Cecilia ZACHARIAS
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Living Reef Memorial

Obituary of Cecilia ZACHARIAS

Cecilia Zacharias- a Life Extremely Well Lived Cecilia Zacharias is no more. That is what they would say after a death in her birthplace of Kerala. But she is still present deeply within our hearts and those of the multitude of people she touched and loved over the course of a “long life, well lived”. Keep reading if you doubt us and think this is just another cliché. But be warned: a long life requires a long story! Cecilia was a highly disciplined person who was likely doing her walking exercises on the deck at sunset on Oct. 21.2020. She sat on her favourite deck couch to rest and look out at the beautiful turquoise water and pink and red hues of the sunset on a warm autumn evening. She was surrounded by her baskets that were still flowering because of her meticulous care. Then she took her final breath. She was a jewel that became more radiant with age. She shrank to 4’5’’ at the end of her life, but her short stature belied her enormous intelligence, wisdom, sense of humour and loving heart. Her diminished hearing did not cause her to shy away from any social interactions. We called her our “genetic mutant”, who seemed to age at a snail’s pace. She died with flawless skin, full muscles, cheeks and eyebrows, a head of hair that had more black than grey and all of her teeth that contributed to that radiant smile that drew people close to her. With our human hopefulness, we magically thought she would outlive us all. Despite the profound loss, we are thankful that she died free of illness, injuries, hospitals, frailty or suffering. She told us that she was “ready for God to grant her a visa”. Mercifully, she received this visa while sitting down and looking over the beautiful ocean and flowers she loved. Her life is not one of accomplishment (although she had many) or accumulation of wealth and belongings. It is a story of life-long personal growth, as well as loving and enduring relationships with family, friends and acquaintances spanning 4 continents, that she continued to meet and touch, right up until the end. She was 95, but was always learning, staying connected to current events and the people around her. Fortunately, she completed her memoirs on her iPad, despite recalling the first draft, so she could add a chapter about living during the COVID -19 pandemic. She sent us loving and funny text messages packed with emojis. She regularly face-timed with family and sent emails and jokes to friends, hours before her death. She was active in the community; a member at St. David’s by the Sea church and the 55+ Club. With her lovely sense of humour, she called herself 55++++. Despite the restrictions from COVID-19, and the disappointments of not being able to go to “the Club” or church, she never stopped living with curiosity, optimism and interest about the world around her. Cecilia was also known as Cilli to her friends from medical college, Cecilykutti to her surviving elderly family from Kerala, Chechi to her younger cousins, Ammai and Aunty to her numerous nieces and nephews, G-Aunty to her grand-nieces and nephews, Amma to her grandchildren and Ted’s brothers, Mummy to her caregiver Sushila and simply “Mum” to her loving daughters and son-in-law. Cecilia was born at home into the “Karingada Clan” on April 29th, 1925 in Changanaserry, near the backwaters of the Kutenaad district, prior to the amalgamation of Kerala State in India. She was the youngest of 10 children. Her father, known to her as “Appapen”, trained as a lawyer but chose to work as an actor and director, writing and staging plays for the surrounding towns and villages. This caused some financial strain for the household, but she only described her childhood with rich memories of love and warmth, surrounded by coconut palms, billowing mango and jackfruit trees, spindly papayas and fecund banana plants. These luscious and verdant trees combined with abundant rice paddies, ensured they were never hungry. The smell of the fragrant cloves and other spices growing in the surrounding area and wafting from peoples’ kitchens added to the aesthetic pleasure of this tropical paradise. She walked to school barefoot. The younger siblings would gather around the table over an oil lamp reciting out loud, as they tried to memorize their lessons from school. This was often followed by everyone singing songs together like a choir, in the days before radio, TV or streaming computers. It was here that Cecilia honed her operatic voice. Life is never complete paradise. Her beloved mother “Ammachi”, suffered and was severely weakened by chronic thyrotoxicosis (now an easily treatable disease) and struggled to tolerate the heat of her children’s bodies next to her. Despite this malady and the struggles it caused, there was no shortage of love and physical affection. When her ailing mother was no longer able to physically care for the children, Cecilia’s eldest sister, Kunjumamma, stepped in to help raise her and her younger siblings, so they could all stay together in the same home. Her mother died prematurely from this disease and Appapen lived in Changanaserry until his death at 99. Cecilia finished high school in Kerala and was granted a scholarship to study chemistry and sciences at Isabella Thoburn College in Lucknow, in Northern India. She packed a bag and took the long train ride 2500 km north, alone as a 17-year-old teenager. This was her first trip outside Kerala, and occurred with the backdrop of colonial wartime and during the turbulent and violent years leading up to Indian Independence and Partition. She had to learn Hindi and Urdu which are as different from her native Malayalam, as Russian is from English. She graduated First Class with a BSc. In 1945, she received a scholarship to study medicine in the 4th class of a new medical college in Vellore, Tamil Nadu state. There she studied in English and became fluent in Tamil to be able to speak with the patients, learning yet another language with a completely different script. The brand new Christian Medical College (CMC) was started by the famous Dr. Ida Scudder and included Dr. Paul Brand a world-famous hand surgeon who did pioneering work restoring hand function to people afflicted with leprosy. Dorothy Clarke Wilson later wrote a book, The Ten Fingers of God about his life and experiences at CMC and in Southern India. CMC was started to train women as doctors because many of the traditional Indian families would not let male doctors attend to their wives during complicated childbirth, leading to needless deaths. The students lived and ate with the staff, including “Aunt Ida”, in a family-like communal environment. This close sense of community and “giving back” was etched into Cecilia and her husband Zac’s, fabric. This was not an abstract anonymous concept. The people surrounding them were never overlooked and they quietly made a point of paying for the education and post secondary training of many of the underprivileged children of people who worked for them. The community spirit of CMC persists to this day, despite graduates being spread across the globe. She was still in touch with surviving college friends and has written articles for the CMC newsletter. CMC Vellore has grown to be one of the top medical centres in South Asia and has opened up affiliates. See if you can spot her in the anatomy class: Cecilia graduated top of her medical class with three gold medals. Ever the adventurer, she took her first job in Aden, Yemen, which was a British free port at the time. She worked in a British hospital and later opened her own maternity hospital. She was fond of telling the story of her first “med-evac”. She was called by the Royal Air Force to pick up a woman having pregnancy - induced seizures on a remote island in the Red Sea. This was the first time she had been on a plane. She thought she was going to faint in the sweltering heat, so did what anyone would do. She opened the window, which quickly flew out and made everyone duck to hold onto something to avoid being swept away. She was a quick study and we can assure you this never happened again! Cecilia didn’t marry until she was secure in her profession and well past arranged marriages, at the advanced age of 30. Some scheming went on and she was introduced to another ex-pat Keralite, a shy and handsome bachelor, who also escaped the clutches of matchmakers and was teaching in Aden. Cecilia and Kariachen (Zac) married on Oct. 23, 1955. Her brother Matthukutty, who worked across the Red Sea in Somalia, came to Aden to give her away. During their early years after marriage, Cecilia’s eldest brother, Sebastian’s (Vellichayan) wife died and left him with young children. Cecilia and Zac were concerned about their welfare and brought his teenage daughter, Grace, to live with them in Aden, and later in England. A few years after the birth of their first daughter, Liza, they decided to leave Aden for England so that Cecilia could pursue post-graduate studies in obstetrics and paediatrics and Zac could study law. There were not many brown people in England in those days. They told stories of finding rental rooms over the phone only to be turned away when they showed up in person to sign the contract. Despite this overt racism, they never felt resentment towards the British or white people, and never tired of welcoming people of all races and religions into their homes to share stories over a South Indian feast. Cecilia turned the other cheek to the emotional injuries, but always stood her ground. She published a letter in the prestigious British Medical Journal, complaining about discrimination against South Asian physicians in the early 1960s. Their second daughter, Anita, was born at this time. Cecilia and Zac returned to Aden where Zac opened a law office and Cecilia started a maternity hospital where the family lived upstairs. When civil war broke out in Yemen, they decided to return to India where they bought land on which to build their respective practices in the heart of Bangalore (now called Bengaluru). Bangalore, which has more than eight million people now, was a sleepy garden city with pristine air quality at that time. They frequently returned to visit family in India while in Aden and later the UK. Cecilia was a modern woman, who made heads turn in Kerala when she returned home, hair cut, wearing sleeveless sari blouses & high-heel shoes. With gunfire in front of their offices and British soldiers on their roof, they hurriedly left Aden for England prior to making their final move back to India. In her early 40’s and pregnant, they packed up & left with their two daughters & niece. They boarded the Fairstar, the final ship passing through the Suez Canal prior to Nasser closing it, and the subsequent eruption of the Six Day War in the Middle East. During this trip to England, Cecilia went into labour with their youngest daughter, Theresa. Unfortunately, she had severe complications from a forceps delivery and ended up in a wheelchair for the better part of a year. Zac had to quickly find work to support the family. The legal profession required connections that he did not have, so he had to regretfully give up his dream, as well as plans to return to India. Instead, they rented a house in St. Albans for a year, burning through their savings while Cecilia was convalescing. They moved to Birmingham where they had close friends, Eric and Queenie Harris, who were junior to her at medical college. There Zac started a job teaching high school and Cecilia gave up her beloved obstetric hospital work so she could be more available to the family. This period was also complicated by severe post partum depression and heralded recurrences of disabling psychotic depression requiring ECT and medication throughout her life. Despite the taboos surrounding mental illness, Cecilia, never hid her problems. Instead, she used them as examples to teach people that they can overcome mental illness and lead full and productive lives. They spent the next 20 + years at 63 Pear Tree Drive, raising and educating their daughters, while she worked full time in community child health. Despite being an “Indian male”, theirs was a true partnership, where Zac shared all the domestic tasks of transport, shopping and cooking, as well as cleaning the house and ironing the clothes. Cecilia told us that she would not have had it any other way After their youngest daughter Tessa went to university, Zac & Cecilia decided to move to a village, East Bolden (EB), in North East England. They adjusted to the biting North Sea winds and warm Geordie accent and slang. Their close friend Dr. Shaku Karat and their nephew Dr. Suresh Joseph and his family lived in the surrounding Tyneside area. They planted a lovely garden full of beautiful roses and began the next chapter of their lives. The move to the colder north was an excellent decision: in June 2006, Zac found Cecilia unconscious in the bathtub. She was in a mysterious coma with multiple organ failure. The hospital doctors were ready to palliate her when they saw her age of 81. Fortunately, her nephews Suresh and Dr. Joseph Zacharias, both of whom worked in hospitals in nearby Newcastle, insisted they consult with a neurologist who agreed to a trial of ventilator and intensive care. Cecilia made a complete recovery, and we were blessed with 14 more years with her. Cecilia & Zac always felt deeply connected to India and escaped the cold English winters to Bangalore. They bought a lovely flat in Rustumji Residency, a tropical sanctuary in the chaotic heart of Bangalore. Cecilia volunteered as a doctor in a nursing home & they spent time with family & friends. After church on Sunday, they loved to go to Ballal Residency for a South Indian vegetarian brunch. Ballal was a throw-back to the Raj days with attentive waiters’ whose shoes were almost as shiny the Brylcream keeping their hair in place. They loved to dote on “Sir and Madam” and would mysteriously remove a mini hand broom and straight blade from inside their tuxedo pocket to sweep up and remove any residual crumbs left on the tablecloth. We gorged on many Masala Dosa, Vadai, Idli and Thalis loaded with sambar and coconut chutney. Despite her generosity, Cecilia guarded her poori -potato like a German shepherd. In springtime, they returned to friends and family and the green English countryside. There, they tended their beautiful garden and enjoyed the cooler summers. These trips included numerous side trips to Winnipeg, Canada and later Victoria, to see their daughter Liza, Ted, and grandchildren. They braved the sweltering heat and mosquitoes in the summer to help with Priya’s birth and did not wince at the -30 Celsius temperatures when Karia was born in February. Truth be told, they were relieved when Liza and Ted moved to the gentler climate of Vancouver Island and Victoria. During this period, they even visited a First Nations community, Berens River in Northern Manitoba, where Ted worked as a doctor. They loved to tell the story of having to get out of the small twin engine plane to help push it out of the gravel when it was stuck on the landing strip! The back- and- forth travel became increasingly difficult as Zac developed more manifestations of a Parkinson-like syndrome. They eventually decided to sell their house in EB and settle permanently in India, where the children, grandchildren, extended family and friends visited frequently. By the end of 2010, life became unmanageable for Cecilia as Zac’s condition progressed, so we brought the parents to Victoria, where they stayed until the end of their lives. Cecilia was insistent that they did not want to be a burden and valued her independence. Fortunately, they were able to move into a house across the hedge from Liza and Ted, overlooking the beautiful Salish Sea and San Juan Islands. There they planted yet another garden on the deck and loved watching the deer nibble on their shrubs and the tiny hummingbirds feeding outside their window. They were very fortunate to find Sushila Kafle, who lovingly looked after Zac until his death at home in August 2013 and continued to help Cecilia during the week, as household tasks became more difficult with advancing age. Cecilia kept busy with the 55+ club, church, gardening in the summer, reading, writing emails to friends and family with classical music in the background, daily exercise, prayer and meditations. She settled down at the end of her busy days with her iPad to watch “Highway to Heaven”, “A Place to call Home”, ‘Call the Midwife” and “Doc Martin”. We called her the “Mayor of Cordova Bay” as she greeted, hugged and glad-handed people whenever we went to a shop, restaurant or were simply out for a stroll. She became anxious about personally returning the 38+ email greetings for her 95th birthday, until we reassured her that she could take her time and slowly reply to each person individually over the ensuing weeks. It was at 994 Abbey Rd that she taught us how to make Kerala -style thoren (either beans, cabbage or okra with shredded coconut) in a microwave, meen pappas (fish with spices and coconut gravy) and chicken nadan (“house” chicken). We finally convinced her to pass on the “keys to the kingdom”- i.e. the recipe and technique for “olath” (Kerala meat/chickpea masala). It wasn’t just about ratios of cardamom, cloves and other spices grown in her native Kerala; it was about patiently stirring and roasting them in the right sequence, stopping only when they attained the proper colour and scent before grinding them together into an intoxicating powder. You would think the aromatic smells emanated from heaven rather than those tiny hands, wooden spoon and thava (roasting pan). She used this powder to patent “Amma’s Wings” which were shared with lucky friends as they watched and cheered championship sporting events on TV. Cecilia had iron discipline and only took up drinking “Baileys Irish Cream” and eating sweets after she turned 85. This summer, she traded her coconut bliss ice-cream bars for “Cecilian” Italian lemon cake. Through her own life-challenges, Cecilia became a peacemaker. She taught us humility, forgiveness, conflict resolution and reconciliation. She loved to learn and share new words each week. It was ironic that her last new word was “schadenfreude”, something she never experienced. Despite being deeply rooted in India and proud of their Malayali heritage, Cecilia and Zac were open to all cultures. Cecilia was a very spiritual person who prayed every day of her life and had an ongoing dialogue with ‘her Maker” as she walked her laps on the deck. She was proudly raised in the Syrian Catholic church of Kerala, which dates itself back to the time of St. Thomas, who came to the Malabar Coast in 52 AD. However, she was not beholden to any dogma. She spent the last 9 1/2 years of her life attending the cozy Anglican church at St. David’s by the Sea. Cecilia was happy singing the blessings over the Shabbat candles, eating Challah and participating in Passover Seders. For her, all religions converged at the same point and all people were God’s children, regardless of their faith, ethnicity, sexuality or race. So, we have come to the end of a brief recounting and outline of this beautiful woman’s life. She was deeply loved and will be sorely missed by her friends, family and people that she touched. We are thankful that she was part of our lives and was granted such a peaceful death, free of suffering. She will forever live on in our hearts and we shall continue to see her every time we look out our window at the beautiful flowers and ocean that she loved. We do want to thank the people who went the extra distance to make her comfortable and feel welcome in Victoria: Loring Holdal and Milton D’Souza dropped everything when she needed something fixed (or anything done!), Gwen MacPherson and the members of the 55+ Club, Sue Watts and Lynne Johnson and the other parishioners from St. David’s. Jan and Bill Larkin kept her supplied with zucchini pineapple cake and fed her cribbage addiction. Harold Rosenberg regularly visited, always bearing sweets for our diabetic dad. Stefanie Renn and Sarah Percy provided physiotherapy for the aching muscles and joints and kept her mobile with exercises. Taseem and Anthony helped them in Bangalore and finally, Sushila Kafle, who provided loving care and companionship until the very end. It is impossible to name and thank all her devoted family members, friends and people that helped her throughout her life. We know who you are and how important you were to Mum and are forever grateful. We look forward to reading your comments and stories on the Earth Options funeral home’s website. People who choose, can make donations to CMC-Vellore, St. David’s By the Sea or Cordova Bay 55+ Association.   I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength. I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other. Then, someone at my side says; "There, she is gone!" "Gone where?" Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side and she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port. Her diminished size is in me, not in her. And just at the moment when someone at my side says, "There, she is gone!" There are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout; "Here she comes!"
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