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She stood up and then did something odd. Something volunteers rarely did on a first meeting. She touched Anu’s feet. A simple gesture, yet not.
Trigger Warning: This has death, loss, and grief, and may be triggering for survivors.
The day had begun with such promise. The weather gods had been kind, the early morning chill banished by the wintry sunshine. Anu’s wheelchair was parked in her favourite spot in the garden by the attendant, who then thankfully left her in peace. Her reading glasses perched on her nose, she was ready for the ‘n’th reading of one of her favourite books- To Kill A Mocking Bird. But the tiny print had defeated her septuagenarian eyes.
The visit by the optometrist was at least a month away! How would she get by in the meantime? Frustrated, she put down the book, and sighed aloud.
She had really looked forward to her reading session today! A good book had made her feel ‘unalone’ countless times in the past. Fond of paraphrasing Ruskin Bond, Anu always declared that a book was ‘A friend that never let her down.’ Well! Today it seemed it had. She could sense her helplessness rise like bitter bile in her throat. She felt isolated. Adrift. Cut off. Alone.
“Damn it.” she said aloud. “I cannot read my book! Instead I am spouting quotes and a thesaurus worth of words to describe my bloody sorry state.”
She could hear Rohan’s voice in her head, “Ma, seriously? A Professor of Literature using swear words? Out loud? Wash your mouth with soap!”
Whatever! Anu thought. Her extreme age gave her considerable licence to speak her mind. Besides, she thought with a snicker, in this retirement home, the average age of the occupants was seventy years, give or take a few. Everyone here had been there, done that ……and then some!
To Kill A Mocking Bird would have to wait for another day. Till someone with normal vision, patience for irate old women, good pronunciation, and a love for books would be able to read to her. A tall order indeed! Might as well wish for the moon while I am at it, she chuckled.
It was a tough task to read perfectly to someone who had been Professor of Literature for over thirty years, and had retired as the head of that department. She had been a demanding teacher. No short-cuts. A stickler where literature was concerned.
Dragon-Deshpande, her students used to call her, she recalled with a smile.
“Ma! Do you know they call you Dragon-Deshpande?” Rohan had asked, in equal parts appalled and amused (he had enrolled as a student at her college; so it was inevitable that he would come to know the nickname).
“Oh yes, bacchcha!” Anu had burst out laughing. “And you would do well to remember it!”
As always, a single thought of Rohan brought forth a thousand memories. Like a cupboard crammed so choc-a-bloc that its door has to be held closed forcefully…. Then that one sentimental peek for old time’s sake; a strand of thought random in nature, brings it all tumbling out…. the good, the bad, the ugly. One following the other like a magician’s knotted handkerchiefs of all colours and hues – intertwined, overflowing, out of control…
Rohan’s smile, his hug, that beloved face and voice once more in her head.
How Rohan had hated her preoccupation with reading!
“Ma, come on, ma. Stop reading that book, no! I need you to iron this shirt now! For the party.”
“Ma, get up! I am hungry; please give me something to eat quickly. You can finish that book later.”
“Aw, pleeease Ma. I can’t find my sports shoes. Help me find them. Fast. Or I swear I’ll hide your reading glasses!”
Fast, Now, Quick…… Oh! The impatience of youth. The need for speed, he had called it. Needing everything done yesterday.
Until That Terrible Day… on a trip with friends to Chennai, when the speed of his bike could not overtake his Destiny.
“Professor Deshpande? We regret to inform you… but…your son has been in an accident.” The call that had changed their lives- hers and Sunil’s, forever. The urgent flight to Chennai… arriving at the hospital… hope in their hearts.
To see their only child, their Rohan in the ICU. So still. Unmoving. So… lifeless?
Anu had gripped his hand and watched the machine pushing air into his lungs, the saline dripping into his veins. All the beeping noises around him, but no sounds coming from him. The tubes coming out from or maybe they were going into his body. Oh… the bandages. His face unrecognisable and swollen. Was he in pain, Anu had wondered! Holding his hand, willing his pain away, trying to absorb it into herself.
The doctors had patiently explained it. Rohan was not in pain; he was gone and only a shell of his body remained behind. It was just an illusion of life.
Brain-dead… they called it.
Something had shattered inside her…
The doctors had made a request. It would save other lives, they said. Would they be willing to donate his organs? Would they consider giving life to others before their son’s life was fully extinguished?
Sunil had been horrified, his mathematical mind still not accepting the finality of what was happening. Two plus two had to always be four, he was fond of saying. It was never twenty-two. The monitor was beeping. Ergo…he was alive!
In that ICU surrounded by the cacophony of machines and feverish activity and anxious people and undecipherable squiggles on screens, she had looked inwards and gathered all the broken pieces inside her like closing a tight fist, to be opened later, in private. Then she had made a decision.
She had asked Sunil, “Do you think our Rohan still exists in that body? If not, will he live on in others who can be helped by him, through him?”
To a grief-stricken father, these were unbearable questions whose answers he could not face. But she had persisted. Perhaps she had wronged Sunil with her persistence, but something within her had told her it was the right thing to do. The longer they waited to give their consent, there was a higher chance it would be less helpful.
And so they had signed the consent forms.
The consent though given by both, had created a rift between them. Sunil had barely spoken to her after that day. They had lived together until Sunil’s passing twelve years later. But it was almost as if Anu was a stranger sharing space with him. Twenty-five years of marital togetherness suddenly became a mirage. But Anu never blamed him for it. Maybe, he had just grieved differently. She never knew. The two people who had lost the most that day had not even grieved together.
From that day in the ICU, she had been alone. Not always lonely, just alone. Until she retired she had her work and her students. And after that, her books were her friends. Her solace.
Although twenty years had passed since she lost Rohan, the pain of losing her child was just as intense. As sharp as it had been that day. Given the magnitude of her loss, she hardly expected less. All she hoped for was a few small moments of joy, of simple pleasures that would cut her grief into smaller navigable pieces. Moments where she dared to believe that she could live just one day without the constant pain.
Sometimes it did work and the pain was a little blurry. But mostly not. Today she did not even have the small comfort of escaping into the pages of a book.
When Shakespeare said, ‘What is past is prologue’ how right he was, she sighed to herself. But hey! Life is too short to feel sorry for myself! Wheelchair-bound and diaper-clad I may be, but I am surrounded by fragrant flowers, a cool breeze on my cheek, the chirping of birds, the warmth of the sun. I should celebrate my other senses. Can still hear, smell, feel, touch….so what if I can no longer read with ease!
Closing her eyes, she dozed lightly, suspended between sleep and wakefulness. Light footsteps stopped close to her. She could sense someone, a presence.
Her sense of mischief was stirred. She said, “You can speak…I am not a fossil. At least not yet.”
“Professor Anuradha Deshpande? Hope I am not disturbing you?”
A young girl in her early twenties stood in front of Anu. Slim, clad in jeans and Tshirt, medium height, earnest brown eyes.
“I am Gauri Venkateswaran,” she continued hesitantly, pausing to clear her throat. “I am a student. I am volunteering here in my spare time.”
“Hello, Gauri!” said Anu warmly.
“I was watching you a while back – you were reading a book, and then stopped. You seemed…” She paused delicately.
Anu laughed. “Oh yeah…..irritated? Indignant? Mad?….and there I go again!” she chuckled. “Donning the Professorial mantle!”
“I was just wondering if I could read aloud to you?” Gauri said, eagerly gesturing to the book on Anu’s lap.
‘Instant gratification! Did I rub a magic lamp today?’ Anu wondered to herself.
She handed over the book, prepared to like whatever she heard. After all something was better than nothing!
Seating herself on a bench close by, Gauri started reading in her clear young voice. The almost perfect pronunciation, pauses in the right places and careful diction washed over Anu like a cleansing wave. She welcomed the feeling of words strung together to create a story told with timeless simplicity. She had not felt such joy in a very long time.
After about thirty minutes, Gauri stopped. Anu stared at her covertly. Now that is one unusual volunteer, she thought. A busy student volunteering to spend time with an old woman was curious in itself. But Gauri’s attitude and voice had flowed with some emotion…what was it? Reverence? She couldn’t put her finger on it. As Alice had said in Wonderland- ‘curiouser and curiouser’!
“Ma’am!” Gauri said, “I hope I read that right. I need to return to my hostel now. If that’s okay with you, may I return tomorrow? Maybe read to you again?”
Anu said, “I truly enjoyed your reading ….flawless! But, Gauri, you need to come clean with me.”
Gauri looked crestfallen.”Have I done something wrong, Ma’am? I am sorry.”
Anu said in a soft voice. “Child, get this. I was a professor. Watched a lot of youngsters for way too many years. Very little gets past me, y’know. I can smell a con a mile away! Why are you here… really?”
The girl was silent, stuck dumb. She gazed down at the grass near her feet, refusing to look at Anu.
Visibly nervous, she answered in a small voice, “I never meant to reveal this! I am actually from Chennai. Ma’am, twenty years ago, you consented to donate your son’s organs. One of the recipients of a kidney was… my father.” She looked up, tears in her eyes. “Appa is no more now, but those extra years with him meant a lot to me… to our family. We will never forget.” She paused and said pleadingly. “I know we are not supposed to contact you. But we somehow found out your name. And your address. So when I got admission in this Pune college, I thought… I would visit you, spend time with you, just be with you whenever possible….like family. The attendant said you love to read; I have always loved books and reading.” Her voice trailed away apprehensively.
Reaching out, Anu held Gauri’s hand for a long minute, her eyes shut tight. She murmured sotto voce, “To be or not to be- That is the question!”
She felt strangely connected to Rohan in that moment. It seemed as if he had reached out to her. The gift of life that had been given all those years back… it was a gift that was being returned to her.
The twenty-year-old pain within Anu seemed to lessen. Just a little.
“You know, Gauri!” She smiled. “This could be the start of a beautiful friendship. What say we read some plays written by The Bard next?”
A version of this was first published here.
Image source: shutterstock
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