Sumi’s Smile: A Caregiving Love Story

You don’t know what’s ahead

You don’t know what’s behind

All you have is this moment

Translated from “Aage Bhi Jaane Na Tu”, song from the 1965 Hindi (Indian) movie Waqt, sung by Asha Bhosle with music by Ravi and lyrics by Sahir Ludhianvi

 …

When KC Mehta shares a snack with his wife of 45 years, Sumi, he samples the cherries, oranges and mangoes first, leaving her to savor the sweeter pieces of fruit.

This simple act of devotion and selflessness underlies the journey KC has taken as Sumi’s caregiver. Seven years ago, an Alzheimer’s diagnosis ripped apart the happy, travel-filled retirement the pair had planned.

Sumi and KC Mehta
Sumi and KC Mehta

A former engineering executive at Chrysler, KC analyzed the situation. He hoped for a misdiagnosis, read all the books he could get his hands on and eventually, turned to soul searching and reflection. Initially, he wanted to change Sumi, but he learned that he needed to change in order to best meet her needs.

“My life now has a clear focus. Sumi has given me purpose. I am learning the true meaning of love and how to practice it daily.”

Finding Sumi

After growing up in Mumbai, India, KC came to the United States in the 1970s, earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley and eventually settled in Philadelphia for work. He secured his green card in 1974.

At 26, he returned to India to find a bride at the urging of his family. His parents had arranged a meeting with a young woman but KC wasn’t enamored. “I do not like her,” he told them. Other relatives got in on the matchmaking and KC pursued a meeting with a different young lady. He met her briefly at her home and then later, on a formally arranged outing.

Sumi smiling in the 70s
Sumi in 1974.

“She was kind of shy but confident, nonchalant but engaging with her effervescent smile,” KC remembers. He needed time to think and other introductions were made over the next few weeks. As pressure from his parents grew to settle down, he remembers looking up at glittering stars on a flat portion of the family’s roof where he would sleep in the summer months.

“On many nights when I looked at the night sky and the occasional shooting star, the image of the casually dressed girl I saw for the first time in Vijapur kept flashing in my mind,” he said. “My longing for her only continued to grow and I decided that she was the right life partner for me.”

The girl, of course, was Sumi. They married quickly and settled together in the U.S. Over the next 40 years, they raised a family in Michigan and pursued their version of the American dream.

Life was grand, until it wasn’t. KC started noticing changes in Sumi. She’d forget a detail or grow confused about a conversation. She left the stove on when she stepped out. She became hopelessly lost when driving to a nearby friend’s house. On that occasion, KC ended up calling the police for help locating her and she finally arrived home hours later distraught and unable to explain what had happened or where she’d been.

After many tests, Sumi was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 59 on April 24, 2013, “the saddest day of our lives,” KC recalls. He was devastated.

“Sumi, in her innocent, positive and compassionate way was more concerned about seeing me cry. She tried to console me and didn’t think about the full gravity of her own health and what it would do to her as time passed.”

This post is the first in a series of three. Read the second, “Sumi 2.0: Becoming Sumi’s Care Partner”, here and the final, “Coping as Sumi’s Caregiver”, here.

Last year, KC was one of six family caregivers honored by Area Agency on Aging 1-B, based on an essay he submitted to the organization’s “Caregiver Champions Contest”. If you’re a caregiver in need of advice or support, your local Area Agency on Aging can be a great resource for classes, support groups and even advice on finding respite care.   

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All photos courtesy of KC Mehta

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