Of ungrateful children and irresponsible parents

Unless humans take a hard, dispassionate look at themselves and their society, the degradation will continue and, as someone said, who knows that the planet may well be better without humans around?

We all wish that life would be a fairy tale and all would be well that ends well. Unfortunately, we know only too well that the reality is different, that life is made up of ups and downs, that together with good things that happen along the way there are also difficulties and obstacles that we have to face. Having written about the goodie aspects of children and parents in my previous two articles, for the sake of balance and objectivity I must also present the downside of this child-parent relationship. The current Durga Puja celebrations provide an appropriate context for this purpose.

Devimahatmyam 

In fact, the Devimahatmyam which is narrated during the Navratri or nine nights is in praise of Ma Durga, the omnipotent and all-compassionate Universal Mother, as the slayer of demonic forces that threaten us, and as a protective and guiding presence and bestower of the knowledge that leads to our liberation from the shackles that bind us to this material world. This is illustrated through the framework story, told by sage Markandeya, about a king, a merchant and a holy man Medhas.

The virtuous king Surath loses his kingdom, the merchant Samadhi is dispossessed of his wealth and thrown out by his greedy family. King and merchant meet in the forest where they have retreated, hoping that amid the peaceful, beautiful surroundings they will find tranquillity. Instead, they face their own inner turmoil, fuelled by recurring thoughts of loss, betrayal, and attachment to what they have left behind – family, material wealth and so on. Thinking that as men of status and knowledge they ought to be able to know better by analysing their situations objectively and thus overcome their misery, they approach sage Medhas in his hermitage, whose task it becomes to awaken them instead to the higher, liberating spiritual knowledge that is gained through an understanding of the threefold aspects of Ma Durga as Mahakali (destroyer of evil), Mahalakshmi (granting wealth) and Ma Saraswati (bestower of wisdom).

Like the king and the merchant who are driven by self-interest, desires and expectations, all humans raise their children with the expectation of future reward, inasmuch as children too make unreasonable demands on their parents (or are otherwise troublesome). When these fail to materialize or do so only in part, this is where generational gaps widen that may lead to clashes and alienation that in several instances may become irreconcilable. These dysfunctions seem to increase the more society becomes materially advanced – which heightens the expectations of both parties – and they take many forms in our modern world.

Where are the children?

One evening when I was doing my specialization in England, I accompanied my boss Mr Graham Bird (in the UK, surgeons are referred to as ‘Mr’ and not ‘Dr’) to see an elderly patient with an abdominal problem. In the ward there were mostly old patients, although it was not a geriatric ward. They were likely to remain there for a good while even after treatment was over, as the children would be in no hurry to take them back home. My boss and I were aware of this troubling problem, which caused a headache to social workers as they struggled to find places for them in homes, which were always in short supply even for temporary periods.

As we were walking out of the ward, Mr Bird said to me, ‘Can you imagine someday we’ll also find ourselves lying in such a ward waiting to be taken home?’ My reply was, ‘Not me Mr Bird, I am going back home to Mauritius, and we don’t have this problem there.’ Little did I know!

The face of that old man crying in Ward 5 (hijacked since by the Cardiac Centre) at SSRN Hospital has stuck in my mind. It was 1980 and I had just returned from the UK. I had ‘inherited’ this patient from the previous specialist (who had been transferred to PMOC). He was recovering from a fracture of the hip, but whenever I broached the subject of going home, tears came to his eyes. It was the nurses who informed me that he was reluctant to be discharged because he was apprehensive of being ill-treated, including being hit, by his son and daughter-in-law. That was my introduction to industrialising Mauritius and the shattering of the ‘goodie-goodie’ illusion about my paradise island that I had so proudly but naively presented to my boss!

Back to England: during Christmas time, it was quite common in my hospital to have orthopaedic wards loaded with many old patients, both male and female, who had come in before Xmas and had been operated for hip fractures, awaiting their children to take them home for Xmas. But in most cases, their hopes were dashed, as the children had ‘parked’ (the term that was used) them there while they enjoyed the festive period. And they wouldn’t answer phone calls from the nurses or social workers! It was only after the season was over, often post New Year, that they would show up.

Now shift to the PMOC where I was looking after this sweet nani with acute pain in the hip. She had been in for two days, and was not quite settled, still having some pain and a limp – but insisting that she could not stay any longer. Why, I asked her, is there something you don’t like here, are the nurses not caring enough? No beta, she told me, I have no complaint about them, but I have locked my house and come, and I have to go back and occupy my house. But don’t you have children who can take care of the house? No, she said, I have children, who are all married and staying separately, but they are just waiting for me to die so that they can inherit the house! And if I don’t go soon, they will break in and occupy it and not allow me to go in, what will I do then?

I thought I was dreaming when I heard this!

When I was posted at Jeetoo Hospital (1989-1999), there was this 60-year old who had been transferred from the PMOC. He had attended there the previous day after suffering from a fracture of the ankle, which had been treated by putting the ankle in plaster. During the ward round, I told the nursing staff to start him walking, and that he could be discharged in a couple of days. One week later he was still there. When I asked what’s the matter, this is what the nursing officer replied, ‘You won’t believe it doctor, but this man is a widower and has got four children, all highly placed. They come visiting separately, dans bel bel BMW (‘in big big BMWs’) I tell you, but nobody is willing to take him home’.

Parents, really?

As I noted earlier, medical practice does give one more than just a glimpse into society’s mores. As regards parents, there also we come across harrowing examples of unacceptable behaviours. Like this case of a father who brought his four-year old daughter, both suffering from burns. The reason? He was a drunkard, and one night he fell asleep, obviously drunk, with a lit cigarette in his mouth. This led to the mattress catching fire, and hence the burns. Fortunately, they were neither extensive nor serious, but here was a sweet child who would have to bear disfiguring scars for the rest of her life.

In another instance, a small child was admitted for the second time within a few months for hot water burns on the arm. I told the nurse that I would like to have a word with the parents, and to ask them to come on the day the child was to be discharged. As I confronted the mother, I advised her about the precautions and was a bit severe at one stage, admonishing her about being neglectful of her child. ‘Be docteur, zenfan sa, ene deux ti brule pou arrive meme non?’ (‘But doctor, she’s only a child, having a couple of burns is inevitable isn’t it?’) Flabbergasted by this outrageous reply, the only thing that Sister and I could do was to stare at each other in disbelief.

But beyond the medical purview also there are problems, serious ones too. Having brought children into the world, it is our responsibility as parents and adults to ensure their growth to maturity and autonomy in a caring, loving and nurturing environment, which naturally means first and foremost the home. We have to lead by example. Unfortunately, cases abound of quarrelsome parents, swearing and fighting physically in front of children, or drinking and smoking, or taking drugs and dragging the children into that sordid world too. Children get naturally traumatized, and then we find it strange that juvenile delinquency is on the rise.

Oftentimes, the parents separate as a result of their own misbehaviours, and of course it is the child that suffers – although, in some cases, it is a relief. Such as the eight-year old girl and her mother, who had been frequently abused by her drunken husband. But one night, he crossed the limit when he tried to sexually abuse the daughter. That’s when she walked out on him for good and took up employment so as to tend for herself and her daughter.

The hardest lot that can befall a child is the loss of a parent. In a number of cases when this happens the single parent remarries, and the life of the children then becomes a nightmare especially if they are of tender age. Stories around this theme abound and there is no need to elaborate. It is not that the widowed spouse must not take a partner again, for there are genuine and valid reasons why this may be necessary. But in so doing, there must be no abdication of the responsibility towards the children, especially when they are still dependent on the parent. Alas, this happens too often, with the children ending up badly.

Unless humans take a hard, dispassionate look at themselves and their society, the degradation will continue and, as someone said, who knows that the planet may well be better without humans around?

RN Gopee

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