As she sat beside her ailing husband, she knew he was dying a slow death. His soul was held captive in that withering body. His frail frame lay motionless on the bed and his face, marked by the lines of life, bore no expression. She observed how weak and small he became. His fingers wrinkled over his chest that went up and down in slow motions. Life had not left him yet.
They were married 35 years or more, she couldn’t really tell. But she clearly remembered the day they were married. She barely of age and he a few years older. What a ceremonious wedding they had! It was almost ironical how hard life was after that. There were times she wanted to leave, to walk out the door. But today, she was right there beside him or of what was left of him. She watched his mellow breathing, the little twitching of his dry lips and the little contorted mouth. She noticed the white stubble that grew untamed on the once handsome jaw-line; she made a mental note to tell abhijeet to shave him in the morning. He was 72 and a victim of “dementia”. The doctors said it was the result of extreme suppressed depression and stress. “Dementia has different degrees and forms”, explained the medic. “In Mr. Rajat’s case, the cells in his brain are slowly dying and rotting away”. There really was no cure. All they could do is wait until death took him.
While Rajat is not sleeping, he stares at the wall or the ceiling, whichever way he is faced. He has lost all control over reflexes and motions. One moment he is quiet and the next he starts wailing, like a baby. He has lost all ability of recognition. He is “a vegetable” in true sense. A fly hovered into the room and settled on the open wound on his knee. She blew that away with a hand fan and covered the wound with the lungi that got dishevelled while he tried to toss to another side in vain. The other day, he hurt his knee on the sharp edge of the wooden bed he fell off from. He cried like a three-year-old. She wondered if he felt the pain then. Someone had to be at his side constantly. He was like an old battered notebook, whose pages were erased off all the memories. In their fledgling days, Rajat had been a handsome man. Relatives who came to visit him now would sigh and say, “What a great and funny man he was” and she would think in her head, “was?, isn’t he still there?, have they given up so early?”. She thought all that remorse was fake. He suddenly coughed, which broke her reverie.
Spit oozed from his slightly twisted mouth. She wiped it off with the end of her saree. They decided to shift him home from the hospital because the doctors had given up. It had been difficult for the first few months. Taking care of a fully grown man who had absolutely lost senses of his social or civic abilities and physical reflexes was something she didn’t imagine she would ever have to do. Especially for Rajat. Rajat had been such a fiercely independent man. He led a life of discipline, was a responsible man in general and was a great father. His famous one-liners coupled with that cheeky smile had many ladies swooning and got quite a few men jealous. But there was a part of him that he always tried to conceal. His eyes gave away his anxiety, his sadness! Only Lalita saw that.
Lalita was young when her parents got her married. The day Rajat came to ask for her hand, Lalita had just walked in after college and found him seated in the living room holding the cup of tea, an elegant part of the beautiful silver set they used only for “very” special occasions. The last time that set was brought out was when her father’s favourite brother in law, who apparently lived in China, had come to visit their family. She had loved Rajat’s eyes the first time she saw him. His twinkling, playful eyes had turned to look at her as she entered. That memory was one of her most cherished.
Now, when she looks at him, she only sees blank, expressionless eyes staring back at her. It pains her. She misses that twinkle and the lopsided grin. She was clinging on to her memories as much as he was holding on to life. It was not that he was suffering. The way he had become was a visual torture. He was a lively man, full of dry, sarcastic albeit utterly hilarious things to say. He could come across as rude and arrestingly straightforward. He would say things he didn’t know could hurt people, because he passed those comments off for casual jokes. Lalita understood this a year after their marriage.
The first year with him was a nightmare. Though Rajat proposed the marriage, he was hardly romantic. He was always broody and distant. He was so indifferent to her, that it sometimes made her doubt the marriage’s existence, its purpose. And there were those moments of extreme anger, where he would hurl anything he could find at arm’s length. He had first slapped her a week after their marriage. There was no honeymoon.
The mobile phone vibrated on the tea table, buzzing loudly. She reached for it and stared hard into the small yellow screen. She had grown old with Rajat too. The signs of age and fatigue had started to show off around and under her eyes. It was her sister, Kavita. “Hello!” she whispered into the phone, not wanting to wake Rajat. “Yes Kita, Abhi told me about it when he came in from office today”. A pause. “Yes, let’s discuss this in the morning. It is late. Get some sleep. I will call you in the morning”. Another pause, and then silence. This time she switched the phone off. She did not want to think. She did not want people putting thoughts into her head. She already had a lot on her mind. However, Kita’s phone call had disturbed her. She was asking about Mr. Patel, their family lawyer, who held Rajat’s will. Since Rajat had fallen ill, it felt like everyone was waiting for him to die. Apparently, Mr. Patel was coming home tomorrow to pay them a visit and Kita wanted to make sure they had all the papers in order. Lalita thought it completely ridiculous to have the lawyer come in and run a sort-of background check on the family. He was not dead yet! As soon as that thought crossed her mind, she immediately pushed it back. No! He is not going to be dead any soon. It was just plain evil to even think about it. But she knew it was coming. Maybe it would take some time to consciously sink into her. Time doesn’t wait.
She got up from the easy chair. She needed to distract herself with something. She decided to go check on Abhi, their 28-year-old son. The living proof of her marriage to Rajat. There was a time, when he was the only link, the sole thread their marriage hung by.
She crossed the narrow foyer to reach Abhi’s room and stopped at the door. The lights were on and the door, slightly open. She knocked and realized he was probably asleep on his work table. She went in, collected his clothes that he had just changed and left on the couch and walked to his table. He was asleep. She watched him, and smiled to herself. She was so proud of him. He had exceeded expectations at every level since he was a child. She considered herself lucky to have a son like him. He took care of his ailing father like his father would of him, when he was a baby. He bathed, cleaned and fed Rajat every day before leaving for office and surprisingly, Rajat only responded to him. Though he couldn’t recognize Abhi, he would only eat when Abhi fed him, only sleep when Abhi fanned him and only react faintly to Abhi’s touch!
Abhi was always the sensible child. Calm, patient and intelligent. When Rajat and Lalita argued, he would just walk into his room and ignore the horrifying screams. She felt they had both been unfair to him for not giving him a wholesome childhood. He had always been so understanding and mature, listening to every explanation they had for him, with silence. But that was a child. He was now a man and had grown broody and reserved, somewhat like his father. She was afraid he hid too much pain. She was scared for his future on the personal level. Professionally, he was doing quite well. He was a big man in some big company. Maybe work kept him sane. Even as a child he would keep himself busy solving crosswords, or reading books or doing something that always kept him busy. But he was not restless. She ran her fingers through his hair. He had inherited his father’s handsome features. Abhi grunted and woke up sleepily. “Ma! Oh! I must’ve fallen asleep. Is dad okay? Does he need something?” he asked sleepily. “No! No! He is sleeping. Go to bed. Early day tomorrow!” Abhi said something and crashed in his bed. Lalita covered him with a sheet, switched the light off and turned away. As she was leaving, she discovered it was half past eight on the wall clock. Of course! The battery in the clock had gone old and it stopped. She scuttled towards their room to quickly check on Rajat and grab her mobile phone. Rajat was asleep. No coughing either. She covered him with a sheet and picked up the phone that lay on the medicine table. It had once been a beautiful bedside book rack. Squinting to see the time she discovered it was a quarter past twelve. She walked over to the wooden cabinet nearby and started rummaging for the batteries that Abhi had recently bought. “Ma, the wall clock has stopped because the batteries are dead. I’ve got some new ones. I’ll fix it once I feed baba,” Abhi told her. But that afternoon, Rajat had a bout of fits that really scared both of them. They immediately called their family doctor who lived just blocks away. She was shaken by the episode.
While she knew Rajat’s health was declining, she just couldn’t bring herself to face the fact. Every time he hurt himself, every time he had an attack, every time he coughed, every tear he shed – it hurt her. Her friend Shakti had come to visit her the other day. They were deep friends, right from when she had moved in with Rajat. She was her first neighbour and her first ally. Lalita wept often to Shakti. She could let her vulnerable self out in front of her and not feel ashamed. Shakti knew all about Rajat and Lalita’s difficult relationship. Shakti was surprised to see Lalita this pained. She asked with much awe, “You really love him that much?” Lalita was surprised, “He is my husband. I’ve spent years with that man. I don’t know what love is but it pains me to see him in pain. I would trade his suffering for my life any day and if that is love, so be it.”
Somehow, saying things aloud make it more clear to process, to understand. That day Lalita understood that her relationship with Rajat was unusual. It was definitely not a flowery, frilly relationship, where the husband serenaded the wife with flowers while the wife reassured him with hugs, love notes and romantic coochie-coos. She sometimes cooked his favorite meals and he sometimes took her out to the market. They went to the movies once in a while, with Abhi, but they always ended up bickering about something. Rajat had surprised her once though. She remembered he bought her a musical piano (the toy one). When you opened the lid of the piano “The Piano Man” would start playing and a little red light embedded between two hearts would start blinking. She loved it. She kept it for years. It was perhaps still somewhere in the old carton boxes. The batteries dried out too soon although.
She found the batteries of their wall clock in the drawer. She was of short stature and needed to climb up a ladder to fix the batteries. She pulled the foldable ladder out and climbed up one step. She felt an ache shoot through her joints. Times like these reminded her of her old age. She continued to climb up carefully though. She didn’t want to fall. One patient was enough in the house. She managed to get the clock down and change the batteries.
As Lalita set the time, she realized it was pretty late. She left the clock on the table nearby thinking she would ask Abhi to put it up in the morning. She walked back to their room. Rajat’s mouth was agape – his chest was still in motion. Sometimes that was the only way she could make out he was still in there.
She made sure he was covered up well and herself lay down on the bed adjacent to Rajat’s cot. She was tired. She watched Rajat breathe – it was her lullaby. That motion reassured her. He was there. In whatever form. He still existed. She fell asleep to the sound of her heartbeat and the rhythm of his chest.
The rays of the sun shone through cracks in the dawn. The song of the morning birds woke her up. She could tell it was probably about six in the morning. As usual, she got up, made her bed and glanced at Rajat. His mouth was still agape. “Normal.” she thought. She crossed the foyer and went to check if Abhi was up. He wasn’t in his bed – he was probably in the shower.
She saw the clock lying on the table and thought she’d tell him about it when she came back from the bathroom.
Lalita had just taken her bath. She called out to Abhi to check if he was out of the shower. He didn’t reply. She walked into her room and found Abhi sitting quietly, head hung on her bed. Rajat was still asleep.
“What happened Abhi?,” she inquired walking up to him. He looked up. There were tears in his eyes – “Baba is gone,” he said in a shaky voice.
Lalita didn’t say a word. She sat beside Abhi and looked at Rajat. The chest motion was gone, his mouth was agape. A thousand moments flashed through her mind at once and in a zap, they were all gone. The moment had come. Her instinct was to sit down and breathe. She wasn’t shocked. She was absorbing the fact that he was gone. She let all the emotions wash over her, all of them together. There were many she didn’t recognize but she was surprised at how relieved she was. It was as though something left her. She felt light – like the weights that were bogging her down had suddenly been cut off. She felt free!
She didn’t realize Abhi left the room. She sat there motionless, staring at the lifeless torso. She recalled the sound of his laugh, she remembered his melancholic eyes, she recollected the way he walked, the way he stopped to remember something he forgot. She remembered the whole of him – in those few moments.
On the table, the clock lay – dead.