By Lopa Banerjee
“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.” (The Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot)
Her eyes shone like sapphire from the sunken sockets where her nerves met the skin. In the private, secluded island in Hawaii, under the shaded canopy of the tropical beachfront cabana, the dimples on her cheeks danced. Nina unburdened her body in the robust embrace of her man, Thomas, the love of her life, her partner of five years. For these three ecstatic days and nights, the decadent, dreamy island and its aloha spirit embraced them, like a long lost childhood home. The sprawling orchids and the manicured gardens of their beach resort, the waterfalls and the crescent, inviting Pacific dwelled in her eager eyes. She wanted the fleeting moment to freeze in her grip. Together, they unbuttoned themselves under the smoldering caress of the moon.
“Can you remember your best days with me?” Nina clasped his fingers with hers and asked.
“It would depend, really, on what one would think ‘best’ really is!”
“And what do you really mean by that?”
“Well, when I met you in my undergrad days, our mischief, our dancing, our camaraderie, those were the best of days back then. The day when both of us graduated, parted ways for the time to get a grip on the world, only to come back closer together, after your mother’s death. In your grief and surrendering, you were otherworldly and enticing. You delivered one of your best piano recitals those days. Those were also some of the best days.”
Her thoughts glided between her life, then and now. Life had threatened her with its clarion call, which she tried her best to dismiss with her arrogance, her vitality, her quest to live. Her mother’s death had pushed her, vehemently and mercilessly, to a bottomless pit from which she pulled herself out slowly. Thomas’ hands held her aloft. She wrote to him at infrequent intervals about her all girls’ band and shows, about some of her songwriting and musical gigs at local weddings and events, which came to a sudden, abrupt halt.
Thomas had roamed around the bustling city streets at night, alone. He took in the gushing waves of the sea standing for long hours at the pier, feeling the music of Nina’s soft, trembling hands melting in the piano. A year of a meagerly paid internship in San Francisco and a casual fling or two with girls in flamboyant attire and shocking heels impelled him to leave the city. He was back to the grassy patch and the golden hues of fall, the windmills, the icy cold of his hometown, his Kerala-born Christian parents, and to his bespectacled, frizzy haired ‘east-coast sweetheart.’
In the eerie silence of the hospital room, where her mammogram was scheduled, Nina felt a shiver. The cold radiating vibes of the x-ray machine examined her beautifully endowed bosom and hovered over a lump that had sprouted a few months ago.
“There is just a possibility of a benign fatty cell or a simple cyst, but we do not want to take chances.” The gynecologist called her after the routine procedures of ultrasound and MRI were performed.
The tinge of pain and numbness in her body evaporated with Thomas’ warm, alluring hug after the surgery. The soft breath and the smell of her skin and tousled hair pressed against his in the chill of the cold night as he escorted her away from the hospital in a wheelchair.
“Do you think I can perform at the concert in New York?” She asked, expectantly.
“You bet! We both will go this time. And guess what, I am going to feature it in The New York Times too. Now, that was a surprise I didn’t want to reveal earlier!”
“It just seems too good to be true!” Nina’s voice trembled, as tears trickled down her cheeks.
“You just need a few more days of rest at home and a post-operative follow-up, then we would be good to go.”
Five balmy summers back, in a small studio apartment, which both of them shared, facing a quaint lake, their lips and mouths entwined in a cozy little nook of the living area. On a desk nearby, mails from doctors, carrying her biopsy reports, medical records, letters from the insurance company lay scattered and questioning, among piles of books and used DVDs. She was scheduled for her second surgery the very next day, one that would uproot another tumorous growth in one of her breasts. And this time, the solid mass, cancerous and volatile, shook them from their indolent togetherness. Barely a month was left for a small church wedding they both were awaiting, earnestly.
Hand in hand, they walked down to the end of the lake, looking at the azure water-body, trembling in steady, small ripples. Life was a queer concoction of chances that tiptoed in, unknowingly. What lies between today and tomorrow is the heartbeat of the moment, sincere and thriving, they thought, as they sat on a bench by the lakeside, and pondered their choices.
“Are you still going to marry her, the white girl from your college?” Thomas looked into his father’s rebuking, questioning eyes, from the newspaper.
He nodded his head silently.
“She is a cancer patient. Cancer runs in her family. Didn’t her mother die of the same disease? How can you ruin your own life, knowing what the consequences of this decision will be?” His mother, with her muffled voice and teary eyes, implored him to stay back.
“Yes, she had cancer in her thyroid glands. But she was a fighter. We want to remember her for combating it for ten long years, and having a beautiful life, teaching Nina to sing and train her in piano. All this in spite of the surgeries, the medications, and the series of radiations.”
“And now the daughter is going to be in the same loop and you are going to be a partner in this! How incredibly pathetic is that!”
“And you may now kiss the bride,” the priest’s voice, mellow and inviting, reverberated from the height and distance of the altar.
On the verge of making a deep, solemn promise for life, love floated, the strongest swimmer, submerging their resistance and fear. They knew the union, even before the priest in the church had solemnized it, would profoundly change them. The change was irresistible and inevitable. He led the way. Together, they had sworn to take a few steps into the dark, just trusting, before an unknown source of lighting would be showing them the way.
Beneath the white, sparkly wedding gown, Nina’s bosom heaved, the cuts and scrapes of her recent surgery became a trifling pinching ache. She embraced the sudden elemental burst of energy, floating in the arms of her newly-wed husband. There, her lips were locked with her best pal whom she befriended and unfriended, a man whom she had been estranged from and reunited. The love of her life held her tight through her regular doses of drugs, soothing her swollen arms with the intravenous and the tubes tied around her body. The love of her life helped her with her catheter bags, as she leaned against him, stooping, drained out, and stumbling on the bathroom floor.
The night unlocked her bare body. In the thin strip of moonlight reaching them like zigzag curves from the shaded canopy of the tropical trees, he unzipped their sleepwear. The temple of her bruised body, her barren, hollow post-mastectomy chest surrendered to the cuddles, snuggles, and the celebrations of the mighty pregnant darkness of the night. The nip in the air intoxicated them, made them shiver like the first night of their wedded life as the stars adorned their conjoined bodies. The lovers, satiated, consumed, retreated into their resort room at the wake of dawn.
“Has this been one of the best nights with me?” She asked him.
“You bet!” He nodded his head, giving her a furtive glance, a language only the both of them understood.
In the mirror, Nina watched intently at the thin semblance of what once used to be her body. Her hair had dangled all the way past her shoulders, down to her waist, filled with curls and loops that she and her mother had created with painstaking care. For months now, she was irked at the clustered mess of her hair falling, clinging helplessly, creeper-like, to the comb every time she had to brush her nearly-bald scalp.
At the end of each of the long and agonizing sessions inside the bolted doors of the hospital room, a team of oncologists had worked on their radiation. Her heart had pounded with anticipation, hope, and waiting, which gradually gave way to a stoic, unquestioned surrender. Her hope for a new, hopeful tomorrow with Thomas and the possibility of bearing his child became an elusive dream. Over the years of her hospital visits in different cities, the seeds of toxic poisoning had seeped into her body, spreading over her cervix and ovaries. At the bed, every night, Nina grew more impatient, writhing in her inability to conceive a baby. Thomas almost always argued that he didn’t care. All he cared was that she slept beside him every night, wrapped up like a baby, waiting for the morning sun to peep through the window. Towards the end of their everyday fights, they hugged each other in the salty mist of their tears.
…During the twilight hour, Thomas tucked her body in the wheelchair and took her along to Waikiki beach for a cruise ride, to watch out for dolphins jumping, and dancing in the ocean. It was a cruise both of them had enjoyed immensely in their honeymoon trip to Florida. In the Gulf of Mexico, their cruise had sailed for a couple of exhilarating hours when the enthused tour guide kept flashing his smile at the couple while narrating stories of the ocean, of the daily marine life, and took their pictures. They looked at the rays of the setting sun melting away into the deep blue. The guide spotted the dolphins dance for split seconds in waves, splashing water, and, then, dissolving into the ocean.
“Thomas, lift me from the wheelchair. Please, can you? I want to lean against the rails and watch the dolphins dance.”
“Yes, sweetheart, just hold my hand real tight and you will be able to lift your body. Come on, give it a big, hard try. Now, you are very close to making it!”
In their long flight to Hawaii, in their hotel room and along the sea-shore, she had walked intermittently until her muscles got one of those incredible cramps. The cramps, once started, rendered her motionless these days. At this instant, she could not lift her weary legs to stand on the rooftop of the cruise. The physical act of placing one leg after another and holding on to the grips with composure seemed a mammoth task with her irregular, rickety breaths. Her body kept shivering, shrinking, and dissolving in the wheelchair.
She looked into Thomas’ eyes, the convex mirror where she saw herself yet again. She smiled faintly, looking into his eyes where she saw the shadows of her immaculate beauty retaining. For some split seconds, she became a carefree teenager, gliding over the mountain paths of their little upstate New York town, where she and Thomas had biked past the luscious bed of green every summer.
The last few months she knew she would be breathing, she wished to forego the painful, cumbersome medical intervention, the bleached smell of her stay in hospitals. The oncologist friend treating her assured the couple that she was receiving the best cancer drugs, antibiotics, chemo therapy, and even alternative therapy to combat the aggressiveness of her stage 2 triple positive cancer.
“To be honest, at this stage, all we can do is to prevent the cancer from spreading any further. Though the chemos are not really working wonders, we have to wait and watch how her own immune system responds to the therapy she is getting all these years,” he spoke to Thomas in confidence.
She abandoned the last few rounds of her chemo sessions, threw away her drugs – Herceptin and Tamoxifen. Instead of visiting hospitals, they revisited their sleepy little New York town towards the late fall, wandered through the forgotten alleys, familiar streets, trees, lakes, and hills where they had once crossed paths. The arrangement was an active consent, after they had moved to the picturesque state of Washington, which was initially prompted by the urgency of better doctors and more efficient treatment. All she wanted and cared for these days was an unperturbed, painless cessation of life.
…In the wee hours of the night, in their resort room, Nina had sung a song that she had written, a tune she had composed on piano years back, the year her mother had breathed her last. It was the same song, the composition their girls’ band had performed in New York the month she had her first surgery. In the numinous dark of the room, her voice, trembling and frail, like that of a wounded nightingale, wafted in eagerness and love.
“The ripples of life
As they ebb and flow,
The beauty of my strife
As I let it go.
With open hearts, let me bleed and rain.
Sink into my soul, you’ll forget the pain….”
The first rays of the eager sun seeped through the lush curtains of the window of the suite. He had promised her to come back again, after a year, to this picture-perfect island, this very resort and look back at the hurried, crazy celebration of life they had here, together, for one last time.
His hands clasped their picture album from last year, as he held the poem of her surrendering, frail, diminishing body over his palm and kissed their memories in the Waikiki Island. He had imprinted in her mouth his last goodbye, minutes before her burial. Wistfully, slowly, and carefully, he unwrapped their sweet nothings, the passion, the wildness, the impatience, the waiting, the eccentricities, and the differences that held them together.
Between them, the silent earth whispered the presence of her absence. The day rolled on, unfolding the unadulterated hues of his longing and love for her that would stay with him till eternity.
Lopa Banerjee has recently completed her Masters with a thesis in Creative Nonfiction Writing at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She has written a book-length memoir and also a poetry collection. She is a regular contributing author to ‘Café Dissensus Everyday’, B’Khush.com, ‘Morsels and Juices’ and ‘Learning and Creativity’. Her poetry and creative nonfiction work have also appeared at print and online anthologies including ‘About Place Journal’, ‘Northeast Review’, ‘Indian Review’, ‘Prairie Fire’, ‘Fine Lines journal’, ‘River Poets’ Journal’ and ‘13th Floor Magazine’. She has also participated in the Kriti Festival of Literature and Arts in Chicago as a panelist and reader.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issues of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “The Indian Jewry” (Edited by Dr. Navras Jaat Aafreedi).