From a talk delivered at Luther College, University of Regina, in May 2011, during the Year of India in Canada. Ven Begamudré spoke about his personal health issues and their connection to his family history.
I turned fifty-five on March 13, the same day as Donald Duck. I kid you not. He’s older. I’m a senior and I’m okay… A week later I spent seven hours at Emergency while the doctor on call treated more serious cases; then he finally ordered blood tests and a CT scan for me. Just below the belt. I didn’t mind waiting because I kept dozing off. Plus, when I had the chance, I kibitzed with Nurse Joanne and her colleague, Nurse Cathy. Finally the scan revealed that, yes, I was trying to pass a kidney stone all of 2 millimetres long—just long enough to cause anyone a lot of pain. Finally, they put morphine into my saline IV drip. This is still my favourite cocktail: fifty milligrams of Gravol followed by anywhere from five to ten to fifteen cc’s of morphine. Heck, when you’re travelling to the edge of the universe and back, who needs cable TV?
Flashback to three Christmases ago—to December 2007, when I flew home to spend Christmas Day and Boxing Day with close friends. I’d been teaching creative writing at Iowa State University and here, back in Regina, I visited three doctors in four days. The diagnoses came one on top of another: one, two, three.
First, I had developed type 2 diabetes, which is not dependent on insulin. So this was why I’d kept drinking so much water. While preparing for class in my furnished apartment, with its forced-air heating. While leading my workshops the way I do now: pacing in front of the blackboard. I call these talks “chats”—these mini-lectures that can last up to twenty minutes. And most of them are off-the-cuff.
Second, it wasn’t my imagination, after all; I really was developing a memory problem. Not to worry, though; it’s not early onset dementia. I know because my psychiatrist at the time, who happened to be Muslim, gave me fairly simple tests. Most of which I failed.
What I have is a specific challenge called Benign Memory Loss, which means that I can remember what I’m doing today, half of what I did yesterday, and nothing at all for the weeks that came before this one. But my long-term memory is quite good and, well, look on the bright side: I get most of my movies on DVD from the public library. Six months later I can watch the same movie and it’s still brand new to me. Clouds, don’t you know? Silver linings, too.
Don’t ask me why it’s called Benign Memory Loss. I know that if I do something silly like try to fit a milk carton onto the pantry shelf where the boxes of tea sit, if I try to do this and can laugh about it within fifteen minutes, then all is right with the world. My world now. You can see why I gladly gave up driving. True, left turns can be tricky, but when right turns became just as tricky—and when I finally noticed that a baby boom was underway—I gladly handed over the keys to my new used car. This was nearly sixteen months ago now, in the deep freeze of a Regina winter.
At the latest Writers’ Guild Christmas come-and-go someone asked me, “What do retired writers do?” “We read,” I said. But life is never this simple. Last year I spent eight months teaching myself to read complex material again. I started with illustrated non-fiction books from the children’s library; to these I added graphic novels, which depend so closely on the relationship between visuals and text; then I added poetry and fiction—like Rumer Godden’s 1945 novel Take Three Tenses: A Fugue in Time. Margaret Rumer Godden, the English writer who’s probably best known for her novel The River.
So this is the prime of life, prelude to the Golden Years. Freedom Fifty-five. Talk about false advertising. Still, just as we decide what kind of writer we’re going to be, then we reap the benefits and pay the price—so we often face the question of what kind of life we’re going to lead. Then we reap the benefits and pay the price.
I mentioned there had been a third diagnosis in that week leading up to Christmas 2007. The same psychiatrist who had diagnosed my Benign Memory Loss also diagnosed me with a Bipolar Spectrum Disorder—what used to be called manic depression. Between the type 2 diabetes, the memory loss—even a certain amount of hearing loss—I had quite enough to think about.
The Christmas before I turned ten, my mother finally left what these days we call a verbally abusive relationship. She was also physically afraid of my father because he’d always been athletic, something she had never been. Something I would never become. She couldn’t take me with her because she had her own mental illnesses to battle: also a bipolar disorder, but one in which she struggled with a deep and dark depression that rarely lifted from her sad, brown eyes.
Three weeks ago I stayed up too late while drinking coffee and watching science fiction horror films—the kind of films it’s usually a better idea to watch in the afternoon on a day off work. By sunrise I was high on caffeine and convinced that the world was coming to an end. I phoned my therapist to tell her this and other amazing predictions I could suddenly make. Then I phoned a close friend. My therapist alerted the mobile crisis unit; my friend phoned 911. The mobile crisis unit arrived before the ambulance and before long I was back at Emergency. Not in a curtained-off cubicle this time but in my very own room, with a door on either side—one with a large window. I spent two nights there, until a room freed up in the mental ward upstairs a couple of doors down from a room with padded walls and a mattress on the floor. But back to that room in Emergency. It took me an entire day to realize that I was under suicide watch. Not because I had talked about or planned to commit suicide but because our health region’s computer network allows professionals in various fields to see a patient’s notes. One of these notes says that my mother killed herself. It might even say that her mother, before her, had also killed herself.
My mother died in late January 1978, about seven weeks before my twenty-second birthday. We were both back in India, though for different reasons. I’d gone back because I hadn’t seen it in the fifteen years since I’d left, as a boy of six. She’d gone back after her first suicide attempt a few weeks before Christmas. Her psychiatrist and her few close friends had decided that, yes, returning to our hometown in South India might be a good idea. It was not. January 21 was a Saturday and I went to a movie theatre in the afternoon. This detail is significant because it’s quite possible that my mother was also at a movie theatre on the afternoon that her mother killed herself. An old friend of mine calls this ritualization. She would know: she was once a psychiatric nurse.
Fortunately I have far more supports than my mother had. People in the writing and publishing community, the arts community beyond, the New Age community, my favourite shops and cafés. Half a dozen friends phone me long-distance and often we chat for an hour or more. My health-care supports include my family doctor and her colleagues; then there are my pharmacists. My therapist, you’ve met. Then there’s my new psychiatrist, who also happens to be Muslim. You can see why, with all the chances I’ve had to settle in places like Scotland or Bali or the States, I still call Regina my home.
These health problems aside, over the past few years my life has become even more complicated and yet—and yet—how simple it has become. How happy I am to lead the simple life I now lead. Finally, it’s hard to know how to end a talk like this, and so I’ll do what many writers do when they’re not sure how to end a rather difficult story.
I’ll just stop.