Colonel MN Rai's funeral: Fly like a bird, her father told Alka
India hopes she will.
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Death can strike any time.
It can strike you when you're out there on the pitch, and catch a fatal bouncer.
It can strike you when you're aboard an aircraft that is meant to take you home, and is then never found.
It can strike you a day after you receive a gallantry award, while you're on duty.
How those left behind mourn for you marks them for life.
Our culture, whether we are doctors or laymen, Atul Gawande's wonderful Being Mortal reminds us, does not prepare us for death. It teaches doctors to cure, for instance, but it doesn't prepare them for the inevitability of dying. It teaches us to fight for life, it doesn't tell us how to accept death. As he writes of his experience in medical school: "The way we saw it, and the way our professors saw it, the purpose of medical schooling was to teach how to save lives, not how to tend to their demise.''
Those left behind can grieve like Joan Didion, whose husband, also a writer, John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly of a heart attack, while sitting down for dinner, so suddenly that she thought he was playing a grotesque joke. "Life changes fast/Life changes in the instant/You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends." So she wrote in The Year of Magical Thinking, almost exactly to a year of her husband's death.
How do those left behind mourn? Didion seemed so collected and methodical that a hospital attendant, where she took her husband, said she was a "cool customer", our culture having accepted the norm of widow screaming and shouting her grief. Even though we know, as she points out, that in the midst of life, we are in death. But this death, we think, is something that will happen to someone else. As Didion writes: "In the kitchen by the telephone I had taped a card with the New York–Presbyterian Hospital ambulance numbers. I had not taped the numbers by the telephone because I anticipated a moment like this. I had taped the numbers by the telephone in case someone in the building needed an ambulance. Someone else.''
What do you do, when that someone is you? Like Randy Pausch, the university professor who had a few months to prepare for his death, having been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, you could deliver a last lecture: A sort of testament for those left behind, telling them why they matter. "The Last Lecture", delivered at Carnegie Mellon University, is inspiring and chilling in equal measure: The speaker, so eloquent, so full of life, shortly to be dead. "We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand. If I don't seem as depressed or morose as I should be, I'm sorry to disappoint you."
But how do you explain all this to an 11-year-old who has lost her father, her hero, Colonel MN Rai, commanding officer of 42 Rashtriya Rifles? Who is made to grieve in public, in the glare of cameras, saluting her father's tricolour covered body, with the Army brass in attendance?
What gives Alka the courage to honour her father, weeping uncontrollably, promising to join the Army, uttering the regiment's war cry. Perhaps it is the message on her father's WhatsApp, "Play your role in life with such passion, that even after the curtains come down, the applause doesn't stop." "Fly like a bird", her father told her, unknowingly his last will and testament to her.
Life changes fast, life changes in the instant.
How Alka dealt with death today has moved an entire nation. How she deals with life tomorrow will shape her as a woman.