“I Love You!”
Her euphonious voice rang in my ears. I hugged her tight; her soft cheeks against mine, smelling her freshly shampooed hair. Her little arms clasped me. Her voice was sad but I had no way of knowing how she really felt. What did it mean to be seven and leaving your father? Did she understand the repercussions of a life away from her father? Hindsight teaches us valuable lessons but at an age when the world is an unfurling dream, what did it mean to say she was leaving?
I kissed her cheeks and said, "Baby! Daddy, in some way, will always be with you…” but what was I saying? Wasn't it too abstract for a child to understand? If I wasn't going to be there with her then what did it mean to say that I was always going to be with her? She saw my eyes welling up and an indescribable expression broke upon her face. An expression of hurt and helplessness mingled with an untarnished love that reflected her sensing of my pain and her inability to do anything to assuage that pain. She was silently pleading, "Daddy! I Love You! Please don't cry!” and I realized I couldn't burden this moment with stupid adult sentimentality. I broke into a smile and spoke the opening lines of her favorite bedtime tale, "Once there was a mouse with a verrrryyy looooong tail…" She broke into a giggle and I hugged her with all the love I could muster in my heart.
My estranged wife stood there, with moist eyes, perhaps? We both averted each other's gaze. Why now? After everything why this mushiness now? I stood up and, without looking at her, shook her hands, and said, "Take care and have a nice trip." She replied looking straight at my face, "You too!” I was taken aback by her directness. Nonplussed, I looked at her. She had a sad but determined look in her eyes and a pleasant smile on her face. I couldn't play macho in this moment…what the heck! I stepped forward and hugged her. "Take care!"
But this was 12 years ago. I had promised then, that I would visit them, in the US, the following summer. I had all the intentions. But the swirling eddies of diurnal struggles sucked me in. Dad's health was failing. He had a liver disorder. And the doctor had said that the only solution was a transplant. I had been at my wit's ends. Our resources were dwindling. A business venture I had launched with a friend had gone sour. I lost heavily on that. I had mortgaged our house to obtain a loan for my wife's education abroad. So that option was no longer available to me. The uncertainty of my financial situation kept me from seeking financial help from my friends. I didn't know when I would have been able to repay them. However, Dad had some savings from his lifetime of toil in the dank, musty corridors of the government secretariat. His savings, at the very least, were able to avert the everyday crisis in our lives. But more than resources, I guess, it was Dad's failing will to survive that made things worse. Mom breathed her last two years ago. A massive heart attack; she collapsed in the middle of the day doing what she had done all her life. Preparing lunch for family and guests. We rushed her to the hospital but it was too late. Dad was broken man after that. Whenever I suggested a transplant he would say, "What for, son? Let me go in peace".
Then, in the early hours of the morning, one scent-laden April, two years later, Dad said good-bye. I felt numb as I sat in the hearse next to his body and drove to my village 500 miles away from Delhi. My mind was blank. I liked my Dad, then why, at times, did I feel guilt-ridden? Why don't we ever grow up to be the sons that our Dads want us to? In those dying moments we had looked into each other's eyes as we quietly acknowledged each other - no words were uttered, no statements made, no will dictated - just a sinking, all-pervading silence. A father acknowledging a son and vice versa.
Now began the struggle to earn a livelihood. A bank balance that allowed me to walk across the counter and buy a round-trip ticket to US…round-trip? Why? Why would I want to return to India? Why couldn't I just acknowledge the hidden truths of my heart and cross the bridge? Ok! Something to think about later! First, the money. I didn't have enough to start a new venture. I had been out of jobs for too long. I was sure I couldn't get swanky assignments anymore. I had applied to couple of newspapers but they told me I wrote well but given my lack of professional, journalistic writing experience, they were afraid they didn't have a position for me. I tried enrolling as agent on one of those commission-paying jobs - the mutual funds and insurance kind, you know - but soon realized there was no ace salesman within. It was too humiliating to call people up only to face their curt refusal.
I finally applied to a school for a teacher's job. Mercifully, they liked me and gave me the job of teaching the senior secondary class. But the salary was pittance. I kept writing to them, telling them I would visit the following summer, but I barely had enough to survive. Meanwhile, my wife finished her doctorate. Now she had to repay the loan that we had taken. She knew I wasn't in a position to do that. She needed to earn it back. Her Ph.D. secured her a respectable job at a decent middle rung school in US. She started building her life afresh - her immediate objective being the repayment of the loan. Over the next few years she worked hard and, without faltering even once, repaid her loan. Finally, the last installments came up for payment. She flew down with the lovely one to settle the loan and sign the documents that would necessarily free the home. I was seeing them after a long eight-year period. I was overwhelmed by the occasion. I had asked a friend to lend me his car. I was there at the airport all dressed up with flowers. And when I saw them walking down the aisle I was… Anyway, this charming young lady next to my wife floored me. I drove them to my humble abode but soon we had very little to share. I guess, somewhere within, the chord had snapped. Except for exchanging pleasantries and odd bits of information we didn't have anything to share. She was warm, cordial but distant. And my daughter, she seemed loving but unsure as to how to deal with a father who had been absent for eight years.
It was a short visit and, after three weeks, they packed their bags and left. This time I didn't make any promises about visiting them the following summer. We both knew I couldn't make it there. Our initial correspondence soon dried up. She had more and more responsibilities at hand. And, I felt, she had finally found her mooring in life. Perhaps love had blossomed again. My daughter had grown up and was in university now. She was into theatre, music, boyfriends, etc. and an aging father was not a top of the mind thing anymore.
Then one day, I realized that the communication had dried up completely. It had been six months since I last heard from them. By now our marriage was a joke. I didn't know whom to write and what to write. I just wished they were fine.
As I stepped into my flat today, I saw an envelope in the mailbox. I picked it up. The US postage stamp on it put my heart in overdrive. I opened it and found a card inside. But what was this…my heart sank! I think she had come to know of my philandering past. The reason her mother and I had become estranged in the first place. It was one of those cards on recycled paper. Save the environment kinds. Inside were the words,
‘Mom is tying the knot again on Xmas evening. I don’t know you as a father but as my mother’s husband - I Hate You.’
© Murtaza Danish Husain
February 1, 2005