GOODBYES ARE FOREVER
20 years. Sounds like a long time. And maybe it was a long time, sufficient however it was not.
It was just another regular Sunday morning when I opened my eyes and saw through the windows that it was still rather early for me to start the much awaited holiday, but then my eyes fell upon the reason why I had been roused out of my sleep - my aunt was rushing into my room and called out my name in order for me to wake up. I noticed that she was wearing an off white suit, which was so unlike of her usual morning attire - pyjamas and a baggy t-shirt. I closed my eyes again while I wondered why she was dressed that way so early in the morning and then, wished that whatever maybe the reason, she would let me sleep some more. Just as I had closed my eyes, I felt her sit beside me and touched my shoulder while calling out my name again, this time in a sombre tone, "Beta, Dadi is gone."
My eyes jerked open while my body lay still under her touch, almost paralyzed, "Wh- what?" I managed to stutter it out. I knew what she meant. I knew that it was a silly question. I knew this was coming.
"She passed away sometime during the night and...." She went on while I zoned out. That's when I actually took in her appearance, her eyes were bloodshot while her face had a pallor to it today. And then it clicked, why the unusual off white suite at this time of the day.
She shook me again, "Get up and be dressed. People will start arriving any minute now." With that she left.
I tried to stick to one emotion from the array of jumbled feelings running through my mind while my body lay stiff. Feelings of denial, anger, resentment, sadness, loss, relief and other intangible emotions were taking hold of me. My mind, in simple words, was a mess while my body was on auto-pilot. I went into the washroom and waited for the tears to come. I, eventually, looked at myself in the mirror and realised that there wasn't a sign of wetness on my face. I was confused. Shouldn't I be crying? Isn't this what I did 5 years ago? Cried in my bathroom silently as violent sobs wrecked my body.
I, then, unlocked my phone and texted two people the same message - She passed away last night. I also realised that they must be asleep as it was just 7 am on an October Sunday morning. With that, I put the phone away, smiling sardonically, "What a start" I thought.
"Okay, so she is no more...
It's gonna be a long day...
But we just talked last night..
Should be relieved and thankful...
She seemed perfectly fine last night..
Won't be seeing any bedside almonds and milk now..
What will I tell to my little one..
Dada must be on his way..."
My mind was filled with incoherent thoughts while my body kept going on autopilot. I was brought out of my reverie when someone knocked on the door.
"I'll be out in a minute." I shouted. I checked my face in the mirror again and saw no trace of sadness. Nothing in this bathroom, nothing on my face revealed the massive change that had just taken place a few metres away during the last night. Somehow, it hasn't just sunk in maybe.
How can such a huge change happen overnight? Just yesterday, when I had come back from college, I had sat beside her. She had pestered me to call the maid's mother to take her back home. She had replied in affirmative when I asked her if she wanted to have her favourite vanilla ice cream. She had asked me to give the maid a few scoops before I gave it to her. I remember, she had asked me to sit down and massage her lower back. I could clearly hear her pain-filled groans as she restlessly kept turning around while I tried to talk to her to deviate her mind from, what seemed like an ever-present ache in her body.
A potent memory of the previous evening flashed across my mind - I was sitting in front of her, whilst holding her hand in mine.
"Your skin is so soft." I blurted out randomly as the tip of my fingers traced her forearm.
"You call this skin?" She said with clear disgust on her face as she weakly pinched the skin of her forearm between her two fingers.
"It's only normal for old people to have wrinkles." I pretended to tease her, in hopes that it might soothe her. Even I knew, her skin wasn't like this. SHE wasn't like this. Sure, she was old and she had the normal amount of wrinkles that a 70 year old has but she used to have a healthy glow to her face, even at that age. She was healthy, more than others of her age. She was my 'tiger-dadi' whose penetrating gaze would scare you away. She was my agile dadi who would have a skipping competition with our little one. She was my second mother who would wake me up in the morning with almonds and milk and then would give me a few more minutes to snooze before she would tell me that "Now, you're getting late." She was the lady of this house and the foundation of this family, the safe harbour of everyone and a rock to my dad after my mother had passed away. She was the anchor of our family, who had kept this home from turning into a house after mumma had passed away.
"Non-sense! I had to live longer than this. This wasn't supposed to happen for at least another 20 years. I had to live to get you married off. I had to dance at your wedding and had to give you blessings and had to threaten your groom that if he ever so much so hurt a hair on your head, I will break his bones and turn him black and blue."
Laughter bubbled up when she said that. This frail woman reminded me of her glorious days when she actually would have done that. Without a doubt, she would have. She was fearless. She was never afraid to call a spade a spade. She was never scared of standing up for what she believed in. After-all, she was my 'tiger-dadi'.
"... I trust you and I know you will find yourself a decent groom. But please, find a tall and broad-shouldered man, who is man enough to stand up for you and for what he believes in. Who doesn't hesitate to tell you when you are wrong but is quick to apologise when he is."
"And with whom ... who will come with me to buy my lehenga? Will I go alone then ?" I choked out as my voice broke in the last. She was about to open her mouth when i started again, "No tell me, who will wake me up now? Who will take my side and favour me in the family? Who will comfort me now, when even you'll be gone? Last time, you were there to help me get over her loss, now again? No! I'm not mature enough to find a man for myself. Who will meet my boyfriend now and tell me if he is good enough? What if I end up with the wrong person..?" My body was shaking violently with sobs by then. I shouldn't have said any of it. I knew it wasn't her choice. Her choice had always been to retire at 60 and leave this world whenever the "God willed" but after mumma passed away, she wanted to live. She wanted to live long enough to see me get settled in my life. But it was like, I could'nt control myself from blurting out all this. All my pent up emotions were coming out in waves of tears.
"What should I do? Even I wanted to be here. But it hurts too much now. I don't want to live like this. Not only its painful for me, but its troubling you too. And I don't want that. I don't want to become a liability, I don't want to become dependent on anyone. I just want to go away now." As she said that, I tried to pull my hand from her grasp and get out of her room. I knew I wasn't doing both of us any good. Both of us were very well aware of the circumstances, there was no point in dwelling in self-pity.
She reached out and held my hand again, squeezing it tightly. Surprisingly, for someone who is lying on her deathbed, she sure had a good grip, I thought. The warmth of her hand engulfed me and made me lie down beside her. Funny how it should have been me comforting her and how the roles were reversed in a minute, here I was, the cold hearted strong willed woman, shrunken into a little vulnerable girl beside her, was being comforted as she caressed my face, “It’s okay. It will be. You will go and enjoy your life, buy a beautiful vermilion lehenga, marry a tall broad shouldered man and if ever in your life, you face any problems, know that I’m always with you. I’ll be looking over you even then, you just won’t know that. Just make the right decisions and be fearless.”
I squeezed my eyes tightly. I wasn’t going to cry. I was going to be her bold daughter. If anything, I should be happy for her. At least she was freed from all the pain. At least, she was away from all the misery and sadness that comes along with this existence.
“Death is not extinguishing the light. It is putting out the lamp because a new dawn has come.”
- R. Tagore
I wiped my face and stepped out of the washroom. As soon as I stepped out of my room, I could hear the distinct voices of my cousins and relatives. I took a deep breath and entered her room and just looked at her. She looked almost the same, just a little more pale, a little more stiff and a little more dead.
I did not know what I should have done. Should I touch her? Should I cry? Should I say goodbye? Feeling lost and confused, I came back into my room and hence began my Sunday. The entire day passed away, too soon and too slow. It was a blur of long lost familiar faces mourning over the loss of a ‘kind soul’. More people came, inquiring about the how s and why s of her ‘sudden’ departure. A lady whom I didn’t recognize hugged me and asked me to stay strong and not to cry. Another came and asked what had happened to her? Last time she met her, she was fit as a fiddle.
It was around 3pm, when I heard that they are going to take the ‘body’ away. It’s funny how a living person can turn into a body in a matter of seconds. The heart and soul of this family was now reduced to a pile of decaying flesh and bones. I don’t know what made my legs go towards her but I was there, sitting beside her. I reached out to her hand, sub consciously expecting her to reach out for my hand too. Like she usually used to. However, reality is a bitch and my hand found a pale, stiff and cold hand. This wasn’t the hand of the lady who had grabbed onto me so fiercely just one night ago. It was not her, she would have reached out and squeezed my hand. How she would have moulded her hand in mine and the ever-present warmth that spread through with that gesture, not only to my hand but to my heart as well. I, then, for the first time, squeezed her hand and unnecessarily tried to warm it. I hadn’t realised that I was crying until another familiar face pried her hand from mine. It was then I noticed that I was sitting amongst people who were mourning and crying over the ‘body’ when I got up and came back in my room.
Yes, no more Shakuntla Nehra for me. That was my goodbye to the lady who was like a second mother to me.
I don’t know when they took away the ‘body’. The rest of the day was a series of inconsequential events. All those grief stricken people had left by the evening. Nothing was changed. I was back in my room, lying in the same bed, like I had a day before. The only difference was my new gaping wound, who is going to a good and loyal companion now.