On the most important day of the rest of her short life, Dharshini Thirumal woke up dizzy and in pain. She summoned strength enough to make a trip to the bathroom on the second floor of her home in Whitby, Ont., and then collapsed back in bed. But when a friend arrived in her room with a freshly pressed garnet-coloured silk sari, heaps of 22-carat gold jewellery and a string of jasmine buds for her hair, Dharshini’s physical ailments seemed to vaporize.
She’d been waiting for this day for ages. Long ago, she’d figured out exactly what colour flowers would adorn the manavarai (four-pillared Hindu wedding altar), selected the priest and drafted the guest list on her phone.
Her friend helped dress her, styled the wig she had only worn once before, and applied her makeup, transforming Dharshini, 59, back into the woman she had been for most of her life – before ovarian cancer had diminished her.
The diagnosis came in 2016 and had been followed by surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. In early February this year, doctors said she was no longer responding to treatment.
Dharshini, who is married to my uncle Navaratnam (everyone calls him Thiru), sat up in bed as she told her daughters, Kirtana, 26, and Sindhura, 23, that she’d been given a prognosis of eight to nine months. They cried as it sunk in that the cancer would be left to spread unabated through Dharshini’s body.
When it came to dying wishes, Dharshini decided to shoot for the moon.
“I just want to be there and healthy when you get married,” she told Kirtana, who wasn’t even engaged.
Kirtana and her boyfriend, Mark Prochnau, had discussed getting married in a few years, after they’d saved up some money. After the cancer diagnosis, she would joke with her mother, "I’m getting married in 2022, so you’d better be there.”
2022 now seemed an eternity away.
Soon after Mark heard about Dharshini’s prognosis, he went to visit her on his own, to show her the engagement ring he’d bought Kirtana. This time, when Dharshini wistfully said she’d like to be at the wedding, Mark changed the script. Why not, he proposed to his future mother-in-law, have a Hindu ceremony later that year so she could attend?
Dharshini was delighted.
That February weekend, while her daughter was visiting Montreal, Dharshini invited over a coterie of friends and they planned a backyard wedding for August.
Kirtana, who learned of all this when she returned, was happy to follow Dharshini’s lead, though amused her boyfriend, mother and this army of aunties had made these plans without her.
“I was like, ‘Where was I?!’”
But an oncologist appointment three weeks later showed Dharshini was declining more rapidly than they had thought: The prognosis was changed to just two months. The family switched the wedding date to March 28 and the venue to the house, leaving just one month for planning.
It would be even more of a whirlwind than Dharshini’s own wedding. Kirtana had only learned the origins of her parents’ marriage a few years earlier, when she and Sindhura travelled to India for a summer and stayed with their mother’s best friend, with whom she’d lived in Bangalore.
As the former roommate told it, Dharshini took a vacation abroad to see relatives.
In a letter to her friend, months later, she explained why she never came home. Yeah, so I got married and live in Canada now. Photos enclosed.
The relatives had told Dharshini they wanted her to meet a man they knew. “Amma was like, ‘Sure, whatever,’" Kirtana recounts. But "he was wearing a nice shirt and he looked smart and she was very impressed he spoke English.” A few months later, they were married.
As Kirtana and the aunties went to work planning, they faced a new challenge: the novel coronavirus. Dharshini didn’t care, but Kirtana worried about exposing her immunocompromised mother to a large crowd.
On March 16, the Ontario government outlawed gatherings of more than 50 people.
Dharshini told Kirtana they didn’t have to go through with this – she’d seen the decorations, she could easily imagine what the wedding would have looked like.
“I didn’t want her to do it for me,” she said. Kirtana insisted.
Ten days later, Kirtana and Mark made the difficult decision to only have their families attend. They would livestream it for others.
A few days before the wedding, Kirtana carried armloads of silk flowers and floral foam up to her mother’s room and the two sat beside each other on the floor creating the arrangement that would cover the manavarai. It was a welcome return to the hobby of crafting that had bonded them during Kirtana’s first summers home from university, a turning point in a relationship that had become strained during Kirtana’s adolescence.
When Kirtana became a teenager, Dharshini could feel her daughter getting surly with her in a way she wasn’t with others.
“I could feel it as a mother. You know when your child is [in revolt],” she said. “We hardly had conversations at home.”
But after Kirtana moved to Ottawa for university, she found it easier to come back to her mother.
Their exchanges, which had once been dominated by Dharshini asking, “Who are you going out with? Don’t you have homework? Why aren’t you doing your homework right now?” had changed. Now, Kirtana dished about her new life, her roommates, her first boyfriend. When the relationship ended, Dharshini says, “I was feeling bad, thinking she’s hurting. But she was the one who pacified me.”
One of Kirtana’s roommates remarked that Kirtana and Dharshini had an unusually close relationship, a conclusion he reached after observing that Kirtana had eaten – but not cooked – French toast every morning for three months. Along with the pasta bakes, casseroles and South Indian curries she made for her daughter, Dharshini routinely prepared enormous, three-loaf batches of French toast that were lovingly wrapped and frozen with a sheet of waxed paper between each slice.
But by the time Kirtana moved back to the family house to start her master’s at the University of Toronto in 2017, Dharshini wasn’t cooking much any more. The terrible headaches she’d been having turned out to be the result of a brain tumour.
The rote conversations of a decade earlier returned, though this time it was Kirtana asking the questions. “How are you doing? What’s your energy level? How’s your pain?”
But wedding planning lit a spark in her mother.
She assigned friends to track down everything from jewellery, to a granite stone required for a Hindu ritual, to the two bridal saris. Nearly every sari Kirtana had ever worn came from her mother’s wardrobe, which looked like a tin of Quality Street chocolates: folded stacks of jewel-toned silk. And it turned out Dharshini had been married in saris in the exact colours her daughter wanted – red with gold and forest green. When Kirtana pulled them from their tissue-paper-lined boxes, the search was over.
“Just wearing her sari was special,” Kirtana said. “I felt like it was a way to bring us a little bit closer.”
On the morning of March 28, just before the ceremony began, Kirtana felt a wave of panic. Her mother would need to go up and down the stairs between the first and second floor – would she be able to? The rare times she had come down from her room in the last year, she had two people spotting her and tightly gripped the banister – which was now covered in silk flowers.
Dharshini managed just fine, taking each step slowly, her husband gripping her elbow to steady her.
In the days leading up to this one, Dharshini had told her daughter to think of this small home ceremony as nothing more than a gesture. Kirtana could have the full wedding she and Mark wanted later, she said. But after the coconut-hacking and walking around the fire, the tying of the wedding chain and garlanding, there was no need.
“It felt like everything that I’ve ever wanted, anyway," Kirtana said. "There was no sense of emptiness.”
The last round of radiation had robbed Dharshini of her voice, so she asked a close friend to read a speech she’d spent two weeks writing, while she tearfully bowed her head over her hands.
The tissues circulated when Thiru, who often stayed in his wife’s shadow in social settings, spoke. He emotionally thanked his daughter and son-in-law for making this day possible for his wife.
“Things were changing day by day, or even hour by hour. At one time I started to even worry if we could even have this ceremony. I was worried all the time,” he said, gulping back a sob. “And now I consider myself very blessed.”
After the speeches, Dharshini, as spent as she’d ever been, slowly made her way upstairs, changed and got into bed. While the ceremony was happening, the Premier had announced gatherings would now be limited to five people – they’d just made it under the wire with their group of 13.
Dharshini could hear boisterous conversations downstairs, the clinking of metal on ceramic as people served themselves food. Tucked under her duvet, she knew she should close her eyes, but instead she opened up Facebook on her phone and navigated to the group where the livestream of the wedding had been posted.
The night before, she’d asked friends and family around the world to dress up to watch the wedding and was delighted to see dozens of photos of them decked out in saris, lehengas, kurtas, suits and dresses.
And then she saw the archived two-and-a-half-hour-long video of the ceremony, the one she’d just been in. She hit play, desperate to savour the day again before it was even over.
Dharshini Thirumal died at home on May 7 with her family by her side.
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