Heart Attack – Aftermath
“Heart attack” – It sounded majestic like it wasn’t a bad thing, when it rolled out of my Mum’s tongue on her return that night. A tiny regal with a sharp prickling effect cutting the silent sound barrier of the room. The word was on constant loop, repeating out of her mouth, her coat hanging off her slouched shoulders, her lips dry as she continued sipping from the glass of water in her hand drowning out her tired eyes. She did not even acknowledge us, the fact it had been over 12 hours since we saw her and Dad whisked away by the Ambulance, didn’t seem to have an effect on her. She talked over our heads and into the ears of our relatives who had all gathered in the house. I didn’t know what a heart attack was or what it meant. My Mum described it as a death sentence and how the earth moved for her when the doctors took her aside to give her the ground breaking news. The day must have been hard for her, the fear and anxiety of potentially being a widow at 27 with three children. Not knowing if or how long your husband will be around for.
The word didn’t quite have the same effect on me as it did on her. It was a description, nothing more. Something that happened to his heart that made him end up in the hospital and he wasn’t returning home anytime soon.
The morning after, we were strapped inside a cab with our Mum and swept to the Royal London Hospital. The Victorian building with a great big statue of Queen Victoria herself majestically placed in the Gardens. The driver was Bengali, like most cab drivers he knew my Dad and like most of them he didn’t take our money. It’s something we got used to growing up in an environment where everybody knew our Dad.
So there we were- three brothers or musketeers, wearing our matching patterned nylon half shirts – a fashion disaster of that time, much like most of the early 90s. We stood patiently outside Cotton Ward on the third floor of the hospital waiting to see our Dad. We listened to our Mum pleading with the nurse in her broken English, that we were his kids and he wanted to see us. The ward had a strict policy about letting minors in, even though I was eight years old and did not consider myself as a child. Not in the way I considered my three year old brother. She managed to negotiate a 10 minute time span for us to see him.
My Dad lay riddled on his bed in his white singlet. Round white stickers stuck to his chest connected to wires leading to a square beeping heart monitor with wavy lines. I’d like to think our Dad hugged or maybe even kissed us, but the truth is, I was too mesmerised and in awe by the medical machineries that stood in front of me to remember. I listened intuitively to my older brother with his all knowing and all seeing self. He was precise to break down the gory details for me and I found out, if the line went flat? It means my Dad’s heart had stopped and he will die.
The rest of the day we sat at the wooden chairs with cracked leather cushions in the waiting room. Flicking and reading through the free outdated TV guides scattered at the centre of the table that came with The Daily Mirror or The Sun. One of the cast members of Neighbours was on the front cover. My brother read that article intensively. I still wasn’t able to read properly at that time. My Mum – the poor and dutiful wife, sat vigil next to my Dad. The day was long and we became an audience to the friends and relatives that came swooning in to see him. No respect for the two visitors per bed policy of the ward. A rebellion we got used to for the next 28 years of our lives, when it came to hospital etiquettes.
My Dad’s elder sister walked out off the ward crying out loud, my Mum was in sync with her. It was a battle of who can cry the loudest. It seemed the women in my Dad’s life were open to display emotion in the most public of places. They couldn’t be sad in a private way. In their own little world, public grieving was a calling card that they cared, that they love and most importantly they hurt. There was no other way to show it.
A few days passed and it became clear he was out off immediate danger. The sympathy everyone felt for my Dad slowly manifested into judgment. Lying in the hospital, strapped to a machine, wasn’t a ‘get out of jail free card’ by any means. His twenty a day smoking habit and the decades of raising his voice for his political campaigning and community activities was pin pointed as the cause of his heart failure by our family and friends. He was at fault for his own slow demise, somehow it made it easy for everyone to accept the situation better by placing the blame on him. It made them feel more control of their own health and that the same would not or could not happen to them.
As an eight year old, I learned what many of my age at that time didn’t know. Smoking and shouting will give you a heart attack. It served as a rude awakening for most men in our family, who weren’t well versed, like many of the Bangladeshi men of that generation of the harmful consequences of smoking. Most men who accompanied my Dad were smokers, all the men in our family smoked. Walking into a roomful of smoke and having an ashtray filled with grey ashes and orange cigarette butts were part of the natural deco of the house. It was an integral part of the Bangladeshi masculinity, along with sporting a thick moustache. Cigarettes were passed around to each other as an act of greeting, hospitality and goodwill. Back when a packet of twenties would cost you a little more than £2. I remember fanaticising about being a grown up, carrying a packet of Dunhill or Benson and Hedges- the brand my Dad smoked. Practising with a rolled up piece of paper, the theatrical ways I would light up my cigarette with a Zippo like the one he had. My fantasy ended around that time. It wasn’t until I was 14 and thanks to my raging teenage hormones and bowing to peer pressure. I romanticised about cigarettes again and even smoked a few.
If anything was clear from all this, it was my Mum’s stance that she would make him stop smoking and God help her put a stop to his political career. Her tone made us take her seriously and we rallied behind her triumphant battle cry. Like all her multiple crusades she had with my Dad over the course of their 39 year marriage, she failed to win that one too. He continued to smoke for a good decade after that and his political career didn’t end either.
Much of my memories from the summer of 90, are sitting at home with my brothers and missing school. Playing with our Yoyos, watching and dancing to a bad VHS copy of ‘Bad’ (excuse the pun) by Michael Jackson that we recorded from the TV. Getting re-introduced to David Hasselhoff who had abandoned his Knight Rider gimmick and slow motioned his way onto our screens with Baywatch. Listening to New Kids on the Block and watching the cartoon and of course watching Italy 90 which was sprucing up my Geography knowledge. The World Cup taught me names of countries I never knew existed. I was confused, how a country called Holland was also called Netherlands. There was a West Germany that was quite good, unlike their eastern counterpart. I familiarised myself with new and now famous sporting celebrities like Gary Lineker, John Barnes, Paul ‘Gazza’ Gasgoine, Diego Maradonna and of course Roga Milla. I remember my sadness when Stuart Pearce and Glen Waddle missed those penalties and England came crushing out off the Semi Finals. At that time I wasn’t aware of the significance of the World Cup. I was just upset England was out off the competition.
All the while my Mum carried on visiting my Dad in the hospital, who had developed new culinary habits throughout his stay. My Mum’s famous butter drenched fried bread and ghee embellished Paratas, which probably contributed in a major way to his heart attack, were no longer his first choice for breakfast. He began to mildly contradict his anti colonial beliefs by announcing he was eating like an ‘English Man’, thanks to his stint at the hospital and being exposed to a new diet. He wanted toast and crumpets with jam. We had no idea what crumpets were before this.
With each summer day stretching, so did my skills on my Coco Cola Yoyo. I learned to ‘Walk the Dog’, where it span on the floor before retreating back to my hand and ‘Around the World’, where I spun it 360 degrees and took it back in. The best part of the Yoyo experience, was making new strings, with our Mum’s collection of multi coloured cotton rolls from her mini makeshift home factory. One of the greatest untold stories from the Tower Hamlets Bangladeshi Community from the 70s through to the 90s, are that of the generation of women who were expert Seamstresses, working in their homes with their Brother sewing machines. They were the gears and backbone of the notorious East London clothing and garment industry. Women who were artists in making coats, dresses and inner linen wear. So while the outside world held a narrow perception of these mildly oppressed women, with no spoken English, litters of kids and obedient to their patriarchal masters. Little did they know, behind those veils, lay an array of skilled women, earning money and empowering themselves with their craft. Putting in 40 hours a week including all nighters whilst managing their families. Santa Clause didn’t bring sacks of presents to our house. We had burly Asian men carrying big sacks of linen and textiles for our Mum to sew, 15p per garment was the average going price. Every fortnight, I waited patiently for her to be handed that small brown envelope with bright orange notes, her hard earned wage. I earned my pocket money of £1, if I helped her trim labels and sort out the different cuts. It helped develop my fine motor skills and gave me my first experience of employment. My Mum got rid of her Brother sewing machine in 2008, although it had been voluntarily decommissioned and sitting in our hallway since 1998.