I found you in my darkest hour. I found you when I was on my knees. I found you in a river of pure emotion. And your light brought me back again.
Since grandma’s passing a whirlwind of events ensued; each being progressively more bizarre than the other. Grandpa, a man whom I barely knew and much to the surprise of everyone, decided to stay and take control of household activities; immediately turning from mysterious magical being to eccentric old caretaker. He hadn’t taken over mom’s rule-making authority (yet) but he had already laid claim over major responsibilities like refurbishing the rooms, cleaning the house and gardening.
Before I knew it, he was sending me to school, much to my initial apprehension.
I genuinely had no qualms of my grandfather being present as my guardian, in fact, his constant, growing integral presence in my life had even made me come to love him. But alas, school was a superficial place for the impressionable age group. So when he appeared in my mother’s place to collect my report card one day, decked in his elbow patched leather jacket, starry blue shirt and favourite steel-rimmed sunglasses; I felt equal amounts of awe and mortification.
Some of the kids thought he was bonkers, my friends thought he was really cool. The teachers would not admit it, but I noticed the way their jaws would drop slightly when grandpa would manage to enrapture an entire classroom of rowdy students to silence just by emptying the contents of his pockets in search for a pen. “Sir, no hassle, got one right here,” offered my Maths teacher once he found his voice after a sheathed dagger joined a lighter and some chewing gum on the table. “Yes,” agreed grandpa as he continued to reach around his bottomless coat pocket. “But, it’s not my pen.” I swear at that moment, I smiled so wide on the inside, my cheeks burned in anticipation. Seeing the source of my nightmares powerless in the company of my grandpa was priceless. It was the start of something revolutionary and hence, became quite possibly the best guardian-teacher meeting I had ever had.
Though grandpa was always around; either tip-toeing on our rooftop like an agile orangutan, fluffing grandma’s cushion for the hundredth time or even peering over my shoulder when he thought I wasn’t looking, he remained as silent as a shadow. Besides the occasional tease of what looked like a map tucked within the folds of his daily newspaper, his plans were beyond me. According to grandma (which makes this a legend), he had the ability to vanish, without warning and without a trace. “Never get too attached, or you’ll end up hurt,” she would warn us “because my Sirius has feet with no roots. And when he leaves, he doesn’t look back.”
But as I regarded the man in question over my breakfast cereal as he tinkered in the garden ahead, I couldn’t help but feel she was wrong. Through the stained glass, I studied him without restriction. He looked like a colourful albeit distorted lawn gnome, hunched in front of that one rose bush we had with his sunglasses, feet firmly planted in the ground, hands busy with the shears, pruning away meticulously. This was the Sirius I knew. A side of him, grandma never got to see. Yet he still wasn’t my Sirius, and nor I think, was he ever hers. Sirius never belonged to anyone but himself. He was not selfish, he just had his own agenda. Grandma would say sarcastically that ‘he had a purpose much higher than what mere mortals could comprehend.’ Granted, grandma had a flair for being dramatic and unfortunately over time, delusional. However, I did sense some ancient truth in her words. And because I knew close to nothing beyond an interpretation of him by a bitter woman who suffered Alzheimer’s, I found myself willing to forgive him. It was unfair judging a man based on a person he was that I never knew. Maybe I was ignorant, selfish or just a child, she would have said. Then maybe those traits just run in the family.
Halfway through a mental argument trying to justify myself to imaginary grandma, I failed to realise grandpa had completed his pruning outside. I watched with my eyes glazed over as he stood, arched backwards in a long crackly stretch and sheathed his pruning scissors into his pocket with flourish. I remember almost choking on my last bits of my Cornflakes when he turned his head just slightly to give me a knowing wink that startled me out of my thoughts. “Hi grandpa!!” I flushed immediately, hand sticking up and waving on its own accord, ignoring the fact that he would not be able to hear me. I barely made out his smirk as he swaggered out of sight with a bundle of packaged stems by his side.
It’s true there’s no telling when grandpa would leave, or disappear, or join grandma in the stars, but as I passed Mam’s old room and noticed a fresh spring of roses sitting by the window again, like I did every week, I believed one thing for certain: no matter where he decided to go from here, he had stayed with us long enough to say his first goodbye. It was slow and drawn out but the crimson blooms spoke the words he could not.
I just wish he didn’t have to wait till she was gone to let her know.
Amidst all this, mom threw herself into her work. Maybe that was her way of coping with grief.
Ever since dad left without reason (still not sure if we were more relieved or sad when he did), she had to support the family all on her own, which really didn’t make things that much different since it was what she had been doing all along, even when he was still with us. Except now, she didn’t have to pay for the fact that he could never keep a job of his own. One would think life would’ve been easier for her.
“She’s barely around,” I wrote to Millie, who came down to visit twice a year during semester breaks. “I only see her at dinners and even then all she talks about is how hospital went. Grandpa seems pretty interested but then again, he always is when mom has something to say because he hadn’t heard her voice in centuries. When she does ask about me, it always feels like a rhetorical question. I can’t wait till you get back Millie,” tears threatened to fall, much to my chagrin, as I wrote her name. I added an important post-script. “Also, Grandpa is pretty decent.”
Millie was my best friend, for a long time. With mom and dad always at odds, we were as thick as thieves. She was a wonderful human being; much like light trapped in the form of a girl. She radiated happiness and energy. She was the Tinkerbell to my Peter. With ten years between us, I should have been surprised how life hadn’t got in the way sooner. Real life as in, the result of growing up. She was an adult now, with real worries, not unlike the ones faced by mom. Her responses only became more succinct with each passing letter. To the last one I ever sent her, she acknowledged only with, “I miss you too.”
It scared me, at that time. How alone I really was. Grandpa was a strange passive man, and though it was a task to just initiate a conversation with him, I believe, in our loneliness, we found common ground. I used to wonder if mom ever got lonely.
You see, Mom worked at a hospital in the heart of the city with the busiest, biggest emergency unit in the state. Nobody stayed still for long enough to form lasting connections. Despite that, it never seemed to drain the life out of her as she enjoyed every minute of it. When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always answered, “A nurse, just like my mom.” To which everyone (i.e.: patronising backward adults who think they know everything) would stare at me oddly, and laugh as my ambitions were apparently ‘skewed’ by the fact that I didn’t have a father to guide me. Unbeknownst to them was how she carried my world on her shoulders all while dad struggled to keep from dropping it. And when it finally slipped from his fingers, she even picked all my shattered pieces; not wanting me to get hurt. They didn’t know my mother was a superhero.
However, ever since grandma died, her dedication for public service went next level. She began doing full-day shifts, which often left grandpa to worry about my existence while she was not around. One the first day of her absence, I recall him being mildly offended at the fact that I was surprised he could cook. “How did you think I survived all those months without your grandma’s cooking?” he would rasp as he fixed my lunch indignantly. In the little that he did say, he would never fail to somehow discreetly mention his wife. If Millie were here, she would have thought that was really sweet.
Mom was almost always around for dinner, which was a relief, as while I did appreciate sharing grandpa’s diet from World War II, I did miss the equally simple concept of pizza and take-away that mom would acquire on late nights. I also missed her, period.
Even though I did sometimes zone out and nod at the right times when she would report her day back to us, it was worth watching the spirit in her ignite with enthusiasm again. There was one tale that I would never forget; a tragic albeit generic case for an ER nurse that stuck with us forever.
According to the doctors, both she and her child had nearly no chance of surviving the birth. According to mom, the woman was a kindred spirit, who despite her past of bad decisions, loved her unborn child and wished a safe happy life for it. That was the first time I learnt about the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. Days turned into weeks; every dinner, the chances of the mother’s survival became thinner and thinner. It was like watching a serial drama play out in real life; with every dinner nearing the end revealing heightening escalations in the story. Naturally, our lives became entangled in it.
“She’s barely sustaining herself,” mom said grimly one night as she bit into her defrosted peas and carrots. “What about her baby?” I asked worriedly. Mom stopped eating. “I’m praying for him,” she said solemnly. “We should all pray for him.”
“Ok,” I mumbled and the dinner table suddenly became really quiet as mom appeared to be lost in her thoughts. Picking up on her distress, grandpa offered a word of advice. “Everything happens for a reason, Andy,” he said. “Some things are just beyond our control. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.”
That seemed to sufficiently wake mom up as she cut her eyes to her father. “You’re saying as if you know what’s going to happen Dad,” said mom, sounding frustrated. “What about all that crap about Schrondinger’s cat? Look, I may not be a physicist. I’m a nurse. But we both know and we’ve both seen, that there is always a chance.”
Neither of us wanted to crush mom’s optimism with statistics and probability after that. After all, life constantly surprises us by doing things we can’t explain. Sometimes, it even gives us what we want most; most of the time, it does not. Only time will tell that it always gives us what we need.
True enough, when Millie was down for Christmas a month later, mom decided to announce slowly and tearfully that she was adopting. Apparently, whilst the poor diseased mother met her maker, the baby had miraculously survived childbirth. It should have come as no surprise judging by how attached she had obviously got to the patient but the silence that followed was still deafening. All I could hear was the hopeless buzzing noise you get when a shot goes off beside your ears.
Grandpa and Millie said at the same time in both very different tones; cutting through the dead sound. Grandpa sounded exasperated whilst Millie’s voice could only be matched with words that came out of her next. “Are you insane?” she shouted. You see, Millie didn’t know about the HIV saga. She wasn’t there for all the dinners every day; listening to that boy’s mother dying. The words in the letters she skimmed through could not convey the tears that fell from mom’s eyes as she looked down at her food trying to hide them. She wasn’t here to gradually notice mom’s absence at night when she was at the hospital not for another odd hour shift, but as a friend sitting with another, helping her get through the night. Because just like how solitude offered grandpa and I friendship, it helped her too.
“I’ve sorted the legalities. In a couple of months, I’ll have full custody of Jacob,” mom said steadily, in a way that left no more room for argument. There was a brief silence. Millie appeared to have a million things to say whilst grandpa chose to say nothing at all.
“Jacob?” repeated my older sister. Despite her questions, she believed that was the most important one. Mom’s eyes flickered and she nodded firmly, “It’s the name that she chose.”
“Right, the name his mother chose,” said Millie blurted sardonically and in a second, I could feel a suffocating layer of tension settle in the air. Just as Grandpa opened his mouth to wisely intervene, mother’s composure expired.
“He needs a home, Amelia. You wouldn’t understand because unlike him and a fraction of the world, you were fortunate to be born into one.” Millie and I flinched. Somehow it felt like she was addressing both of us. Nevertheless, she pressed on. “Cecile, yes his birth mother, wanted him to have the home she could never give him. Now, I know things are going to be different here. Millie, George, you’ll have a new brother! And I’ll have to work harder now that we have an extra mouth to feed. But we can make this work. Dad,” she paused, looking pleadingly at her father as if waiting for him to say something; perhaps an approval. When grandpa simply stared at her, still choosing his next words to say carefully, I didn’t blame him. All of us were still reeling from the shock. How did this even happen so quickly? Why was she doing this?
“Mom, slow down,” Millie said cautiously, as if attempting to calm down a provoked beast. “This is reality so please think this through. You can’t be the hero of your own story. There’s not always going to be a happy ending. I’m sorry that grandma died. I know she was all you had growing up but you can’t save everyone.”
It’s not your fault she’s gone, you tried. You are on the verge of exhaustion! This child could break you. Please, mom-
“Everything happens for a reason,” mom said firmly; through Millie and directly to grandpa whose eyes suddenly lit with an emotion I couldn’t pin down. “This happened because it was meant to be. The universe decided this boy should be given a chance to survive. Not in any universe, but in this one right here, where I am. And therefore, it has become my duty to help him use his chance to live. This is not my story. This is his. And I’m going to love this boy enough for everyone.”
Whilst Millie was rendered speechless, Grandpa smiled softly. “Is it just Jacob then?” he asked and I could tell then he was proud.
Mom looked over the moon and just like that, my heart simply swelled. The part of her that was selfless even when she was being selfish; the part of my mother that wanted to save the world, was finally winning. With grandma in mind, she grinned “I was thinking, Rose.”
to be continued..
© 2016 THEWILDTINKER ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Image credit: ‘Star explosion leaves behind a Rose’ – NASA, 2011.