I couldn’t get his face out of my mind that whole day, and all of the next: the way it emerged from the water, a hand clenched in a fist around his hair, his head lolling drunkenly from side to side. His eyes haunted me – that entirely vacant stare, utter blankness; it just confirmed what I already knew. And it was with me in my dreams, and would float in my mind’s eye, refusing to move, pushing through all else that was happening in there. I knew he was dead – he’d been under the water three-quarters of an hour – but I kept hoping for some miracle: after all, you hear of these astonishing recoveries from drownings. Every time Stefi gave him a breath, every time Dave hammered on his chest with his hands locked, I thought this would be the one. And yet there was this complete conviction that he was dead – dead beyond all hope, dead beyond all miracles. And we needed a miracle – we just didn’t get it. All through the desperate diving for his body, the frenzied start of CPR beside the lake, the intensity of that surreal ambulance ride, I kept hoping, and I knew it was futile to hope. But the full shock of it didn’t strike until the body was wheeled out, wrapped in blue hospital cloth, and his parents and brother broke down in the corridor outside the trauma unit, then the guilt welled up and out – what if I had got there sooner? What if I had dived longer, or in a different place? What if we had been able to locate him after Das brushed against his hand somewhere in the murky water, just ten minutes after he’d gone under? Would he be alive? Rationally, again, I knew that there was nothing else we could have done – except, as Steffi later said “found him sooner”. And yet the guilt persisted, and was part of the patchwork of emotion that broke in a storm later that night, when I apologized to his friend for not doing more, and I couldn’t stop myself crying at the feeling that somewhere, somehow, I had failed. And again, the next day, at the crematorium, when his brother came up to me and thanked – thanked – me for doing what I had done, and when people said, “You did all you could,” I felt like screaming “Yes, but it bloody well wasn’t enough, was it?”
Today, however, I went to the lake again, and sat on the tree just a few yards from where we found him, playing the whole scene again in my mind. I could remember thinking that if I ran all the way to the lake, I wouldn’t be able to swim, and stopping to walk, but running again from the sheer frustration of not getting there sooner, of pushing my glasses into the hands of the nearest person, and wading out into the warm, turbid water. I remember being weighed down by my clothes, and taking them off in the water and flinging them hard into the bushes. And there, in the middle of all the confusion, was the piercing thought: “I’m almost naked – and there are people around”. It was only a momentary flash, but it came, and I was angry with myself, so angry that I had thought of such trivialities in a moment of total crisis. I could see the futile attempts with the ladder and the rope, and the confusion in the water, the total shell-shocked silence on the bank where people were watching in complete, stunned silence, and the final shout from Das: “I found him!!”
Then the slow, slow, rising of his body with Prakash’s hands twined in his hair, and then my desperate attempt to roll him over in the water, when the conviction burst into my mind, and I brushed it aside, roughly: “No, he MUST be alive. There must be something, something we can do.” Grabbing his belt and towing him to shore, with three other people, then lifting him out and placing him on the bank, and Krishna shouting “Mind his neck! Someone hold his head!” and I was thinking, “Let’s not worry about trivialities now, there’s other things to be done.” The other people standing around, rubbing his hands and feet, calling to him, urging him to wake up, to talk to them, to breathe, to cough.
And I placed my hands on his chest, and began to pump, and Dave said “Harder! It doesn’t matter if you break his ribs, just do it harder.” People wanted him to be moved to the bank, to cover him with a blanket, anything, something. Then I noticed the jeans. Jeans. Swimming, a poor swimmer, alone, in jeans – and here I was being weighed down by cotton trousers and a t-shirt. That must have done it – something brushed against his leg and he panicked, or something as simple as a cramp, and wet jeans are a relentless weight. I couldn’t help but imagine what it might have been like, to be slowly pulled under, to be unable to scream, to do anything.
The frantic movement into the jeep, the ride to Konankunte to meet the ambulance, the utter disbelief on Steffi’s face when she saw that the ambulance had no one but a driver – no medical staff, no EMT, no life-saving equipment, nothing. The horn and the siren burned in my mind, the traffic at Sarakki, with his brother screaming profanities at the other drivers, the warm, choking smell of his breath, and the cold, clammy feel of his lips as I struggled in vain to make a firm seal and breathe, the final sprint along the hospital corridors, the stretcher vanishing into the ICU.
Then it all became real. All this time I had been working on adrenaline, and nothing else, and now the horror of the situation broke on me. His brother and parents were distraught, completely distraught, and no one was able to do anything for them. We all slumped in the corridor in various attitudes of defeat, and I pretended for a while longer that we really didn’t know whether he was alive or not. But there was that finality in the sightless stare of his blank eyes, the slack nodding of the head, and above all, the coldness.
I sat there on the tree and let all this wash over me, watching it as if I were an external observer, and the emotion drained and died. Completely. It was like waking up, and feeling alive once more.
All sorrow, all grief, is essentially selfish. You aren’t mourning for the person who is gone – he is gone, finally and irrevocably, to Valhalla, or to heaven, or to rebirth, or to oblivion, how does it matter? He is gone regardless, and you mourn not for him, but for yourself. You mourn for what might have been, for what you wanted to be, for the void that is left in your life because of a loss, and that is all utterly selfish. It is, essentially, about you, and no one else. I saw this with a clarity that was sharp and vivid, and it may be heartless, but it is true. Clinging desperately to a memory, to some remembrance, even to your own grief, is no more than self-indulgence. Letting go might be the hardest thing to do, but anything else falls short of the mark, and is therefore futile.