In the eighties, my mother-in-law traveled from South India to visit us in Seattle. Between medical school and residency, I had taken a detour to pursue my research interests in immunology at the University of Washington Medical Center. My husband surrendered his insignia as a new consultant on Wall Street to join me in Seattle. Although he temporarily sacrificed his career to support mine, our roles would reverse shortly.
My mother-in-law had great aspirations for her eldest son, and she looked at Seattle as the minor leagues. My spiriting him from the east coast was something of a family scandal. I had a long, arduous journey ahead of me if I were to win back her heart. But I imagined I had plenty of time in which to do it.
The morning after her arrival, I stared through the blinds and watched as my mother-in-law, sheathed in her best lotus-printed sari, bent over, hand-picked weeds off the lawn against a Seattle skyline. If you whited out the background of weeping willows, blooming azaleas, and the invasive blackberry bushes, she might as well have been in the paddy fields of the Eastern Ghats. Such a hard worker, I thought. The garden desperately needed pruning. Maybe she could stay a bit longer…
At the dinner table that evening, I said to her, “Amma, Ram tells me that you’ve never been sick a day in your life.”
“No,” my husband Ram intercepted. “No illness would dare touch my mom.” My mother-in-law’s cheeks turned crimson and her lips disappeared. “Have you met my sister?” she asked.
The sister in question tormented the family with a salvo of ailments. She swallowed bowlfuls of medications at breakfast. She had a pill for every body part. Someone in the family had to take a stand — to bring balance back to the world.
Her message resonated with me. I, too, come from a family of bitter complainers. If my dad, a writer and social activist whose classic Tamil novel, The Tamarind Tree, has been translated into multiple languages, woke up sneezing, my mother announced it on the PA system. Anything more than a cold and the national flag on the breezy verandah of our ancestral south-Indian home dithered at half-mast. Consequently, like many physicians, I too tended to ignore my ailments.
One morning, less than a week after leaving Seattle to visit her youngest son in Santa Clara, my mother-in-law was found unresponsive in her room. She was intubated, hastily extubated, and her life support withdrawn. She was pronounced dead at the age of 58.
“Surely she must have known that she had uncontrolled hypertension,” the ICU doctor explained to the shocked family as we, having flown in that morning, stared in disbelief at the scan of a brain flooded with blood from a sub-arachnoid hemorrhage. She countered her sister’s hypochondria with exuberant denial. An equation had been balanced. It also contributed to her premature death.
Every reaction is triggered by an action: adaptation is central to human survival. When you feel the earth tilting in one direction, you instinctively lean in the other; this way the earth stays its course. That’s why you go high when they go low. Alternatively, when you see the systematic undermining of US institutions by both internal and external forces, the unidirectional tilting of US courts, the inflationary nationalist rhetoric, needless trade wars, virulent climate denial, and the cozying up by American leaders to authoritarians such as Putin, Duterte, and Kim, you might be tempted to go low.
Alas, going low when they go low does little to rebalance the nation’s suicidal trajectory.
Trump’s election inadvertently started me down the path my mother-in-law had paved. My need to counter what I saw as this country’s rightward tilt took the form of non-stop, 24/7 outrage — in the supermarket, the doctors’ lounge, at the dry cleaners, wherever I found a willing listener. When no one was around, I argued with imaginary enemies.
Morning meditation time and yoga were supplanted by daily dawn-to-dusk rants.
“You’re over reacting,” my worried husband warned. “You’re going to kill yourself if you don’t stop this.” His comments grew increasingly urgent.
I ignored them. My quotidian rhythms, however, had grown so twisted that I began sleeping only two to three hours a night. I worked incessantly, evenings and weekends. I founded an international non-profit women’s health organization which had me traveling all over the country, saying yes to every request. Politics were everywhere. I forged links between free-range chicken and caged children, ball and socket joints with Kellyanne Conway, and aromatherapy with Jared Kushner. Politics had become the sister I needed to react against.
Then, while attending a UCLA conference at Marina Del Rey on a balmy Thursday morning in March, I collapsed.
After a team of specialists did an extensive work up, I got my diagnosis: Malignant Hypertension and Transient Ischemic Stroke (aka TIA). Essentially the same disease that had killed my mother-in-law.
“That was too close for comfort,” Ram said, reading over my medical summary.
When I returned home after this episode, I sat Indian style on my deck in the backyard and wondered how I’d missed all this: the wind chimes hanging in the Madrone branch rang madly, and then went completely still; the sun was in free fall, turning the horizon crimson.
Somehow, I’d managed to become a stranger to myself and the world around me. Sitting there, I resolved to stop merely reacting. I would recognize my limits. I would do what was mine to accomplish, and no more.
Three months later, I am sleeping better and my legs no longer resemble a balustrade. My blood tests are fine, my BP has normalized, and my doctors have ceased their scolding.
I no longer talk politics quite so much. The podcasts I mostly listen to are about wild animal babies in the Okavango delta, although, admittedly, during my coffee break at work, I find myself walking down to the cemetery across from my office and memorizing headstones.
I also began taking voice lessons. My music teacher is a retired university music professor, an octogenarian with piercing eyes, bouncing blonde curls, and hearing aids. He comes to my house twice a week before dawn hours. He leaves his hearing aids at home, and that gives me courage.
I pursue my private practice, and I’m a court-appointed advocate for disenfranchised children. As a sanctuary city, our town needs all the volunteers it can get to act as the voice, eyes, and ears of the children.
I haven’t dropped out of public life. But I also don’t bother trying to counter balance every new idiocy floating downwind from Washington. I make it a point to observe the world around me. For instance, the other day I noticed that since I started my voice lessons, the Ethiopian fiddle fig tree next to the piano, which had fallen into suspended animation decades ago, recently sprouted fresh shoots.
I will take all the encouragement I can get.