image aptly titled "our packages" from chandrapanagoda.lk
I didn't know till recently how much a coffin costs in Sri Lanka, it hasn't been that high in my "need to know" list. But this year I found out that it can be anything from 20,000 to 400,000 LKR.,and at each end of the spectrum the damn things look the same! They are shiny polished OBLONG WOODEN BOXES with handles! They have some shiny white material inside. The 400,000 one doesn't look 20 times as posh as the other one, it just looks the same but a bit heavier. I was told that monks get the high quality send off. Of course that makes sense, burning a box that costs enough to make a small home for a destitute family, just because they are a Buddhist monk. Just what the Buddha ordered!
As each year starts we look into it and wonder with new hope, if finally this will be the year we waited for, if this year we will find what we were looking for. None of us imagine that this may be the year in which we die.
My own 2017 started with rescuing a cow of all things under Gods sun. and of course it wasn't the usual rescue from the slaughterhouse, no this was me and this is Sri Lanka so this had to involve more drama and fright and bribery, corruption, violence and skullduggery and a predictably feisty hellcat cow that finally ran away into the sunset of Hanwella- that is a completely different story. But someone told me at the start that I would be blessed, that the universe would reward me. I waited with bated breath all year.
Then 2017 was the year when my father fell ill, mysteriously and irreversibly becoming bedridden in a series of events designed to test the limits of our endurance and of our belief. For various reasons I have written about in other places, I have no sentimentality about my father, and merely considered him sympathetically as an unwell elderly person in need of care.
My mother had taken care of him for many years now waiting on him hand and foot and we had watched as he played the merry devil with antibiotics, randomly self medicating according to his warped medical knowledge, and also binging on eye popping amounts of sugar, in spite of the fact that he was a diabetic and had a continuously suppurating foot wound. On the pretext that he needed sugar because he felt as if he had low sugar, which he did not. The difference between minors and criminally negligent adults is that of course you can't force elders to do anything, even if you can see that they are gradually killing themselves in front of you. My brother and I, his only children, were used to this self destructive behaviour after watching him chain smoke for 30 years, and then completely speculate his wealth away for another 20 years, we had given up expecting him to take any advice from us. Our mother had given up arguing around 50 years ago and instead lived in an alternate reality, based on her knowledge of astrology. Father was supposed to die in 2020. So we braced ourselves for a long and interesting relationship with elderly care institutions in Sri Lanka.
The extent of the care needed by this heavy tall bedridden and incontinent patient, was such that after no less than 23 calls to elderly care homes in Sri Lanka only four agreed to undertake his care. Two were unregulated budget homes for poor villagers, in Homagama and Padukka, salubrious areas of the country, but conditions within them were reminiscent of concentration camps with softer bedding and better ventilation. One was a budget home which looked like a hotel and charged a higher amount and one was a decently registered nursing home in Colombo run by doctors, where his expenditure would add up to more than our combined monthly incomes. We went through three of these different experiences in traumatic sequence.
In the first budget priced home in a rural area called Pitipana, we left our father only one night and returned to find that he had been threatened, starved, and traumatised and his catheter had been tied so he could not urinate. He was actually crying for water and did not let go of his plastic water bottle for many days afterwards. He began to speak only in Sinhala, and he would not recount what had been told to him to make him so terrified. We withdrew him from this pretty place and later my husband paid them a visit with about ten of his friends and indulged in a little summary justice, because we didn't have time or evidence to report them to the authorities. Proper revenge was taken Im happy to say, Sri Lankan style, because frankly we were in a state of emergency and really did not have the patience anymore to be classy and genteel about things.
Its difficult to concentrate, when you are holding up a very heavy and large man who has completely lost the use of his arms and legs, and is continuously incontinent. You try keeping your job, keeping your head and doing this. Adult Diaper bills for the month came to about half my salary, medication bandages and catheter changing added to that exceeded the combined income of my brother and myself.
I asked my husband what rural people with lower than middle incomes did. He said they would take turns. But he admitted he had never seen such a case. Occasionally a frail old lady might get paralysed but still she was the size that could be safely hauled to the loo for cleaning. My neighbour an elderly lady in her late 70s said that she had looked after her husband for eight years, by keeping him locked up at home, without clothes. He would crawl around the house soiling the corridors as he went. My father could not even crawl. It took two people to lift his torso high enough for him to be able to eat something.
Then a relatively expensive interlude in Colombo brought us physical relief, although at the expense of our financial and psychological stability. Cheerful, chubby nurses took care of everything, we could visit him and cheer him up, his long lost relations were allowed access, he seemed to be accepting his pitiable fate at last. But we were steadily notching up debts that we could not have dreamed of, and against our principles, sending pleas around to family members and to people we didn't know, to help father as we wanted to keep him in comfort, till we could sell the family home and finance the rest of his medical and palliative care. Life was disintegrating into a nightmare before our disbelieving eyes. True to Sri Lankan human nature one of our cousins threw it crudely in our faces that we had asked for help, although he had not contributed a cent towards helping us.
In the middle of this all, father himself had a small amount of stashed away money, which could pay for about two months of the nursing home, but he was being typically tight fisted about it. He could not walk, or stand or even sit up unless two strong people placed him upright, but he was stubbornly hanging onto his cash, saying that he would release it if we took him to the bank. To take him to the bank would need a stretcher, two strong men and an ambulance and was completely unnecessary as the bank has confirmed that he only had to sign a form and they would release it to us. There was a deadlock here which was difficult to believe. We could not afford to keep him indefinitely in the Colombo nursing home.
The pretty hotel like home in Homagama agreed to take him in for about ⅔ of the monthly fee. For the third time in three months we arranged to take him away. This was not before sending out another plea this time to the professional institute of which he had been a course director in his proud heyday. They did vaguely commit to sending some money but only a small amount actually materialised and this was enough for one month in the new place. Transporting him took an expense for two strong men to lift him and an ambulance to cart him to the new location. You may not have noticed it in the heat of an emergency, but ambulances are bloody expensive.
Two days later he was dead.
And the new elders home owner panicked, and placed an entry in the police station she claimed covered her jurisdiction, which was a place 30 km away called Horana; the police stampeded over clearly intent on finding some fault with her, 1 for not being properly registered 2 for not having a doctor in attendance and 3 for him having died just two days after arriving. There you had a entrepreneur lady living a horror story. She had just opened an elders home where lots of quiet little old ladies could be bullied into behaving themselves and giving her solid cash, and here she had accepted this bedridden old man and he had gone and died on her. She had the look of someone in a bad nightmare who just wanted to wake up. And it was Christmas day.
Our van transport on the day of the post mortem was no less than 300 km, which is the distance from Colombo to Trincomalee, - this is the amount of zigzagging from pillar to post that we had to go through, the vehicle being with us for no less than 36 hours. We went to the police station, waited for two hours for a constable to join us (there were no other people at the station) went on a detour because the constable wanted to have a look at his three wheel which had been given to a garage to repair,(this is how we spent the first few hours when we should have been quietly grieving for our dead father) then went to the Horana hospital where we waited standing for an hour till the JP came in and told everyone that he was doing us a massive favour by officially releasing the dead bodies of their loved ones, (he lectured us that not his job but he was doing social service)and we had to humbly and worshipfully listen to this (without screaming at him to sign the damn papers because our honoured beloved father was starting to disintegrate in the tropical heat in the mortuary van) then we had to wait another twenty minutes till a half witted nurse found the keys to his room, because they had forgotten the keys, then he took our statements (all three of us, mine, my brothers and the elders home owners) and tried to insist that my mother join the fray,("the spouse should claim the body") and became abusive when i said that she was mentally retarded, and hinted that he could issue a warrant and force her to come here. To this I shrugged, because by now i was ok with anything they did, I was just numb. This was just the beginning of the bureaucratic abuse and obstacles hurled at the family of newly bereaved.
More worshipful humility required of us as we stood near the mortuary for 4 hours, (stood because the Government of Sri Lanka wont afford seats for grieving family whose members are being dismembered) and waited experiencing various abattoir noises and nauseating smells, until at long last the doors opened and a misshapen bundle on a stretcher was exposed and the attendants asked us, rudely of course, where the polythene was. Which polythene you may ask? No one had said anything about polythene, not even our funeral house van drivers. So if you see Hollywood films where the deceased is neatly stitched up in a Y shape and handed back in a body bag, that's not how it's done in Sri Lanka due to our poverty or insensitivity or both. According to the embalming boys, my father's body had been sliced downwards on both sides of all four limbs, his skull sawn off and held in place with a long rag, and his innards emptied and flushed with so much water that the cadaver kept dripping continuously until it was cremated. Furthermore the main arteries had been torn out of their positions and lost, so the embalmers had no way of injecting formaldehyde. Gleefully, and so as to get some more money for their alchohlic bribe, the funeral boys showed me the photos. Morbidly curious as we humans sometimes are, I made the mistake of going through his smartphone file on our father.
Through this haze of insanity only one rational voice spoke to us reasonably, humanely and kindly and that was the JMO, Dr Prasan who first questioned the constable on the suitability of mangling the body of a 78 year old heart patient who had not one but at least four conditions which could kill him of natural causes at any instant, and told him in no uncertain terms of what he thought of his time being wasted in this manner. Constable 80100 did everything he could to obstruct and cause distress to us, including pointing out that the elders home was not registered, (it was under probation for one year which is reasonable in the circumstances) and that my mother had not arrived to claim her spouses body (to which the JMO replied that the children were here and that was quite enough) however the police entry meant that the body would have to be subjected to post mortem, it was beyond his power to stop this procedure at this point.
End of Part one
Part two- the horrors of old folks homes in Sri Lanka.