in those last few months, I learned more about the man my father was than I had in the 35 years that I had been his daughter. Around that couch we celebrated Rajini's sixth birthday with homemade chocolate cake that my father could not eat although he accepted a slice. On the floor beside that couch I held my father's hand, as soft as a baby's, and prayed for his soul to reach for the light, as he slipped into a deep morpine-induced sleep. I prayed for him to be released from the pain that wracked his body, knowing that such release would mean I would no longer have a father whose hand I could hold. On that couch my father slipped into a coma the night of my daughter's birthday party, three days after we had shared chocolate cake on the actual birthday. Miraculously, he woke up, and told us the pain was gone. From that couch he said goodbye to everyone who had gathered at the house that night, and spoke on the phone to my sister, Janaki, who was coming in from Montego Bay and told her we would have the gate open so she could drive right in. Finally from that couch on September 25, 2006 at about 1:50pm , in the presence of his two daughters and his wife, he drew his last breath, with the afternoon sunlight streaming through the window. My mother, my sister and I held each other around the couch and prayed for his soul to find peace. It was over.

In November 2005, at age 60, my father was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer. He had been a heavy smoker for probably about ¾ of his life. So it was easy to blame the cigarettes, and his stubborn refusal to both stop smoking, and to go to the doctor until it was too late. There is an abundance of evidence showing that smoking causes lung cancer, and I had accepted long ago that since my father had no plans to give up the cigarettes I would one day have to deal with this diagnosis. But now as I reflect not only on his death but more on his life, shades of gray are what I find, not a black and white cause and effect. Did the cigarettes take my father from me prematurely at age 61, or did they allow me to have my father in my life for 35 years?

I spent many nights with my father while he lay on that grey couch and came to terms with his mortality. We shared silence as well as memories and experiences, and I began to appreciate the burden of sadness this man had silently carried for most of his life. Sadness accumulated over a lifetime of roads not taken, goals not accomplished and dreams gone up in smoke because he chose to be a responsible father. He said to me he had come to terms years ago with the fact that he was shortening his life by continuing to smoke, and that he was willing to accept that as the price for continuing to smoke. But he also said that if he had known that there would be such mind numbing pain, maybe he might have seriously considered quitting. That was perhaps the only discussion we had about the cigarettes that were such an integral part of his life. The darkness of those nights was made grey by the glow from the television when it was on, or from the light in the passage because my father, who chased countless croaking lizards and roaches from my room even as an adult, was afraid of the dark. In much the same way, I suppose that for most of his life the cigarettes greyed what would have been the darkness of despair in his life as he gave up hopes and dreams in order to build a life for his children. Suppose my father had not smoked, would he have been able to cope with the darkness, and work to give me and Janaki the light of hope for a better life? Is it that we lost him prematurely because of the cigarettes, or did we have him around for as long as we did because he smoked? The same cigarettes that “caused” his cancer were likely what allowed him to keep drawing breath on days when he would rather have given up. Having children and trying to raise them responsibly has made me appreciate that in a way I could not have 15 years ago, when I first left home to start working. As I reflect further, I wonder did the cancer start when his children left him, physically by moving out, and emotionally by not needing him the way they once did?

I remember going to my parents house to visit once while my mother was away. My father was alone in the house, and I thought it would be a good time for him to get some quality time with his grand­daughters. So full of good intentions, I went with my 2 small daughters to the house. I found my father clad in a sarong, sitting in the gloom of the television room watching a documentary. He acknowledged our presence, and came outside to help pick a mango or two, but he quickly returned to the dim television room...and I was left sitting silently with him watching a documentary I had no interest in, while periodically checking to make sure the kids were not wrecking the house. Needless to say in less than half an hour, I had decided that my father clearly was not in need of our company. I had better things to do than sit in the dark with my father watching TV, and so I left. I think it was not much more than a year later that he was diagnosed with cancer. I had thought it better to spend my time outdoors in the bright sunlight, but as I remember the nights with my father on the grey couch, when we watched BBC news in silence, I think I now understand that sometimes the best way to spend your time is to keep a loved one company in the dark. The light of love lessens the darkness of all things left unsaid between two people, and a burden carried by two is always lighter than a burden borne by one.

All the years that we were growing up, his love for us and his belief that we needed him kept him going. When we grew up and moved out his love remained constant but I certainly had changed, and though I did not argue with him about the cigarettes, I found the smell of smoke suffocating and I kept a distance. I was impatient and angry by the way it seemed he always took my mother's side when she and I had arguments. My life was much easier to live in black and white, and I had no tolerance for the shades of grey that allowed my father to agree with my point of view in principle, and yet support my mother in what I thought was unreasonable behavior because he loved both his wife and daughter. It must have seemed that to my poor father that I no longer needed him when I moved out of the house...first to work, and then to get married and start my own family. My lack of gratitude for his efforts in raising me to be able to live my life in the way I chose must have hurt. Yet he never laid on the guilt. He quietly carried on inhaling the cigarette smoke to fill the void left as his children grew up and away from him. He was still always there to help, even when Janaki and I were adults living on our own, and he never made us feel that we were imposing. All he asked was that we not fight with our mother, and we could not grant him that wish. In the end, it was during the illness, ostensibly caused by the cigarettes, that I was finally able to repay him with the unconditional patience and love he had always shown us. Night after night I would leave my house and my family on the hill, to keep my father company in the dark on the grey couch. He gave up the cigarettes once he was diagnosed, and he was afraid of the dark which he admitted freely, but I think I also realized that he was afraid of being alone. Those grey nights were our time, and often we did nothing except sit quietly in each other's company, almost always with the TV on in the background. I had no doubt that this was the best way to spend my time. I still hated the cigarettes that had brought my father to this state, but had he not been in this state, without the pain of his impending loss, would I have found the patience and wisdom to show my love by sharing his darkness instead of reaching for my own preferred light? Had it not been for the cancer (associated with the cigarettes) would I have taken the time to show my father, in a way he could appreciate just how much he meant to me? I now understand the shades of grey that life has to be lived in sometimes in order to make it to the next day.

As my father's days on this earth were drawing to a close, I prayed that he would not take his last breath alone in the dark. My prayers were answered because he died in peace and at peace in the presence of the three people that were in great part the reason he did all he did. Now as I reflect four years after that memorable day, I realize I had another prayer which I did not acknowledge at the time. I was also praying for forgiveness from my father for the years of neglecting to show him that I loved him and appreciated all he had done for me. I realize now that in my own way by sitting in the dark and accepting the silence, I was able to lighten his pain. In that silent sharing, on the grey couch, even though I did not realize it at the time, we both received what we needed most from each other: love and forgiveness.