Why getting surgeries was the best time of my life
This morning, the doc said I might need surgery again. Now, as I dive into a seven-hour writing sprint, I find myself reflecting on the unexpected charm of my first two surgeries—one for each foot. It was a kind of buy-one-get-one-free deal, as insurance would have it (with the small disclaimer cautioning a year-long knockout). Being someone who rarely spends a full day indoors, it was a surprise to discover that this interlude was, in fact, the most beautiful chapter of my life. Returning to live with my family, I braced for what seemed like a step backward but, undoubtedly, it turned out to be a massive leap forward.
Death leaves a long trail
It all began in April 2021 when my family was abuzz with talks about my grandmother, who had been struck by COVID. I had a sinking feeling it would not have a good ending. On an absolute impulse, at 2 am in my Richmond apartment, I felt compelled to pack up my clothes and undress the walls. The very next day, after one last walk by the James River, I drove home to be with my family.
I couldn't understand what compelled me to return home so suddenly until the following evening. 5:30 pm. I was in the office helping my father pack for his emergency flight to India. My mother walked in. Her face was twisted with tears. She managed to say with so much certainty and confidence that my grandmother had passed away. It was the way she delivered the news that made me acutely aware of the finality of death. 5:30 pm. I realized why I had come home. It was to be the first person to hold my father when he lost the one who meant the world to him.
And for the months that followed, I’d be by his side, hearing him recount the many fond memories he’s had with her. He’d repeat many of them. I’m not sure whether it was a result of his poor memory, or simply how he grieved. I’d sit and listen, for a few hours almost every day. He’d speak of guilt, how he could’ve done more. And I thought of him as the golden son, who put his mother before anyone else. Hearing him harbor any guilt made me wonder what hold death has on us— the way it will never leave you satisfied with what you’ve done for others.
Being his confidant and more during this grieving period was the most precious experience. More than it was for him, I felt grateful to have gone through this with him. Seeing the person who means the world to you, hurt deeply, leaves deeper wounds in you. To be there for him made me feel closer to him. I understood better his childhood, his grieving process, his emotions, and why family is dear to him.
Calm before the storm
Around this time, it became clear that my feet were beyond repair. Two surgeries were on the conveyor belt now. And I knew life was going to look very different. But not once did I have to worry about the recovery, knowing that I had my family. I was unusually calm as a result, while they panicked on my behalf.
One defining trait of my family is that we’re all spontaneous. And the unspoken rule is that if I ask to go to NYC, we’ll be there that weekend. If I say it on a Saturday, rest assured we’re all in a car a few hours later. Of course, I played this card a few days before surgery. Of course, they treated this trip like a Make-a-Wish request. It was quite humorous. And it made me feel deeply pampered and loved.
It was during my bike ride in Central Park, all assured, I arrogantly said I’d move here in the next year or two. I had no reason to believe this, but something about being back home felt like a reset, a chance for me to have unhinged dreams.
It was a nice way to spend my last few days before the Big Day.
My foot felt like it was on fire for the next eight months. First the right foot, then the left one in December. My most riveting updates in my life at the time were whether I managed to successfully clock in eight hours of sleep without the pain or the burn waking me up. I was entirely bed-ridden, especially after my second surgery, waiting for both feet to recover.
I think of all this time fondly, but there were many times I grew restless. I would get bored, frustrated, and restless. I would want to play basketball, go for a run, a hike, or at the very least, be able to roam around the house freely. I adjusted very well, but it was all far from romantic.
The worst of it was receiving care from my family. All of them. Acts of service have always made me feel vulnerable, and having no other option but to receive it was a hard thing to overcome. I remember crying simply because I couldn’t move a pillow closer to rest my foot properly. It was just a week after surgery, and the culmination of pain, lack of autonomy, and feeling like a burden made me break down. I didn’t have it in me to ask for their help.
Letting them help me made me grow closer to them. My dad, mom, and my little brother, Adi. I still think of the time when my brother ran upstairs, failing to hide my face that conveyed I had wanted him to bring me something before he came up. Knowing I wouldn’t ask him to go back down, he did so himself, and then yelled from downstairs, “I’m already down! Now tell me what you want!” These were the soft moments that made me confront just how loved I was. It was my entire family’s perceptiveness, knowing I was afraid to ask for help, that helped me slowly, over time, get over this block. I learned to treat them more like family.
The career change
A couple weeks shy before my first surgery, I picked up coding again, figured I’d keep myself busy at home since I wouldn’t be able to do medical research in person. As a result, I fell in love with coding this time. I went through an intense bootcamp at the comfort of my own home — perks of having a very seasoned tech bro as a dad, who helped me cut through the bullshit. Worked as a data engineer. Some muscle memory and familiarity helped. And there emerged my transition from medicine to data science. And thus began the GRE and AWS exams. And the grad school apps grind.
Several months later, after being exposed to AI safety, I began a fellowship, tried my hand at independent research, and started seriously looking into a career in this field, which combined my interests in philosophy/ethics and machine learning well. And in optimizing for impact, this presented as the most important problem to work on. So I did!
I’m not sure how differently my life would’ve looked if I hadn't been at home, getting this surgery, and as a result, getting a chance to truly consider a different career. It especially helped to have a supportive dad while I made this plunge.
Life was beautiful! SO beautiful!!
I thoroughly enjoyed waking up every weekend to my dad bringing me coffee, a bagel, and the newspaper, encouraging my random goal of becoming a financial writer on the side (this died after studying for the CFA for no good reason). My mornings felt incredibly soft.
I began writing a sci-fi novel, which was loads of fun. While my world lacked much action, I started to build one that was teeming with it in my head. Appropriately, after reading “The Way of Kings” by Brandon Sanderson, I was humbled and tabled this sweet idea for when I have better writing chops.
I went on a huge reading binge. I absolutely relish existential and absurdist fiction. I spent a lot of time hanging with Sartre, Camus, Nabokov, Hamsun, Dostoevsky, and other writers who seemed to never outgrow their teenage angst. That makes two of us.
I got into more classics. I made a literary friend in the fall. We nerded out about literature and poetry. It was the best time.
I wrote a lot of poetry. I absolutely fell in love with this craft. I think pain made me experience life even more intensely, and poetry poured out as a result.
I spent a lot of time thinking and writing about philosophy. As a philosophy grad experiencing withdrawals, I asked my ex-professor to indulge me in metaphysics during the fall semester, and I followed along miles apart.
I indulged in more physics books again—for laymen like me. I learned more about economics. And, related to my new profession, I was so fascinated by machine learning that I talked my ear off about all of these topics with my poor dad.
I even rekindled a lost romance with math. Making good use of MIT OpenCourseWare, I realized that I had simply had some bad luck with teachers who had stripped the subject of all its shine.
Once I was cleared to use a super sexy knee scooter, life got even sweeter. Dad and I had routine Sunday escapades to DC, venturing to different parts each week. One trip was intended to be a Starbucks run (scoot), but he then turned it into a Philly trip (man I love my family). And I even got back on the court with my new whip—s/o Adi:)
I had a pretty rad room. And it looked even better on November 1— the day I always unleash my Christmas spirit.
Indian culture kinda great, actually
I never had plans to live at home after going to college. I didn’t think I’d be back home during COVID. And I certainly didn’t think I’d be back after graduating. Having been born and brought up in American culture, I found it aversive to be back home. It felt like taking a step back.
But in traditional Indian households, especially in India, it is very uncommon for the daughter to leave the house until she is married. Even during college and her working years, she is expected to live at home. I broke all of this.
I now cherish the opportunity I got to live with my family again. I cherish that I was able to be there for my dad at his lowest point in his life. I cherish being able to receive care, support, and love from my family in more ways than one. I cherish the quality time I got with all of them. I cherish the luxury I got from being back home, being able to indulge in many different pursuits without any serious worry. It was the psychological safety they provided me, knowing I didn’t have to pay the bills or cook food three times a day, that gave me the freedom to do so much. And a lot of it was purely indulgent, something I can’t say I have much time to do right now, even though I’ve taken this year to explore careers again.
We’ve become so hyper-independent, when ought not. And I don't know if I would have sincerely understood this if it hadn't been for 2021. There was pain, loss, and a big period of transition, but I'd do it all over again because I had my family.
Because with it, comes an endless supply of bowls of fruits. Thanks, mom.