The Tiger in the Room

I’ve never had a nightmare quite like that again. Maybe because my subconscious fear of losing my dad became more real.

Once, around the age of eight, I had a vivid dream about my dad getting eaten by a tiger. We were in India, in the back-garden forest of the house I grew up in. I heard it first. And immediately, I was off — running and running and running before I saw the scene. It was too late. I tripped and fell onto the dirt earth and the next thing I remember is waking up crying, heaving, chest-tight-hyperventilating. I recall tiptoeing to my parents room and waiting in the doorway, checking they were both there, listening for the tell-tale signs of breathing. Upon finding them safe, I returned to bed and dozed off again until I was woken up for school. 

I’ve never had a nightmare quite like that again. Maybe because my subconscious fear of losing my dad became more real. He’d been a renal patient all my life. The big scar across the side of his stomach was nothing out of the ordinary. Neither were the bedside tables filled with medication bottles and strips with big “KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN” signs embossed onto the labels, or piles of prescription scripts, or consistent hospital visits. They just contributed to facts I could tick off a list: the sky was blue, the grass was green, Appa had had a kidney transplant so I had to be careful. It wasn’t a big deal to me, back then. Until the reality of it all kicked in.

Infections started piling up. The hospital visits weren’t just visits anymore. Days in a hospital bed started to move into weeks. I became familiar with the ICU as more than just the place where my mum worked. For six years, my dad was unavailable for six hours on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, undergoing dialysis so he could stay alive — which came with its own complications. 

Another once, a random family friend showed me a photo he took of my dad during one of his worse hospital stays. I hadn’t been allowed to visit then. It was probably just hospital policy, but maybe Amma didn’t want me to see Appa like that. Eyes closed, skin sallow, with tubes sticking out of him, connected to machines that were more or less keeping him alive. Almost a decade later, I’ve never quite been able to shake off the image, or the visceral combination of feeling rage and sadness and helplessness, all at once. I hadn’t wanted to see it, but I was shown it anyway. I didn’t want to face it, but it was there anyway. To stay. 

It was easier for me to ignore the tiger in the room. Because it’s hard to reconcile as a twelve-year-old that there’s a chance your dad will miss your next birthday too, and the ones after that. Because every time Appa got admitted to hospital, it was the same cycle. The worry, followed by anger I couldn’t place, followed by frustration that would turn into unbearable sadness that involved crying myself to sleep, writing eulogies in my head, thinking about funerals. But then, Appa would come home and it’d be okay again, for a while. The anger and sadness and frustration would subside. I could tuck my grief into boxes and stuff it into my wardrobe along with the clothes I never wore. Because it doesn’t really make sense, does it? Grieving for someone who is still alive. I constantly ask myself: Why am I grieving for something that hasn’t happened yet? Why am I constantly preparing myself for the worst?

The whiplash of this preemptive grief is exhausting. A constant dress-rehearsal for a show that has no clear closing day. A tiger watching from the shadows, waiting for the moment I’m distracted to strike. I know it’s something I have no choice but to live with. I know my dad will never “get better”. I know everyone dies one day. However, coming to terms with it all never stops being hard. The fear is hard to contain because I know it’s coming sooner than later. There’s no happy ending here, no matter how hard I hope and pray and wish for it. This isn’t a dream I can wake up from. 

Appa occasionally tells me that he’s survived this long because we moved to Australia. Sometimes Amma will join in and speak in agreement, mentioning finances and hospital bills and resources and how lucky we are to be able to access the mostly free healthcare here. I don’t argue. They’ve always been better than me at finding the silver linings. Maybe it’s true. Maybe I lied. Maybe there is a happy ending, and it’s that the tiger is still prowling. 

But the fear is still there. I continue to wait for it to pounce.

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