Defying the odds: Nishanthi CanagaRetna Fernandez (1975 –2012)
An appreciationJune 8, 2012, 7:42 pm
A very wise man (Socrates) is known to have mused that "[D]eath may be the greatest of all human blessings." It has been two months since Nishanthi passed away and these Socratic words are undoubtedly of little comfort to those closest to her. However, the passage of these two months have given me the opportunity to reflect on her life and what she meant to those she came into contact with, during her brief period on this earth.
What struck me was that her life was a continuous case of defying the odds, not only surprising her immediate family, her friends but I strongly believe, herself as well. Even her birth, in March 1975, was a case of defying the odds, because she was born twelve and a half years after Amrit. Then, in the fall of 1975, when she was barely over six months old, she contracted a series of virulent infections that saw her alarmingly close to death on several occasions. In fact, uncle Christopher, with his exceptional medical expertise, concluded in December 1975, that he was going to lose his only daughter. It was left to his close friend and medical colleague, Dr. Benjamin David to initiate a radical surgical procedure and save Nishanthi’s life. But she overcame these immense odds and advanced to toddlerhood, pre-adolescence, adolescence, young adulthood and finally, adulthood.
Then, Nishanthi vaulted over the challenge of pursuing a career by qualifying and excelling in her profession as an English teacher. She infused the young students that came to her with her passion for the subject and I know they are better equipped to deal with what the world throws at them as a result of how and what Nishanthi taught them. Nishanthi’s next achievement was her marriage to Benny. She and Benny shared an extraordinary relationship that remains an example to not only newly-weds, but also to grizzled couples that have been married for years. Their ability to communicate the genuine love and affection they felt for each other – swaddled in so much care, concern and most of all, good humour – was an inspiration to all those that encountered them.
So, once again, Nishanthi negated the odds arrayed against her by marrying Benny. Given the illnesses she faced as an infant, she was not supposed to be around to be joyfully married at 27. Perhaps, the most stunning example of her defying the odds was becoming a mother to Christopher Niresh, in 2007. What an amazing turnaround from that time in December 1975 when her little body, barely nine months old, was hooked up to a snake pit of intravenous tubes and wires? She relished this new role and even though her myriad health challenges made it almost impossible for her keep up with the rambunctious Christopher Niresh, she glowed with happiness.
Notwithstanding the complex and often painful health challenges that she confronted right throughout her life, Nishanthi was one of the happiest people I have ever met. She was always ready for an amusing story, a humourous incident or even a facial expression that evoked laughter. She absolutely loved to be a part of a small group relaying a story or an anecdote that would generate laughter. I think some of her happiest times were listening to uncle Christopher regale family members and friends with a story from his well-stocked larder; she would keep imploring him to repeat story after story and laugh uproariously.
She was no slouch herself when it came to relaying hilarious episodes and one of the funniest stories I have ever heard was her recalling the time when she and Benny, in their tiny car, were charged at by a rampaging elephant, near Dambulla. The charging elephant caused a panic-stricken Benny to drive his car into a ditch. They had to crawl out of the car on all fours and hide in the jungle while the elephant aggressively paced nearby. After an interminably long time, the elephant retreated into the jungle and after what seemed like an eternity, they heard a faint, mosquito drone in the still of the night. It was a three-wheeler and Nishanthi’s description of how they first waved the driver down and then convinced him to allow them all to pile into the three-wheeler and take them to the nearby town was a classic. Her command of the English language, along with her dramatic facial and vocal expressions made this story so real, that I can still hear her relating it to me.
Nishanthi’s deteriorating health situation made it increasingly difficult for her to engage in even the most simplest of life’s tasks, i.e., breathing; hence, my reference to Socrates’ musings at the outset. As crushingly hard it is for Benny and other loved ones, I keep going back to that teeny person on that ICU hospital bed in December 1975 and how she so courageously defied the odds to live for 37 years. Her bravery in confronting her health challenges with an amazingly positive attitude and her ability to love and show sincere concern for others reinforces what a blessing she was to all those who knew her. While it is tragic that Christopher Niresh will never know what it is to feel the tangible love of his mother and never know the feeling of talking to his mother about his setbacks and triumphs, he will surely know of her valour in defying the odds, all her life. That is why it is so important for those of us that loved Nishanthi to let Christopher Niresh know what an extraordinary woman she was, and create conditions for him to flourish and reach his full potential; something his mother would have dearly wanted.
Rest in Peace, Nishanthi, your painful journey is over. Thank you for inspiring us with your courage and ability to take on such excruciating discomfort with so much laughter and good cheer. Benny and Christopher Niresh, I will always be there for you both.
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Last Updated Jun 19 2013 | 12:00 pm