Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Theoretical Grandmotherhood

From the day of my birth I had a grandmother in my daily life. Marie Barbeau arrived in Miami a week before I was due along with her teenaged son Albert.
Only problem was, I didn't arrive when I was due.
My mother, Helen Evans, was told I was due to be born on July 4th. Instead, I made my appearance early in the morning of August 4th, a full month late.
Like my own son, who was also spent extra weeks in the womb, I was born looking small and wizened and feeling quite uncomfortable.
Unlike my little son, I had the gift of Granny Barbeau in my early life.
They say she saved my two week old life, when when my mother and I got on the train back to Los Angeles with Granny and Albert.
I kind of know what it might have been like to go on such a trip.
In 1966, when my son was 2 weeks old, my husband and I took him in the car on a road trip across Canada from Buffalo, New York to Boulder, Colorado. Far enough to compare with a trip from Miami to Los Angeles.
Except that my husband and I had plenty of money and a credit card, as well as our own car.
My mother and grandmother took me aboard a 'troop transport' railroad car (it was, afterall, 1943, and Miami was a national training center for the U.S. Navy and the Army Aircorp).
In July of 1966, when my breast milk wouldn't flow comfortably, we had bottles of formula that we popped a nipple on, and fed our little son.
In August of 1943, when there was no water or other liquid available on the hot train, my mother's milk dried up entirely... and people aboard the train began to worry that I would die of dehydration. My grandmother went up and down the passageways, asking for help. Every time the train made a stop, folks ran off to find something to keep me hydrated.
By the time we got to L.A., and got me to a doctor, I was in bad shape.
In 1966, by the time we got to Boulder and checked into the the dorm, my little son had a bad case of cholic, and didn't sleep well. Thankfully, his father loved his company, and walked him up and down the dorm halls for hours, patting his little back to help him calm his tummy.
When I finally was put on a good formula (that included dextra maltrose to put weight on me) Granny took over my feeding entirely.
For the first three years of my life, we lived with my grandparents in Los Angeles and San Francisco. My grandmother was a wonderful cook, she loved to feed me, and I loved to eat.
I was a very good and smart little girl, and I was plump and happy.
I also loved sitting on Granny Barbeau's lap to eat freshly baked bread. Later I loved being held by my Granny Evans when she was playing the piano and singing to me. I don't remember ever being that close to my mother except when she put curlers on my hair.
To this day, I can remember the tenor of my grandmothers' voices even before I remember my mother's.
I am deeply sorry that my children never got to feel their grandmothers' arms in their earliest days. Grandmothers are wonderful beings, as I found both of my grandmothers were to me until I was almost 20 years old.
In memory of my 'grans,' I hope to be a good grandmother to my little Jaya.
Only, I am going to need a lot more time than I am getting so far.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Transplant History

In December of 1990 my husband, Dorai, and I were joined by our two daughters for a trip to India. We started out from Buffalo with our daughter Nani as soon as her 7th grade class was out for Christmas vacation. Mehala, who was on break in her senior year at Johns Hopkins, met us in NYC with a fresh new passport.
Nani hadn't been to India in 4 years and Mehala for nearly 10. When Mehala and our son, Siva, were young, we went to India often, and stayed for long periods of time. But those were the days when Dorai's parents, and most of his 8 siblings, lived in India
This trip we didn't go south to Dorai's hometown of Madras as we used to do. We flew into New Delhi for a couple of days to meet with friends from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. To avoid some of the nasty smog in the capitol city, the girls went off on a day trip to the Taj Mahal. When they returned, we reported to the Delhi airport for our flight to Poona, by way of Bombay.

The plane left Delhi 8 hours late. There was a dense fog all around the airport, and air traffic was grounded. When we were finally allowed to board, tired, hungry and cranky, the passengers loaded quickly. It seemed like most of the passengers were working people from the Middle East on their way home through Bombay.
We were all pleased when meals were served promptly after take-off, but as the meals were over, it became obvious that our non-smoking section was not being respected. Almost every person on the plane lit up a cigarette.

Our eyes burned and our lungs were tortured. My husband, who had given up his smoking habit shortly after undergoing a quadrupal by-pass in 1982 began to turn grey. He'd experienced at least one heart failure that I was aware of, and I was afraid he was getting sick.
No amount of glaring at smokers or pleading with the stewards helped the situation. By the time we reached Bombay and had to dicker with the airlines to let us aboard a flight to Poona that was different than our ticketed timing, Dorai was beginning to look very weak.

When we arrived in Poona, Dorai insisted on hailing the cab and fussing over the price with the driver. It was late in the evening when we arrived at the Poona University Guest House. The crisp clean white sheets on the twin beds in our room were a precious sight. Dorai went right to bed, and I brought him some curd rice and fruit from the dining hall. He slept fitfully, and barely seemed to have enough energy to get out of bed in the morning to greet his colleagues in the Department of Chemistry where he would be a visiting professor for 6 weeks.

The first day, our hosts could tell that there was a problem. After the second day, we began to discuss the need to find a cardiologist. A doctor was recommended, and we made an appointment to meet Dr. Durairaj the next day.
The Marian Cardiology Center was a fresh, up-to-date cardiac clinic. Dr. Durairaj was a recently retired Army Medical Officer who had been the personal cardiologist to the President of India. That seemed like a pretty good recommendation.
He also had a very gracious wife and family, who made us feel very much at home in Poona.

The diagnosis was indeed heart failure. Medication and bed rest was proscribed. Dorai spent the six weeks of our stay resting, lecturing, meeting with colleagues in the dining hall of our Guest House and feeling very uneasy.

By the end of the six weeks, Dorai was beginning to get back his strength. He ventured out of the campus for more than just doctor's appointments. We explored the city and did some shopping. Dorai's sister, Shyamala and her family came from Madras to visit with us, and we went out to a fine restaurant in the city.

At last, it was nearly time to leave. We learned that it was Dr. Durairaj's birthday, and invited him and his family to join us for dinner. Dorai sat at one end of the long table, enjoying a scotch and soda and the company of Mrs. Durairaj, while the doctor sat at the other end, and I sat next to him.
The conversation was quite spirited at Dorai's end of the table, so I took the opportunity to speak quietly and frankly with the doctor.
"I will not ask anyone but you," I ventured, "but I trust you to give me an honest answer."
"What do you want to know?" the doctor replied, sensing my seriousness.
"How much longer does my husband have to live with this heart problem?" I asked.
"If he's lucky, he will live a year..., could be as much as two..." he replied looking intently down the table at my husband who was speaking like a professor to his daughter.
"But if I were you, I would get him into the heart transplant program in Buffalo as soon as you get home.
"You know Dr. Bhayana, don't you?" he asked.
"Yes, of course," I replied. Dr Bhyana had done Dorai's by-pass surgery. I was surprised that he now headed up a Transplant Program in Buffalo, and even more surprised that a doctor in Poona would know about it.
"But he's a diabetic," I replied, speaking of the complication in my husband's health that had arisen soon after his by-pass surgery.
"Buffalo is ready to do it's first diabetic transplant now, " Durairaj said authoritatively. "Your husband will be a perfect candidate.
"You must call Bhayana as soon as you get home."

I did call Bhayana as soon as we settled back into our Buffalo routine. Dorai was back to his science at the University by day, and his duplicate bridge games by night and weekends. I was a substitute teacher, mostly in special education classes. Nani went back to seventh grade, and Mehala to finish off her year at Hopkins.
When our son Siva called, I informed about our stay in Poona, and Dr. Durairaj's recommendation. He was glad we approached Dr. Bhayana and the Transplant Clinic. He'd been worried about his father's failing health for a long time.

When you are accepted into a U.S. transplant program, you are placed on a list with an organization called UNOS (the United Network for Organ Sharing). UNOS oversees all organ transplants in the United States. It registers the vital statistics of the recipient patient, including all necessary tissue and blood typings. Then, when a donor becomes available, the recipient's stats are on file and a match can be made by the local Organ Procurement Organization. (The OPOs are overseen by UNOS.)

UNOS put Dorai on the New York State Transplant List, and for almost a year, Dorai and I went down to Buffalo General Hospital every month for a check-up at the Clinic. Once they'd evaluated him, and agreed that he would be a good candidate, we were pretty much locked into their routine. Dorai agreed to take his medications as proscribed and attend clinic faithfully every month for the evaluation. He would wear a beeper that the clinic would activate if a suitable heart was ready for him, and we would respond immediately to the call.

It was a long year. That summer, we celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary in a lot of places including a big party Buffalo. But Dorai was feeling uncomfortable being tethered by the beeper. We informed The Transplant Clinic that we wanted to travel. We drove out of beeper range, and visited our son and Dorai's other relatives in Texas. Then we flew off to Europe for a scientific conference in Brno, Slovakia. For our anniversary, we drove down to Venice. I loved seeing him in the seat next to me, looking frightened for his life over something besides his heart, as I drove our little rented car across the Alps at 150 km/hour.

Back home again, we settled down. A New Year came. Another heart failure put him in the hospital. He came out a little weaker, but a little more determined that a transplant was a good option.

Spring comes to Buffalo in strange ways. Sometimes it doesn't come at all... but 1992 it was soft and wet. I rejected more of the substitute teaching jobs when they called in the mornings. He spent more days working at home than in his office.
The bridge club called. He was being very short and rude to his partners and oppononents. They kindly asked if I could talk to him. They might have to bar him from the club, if he didn't calm down his rudeness.
I could barely tell him... but I insisted that he had to play with Nani. His history with me at the bridge table was of games that ended in bitterness and tears. But somehow, he was able to be gentle when he was playing with his little daughter. So at 12, Nani began to be a regular at the duplicate bridge club in Buffalo. The club was satisfied.

Was it March? Why can't I remember? He could tell you the exact date.
I remember the time though... because I walked out of the house and down the street and across the wet and rainly hill to the Catholic Church for noon Mass.
As soon as he got on the Transplant List, I assumed the religion of my childhood and went to daily Mass and communion. I figured Jesus had to be correct about one basic thing: come to prayer as a little child. I was an adult when I joined my husband in prayer in our Hindu family. In my deepest private prayers, I wanted my husband to receive a new heart, and have a good life. I could do nothing about that. So I prayed like I did as a little child.

It was March.
I returned home from Mass, and Dorai said they called about 11:40. They wanted him in the hospital by two p.m. I packed his pajamas and extra underwear and a toothbrush, and we left for the hospital immediately.

Dr. Bhayana told us from the beginning of our wait, that he wanted to hold out for a really good heart. He didn't want to give Dorai a 'rag,' as he called it.
"This is a good, strong heart," Bhayana said with a broad smile as he received us in Dorai's hospital room. "It's on it's way from Albany. A perfect match."
By the time our daughters joined us with their cousin Chitra, his body was shaved and he was on a gurney in the corridor outside the operating room. An intravenous line from a bottle was flowing into his arm. Electronic monitors were all around him. They had done a "swan" on his neck, and injected nitropruside to reduce his lung pressures.
He looked "freaked." His eyes were wide with fright, and his skin was wet and clammy when I stroked his arm.
The new heart had arrived, but they were keeping him in the hall. Something was wrong.
Finally, Dr. Bhayana called me into a side room.
"His lung pressures won't go down," he said, grasping my hands.
"They always went down all these months when we gave him nitroprusside.
"I need your permission to back off the surgery," he said somberly as he looked down at his shoes.
"Why?" I asked.
"I lost a patient with the same problem two weeks ago," he answered. "I don't want to take the risk with your husband."
I was stunned.
"What will we do?" I asked incredulously. " We've been counting on this. You promised a good heart. How will he survive without a heart?"
"You have to get him a heart-lung transplant," he replied.
At that moment, my daughters came into the room.
"Mom, what's the matter?" they asked, taking seats on each side of me.
"Dr. Bhayana wants to back off the surgery," I replied coldly.
I felt Nani's muscles tighten as she leaned forward.
"Why?" she demanded of him, looking all the world like her father when he was intently pursuing a bridge partner for his abject stupidity.
"You can't do this," she said fiercely. As she stood up, I was afraid she was going to attack the doctor.
I took her arm, and settled her down...
"If he says he doesn't want to do the surgery, Nani," I said, "then I don't want him to do it."
"Thank you, doctor," I murmered. "Have you told my husband yet?"
"No," he replied. "It will be easier if we do it together."
"Wait..." I said taking hold of his arm as we moved towards the gurney. "How will we get him a heart-lung transplant?"
"We don't do them here, but I'm going to a Conference in San Diego in a few days," he replied. "I'll see what I can do about getting him on a list in another center."
"All right then, " I said, hoping I sounding more confident than I felt. "We better tell him."

Dorai felt the change in how the surgical staff was treating him by the time Bhayana and I came to the sides of the gurney. We told him as softly and confidently as we could that they would have to pass on the transplant.
Bhayana said we could spend the night in the hospital. It was too stressful for us to go home, and he'd like to check Dorai out in the morning.
Even before they were able to take out the IVs, another man who'd been beeped while he was walking in the Mall, was shaved and prepped and ready to accept the perfect heart from Albany.

I thought I'd known depression in my life. I won't even go into the many situations where helplessness and hopelessness have overcome me. For days after the surgery, I tried to contact Dr. Bhayana. He didn't return my calls. I went down to his office at the hospital 2 weeks after the surgery. He said he could see me for 5 minutes between other patients.

"What did they say about my husband's heart-lung transplant at the San Diego conference?" I asked.
"Nobody will do it," he anwered shamefacedly.
"What do you mean?" I whispered in desperation.
"Heart-lung transplants are only done for people with congenital heart-lung problems. Your husband's problem is eschemic. Nobody will do it."

I felt myself melting into a puddle on the dull office floor. I couldn't melt. There had to be something we could do. I'd trusted Bhayana, I'd trusted God, I'd trusted my husband's incredible luck. I couldn't pray any harder, my guts were eroding.
"You can try calling around to Transplant Centers yourself," Bhayana began. "Maybe you can convince someone to do the transplant for him."

With that, he handed me a list of transplant centers around the country, and their phone numbers.
I went home, and called every Center. Every call gave me the same indication he said they would. No one wanted to give Dorai a heart-lung transplant.
We have several family members who are medical doctors. I hoped they might have some ideas, but no one had a clue.

I watched him. Sadness came over us both and we rarely spoke. In bed at night we didn't talk, as it got harder for him to breathe. Most nights I simply sat behind him and held him till he had a few hours of rest and I couldn't sit anymore.
He bravely tried to carry on a normal life. The University was out for the summer and he wan't teaching. As soon as Nani was finished with 8th grade, she joined him at the bridge club. Most days, he tried to take a walk in the mall for excercise, usually coming home with some bargain or two.
One afternoon in late May, he came home from the mall and told me he'd met our friend Parthas at the mall. Dr. Parthasarathy was a retired radiologist who'd done some early evaluation on Dorai's heart at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Parthas retired after his own heart attack.
"Parthas wants you to call him," Dorai declared.
"OK, " I answered, cooking dinner and assuming our friends would be wanting us for a social occassion. "I'll call him tonight."
"No, you have to call him now." Dorai insisted. "We talked for more than an hour at the mall. He thinks I'm depressed, and if I don't get some help, I won't live."

"I'll call him. Just let me clean my hands," I answered.

"Gini," Parthas said to me quite somberly on the phone, "I don't believe your husband will survive his next heart failure if you don't do something immediatley."
"What in the world do you expect me to do, Parthas?" I nearly shreiked. I was totally confused by the man's demands.
"I just called his cardiologist, Dr. Balu. I told Balu that the two of you have to get together tonight and work out a plan. You have to save Vaidhyanathan's life... Now call Balu, and get him over to your house," he said emphatically and hung up the phone.

So I called Balu.

Dr. Balu came over to our house that evening at 9 o'clock. We spent about three hours, with my husband drinking scotch and listening to us, batting back and forth ideas of what to do.
"Perhaps we can find a surgeon who will do a 'wrap'," Balu mused, considering a proceedure whereby a muscle from the back is wrapped around the heart, given an electric shock and used as a pump.
Finally, we came to the conclusion that it wasn't our job to define a proceedure, rather Balu would make some calls to eminent heart clinics and see if one would would take Dorai for an evaluation.
As good as his word, Balu got ahold of Cleveland Clinic the very next day and explained the situation.
"They don't seem to think his lung pressures are too high for them!" Balu enthused, after sending them Dorai's records. "They want you to go down and get an evaluation in their heart clinic."
We took the very next appointment, and drove down to the Cleveland Clinic for an evaluation.

"We think you are still a good candidate for a heart transplant," a letter to Dorai declared. The Cleveland Clinic was ready to take him as a potential heart recipient, if Dorai wanted to join the program.
Dorai agreed to go on the Cleveland Clinic heart transplant list, but remained on the New York State list, where UNOS had him very near the top of the list to receive a new heart.
Once again, he got a beeper.
And again, we waited.
Only this time, it wasn't nearly so long.
In late July, Dorai was hospitalized for another heart failure.
I admitted him in the Buffalo General Hospital for treatment with diuretics about 9 o'clock in the morning. Buffalo General notified Cleveland that he was a patient.
I returned home by 11 a.m.
Around 11:30, I received a call from the Cleveland Clinic.
Due to his hospitalization, Cleveland Clinic bumped Dorai up to the top of their recipient list. Cleveland Clinic requested that Vaidhyanathan transfer from the New York State list, to the Ohio list immediately. They had indication a good match would soon be available.
I gave Cleveland his phone number at Buffalo General.
They called him and took his permission, which was immediatly faxed from Buffalo General.
The ball was rolling...
Cleveland called me.
They had requested Vaidhyanathan be discharged immediately from Buffalo General.
Could I bring him to the private airport for Prior Aviation by 4 p.m.? A jet would be waiting, to fly us to Cleveland.
Yes.
I tried to call my daughters. Nani came home in time to join me. I left a note for Mehala on the refrigerator. This was in the days before cell phones.
We drove downtown to Buffalo General.
He got in the car, and we drove back up to the airport without stopping at home for anything.
Waiting in the airport was the hardest part. It was nearly an hour before the little Lear jet arrived. Nani and I were hungry. We'd forgotten to eat in all the confusion. We munched on candy bars, while Dorai looked at us contemptuously.
The little jet was strangely unlike any plane we'd ever flown in. Compact and full of paraphanalia from the company that loaned it out for emergency flights like this, it wasn't luxurious. But the view as we sailed over Lake Erie was like being on the wings of an angel. The lake was serene. The sky was full of beautiful pink and white cumulous clouds as the sun was barely beginning to set. It seemed like only minutes, before we landed at a private airport in Cleveland, An ambulance met us and whisked us away to the Emergency entrance of the Cleveland Clinic.

The transplant coordinator met Nani and me, and took us to the surgical waiting room, while attendants took Dorai to prepare for surgery.
She told us he was getting a very good heart from Akron... another good heart from an "A" city. I was too numb to even pray that this one would become his.

Four hours later, Dr. Stewart came into the surgical waiting room, and informed me that he had completed the surgery. It would be another hour before they would have him down in recovery, and maybe two hours before I could see him... but in his eyes, I could see the kind of triumph that comes from winning a great game.
This time, he got his great heart.

to be continued.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

The India-United States Transplant Foundation, Inc.

On January 24, 2005 the State of Florida OK'd the incorporation of the India-United States Transplant Foundation.
I-USTF is a non-profit, charitable foundation dedicated to helping change and enhance Organ Transplants in India.
The idea for starting I-USTF came to me when our friends Dr. Mohan Thanikachalam and Dr. Shael Brachman, husband and wife, decided to leave the work they were doing in Miami and go back to India, Mohan's birthplace.
It was a lot of fun to be friends with Shael and Mohan in Miami. We shared a lot of interests as Mohan is a cardiac transplant surgeon and my husband, Dorai, is a retired professor of Biophysics in the Medical School at Buffalo. Dorai was also born in India, and has a thirteen year old transplanted heart.
My husband and I love to cook, and could always count on Shael and Mohan to join us for an Indian meal. We enjoyed the Indian community here in Miami. Mohan and Shael were even up to riding horses out in Broward on a sunny Sunday afternoon with our daughter Nani.
But more than anything, Dorai, Mohan, Shael and I talked about India... especially when it became clear that they were setting a course in their careers that would make working and living in India an important part of their lives.
During one of their trips to India, Mohan declared that he and several dedicated people in Chennai were ready to begin a Trust. The National Network for Organ Sharing was designed to provide a way to make great enhancements in the Indian Transplant environment.
Even before they left for India, it was obvious to us that we would have to someday work on transplant issues... in India.
There were nice summer days, when we sat and ate lunch together at U of Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital. I was substituting for the Executive Director of the Transplant Foundation while she was on vacation. Mohan was doing cardiac transplant and organ recoveries with Jackson and the V.A. Hospital. Shael was working in the Clinic at Jackson, where her fluent Spanish made her very comfortable with the poorer people of Miami who made use of the Clinic. We felt a strong connection to our deep personal connections to transplantation and India.
It was natural, that they would go back to India and Mohan would become Medical Director of NNOS.
I couldn't resist starting a Foundation to educate and charitably engage the huge Indian community in the United States with transplant issues in India.
We will begin in earnest in February when NNOS will host a Transplant Conference in Chennai.
I will be there.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Dodgeing two storms

In the last month, we dodged two massive storms here in Miami. Katrina's eye went right over us. I stood at my kitchen window on the 24th floor and watched the flare of bright blue/green lights as transformers blew out all over Miami and Ft. Lauderdale. So, Rita side-swipped us as she needled the Florida Straights and headed into the Gulf.
I'm deeply grateful that I didn't have to pull out the hurricane provisions or evacuate our coastal tower, but I'm deeply afraid for our family in Texas. Their homes in Houston are in danger. One brother says he wants to stay and protect his property from looters, another called from the highway as he sits in the parking lot that the highway north has become.
It seems puny to say "God bless them..."

Sunday, June 26, 2005

The Whole World in My Hands

This article was published in Tamil language, in the "Tamil Osai" Magazine, a publication of the Tamil Sangam of South Florida.


It was not much hotter in Trichy than it felt two weeks before on the Italian Riviera. Thankfully, I was a young woman who loved warm weather. This was a special day, and the perspiration I felt as I awakened to the bustle of the household at 4 a.m. was pure excitement. We had been summoned to Trichy from a scientific conference in Italy, to attend the wedding of my husband’s second sister. But on this day, the day before her wedding was to begin, my husband and I would be getting married… again.
He was already up and having coffee with his brothers on the rooftop, and our children were still sleeping soundly in the cot beside me. So I jumped up, and took my shower before they woke and came searching for me. Back home in Buffalo, New York our three year old son, Siva, and his little one year old sister, Mehala, weren’t used to all the attention they were receiving in the Trichy household. From the day we arrived, our presence caused quite a stir, so I appreciated a few minutes alone in the cold shower to wash away the tension of our journey.
In mid-August 1969 there were very few Americans who made their way down to the south of India. Even fewer were American women married to Hindu Brahmins.
The day before, we arrived on a flight from Rome, through Bombay and Madras. We were met at the Trichy airport by three of my husband’s 5 brothers, Sundar, Mani and Rishi. The youngest brother, Bhasker was at home with his parents and three sisters, and the other brother Jayanthinathan was back in the States.
It was finally time for my husband’s family in India to meet his family from the U.S. .
I changed into a black silk sari at the Madras airport while waiting for the Trichy flight. I knew my mother-in-law wouldn’t see ‘me’ if she had to look at western clothes. My husband told me I had succeeded in looking fairly non-American, so I proceeded with confidence to usher the children through the door of the home at C-5 Thillainager, as soon as we disembarked from the car.
Coming in from the early afternoon sunlight, the hall seemed very dark. I could hardly make out the figures of my husband’s parents who were sitting on the oongel in the middle of the large room.
My husband reached down, and picked up the two children and carried them into the hall, depositing their first grandchildren softly before his parents. Then, he and I did namaskarams to the two silent parental figures.
With a quick intake of breath, my mamiyar slipped down from the oongel, and disappeared into a front bedroom, leaving us all in consternation.
“Go to your mother,” my mamanar (whom everyone in the family called ‘Anna’) said to my husband.
A few moments later, he returned to the room, and quietly ushered me and the children upstairs to a an equally large, but sunny hall on the first floor. The children and I waited alone for a very long time, hearing murmurings from the family on the ground floor.
Soon enough, Bhagyam, the eldest sister of the family came upstairs carrying a tray with warm milk for the children and a cup of hot, sumptious coffee for me. I was so thankful for the fortification. My earlier bravado was nearly gone. I was glad to have another woman to talk to.
I told Bhagyam that I understood her mother’s feelings.
“See this boy?” I asked.
“If he came home to me after he’d been married for four years and had two children, and I didn’t know anything about them, I would be beside myself with anger. Not because I don’t love him, but because I do love him so dearly.
“It wouldn’t matter to me if his wife were pink or green! The fact that I didn’t know would make me so sad that I would be mad beyond any words.
“Please,” I told Bhagyam, “Please tell that to your mother.”
Twenty minutes later, brother Sundar came upstairs.
“I don’t know what you told Bhagyam to say to Manni (the name the family called their mother) but she wants me to go to the jeweler and have a tali made for you. Tomorrow, you and Dorai will be having a wedding.
***
I have only worn a nine-yard sari on five occasions. The first was the day I married my husband for the second time.
The morning started with Sundar asking me to choose as sari. There were several saris that Manni wanted to present to her daughters and other women in the family for her second daughter, Shyamala’s wedding. I choose a bright rose pink sari with dark green border.
“Ah,” said Sundar, “that is the one I thought you would choose.”
As the semi-official wedding planner, he seemed satisfied with my choice, so I felt like I hadn’t let down the team’s game plan.
I felt even better, when Bhagyam and Shyamala joined me upstairs to dress me in my new sari. Fortunatly, if I let out the sleeves a little, I could fit in one of Bhagyam’s green blouses.
They oiled my hair with coconut oil, and pulled it slickly back into a rubber band.
“Look what Sundar found,” their youngest sister Geetha nearly shouted and she breathlessly climbed the stairs with a prize hairpiece.
“He had to go to a temple way out of town to get this color,” she exhulted over the dark brown ponytail. “It’s easy to get black, but this color isn’t found too much around here.”
So they added the hairpiece, coiled it into a bun on the back of my neck and pinned it in place with pins much bigger than I’d ever seen before. Then, Shyamala twisted a long string of pikake (that is Hawaiian for ginger flowers…) around the bun.
Next, it was time for makeup. Sundar’s wife, Shanti came upstairs just in the nick of time. She brought up a little plastic cap full of ‘eye-tex’ that Manni had made by mixing oil and charcoal.
Using the edge of a rat-tail comb, Bhagyam had me close my eyes, and she pressed the eye-tex across my lids.
Perhaps you have seen the look of people on television who have had ‘make-overs.’ Well, I truly had a make-over that day. I peered at myself in the little mirror on the dresser, and I hardly recognized the young American mother of the day before.
Our first wedding was simply my husband and me before a justice of the peace in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
For this wedding, my children and my sisters-in-law tearfully and laughingly escorted me down the stairway to the family waiting for us in the hall below.
My husband never looked so sweet or handsome, as he and I laughingly exchanged garlands of flowers. Then his sisters and he tied knots in the yellow string of the tali that they put around my neck.
I watched my mother in law, who stood with full pride throughout the little ceremony. After the tali was tied, she motioned to Bhagyam to have me join two elderly aunties in the little library room off the hall.
Bhagyam closed the door, and asked me to step out of my sari and petticoat. The aunties took one of my mamiyar’s silk nine yard saris, and began to tie the beautiful folds of purple silk around me. It was more beautiful, and softer, than anything I had ever worn. It was like being wrapped in a sweet, warm nectar.
When we emerged, the room was nearly filled with chattering people, as another large contingent of family had arrived for the celebration of Shyamala’s wedding. The room became quieter and quieter as I moved across the hall to my husband. He met me half-way. With great happiness in his eyes, and with our children beside us, we once more did namaskarams to his very happy parents.
***
Our wedding was only the precursor to the main event. We were expecting the family of the Shyamala’s prospective groom to arrive any minute from Madurai.
Manni was beginning to get upset again. From the way she was looking at me, I could see I was once again a good part of her angst. I’d been told that the groom’s family was extremely orthodox, and Manni wasn’t sure how they would receive the news that the new manni (wife of the elder brother) was an American.
After Manni and I posed for photos, in which we looked very much like members of the same family, I decided to go back upstairs and stay out of sight once again. I returned Manni’s nine yard sari, and changed into another borrowed sari, as I didn’t have one festive enough to greet the groom’s party.
Several of us sat together upstairs, whiling away the time drinking coffee, eating budgies, and eventually putting my tali on a gold chain. My husband and his brothers went downstairs when we heard the clamor of the groom’s family arriving.
Within minutes, my husband was rushing back up to our room.
“You said you have some very dark make-up” he panted, more from emotion it seemed than the run up the stairs. “Put it on.”
I could tell that he and his mother were even more afraid than ever, over the very conservative ways of the groom’s family. I had looked out the window, and seen the groom’s mother get out of the car, and she looked very stern, indeed.
“I’ve been wearing it ever since I got here,” I wailed back at him. That morning after my bath, I took out a tube of ‘extreme dark’ leg tanning lotion that I’d brought from the States and smeared it all over my face and neck and arms. I’d hoped it would help me blend in a little, but obviously, I still stood out like a white handkerchief on a battlefield.
There was nothing to do, it seemed, but take me downstairs. The cat was out of the bag, anyway, as several people mentioned our morning nuptials to the groom’s family. So we gave each other a quick kiss for luck, and went down to our children and family.
Somehow, it didn’t turn out to be a disaster. The groom and his family were gracious and very kind. We were all obviously so concerned about turning the situation into something nice, that it became so by the time the young couple had a chance to meet and the groom’s party was esconced in the house next door.
The next day we would start the three day wedding, but for this afternoon, I was going to enjoy meeting members of our family. One by one, uncles and aunts, cousins and school friends came over for a chat under the pandal set up on the street in front of our house.
For the next week, I found myself going down on my knees, doing namaskarams to dozens and dozens of elders, then, sitting with them and talking of all kinds of things from child care to politics to music. From my brother in law Jayanthinathan, I’d learned a lot about the uncles of the family, so I wasn’t too surprised when Uncle Raju demanded that I sit next to him and show him my palm. (There is an old story that his father also was into palmistry, but mainly because he like to hold the hands of young girls.)
Raju stared into the palm of my hand and declared I had a long life line, and also a good line for marriage. Then he said, “here is what you are going to do. You are going to start an institution… something scientific, or medical. It is going to be very successful.”
“What a silly thing to say,” I thought to myself. I have no education. He probably thinks that because my husband is a scientist, I am one too.”
It has been almost 36 years since Uncle Raju, looking like a sadhu with his seriously big belly and his hairy chest full of necklaces, made his prediction… and I have acquired an education and some serious business skills and even learned not to be so arrogant in the face of my elders.
I just started a new foundation to support a change in organ sharing and transplantation in India. If Raju continues to be correct, it will be very successful.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

A Woman's View

It took me a long time to emerge from the overt sexism of my Catholic childhood. It was a bit complicated by growing up as a dependent in the U.S. Navy. But finally, with the cosmic view of a Hindu husband, the pro-feminist views of my son and two daughters, and a robust professional life, I have a stronger sense of female empowerment in my old age than I did way back when I was a lustier young woman.
Perhaps this is why the orgiastic proclaimation of a 'father' to the world by a group of aging males made me really angry today.
Where are the mothers of this church?
Throughout all of the pomp and circumstance of the death of one pope and the enthronement of a next, there were only men everywhere in the picture.
The only symbol of female power in the spiritual conclave was a banner with a cross and a big letter "M" which stood for a theological construct of 'mary the mother.'
I wonder, after the new pope went out on the balcony and saw thousands and thousands of men AND women in the St. Peter's square... did he go in to dinner with the 114 men who elected him and see the obtuseness of their sexism?
What the hell are they so afraid of?
What really does the word 'relativism' mean to the new pope, when he doesn't acknowledge more than the most narrow relationships of men and women in the life of our earth, let alone the church?
Who are his 'relatives?' Obviously, not women.
In this last century, such diverse countries as India, Israel, Sri Lanka, Iceland and England have had strong female leadership. Has this caused a corps of political amazons to emerge and immolate the male politicians in those countries?
If this hasn't happened in the political world, upon what theological presumption does the male dominated Catholic church assume it will happen in their 'spiritual' world?
As a little girl, I thought the priests in their robes looked silly, and the nuns looked sad all dressed in black.
Now, I know I was right.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Last month, I sent off a piece of writing to a little magazine here in Miami entitled "Tamil Osai." The editors asked for articles in English and Tamil. I wrote mine in English, and submitted it on-line.
A few days later, an editor emailed back, informing me that there are two fonts for Tamil. He requested that I translate my English into Tamil and resubmit.
I was a little taken aback.
I do not read, write or speak Tamil.
It occured to me that an English-only American born and bred person submitting a piece to a Tamil language magazine was a bit presumptious, so I tried to rescind my offering.
Surprisingly, the editor wrote back and offered to translate the piece himself.
So now, I will be a published author. In Tamil, no less... and I hope it will be the beginning of a world of writing beyond my blog.