There's no shortage of memoirs about caring for a chronically ill or dying loved one (Amazon lists more than 1,000). Most describe the day-to-day hassles and challenges, often sharing practical guidance gained through experience to benefit readers navigating their own caregiving journeys.
Savita Harjani's "Postcards From Within: Random Ramblings of an Ordinary Human" is a little different.
In 2016, Harjani left her home in Minneapolis, her career as a lawyer and (temporarily) her husband and returned to her native India to care for her mother, who had chronic kidney disease and esophageal cancer. She stayed there until her mother died, more than four years later. Throughout that time, she often jotted notes on her phone, recording her emotions and thoughts.
After returning to the United States, Harjani, who had no previous writing experience, edited those notes into a book that she published in July. She was encouraged partly by the idea that her thoughts might help other caregivers, who include more than 40 million people in the United States, or half of all Americans over age 50.
But Harjani, who is 57 and has lived in the United States since she was 20, doesn't offer advice, exactly. She says little about whatever struggles she may have faced with doctors' visits, medication or errands. She offers few of the gritty details of watching another person's illness and decline.
"I don't want people to say, 'This person did this, and I didn't do that, therefore I'm not doing a good job,'" Harani said. "Any way a person can show up for their loved one, given their circumstances, is perfect for their life story."
"Postcards From Within" is, as its title suggests, an introspective examination of the stresses Harjani felt as a caregiver — exhaustion, anger, frustration, bewilderment and, ultimately, grief. But instead of identifying those emotions and leaving it at that, she burrows deeper into them, picks them apart looking for other meaning, and considers alternative ways she could perceive or respond to them.
Harjani has long trained herself not to accept her first gut reaction to events, but to turn those reactions into lessons, she said. "If life is not feeling good, look for a lesson."
The book is less a how-to manual than a portal into her mind.
"These really are my deepest, darkest thoughts and my vulnerabilities," she said. "They're my own feelings that I observed and put down, with an audience of one in mind: me."
Her thoughts could indeed be helpful to other caregivers, but also could interest people facing other challenges: losing a job, getting divorced, receiving a grim prognosis of their own — even getting through everyday setbacks.
"I didn't want it to get pigeonholed as a caregiver's manual," Harjani said. "It's a very introspective book, and it occurred during a caregiving journey. But it is not about caregiving, it's about self-discovery."
The book, illustrated with line drawings by longtime family friend Arushi Mittal and sprinkled throughout with letters addressed "Dear Life" and signed "The Ordinary Human," consists of short, distinct chunks of prose. Few are longer than a single page, and many are just a single paragraph. The structure makes it easy for a busy caregiver to read in snippets of free time.
But it mainly reflects the way Harjani's thoughts occurred.
"I was 24/7 with my mom because her conditions really required a lot of attention," she said. "I don't think I could have re-created the intensity of those emotions if I were looking back on them."
Early on in their time together, her mother would sometimes ask what she was writing on her phone, and they'd have philosophical conversations around the topics. By 2020, the older woman was increasingly withdrawn, obviously in pain, nearly silent.
But the day before she died, she beckoned Harjani over and put her hand on her daughter's head.
"Tu likh," her mother said in Hindi — "You write."
"That was her blessing to me," Harjani said. "Those were her last words to me, and those were her last words on this Earth."
Responding to adversity
Throughout the book, Harjani considers different potential responses to adversity. When she finds herself thinking about her caregiving sojourn as a deviation from her life path, she corrects herself: The detour is the life path.
She explores the powers of choice and restraint. She discovers that "an oppressive moment is actually a good moment because things can only get better," and calls hope "the love child of despair and gloom." She focuses on expectations — "sneaky and destructive little devils" — that make people feel disappointed in others' actions, in her case, accepting that friendships shift over time.
"Treasure the memories that were created, and try to move on with life," she concludes. "Life is too funny for such big sulks resulting from the core nature of life."
She repeatedly suppresses her urge to complain, choosing "dignified silence" after reasoning that most people are too busy with their own problems to care about hers and in any case, they can't do more than offer words of sympathy.
She repeatedly expresses her deep love for her mother and how much she treasures the opportunity to care for the woman who once cared for her.
"Sometimes, like today, it may not be a pleasure to play the caregiver," Harjani writes. "But it will always be a privilege and for that I am grateful."
An 'inspiring woman'
Friends tend to describe Harjani in superlatives.
"She's a very inspiring woman," said Dr. Manik Aggarwal, a fellow at the Mayo Clinic and an internal medicine doctor, who praised a "Postcards From Within" event held at the Weisman Art Museum that drew about 200 people. "I wish I could give this book out to every patient I see."
"You're not going to find somebody with a bigger heart," said former colleague Carol Stenback of Mendota Heights. "I don't think she realizes how much impact she has on the people in her life. People adore her — they hold her in such high regard."
Harjani considers Tammie Follett her mentor. Follett, director of community relations at the media company Thomson Reuters, was a fellow student at Mitchell Hamline School of Law and was Harjani's first boss after law school.
"She's one of those wonderful people that you meet in your lifetime that you are so lucky to meet," Follett said. "She has such grace and such internal beauty. I've never, ever met a person who she's talked to or met who has not had wonderful things to say about her."
And Harjani has at least one famous reader. While in an airport, she spotted Deepak Chopra and offered him a copy of "Postcards From Within." Chopra, an Indian American alternative-medicine advocate and author of dozens of books, emailed her within a few days with words she found encouraging.
"Postcards From Within" includes frequent mentions of Indian customs and culture, and drops occasional Indian words and phrases. Harjani, who was raised Hindu but now identifies as agnostic, refers to concepts such as reincarnation and karma. She hopes that in future lives, she and her mother will continue to be mother and daughter.
At the same time, though, there are passages that — without directly mentioning American politics or social patterns — could be read as hints about mending the country's polarization.
Harjani often refers to page 44 of her book, where she tells of attending a deceased cousin's open cremation. She notices a neighboring body ablaze, the memorial rites completed. As custom requires, that person's family has left the body alone. As ashes from the pyre fall on her, she realizes she knows nothing about that individual — no gender, age, religion, class, level of education and so on — with which she might have formed an opinion of the person.
"I felt so connected and the thought that occurred to me was that we create these distinctions," she said. "To know we are just one as humanity ... It was a very, very surreal and empowering experience, a very uplifting moment."
Katy Read • 612-673-4583