Tip was in college with me in India and turned up in the US five years after me. He was to teach in a university on the west coast, but landed in New York to meet an uncle and spend a week with me in Washington. It was a delightful week, full of trips, walks and reminiscences, and I was sorry to see him leave.
He visited me a couple of times after that, accompanied by his wife Maureen. Maureen was polite and pleasant, but I never struck a chord with her. We had a good time together, but I could not resist a sliver of resentment that I did not retrieve the euphoric time I had earlier with Tip.
Twelve years later I had a frantic call from Maureen. Tip had long suffered from Muscular Dystrophy and had started relying on a cane to walk. It had taken a sudden turn for the worse; doctors feared the worst. Maureen had nobody to turn to and wanted me to come.
It took me a day to extricate myself from commitments and take the first available flight for San Diego. Tip was in the last stage and passed away two days later. I stayed behind a few days more to help Maureen.
She needed help because Tip was a singularly disorderly person. He had done nothing to prepare for the eventuality. Maureen ran the house, but knew very little of Tip’s work at the university and nothing of their accounts. Without a Power of Attorney, it was difficult to sort out his affairs at the university. It was no easier to break into his computer and unearth the financial problems and resolve them one by one.
Maureen was grief-stricken and helpless. I felt it my duty to tell her what I was doing and explain what she needed to pursue after I had left. She listened well and asked pertinent questions. I found her attentive and bright, though understandably distracted at times. She said she felt a little overwhelmed. I could understand her discomfort in an unaccustomed role and felt sorry for her.
I realised she was a retiring, off-stage person, ill at ease interacting with strangers. She took time to connect with people, but she was neither a social nor charmless. She let me make the coffee in the morning, but insisted on making breakfast – a changing one every day – and serving it with reticent grace. Her computer skills were initially modest, but she proved herself a fast learner, who swiftly mastered the financial details of her home, mortgage, utilities and insurance, and stumped me with her intricate questions.Our relationship thawed, my misgivings dissolved. My original resentment ceded to a grudging admiration and, when the time came to leave, I found to my surprise that helping her had come to be a pleasant chore for me.
The last day we returned from a long day at the bank, where we sorted out the last vexing issues that Tip had left as a mystery for us both, and Maureen settled down to prepare our last dinner. We chatted amiably during dinner and then, as I started packing my things, she said, with what in retrospect seems an uncharacteristic forthrightness, “Please sit with me. Talk to me.” “In a little while,” I said, “after I have finished packing.” She passed me by a half-hour later, and I added, “Just a few minutes more.”
By the time I finished packing, a call came from an office colleague and it took a while to explain what had to be done in my absence. From a corner of the eye, I could see Maureen waiting patiently at the other end of the room. When I finished talking, I turned and could not see Maureen. Guiltily, I presumed she had retired for the night. A taxi came for me early the next morning. Maureen came sleep-eyed to the door to say good-bye. This was no time to talk, I thought, I would call her later. I was quite busy when I returned to Washington, not the least because of a week’s absence. One thing or another took my time. Three weeks later I had a call from a San Diego hospital: Maureen was admitted with a cardiac infarction. No, I could not talk to her in her present state. I never had the chance to sit down and talk with her.
(The writer is a Washington-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected])