What was going on here! In my house? The house that had become home after I stepped in here with my newly-wed husband… twenty-three years back, as a shy, bashful bride. So many dreams, so many memories! The shattered hopes, the fulfilled wishes… birth of my children, as we graduated from a care-free couple to nervous parents.
Even now, I can close my eyes and clearly see my two-year old tumbling tot of a son hiding behind the couch. In a bold, mindless effort, he is trying his best to grab some black, tiny ants that are crawling on the floor and putting them in his mouth! I can see my younger self running out of the kitchen and scooping him up in my eager arms.The images are crystal clear in my mind….
“Silly child!” I hear myself cry out anxiously. “You’ll get bitten!”
I remember my little boy Roop looking utterly bewildered as I raved on, failing to understand why his mom had stopped him from sampling such a delicious-looking snack.
I close my eyes again and see my seven-year old Mugdha, my pretty, little girl sitting on a chair, looking forlorn. Her cherubic face devoid of a smile, her eyes vacant. Nothing ever escapes a mother’s eyes and her sadness bothers me. What could be wrong! I see myself kneeling beside her.
“Mugdha! Is your tummy hurting again, love?”
A thousand worries torture me in the span of a second. It must be the chickpeas I cooked last night! Why did I have to make them so spicy? My little one is in pain because of me! I am a terrible mother! I keep admonishing myself as I look around for the bottle of antacid. My daughter just sighs and as she looks at me, tears start rolling down her cheeks. I can hear my heart breaking. I pull her in my arms.
“What’s wrong, baby? Tell me! Mommy will fix it for you!” I try to sound hopeful.
Mugdha shakes her head vigorously.
“You can’t mamma!” her voice quivers with a profound sadness.
Her pain chokes me, I am about to cry too but I scold myself. I can’t do that! I am mom! I just hold my sobbing child in my arms, trying to tell her that it’s going to be alright. After an hour and much coaxing, she calms down just enough to tell me that Hardik likes her friend Ramyaa more than her… she saw the two sharing a piece of chocolate cake during lunch and she had not been invited to join the party.
“Hardik shared his new box of crayons with Ramyaa, but not me!” her petal-like lips quiver with the hint of a huge sob that is building inside her.
“So he is Ramyaa’s boyfriend mamma! I wanted him to be MY boyfriend!”
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry! I remember meeting her school friends at her birthday party last month. Ramyaa and Hardik were among them. I hold my daughter close as she experiences her first heartbreak in her seven-year-old life. I want to tell her that there will be more to come but refrain from it.
Oh, I need to stop! I am day-dreaming again! I stepped out on the balcony, gazing at the dark sky. The boom of thunder brought me back from my reverie. I smiled.They grow up so fast!
Roop joined a tech company last summer. He eats out on most nights and hardly has a minute to stop by and say hello to mamma. Mugdha is even more beautiful than I thought she would be. A chirpy nineteen year old who prefers to share her conquests and heartbreaks with friends now, rather than her mamma.
I am not complaining. I am very proud and happy with both my children. It’s just that for a few days now, it seems like I have vanished from their world. I feel disoriented, I cannot understand what is going on. Recently, I have noticed that when I enter our bedroom at night, my husband stares blankly at the television. I have tried making conversation, running my fingers through his thinning hair which always relaxes him but he seems not to notice. On many a night, I have seen him coming home very late, long after the children have retired for the night. I want to request him to spend time with the kids, once in a while.
The clock on our bedroom wall chimed the hour. Ten o’ clock. It was getting late enough to be worried. I stepped onto the balcony and peered down. Except for a drenched street dog that was lookingng for a shelter, there was not a soul to be seen anywhere. Rain water had puddled under the lamp post. Thunder rumbled in the distance.
Did I hear a soft knock at the door? I turned back to see Mugdha stepping into the hall and opening the door for my husband to enter.
“Dad! What’s wrong!” she screamed, her face pale in the dim light.
As I ran towards the door, I could see why. My husband seemed to have fainted. He was being supported on both sides by my son and a friend of his. They laid him down carefully on the sofa. I grabbed Roop’s hand:
“Roop! What happened to your father? Roop!!” But my son was on his phone making fervent calls to Dr Banerjee.
“Please! Yes, he seems to have collapsed.” His voice sounded tearful. He is only twenty-two, after all.
“No, not driving. He was at the market. My friend happened to see him, lucky for us! About an hour ago… yes, home… yes, please make it fast!”
“Will someone please tell me what is going on?!!”
The sound of my desperate cry scared me. It must have scared my children too, because Mugdha, who was wiping her father’s face with a wet towel, stopped suddenly and looked around the room. Her brother had a strange look in his eyes. He quickly stepped closer and hugged his sister. Mugdha was sobbing. I could see my son fighting back his tears.
“It will be okay, Maddie! The doctor is already on his way. Dad will be fine. Did you see him taking his blood pressure pill this morning?”
Blood pressure pills! My husband! Since when! Why won’t anybody talk to me! My exasperation and confusion were fast being replaced by a mad, frenzied anger. I tried to grab my son by his shoulder:
“Why are you keeping secrets from me? What is going on? Since when has your father been unwell? Tell me, Roop!”
He was silent. My fury knew no bounds and I slapped him viciously. My son looked up at me. His eyes were oddly empty.
The doorbell rang and Dr Banerjee was soon examining my husband who had recovered a bit and was sitting up on the couch. He had his arms around our children as they sat, one on each side of him. He was patting Mugdha gently as she kept sobbing in his shoulder. I was crying too, though noiselessly.
Dr Banerjee looked grave.
“Did you say that everything turned dark all of a sudden?” He looked at my husband. “Your blood pressure has shot through the roof, have you been taking the medication I gave you?”
So the doctor knew as well! Only, I had been kept in the dark! But why!
My husband looked guilty.
“Mr. Gupta, I understand. But you have to think about your children, too!” the doctor reproached him gently, “You cannot be so irresponsible. If you lose hope, what can we expect from them?”
He was pointing to where my children stood, a pitiful picture of hopelessness and grief. Even Dr Banerjee was talking about not losing hope! What was this unforeseen tragedy that had overwhelmed my entire family, of which I still knew nothing!
I tried to guess. Had my husband lost his job? But then, he was getting ready to retire in a year or two —- a voluntary retirement. He had saved enough for our rainy days and he wanted to travel the world with us. Our favourite family argument was whether it would be Europe or the Caribbean. My husband always sided with Mugdha, so I supported my son and the fight would end with happy discussions of golden beaches and snow-capped mountains over plates of piping hot ‘samosas’.
I knew a lost job would not cause my husband’s blood pressure to skyrocket. What could be so wrong? Was any of my children sick? May be they were hiding it from me because I became easily anxious when it came to my children.
I tried to jog my memory… no, nothing recently. Except for a viral fever that weakened Roop for a few days but that was three months back. Mugdha threw up last week in the wee hours of the morning but I know that was because of all the street food she keeps eating with her friends. I tried talking to her the next morning but she did not reply. Later, that evening, when questioned by her dad she did confirm my suspicions about the junk food.
It did pinch me a little when my daughter confided in her father but not in me. I had noticed a very sudden change in both my children’s behaviour. They seemed to have become very close to their father, all of a sudden. As their mother, I did feel very happy with that, of course, but there was no need to ignore me completely! Something was wrong and I was kept in the dark about it. What did the three of them think, that I was not strong enough to handle it?
Frustration and panic shot through me like a heady cocktail. The doctor had finished writing out a prescription and as he was getting ready to leave with a few words of advice, I stepped closer to the door.
I begged him, “Please, doctor! Please tell me what is wrong! What have they been hiding from me? Is any of them in danger? Is anyone sick? Please, can you tell me!!?” I was kneeling on the floor now, my face hidden in my hands, terrified of an unseen omen that seemed to loom over my loved ones.
Dr Banerjee stopped, a sigh escaping his heaving chest. He turned around and spoke slowly in a heavy voice, but not to me.
“How long has it been, Ashok? Two months?”
My daughter answered for her father:
“A month and eighteen days,” she was trying to hide the emotions that almost made her choke, “and it’s getting worse, doctor. I can’t take it anymore!”
My husband was patting her head again, as she cried miserably, making no effort to hide her sobs this time. Her father was dabbing his eyes with the wet towel that was being used as a compress before. My son just stood behind them, head bowed, the ghostly shadow of misery clouding his otherwise cheerful features.
I had stopped crying. Puzzled, I was looking from one grief-stricken face to another, waiting for a clue to unveil this horrible mystery. I thought vaguely of a horror movie that I has watched years ago. Like a statue, I sat, watching in dismay, as one terrifying incident led to another and silently prayed for the movie to end.
“I know she is here, dad. I know she is! I know she sees, she hears us…. I am telling you.. I can sense her presence even now!” My daughter blurted out.
Who is this ‘she?’ Is she talking about me? Of course I can see them, hear them. It’s a different matter that they are behaving strangely around me, as if they didn’t even know that I co-exist under the same roof.
A silly thought crossed my mind. Was it possible that this was part of some ‘fun’ reality show that my family had participated in and the challenge was that they could not tell me about it? What if they had roped in the doctor too? I waited expectantly for a minute or two, almost hoping for the camera crew and the host of the show to enter the room, laughing, and my loved ones joining in the laughter. Then they would all crown me as the M TV “Bakri’ (scapegoat) or something .
Nevertheless, I was livid. What is the world coming to? Was this some kind of ‘Torture your Mom’ contest! And how could my husband allow such a cruel prank!
But the sad scenes in front of me were still continuing. Ashok, my husband, was talking again.
“Never for a minute… so full of life… so happy, healthy…” he seemed incoherent and at a loss for words. “Her children, her pride… she had such hopes for them, such dreams…”
The doctor, who was standing close to me was muttering to himself, “Most unfortunate! Most unfortunate!” He was shaking his head gravely as he muttered those two words.
A light was dawning on me from somewhere. So it was I who was sick. Must be something very serious which is why they had kept it undisclosed. They did not want to get me worried and nervous. What could it be? Alzheimer’s? I recalled sudden bouts of darkness and confusion when I seemed to have forgotten what I was about to do or why I was sitting on the park bench or how to turn the TV on. It was extremely frustrating but now I felt sure that with such a loving family, I would surely regain my lost memory. I looked at my children’s faces. I would never forget them, no matter what befell me!
“Mamma!! She was my hero!” My son voiced so softly that I had to strain my ears to hear.
Did he say I WAS his hero? Strange!
“I never really told her how much she meant to me! I can’t come to terms with her leaving us, with her untimely death!”
What! What did he just say! I tried to clutch at the air… something, anything, to prevent my knees from buckling! No! Impossible! It’s a nightmare, a nightmare! I will wake up any minute… this can’t be!
I could hear a wail, someone was in terrible pain…. somewhere…. it was a terrible, heart-rending, ear-splitting scream. Someone needed help.
“Please stop! Stop!” I begged but the screaming went on and on. It was making me nauseous, I was falling. It was dark, very dark, not a speck of light in sight.
The screaming grew louder in my ears. I realized it was I who was screaming… with grief, with rage, with disbelief! I was only forty-six! My children needed me! My husband didn’t know them as well as I did! Ashok, my companion of so many years! He had never learned how to match his shirt with a correct pair of trousers and what shoes to wear to work. This was wrong! Unfair!
Unable to stop the terrible wail, I clasped both palms over my mouth. But it was sounding in my head now… my chest was hurting… I was surely going to have a heart attack and I was all alone! No! I was dead! Gone… non-existent!
I was falling faster now, I felt dizzy. The suffocating darkness and the terrible scream engulfed me. I slipped into oblivion.
The sound of a beautiful melody revived my senses. I sat up. Where was I? This looked like a garden, there were fragrant blossoms everywhere. I saw someone walking towards me. My Grandpa! I was so happy to see him again! He was the same old man… tall, with glistening white hair and jolly, twinkling eyes. I ran to him like a ten year old! I felt amazingly light.
“Gramps!” I ran into his outstretched arms. “Is that you? Really? But you died!” I said and immediately regretted my unscrupulous words. Gramps was laughing.
“So did you. That’s why I am here to see you now.”
“But Gramps! It’s unfair! I need more time! Why me!!”
Gramps remained silent but an understanding smile hung on his lips. The haunting melody was still playing. It was filling me with an undefinable feeling of love, hope and peace… like the sun filling up a dark and gloomy sky, dispelling the grey clouds of doom.
“I wanted to see my daughter receive her first job offer. I wanted to meet my son’s girlfriend…”
I knew he had a girlfriend. He never told me but I knew. Mothers always know.
“Ashok is so forgetful! He always forgets to take his medications on time!” Gramps put his arm around me.
“Will I never see my family again?” I wanted to sob but something in this place had a very soothing effect on my nerves… the music… the fragrance… Gramps’ kind smile…
“Who says you can’t?”
I was walking down the winding garden path with him now. “Is this heaven?” I asked. Gramps winked at me merrily.
“It’s a party place where we catch up with our family and old friends.” He laughed.
Ashok grunted in his sleep. I was holding his hand while he lay in our bed.
“I am scared. They are still young. How will I…..” He muttered in his sleep. I placed a hand over his heart.
Ashok rolled over and settled into a peaceful slumber.
My eyes were moist but somehow I knew he would be alright. The soft, melodious music was filling my ears again. I stole a loving glance at my sleeping husband and turned away.
“In your heart… always!” I whispered.
It was a promise I knew I would always abide by, transcending the barriers of life and death.