Strange. That is all I can say. I was on a visit to “Punnagai Thottam” early today morning on some work that was completely unconnected to Sophia. “Punnagai Thottam” in Tamil means “Garden of Smiles”. It is a Catholic Retreat Centre in a very beautiful inaccessible part of Chengalpattu district. There are acres and acres of mango orchards surrounded by a ring of hillocks. That was the place I had referred Sophia to, when she became ill and Fr. Peter very kindly agreed to have her under his care. But today’s visit was in a completely different context!
I first met Sophia in 2003. Widowed at a very early age, I stood watching when she lost her 2 young boys many years ago. Her husband had died a few months before I met her. Sophia was a woman living with HIV. She was such a sweet innocent soul. Pretty young thing too. Life gave her more than she could handle. She lost her mother when she was a little girl. Her step mother was unbelievably cruel to her. She fell in love with her maternal uncle, but her father refused to allow them both to get married and got her married instead to a man, who not only infected her with the virus, but was also unloving and violent. When the husband was on his death bed he revealed that he was living with HIV. She was then tested and found to be infected too. It was after that time that I came to know her as she was enrolled in one of my clinical trials and I saw her every month as a part of her follow up. My relationship with her continued long after the study concluded. I would visit her in the Hope Foundation Home where she stayed at that time.
My relationship with Sophia was more than that of one between a physician and a patient. She was my friend. She was not an easy person to get along with and would get into trouble all the time with the other inmates and supervisors of the Home. Whenever she was acting up she would visit me and stay with me for days at a stretch. I had a calming effect on her. I would not talk much to her, for she loved to talk incessantly. I would just listen, and continue to do my work. It didn’t matter to her that I did not participate in the conversation. She loved to pour out her heart, her life, her memories and complaints to me. I still remember a lot of tales that she told me.
When I moved to Hyderabad in late 2005, she wanted to come with me. I went to be the Regional Coordinator for the State’s Anti Retro Viral Therapy (ART) program. It was a very exciting assignment for me as I had to set up ART clinics in every district in AP, and I had to be on the road every other day. She stayed with me for 2 years and was a darling all those years. She kept my house, cooked for me and took care of me in Hyderabad those 2 years. She did an amazing job. She entertained all my friends. All my colleagues and friends in Hyderabad knew her. They would always get her gifts and pamper her for she was the sort of person that loved to be pampered. She would be thrilled at the smallest of gestures. It was so easy to like her and be fond of. Wonder why she did not get the love she pined for all her life. I was travelling frequently those days. Sometimes she accompanied me on my travels. Sometimes she stayed back all by herself. Sometimes she would go and stay with some of my friends when I was away. It was up to her. I allowed her to do as she wished.
In December 2006 I sent her to ‘Punnagai Thottam’ after discussing the matter with her, as she was falling sick and was herself in need of ART. My travels were also getting more frequent and I felt that she needed a more caring, stable kind of environment at that point in her life. She went with a heavy heart. But soon she became a part of the community of “Punnagai Thottam” where I had arranged for her to go, just as I thought she would. She would call me often.
After I moved back to Chennai in the middle of 2008, I met with Sophia again. She was doing well, but she was in search of love. She wanted to marry an alcoholic widowed man (also living with HIV) who she met at the ART clinic. This man was known to have been abusive to his wife. She went to live with him in spite of all our collective concerns. After some time she went back to “Punnagai Thottam” when the abuse was unbearable. I was in touch with her all the time.
In August 2010, her health took a turn for the worst. She died on a stormy day in a hospital in Tambaram, 17th August 2010 to be precise. She died minutes before I reached her bedside, as it took me almost 4 hours to reach the hospital because of the rain and the storm water. Everything about her was always so dramatic. We took her body in the rain to the morgue on that dark night.
I was actually relieved that she died. She finally got her much deserved rest. All her life the love that she deeply yearned for eluded her. It is always a mixed feeling for me when I think of her.
Today, I was surprised to see her picture on the wall of the dining hall where I was taken for a cup of coffee. There were no other pictures adorning the wall. It was a picture of her smiling in a garden amidst some flowers. It was a happy picture. Today is exactly 3 years since she died. All the residents of the community had changed since my last visit there, so they didn’t know me. It was so nice to chat with them about Sophia. One of the care takers Agnes, a French lady, who I spoke to today, knew her well during her stay there. Suddenly she remembered and went and got me back a bag that was hand-made by Sophia. A souvenir from Sophia. It is so strange how some favourite people come back into your life long after they are gone.