When I left your bed at 8 PM on Monday with your beautiful family around you, I promised you that I will visit you the next morning. Perhaps you did not hear me with all the struggle you were going thru – gasping for breath. Or perhaps I should spoken up a little bit so you could hear me.
The next morning came for me. But not for you.
Ruffling my fingers thru your sweaty hair while you lay on the bed, it felt very strange. This was the first time – in the one year that I knew you and have visited you at least forty to fifty times – I actually went in to your room. Every single time I visited you, I found you in the common area and that is where we spent all our time.
It was so strange to see you lying down without any movement. Before that you were the person who could not sit down. The only way for me to spend time with you was to walk next to you as you kept walking up and down the corridors. Purposelessly. Incessantly. Always whispering something to yourself. The only reaction I would get out of you was when I gave you a handshake. Inexplicably, you would burst into a smile. How many ever times I repeated it – that was your acknowledgement. Unfailingly.
You never told me about your son and your daughter. I got to meet them for the first time on Monday night. You never told me that you were part of the armed forces. I saw the certificate in your room. For that matter you never told me anything! Or to anybody else. I learnt from your wife that at the young age of 48, you had started deteriorating. I got to know you about twenty years after that.
By that time, you had lost your ability to say anything. I would ask you simple questions. You would stop. Look at me for a long time. As if you were trying to process what I had said. You would then mumble something – that was barely audible or coherent for me. I would nod. And away we would go shuffling down the narrow corridors of the hospice again.
Last couple of months started being different. Your walks got slower. And for the first time, I saw you tentatively sit down and doze off in the sofa between your walks. It was there for everybody to see that you had started to slow down.
Till you stopped entirely on Monday night.
Ours was a relationship borne out of silence. Its strength was never rooted in words. It was in the time we spent together silently.
Without a word you came into my life.
Without a word you went away.
But I had to put in a few words for you to remember our time together!
“I hope to meet you down the road again”. Those were the last words we had exchanged on Friday, 9th September 2016. You can read the full story here https://www.rajibroy.com/?p=11642 – how I had a chance meeting with Doug at Chicago O’hare airport. He was selling for an utility company. I was trying to catch a flight.
Our exchange was short initially. But my flight got delayed by 17 minutes. Sensing an window of opportunity, I had walked back to him and had a deeper discussion with him. He had said something that I have never forgotten till this day. I think I had asked him about his experience selling those utility subscription at the airport. His words were “I hate the way people treat me like ####. You will be amazed how people will show me the hand and walk away. I know they are in a hurry. But why treat me like I am below them? I am just trying to do my job.”
“I am just trying to do my job”. Those words had rankled in my mind long enough that ever since I make conscious effort to be gentle with sales people that accost me. Especially those who have been trying to sell me more and more Delta Amex credit cards every week in Atlanta airport!
I get ridiculed by my family for making friends with everybody in Facebook. And in life. But I am incorrigible. My family readily agrees with that. Doug and I became Facebook friends and on his birthday every year, we kept up with each other.
Then, this week, one more window of opportunity opened up. I was in Chicago getting the decks ready for the announcement of the new company and my job there. I had a breakfast slot open. Doug readily agreed to make the 40 mile trek to catch up face to face one more time.
That was an wonderful hour. Got to know about Doug’s background and his kids and wife. We had a great time talking about learning from life’s lessons. Ever gracious, Doug had some great stories from his life that ranged from being hilarious to poignant. He is a great dad! He is a great husband!!
As he left after our breakfast, I reflected on our friendship. He was a complete stranger. And yet fate put us in a collision path – and we were destined to be friends. All the flight that day had to do was leave on time – and I would have never had a second chance with Doug. But, the flight was delayed. Two years later, that resulted in a wonderful breakfast and I got to know a genuine human being.
Long time back I had once expressed my thoughts about this kind of random meetings and then re-meetings in the following way…
In life – like in runs – we start from different points and end at different points. The line between those points – or the speed at which we traverse the line – does not define us. What defines us are the intersection points with others’ lines. For, it is in those intersection points that life offers us the opportunities to acknowledge each other’s journey, celebrate each other’s presence and make a difference to each other’s lines.
And that journey is what it is all about.
That is why we live. That is why we run.
I toast to your good health, Doug! Also, happy birthday, a few days in advance!!
It was almost 8 PM by the time I sank into the empty chair in Delta’s Skyclub in Chicago, suitably tired after a whole day’s worth of meetings. My flight kept getting delayed and it was getting increasingly clear that I was not going to reach home before 2 am in the morning. Not having anything better to do, I shut off the laptop, tucked in my papers and pen and grabbed a glass of wine.
Turning towards the elderly gentleman sitting next to me, I asked: “You are headed to Atlanta too?”
He: “Yes, sir! You too, I presume?”
Me: “Indeed. It is going to be fun trying to get back home tonite”
He: “Atlanta is home for you?”
Me: “Yes. You too, I presume?”
He: “Not really. I have to get to Nashville from Atlanta. I am going to miss my flight. Probably will get a flight early in the morning”
Me: “Do you know the Atlanta area? Do you need help with hotels?”
He: “Thank you. My granddaughter has already booked me at a hotel next to the airport”.
Me: “Great! I am Rajib, by the way”.
He: “Charles. That name – you are from India, are you not?
Me: “Indeed! Have you ever visited India?”
He: “Visited? I used to work there.”
That was surprising. I have met elderly Americans who were in India during the world war but not too many who actually worked there.
Me: “You worked there? What were you doing?”
He: “I was in construction that time. We were doing projects for power stations”
Me: “Which parts of India?”
He: “Around the borders of West Bengal and Bihar. I do not remember the exact names but this was all around coal mines there”
That was exciting. I am from that area.
Me: “Asansol. Purulia. Raniganj. Chotta Nagpur. Do any of those names mean anything to you?”
He struggled to remember – “I think they are familiar. Something is coming back to me. We were about four hours of train journey from Calcutta. Calcutta had some great British clubs.”
By this time, I was excited enough to blurt out quickly – “Believe it or not, I am actually from the area where you used to work. A place called Durgapur – which is only a few miles from those places you remember”.
He seemed more surprised than me.
Charles… Nashville… Construction projects… West Bengal… really old person…I kept musing…
“Wait a minute. This was in the 50s. right?”, I asked.
“Yes. Sound about right”
“Were you with Tennessee Valley Authority?”
“That is the only company I have ever worked for. How do you know about that?”
“You are just not going to believe what I am going to tell you now. I actually know you. Or rather, I have heard about you.”
“Really? From who?”
“Do you remember a Rakhahari Ghosh when you worked in India?”
He drew a complete blank.
“You called him RG, I believe. Apparently, you had handpicked him and given him a double promotion”.
“Something seems to come back to me. A thin, short boy, if I remember correctly. He was very hard working. Most hard working of the lot”
“Yeah, that would be a good description.”
He seemed to be somewhat lost in thoughts..
“He left me, I think, after some time”
“Yes, against your wishes, he left the job”
“I think he wanted to join a government job”.
“Yes, again! He took a job with the Indian Railways”.
“So, how do you know him?”
“Rather well. I married his daughter. He is my father-in-law. And he will be thrilled to bits to hear your voice. Do you mind if I call him up right now?”
“Sure. I will be impressed if he remembers me still.”
“He does,” I assured him as I speed-dialed my father-in-law.
Just as he picked up the phone on the other side, the PA system came alive in the Skyclub drowning his voice.
Strangely, instead of the lady coming over the PA system with yet another announcement of delay, it was the sound of a dog growling loudly.
I woke up from my bed, startled.
Sitting up, on the verge of breaking into a sweat, I realized that I was dreaming all this time. I came in very late (actually very early this morning) and had gone off to bed immediately. Even the dog was too asleep to realize it. Now he had figured it out and was on my bed wanting attention.
Half sleepily, as I gave him a belly rub, my thoughts went back to that day in 2014, when my father in law and I were sitting around the kitchen and over a cup of coffee, he told me the story of his first job and how he had always regretted later going for a government job per his parents’ wishes. He wished he had stayed back with Charlie.
Somewhere, in the back of my mind that day, I had made a note… What if I found out Charlie some day? What if I ran into him? How cool would it be to put him and my father-in-law together again? That would just be an incredible chapter in my life.
The chapter in my life, unfortunately will remain incomplete forever.
We lost my father-in-law a few weeks back.
Instead of closing out the chapter, I choose to put a “…to be continued” in the end.
After 10 days of frustratingly scrambling thru the refrigerator searching for stuff, I finally gave in today and organized the whole dang thing by categories. While not exactly following a Dewey decimal system, the post-its at least spell out the categories. In the process, I managed to come up with an empty shelf too. I was so pleased with myself that I called Nikita to show off my organization powers.
“Do you like how I have organized everything?”
“You know what she will say, right?”
“I CAN’T FIND ANYTHING, ANYWHERE”
Somewhat deflated, I asked “You do not know that.”
“I should know, dad”
“Because that is what I do to her when she tries to organize my bedroom”.
I did not even take a picture of the “before” situation to undo everything!!
About 9:30 am last morning
Me (on the phone): “Rajib here”
Mom: “How are you?”
Me: “Good. Today is dad’s birthday, right?”
I go thru the next part of the movie pretty much every single year the same way.
Mom (incredulously): “It is your dad’s birthday, today?”
And then I could hear her informing dad – “Did you know it is your birthday today?”
Dad, like every year, gave a hollow laugh and pronounced that nobody his age actually celebrates their birthday.
It is then that I pointed out to my mom over the phone that this was a big birthday for him. His 80th, in fact!
That got mom excited even more. “Did you know you turned eighty today?”
I could not hear any response from him. I was pretty sure he was doing the math in his head.
As anticipated, after a few seconds, I could hear him “Of course!”
Then I could hear him say “Dyakh! Merey ketey aasir ghorey dhukey porlam”. Not sure how to translate this but it would roughly mean he managed to drag and scream himself into his eighties.
After a few more minutes, I kept the phone down.
Next call. My sister.
The phone was switched off. Dang!
Tried a second number. She picked up!
Me: “What happened to your main mobile?”
She: “I have it switched off”
She: “It is a touch mobile”. (meaning smartphone in our lingo here)
She: “No, Rima plays with the apps and gets distracted from her studies”
Me: “Ok. Did you know it is dad’s birthday today?”
She: “It is not his birthday today”
Me: “When is his birthday?”
She: “Aug 28th”
Me: “It is a big one for him. He turns 80 today”
She: “No. he does not”.
You will be surprised that for somebody who did not even realize what date it was how confident my sister can be that I am wrong!
Me: “He was born in 1938. He is 80 today.”
She: “Ok. I need to keep the phone down”
Me: “Why? I just started talking…”
She: “I need to call Ashok to get a cake”. (Ashok being my brother in law)
Me: “Why don’t you use your other phone… Oh! Never mind”! I had a quick flashback of smartphone… internet… apps… niece… etc etc etc. I get it.
About an hour later, this picture showed up on my WhatsApp. I can only imagine what must have happened. First, my sister would have commandeered my brother in law to get a cake. Armed with that cake for her granddad, my niece must have walked into my dad’s place and shaken him out of his bed. You can see the general reluctance written all over my dad’s face.
It sure looks like he had been waiting with that knife in his hand for a few minutes as my niece tried to take a picture. Only to realize that the “touch mobile” was off 🙂
I even got a video of everybody singing Happy Birthday to him!! The video showed him cutting the cake.
What is the big deal?, you may ask. Actually I myself did not realize it. It was Nikita who pointed something out. “He is using his right arm to cut the cake”, she had observed!
It was his right side that had gotten paralyzed after the brain stroke exactly a year back. He had absolutely no functional capability on the right side of the body. In fact, his hand used to dangle like a dead limb and he would not even realize when he rolled over his hand in awkward positions while sleeping (thereby potentially running the risk of breaking bones).
That has been a story of a remarkable recovery.
This morning I called my mom and asked how were the surprise birthday celebrations.
Forget the celebrations. She could not say enough about the ingenuity of human kind that instead of putting eighty candles on the cake (and wasting a lot of stuff), we had simply figured out how to make a candle in the shape of a “8” and another one in the shape of “0”.
I think I need to get myself to Kalyani soon again! Missing out on too much fun!
Every year, the local Bengali community asks me to write something for their annual publication. Usually, I pick something from my blog and then send it to them. This year, they asked me to put together a few blogs and write out a longer piece.
Which I did. With a lot of effort. After finishing it, I waited a day and then did a read over. Corrected a lot of mistakes that I had and changed a few of the constructs.
Then I had a brainwave. Since we have a budding journalist in our house, I sent it to Natasha and asked her if she could edit it for me.
I think she paid me back for all her workbook corrections I did when she was younger! Not only did she make a lot of edits, she put a 10-bullet point note in the beginning – on common mistakes I make that I should avoid. The last one was 5 sentences long in bold and beautiful font!!! And now I know what a “em dash” is!!
That said, she did give it a very polished look. After looking at what she has done to my initial script, I am tempted – a wee bit – to actually write a book about my life journey – provided Natasha agrees to edit it.
I can visualize the title page already…
“History of my Future. First Draft.”
Written by: Rajib Roy
(Liberally) Edited by: Natasha Roy
Learnt the difference between a professional and an amateur today!
“Dad, you are a nerd”
“Oh! Yeah? I have been called worse. So, there!”
She shook her head and went on to the kitchen to warm her milk.
What earned me that sobriquet this early morning at the breakfast table was the fact I was trying to put a jigsaw puzzle of African countries together. You can be forgiven if you are equally confused about why on God’s green earth would I wake up early in the morning to do jigsaw puzzles.
Well, it happened the other day. Natasha was on her way from Paris to Accra, Ghana to start her fall semester. The flight was half way done, time wise. Nikita had asked me how far had she reached. I started to answer her “She will be roughly above….”. And I never managed to finish that sentence. I actually had very poor understanding of the geographical location of the different countries in Africa. Most other continents, given two countries, I can name – with reasonable accuracy the likely countries she will be flying over. But when it came to Africa, all I could think about was the the big Sahara desert!
Coming to think of it, while I had a vague idea of where Ghana is (I remember Mrs. Bhowmic teaching us about cocoa production n Ghana), I could not name a single country that borders the country my daughter was headed to!! I remember in school we had learnt a lot about the countries in other continents. But do not seem to remember studying a lot about Africa. Of course, it does not help that Africa has way too many countries!!
Curious how many countries I could name in Africa, I started jotting them down. And challenged Nikita to the same. After a lot of effort, I could remember about 35 of them. I thought I would have completely trounced Nikita. She beat me by about 10 countries! And then when we Googled, we learnt that even she had missed 10 countries!!!
If that was bad, try this. She asked me if I could tell locate the various countries are. I got about half a dozen right. And about half a dozen more if you allow “rough vicinity” to be the pass mark. The rest, I had no idea where they were (other than vague North, South, East, West etc.).
That is what triggered that realization that I need to do something about my ridiculous ignorance of the second largest continent of the world. What I did was, unlike most sane people, ordered a jigsaw puzzle of Africa (countries as individual jigsaw pieces) from Amazon. This morning, armed with a cup of coffee and pen and paper, I sat down to study the map.
“You just watch. In 3 months I will master Africa. I will learn about each country, their capital and some cool facts about each country”, I told my incredulous younger daughter.
“Yeah. You might want to do that faster”
“Why?”, I asked.
“They keep having rebellions and split into different countries”, she said as she took her cup of milk out of the microwave.
You know, maybe that is why I never learnt anything about Africa in childhood. They kept changing the count on me 🙂