The Ghost That Makes You Cozy
By Swati Apte
I think of all the fears my children have had – of spiders, of lizards, and other tiny creatures. Yet, this notion of a ghost under their covers is comforting for them. When did they become this resilient?
When my husband and I moved back from New York to Mumbai five years ago, we brought my 85-year-old Aaji to stay with our family, driven by the smug belief that we had it in us to take care of people with the same ease and grace that she possessed. Aaji — she of the eternal joie de vivre, of big hugs and unending love, of the bright kitchen with its constant, delicious spread of food, of the house that was a refuge for visiting relatives and friends in a lonely city – had virtually raised me. And now, I assumed, she would dote on my children as she had doted on me.
Until then, we had raised our children far away from extended family. We were a happy, close-knit unit, protective of our space and privacy. Our children were used to being the centre of our universe, our family’s rhythms syncing to their needs.
But now Aaji was in our house, and not the Aaji I remembered, but in her place, an old, increasingly deaf adult who was retreating inward. Far from doting, she did not have the strength to cope with high energy and toddler tantrums. In return, the kids found her presence confusing. She consumed their mother’s attention. She played the TV too loud. Her medication regimens preoccupied their parents, and they couldn’t quite understand why the daily menu was driven by her needs rather than their tastes.
I fretted that the decision would fracture our little nuclear family unit, making them resentful of her and me.
But gradually, we settled into a rhythm. In the five years Aaji lived with us, a truly special bond developed between my children and her. Not overnight, as I had hoped and fretted about, but slowly and surely. They liked knowing she would always be at home when they came back from school, clamoring into her room and awakening her for a momentary hug. They took her for walks, holding her hand gently, vigilantly. They huddled at the foot of her bed, watching Marathi shows at full volume with her and, in this bizarre way, learning the language of my childhood that was now lost to me. And as cancer began to take over her body, her sight and speech, they stood by her bed each day at 4.00 p.m. to hold her hand and tell her about their day, even when she did not respond with anything more than a blink of her eye.
The day she died quietly in her bed, I was terrified for them – for their loss, for having to face death. But they simply hugged her, unafraid, calm and comprehending. That night, when the funeral was done, they dragged their blankets into her room and crawled into her bed. They have claimed it for their own ever since, insisting she looks over them when they are there.
When I first brought my old grandmum to live with us, I was worried she would be a burden on our family. In fact, her presence was a gift; a gift that let my children discover their ability to take care of another human being and understand decay and death as a natural part of life. A gift that let us see our own lives in a different perspective. A gift to reassure us that what lies beyond our own comprehension is not terrifying, but can, in my son’s words, simply be “the ghost that makes you cosy.”