An Ode to a beloved Father-in-law
It was 1990. The year I married my husband and moved to the United States. My husband, an East Indian, had been living in California with his family since the 80s. While India had embraced modernism and the West, the old-timers who had moved here thirty years ago were still clinging fondly to ancient customs. It was an age when relationships with the in-laws were complicated. Your feelings were meant to be private, not to be seen or heard. Dad didn't let that stand in the way. He invited me in as if I was one of his own. He showed and told the world, I was one of his own.
I used to tell my friends that I want to be like Dad when I grow up. I'd enter his house to meet him, and his first question would stop me in my tracks. Never a word of reproach like, "Where the heck have you been?" or "Why didn't you come see me sooner?" but instead, a looking outward. "Have you talked to your Mum and Dad?" he'd ask me. I'd hang my head sheepishly and mumble "No." He'd lay a hand on my shoulder and, gently say to me,"They wait to hear from you, you know. See if you can call them." He knew my parents were in India, so many miles farther than him, and so he thought of them, not of himself.
That's the kind of person he was. This was a hero, a man who'd withstood the punches of life; three strokes; multiple heart attacks that reduced his own diet to rukhi-sukhi (dry food); a plain cup of tea and plain toast. And yet when you came into his house, you were his guest, and you wouldn't leave without partaking a full feast. Up to a week before his death, while he was still in full control of his faculties, I sat by his bedside. He was in pain. Uncharacteristically, his eyes were closed. But he opened them when he felt my presence, and his question to me was, "Will you have some chai?" I shook my head numbly, not wanting for him to speak. He opened his eyes again a minute later. "Have some chai," he exhorted again and tried to summon Preeti, his caregiver, so that she would serve me tea. He didn't close his eyes again to rest until he saw a steaming cup of tea in my hands.
That's the kind of person he was. That's the kind of person I want to be when I grow up. I'd send tradesmen to his house; my handyman, Scott whom I'd known for many years before he met Dad. And yet when he came to visit me again, Scott asked me, "How's your father-in-law?" and then he launched into a five-minute ode about what a wonderful person Bhopinder was. How he talked to him and held his hand through his divorce. It wasn't just Scott. Our neighbor, Debbie; our mailman; our accountant, Paul. A person needed to be in his company for just ten minutes, and they'd be his fan for life. Anybody who knew him knew they'd get a listening ear and meaningful words of poetry that would leave them feeling better about life when he was around.
I still feel that way. I loved him, and he loved me. So, Heaven gained an angel, yes, but I lost the best father-in-law a woman could ask for.