For most of the time she was alive, Sushma Mane worked.
At 8, she helped with her family’s wedding decorating business. In her early twenties, she found a job as a young librarian in Mumbai, where she was born. He worked at the public library for 32 years before retiring as an administrative head. Then she became an insurance agency, making sales calls and visiting customers for 15 years. Along the way, she raised three children, separated from her husband, supported a daughter whose marriage failed, and became the second mother of a grandson.
In August. On January 30, 2020, she died of COVID-19 in a hospital in Mumbai. He was 76 years old.
“When you think of grandmothers, you have a certain image in your mind: rocking chairs, knitting needles, books,” said Viraj Pradhan, Mane’s 28-year-old grandson. “It was nothing of the sort. It was Super Granny. “
Pradhan grew up in a Mumbai suburb, clinging to a middle-class childhood. The family hurried to put the food on the table. His parents divorced when he was 12, and it was Mane who took both him and his mother under his wing.
While Mane’s daughter worked 12 hours a day as a school librarian, she put herself in his shoes, transporting Pradhan to school, attending PTA meetings, serving on school committees, supervising homework and cooking meals, as well as working full time. .
“It was basically just her and me,” Pradhan said with a wistful smile. “When I wasn’t in school, I used to tag with her in sales calls. We were inseparable.”
Mane was the oldest employee of the insurance company where he worked. It did not matter. He roamed the city, preferring to take public transportation instead of expensive taxis to visit customers; he carried a heavy bag full of documents from each shoulder and often turned down offers to help them carry them.
“At this age, they help me balance my body,” he once said to his manager, Swati Mittal.
“I don’t think I’ll ever meet anyone like her again in my life,” Mittal told BuzzFeed News. “She always said she’ll work as long as she’s alive.”
The first cracks in Super Granny’s armor occurred in 2017. A routine medical checkup revealed an unusual EKG. Soon after, Mane began to lose blood internally and his hemoglobin levels plummeted. Doctors have never been able to diagnose his underlying condition. “Every few months, when his hemoglobin levels dropped, he would get weaker and have a hard time breathing,” Pradhan said. “She was too tired to even walk around the apartment.”
Eventually, Mane had to be hospitalized every few months. The hospital staff took blood samples so often her skin became as thin as paper. He often needed an oxygen machine to breathe. “We had a pulse oximeter long before it became commonplace due to COVID-19,” Pradhan said, “and oxygen masks were a normal thing for us. The results of his blood reports were used to determine how it would be our next few weeks. Anxiety has become a permanent part of our life. “
However, that crisis strengthened their bond. Mane spent her days on the balcony of their tiny apartment talking to her plants, which she called her children, listening to old Bollywood songs, and posing for the photos Pradhan took on her phone. Like most Indians, she was hooked on WhatsApp, which often forwarded jokes, funny videos, and “good morning” messages to her nephew. He often wrote to him, his long messages being typed like old-fashioned letters:
Have you eaten?
Did you reach in time?
How did your meeting go?
Stay calm and positive.
Take your meds.
Do not worry.
What time do you come back?
Have a good day, baby.
– Aaji (“grandmother” in Marathi)
At the end of 2019, Pradhan quit his full-time job at a digital media company and went freelance so that he had enough time to take care of his grandmother. Their roles had reversed. “She used to be the person people depended on,” he said, “but now it depended on me. She wasn’t ready for this. “
Thanks to his grandmother’s condition, COVID-19 appeared on Pradhan’s radar long before most of the world knew it. He read news of a strange disease in China, and then in Italy, with growing terror. “Despite our frequent visits to the hospital, I was used to being in control of things,” he said, “but I thought that if this virus ever got here, I wouldn’t be in control. I was terrified of what would happen to mine. grandmother. “
In March, when India imposed a strict nationwide lockdown without warning, Pradhan prayed that his grandmother would make it through. Within days, her hemoglobin levels had dropped again.
During the first three months of the country’s lockdown, Mane had to be hospitalized three times, which proved to be much more challenging in the event of a pandemic. Her symptoms – cough, low blood oxygen levels, and fatigue – resembled those of COVID-19 so closely that doctors often refused to examine her without a COVID test, which was difficult to obtain at the time. Later, as the city’s hospitals overflowed with COVID-19 patients, hospitalization alone was difficult; there were not enough beds available.
In August. 25 years old, Pradhan organized a COVID-19 test for her grandmother at home. The results would take 24 hours. That night she had no appetite and was so tired she needed help taking the few steps from bed to bathroom. Pradhan got some sleep, then called an Uber to take her to the nearest hospital in the middle of the night. He refused to admit it until the COVID-19 results were published. He spent the rest of the night frantically going to different medical centers until the next day, when Mane was admitted to a government hospital, where treatment would be heavily subsidized, unlike a private clinic.
That good news was followed by two bad news: Her hemoglobin levels were still plummeting and, later that day, she tested positive for the coronavirus.
“Crying isn’t easy for me, but the first time they put it on a fan, I collapsed,” Pradhan said. When he and his mother were tested soon after, they also tested positive for COVID-19. They had no symptoms.
“I try not to think about where and how we got infected and if I infected my grandmother,” she said. “Thinking like this will probably make me feel that I could have somehow prevented it from happening.”
Their last conversation on the phone – just before Mane turned on the fan – lasted 45 seconds. Pradhan’s uncle had managed to send a phone to Mane in the ICU via a nurse. Pradhan told her to stop worrying about hospital bills, get well, eat, and go home as soon as possible. She told him not to worry about her and to eat her meals on time (“when she’s on her deathbed!” Pradhan said).
When that call ended, he said, “somehow he got the feeling that[he’d] I probably spoke to her for the last time. “
Mane had never wanted a big funeral and the pandemic secured his wish. Only three people attended her cremation: Pradhan, one of her children and a close family friend who was like a son to her. Mane’s daughter couldn’t wait; was in hospital quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19.
Like all other people who died in hospitals from the coronavirus, Mane’s body was sealed in a bag. It was run by staff members who were clad from head to toe with personal protective equipment and no one could touch her. Pradhan said he couldn’t bring himself to see her. She asked her uncle, the son of Mane, to put a letter at her feet, thanking her for all she had done, along with flowers and a sari.
“The thing that will always bother me is that she went off alone to a hospital,” he said. “He always wanted to go to his house, to his bed.”
Mittal, Mane’s manager, said she was stunned to receive the call. “My breathing has stopped,” he said. “He was often in the hospital, but we used to come back every time. We never thought she wouldn’t be back this time. Wherever it is now, it is spreading happiness. Of this I am sure. “
Months later, Pradhan’s phone continues to bring out photos and videos he had taken of Mane. He said he can’t look at them, because it’s too painful.
In her WhatsApp there is an unread message from her grandmother. This is the last time she sent him a message. It’s been there for months and hasn’t opened it yet.
“It’s probably something generic, like a ‘good morning’ forward,” he said. “I haven’t checked it yet. I do not have the courage. “