“What Does Love Sound Like?” was the question. The answer was simple. Love sounds like a rasping voice, hooked up to an oxygen machine, a little breathless but determined to recount the day.
This was the voice of my friend Krishna Kapadia. For the final weeks of his life, I heard it twice a day. I was in Delhi. He was in Switzerland. He had gone there to die. The date was decided. August 16.
Six months ago he had been diagnosed with Anaplastic Thyroid Carcinoma or ATC. The diagnosis had an equally unwelcome companion piece: he was, in cancer parlance, “a terminal.”
In a diary, Krishna has explained why he chose assisted suicide at Dignitas in Switzerland. It runs from the date of his diagnosis to the date of his death. He rarely missed a day. The few that he did are notches on Cancer’s bedpost – when it rendered him too tired or sick to put his thoughts into words. Deftly, and in all humility, he describes the speed of life as it hurtles him towards an unchangeable outcome.
He regretted that his lifelong skills as a quality negotiator couldn’t arrange what he needed most: just a little more time. When in fact, he had swung a contract (he wouldn’t know how not to). Fine, he would die. But how and when would be on his terms. And so Cancer and he shook on it. Deal.
This is not to be mistaken for ordering a Death-To-Go. This was not the easy way out. But it gave him agency over his own body and his suffering. The rest had been decided for him; this, he would choose. With meticulous attention, he routed himself to Dignitas. Where, on August 16, having fulfilled a long list of medical and legal requirements, he would, as he said, “set off to the other side”.
We had not been in touch for years, and a close and the loveliest of mutual friends reconnected us after he arrived in Switzerland. In the first call, he shared the grim timeline; there was no white glove approach on either side as we talked about the maneuvers required for the final stretch. He called back the same night. And with that, a ritual was established. When a hard stop is literal, patterns form fast. Two calls every day; one in the afternoon, the sequel late at night, usually after he had disengaged from others friends and had rested a little.
I set my watch to Geneva time.
In between the two calls, we found a shorthand for “more in the moment.” As I reached home every evening, I would WhatsApp a picture of the moon to him. He would respond in kind from Geneva. And so another pattern, a ritual within a ritual. We joked that the moon was a QR code – scan for a quorum of two.
Our conversations crawled across the practicalities of arranging one’s death – Who will take the phone? Who will ensure it is scrubbed? – and about the myriad influences that had tended to a life now being put to rest. He used the past tense often. “The book that meant a lot to me.” “It was my favourite beach.” This was settling and unsettling, simultaneously.
There was uninhibited talk of what next. I am a believer; he was not. If there is an ‘ahead’, he said, tell me what it looks like, I’m willing to listen. With the cancer, his voice was quickly fraying, placed as it was in his throat. This bothered him – he liked to speak a lot but with words carefully chosen, slowly, and with meaning. The cancer was at odds with that.
August 14. Two days to go. He said the pain had not worsened. This prompted importunities by many, including me, for him to seek an extension from Dignitas. If he wasn’t deteriorating, why not sign up for a later check-out? It didn’t feel strange to be discussing available slots for Death; this was the matter at hand. He was firm that it wasn’t doable. Dignitas may have been able to rebook him, but he didn’t want to take the chance of encountering a crisis – a heart attack, for example – and then not being able to exercise the option he had chosen. “It’s difficult enough to have fixed a date. I’m mentally prepared for it. My body is tired. It’s time,” he said. Understood. We said we’d talk in the morning.
No word. Not one. My watch on Geneva time stared inscrutably at me. Where have you gone? The last 24 hours – I didn’t want to ingress. It should be his prerogative to tend to whatever, whoever he wanted.
Grief, like the rings of Saturn, always circling.
Of a sudden, his voice, that familiar rasping. He had gained an extension – a week more. He felt he had the strength to take another week; he was willing to punt there would be no exigency that would force him into a hospital. The repercussions of that would be precisely what he had worked to eliminate: shutting out Dignitas; creating an opening for life support or prolonged medical care; worst of all, the prospect of those decisions being in someone else’s remit.
But a week – a whole week! A recess from the inexorable. My watch on Geneva time, giddy. The health warnings were constantly tossed about; it’s just a few more days, the outcome doesn’t change. They did not dampen the effect.
The daily calls continued. The moon was mapped. Krishna wanted a list worthy of this reprieve, so hard-won. The shortlist: walks, many of them, with the sun on his face, which, he said, was the sensation he would miss the most; a leisurely coffee and a pastry of some sort (I voted chocolate, he acquiesced); reintroduction to a friendly Labrador predisposed to leaping into a fountain; reading a newspaper or book outdoors. Death was dependably present: for his last meal, he wanted Pho, with friends at a Vietnamese restaurant that he could walk to.
There were one or two medical setbacks, luckily, not substantial enough to make him regret his extension. His breathing would sometimes sound more jagged. On those occasions, in lieu of shorter conversations, he asked for text messages. These he wanted when he woke at night in discomfort; no chance of letting it go to my head, he tagged them as “something to do.” Nevertheless, I sent notes that could charitably be described as long reads. If the cancer doesn’t kill you, I said, these wordy messages will. Gallantly, he did not agree. I sent him a Bollywood song for middle-of-the-night listening. Less gallant response to that.
August 23. The final day. He had minuted every action he would take. He woke very early, showered and shaved. You are meeting your Maker, I had earlier pointed out, meeting with some resistance from the non-believer. I don’t think a stubble will be held against you. But he wanted his routine. And he wanted no surprises. To get through it he needed it all to run exactly to plan. He meditated. He made some calls. We spoke. A few sentences, filling in for thousands of words. They were enough. Breakfast, alone. Placing his suitcase in a Salvation Army donation box. Driving to Dignitas with his closest friends. His exit was just as he wanted it.
Grief, the absence of a presence.
In my final message to him, the night before he died, I wrote this:
“What you have chosen is a Trust Fall. Those you love and who love you back, they stand shoulder-to-shoulder to catch, and then release you. This is as far as they can go – for now. You spoke of the distilled joy of the sun on your face. Of the mountains you wake to. Of delighting in knowing them while there is a time stamp, as you put it, against your name. So the quiet breath that you feel when you think of what you love best – let that be your new home. It is where your Trust Fall will take you. Go in peace, so much peace, starlight and music unfurling itself as they take you from our arms into theirs.”
Grief, which leaves your heart julienned.
My watch, still on Geneva time.
(Suparna Singh works with NDTV.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author
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