The ordered chaos in the room makes me zone out again. There are enough people here to make me feel claustrophobic. There are so many people speaking at a time that it feels like bees are buzzing in my ears. There is only one sound that I can perceive distinctly; the only sound no one else in the room is paying attention to; the speaker playing an old Hindi classic on the Casio.
I was never fond of these songs. The 40s, the 50s and the most loved 70s. Ironically, I do know most of them. This one running in background was the instrumental version of the Kishore song ‘ye shaam mastani’.
There was only one more person in the room who was listening. He also whistled along and I could not help but think of a certain someone I can never really stop thinking about. Sameer would also whistle along these classics whenever we ran off to long drives. Even though he was nothing like Sameer, my mind just wandered to his memory. Well, my mind did not need much to dwell in the past. It was always something trivial.
My attention was divided into three equal pieces. One part was focused on the tunes of the Casio, the second part was reliving some old memories with Sameer, while the last chunk of my attention was dedicated to the man at the other end of the room who whistled along the song.
His eyes found mine from the distance and he smiled at me. I returned a faint smile and continued staring at him. He broke eye contact and continued walking on his crutches. He needed a little countdown every time he took a step after a pause, and as he had paused to look at me, he did a small 1…2…3… in his head before he moved his crutches ahead.
I know that Matthew does not look into my eyes purposely. He avoids me visibly. Maybe because he knows I can see right through him. He chats with everyone in the therapy room but never with me.
Mr Khan is too cranky because of his Parkinson’s. But Matthew finds a way to motivate him. He halts his walking routine everyday just to push him a little and motivate him to exercise. Nina Aunty is just like Matthew. Motivated. She takes the sessions very seriously and no doubt has shown progress. They sort of have a healthy competition over recovery. But frankly, their situations aren’t comparable.
She has had stroke on both sides, separately. But her function has returned to some extent and there is some hope for her. While Matthew, well, there is nothing that can be done about him. How much ever he tries, he will never be able to walk without his crutches and orthotics. He would never see a life outside of a diaper. He would never have sex again. He would never be able to join his battalion back.
Frankly, I don’t understand how he gets up every day and does not want to die? How has he managed to come so far and that too with a smile on his face?! Hell, that smile is not even real. I see it struggling to form every day. The way he needs a countdown to put his crutches ahead in front of him, I see him saying a small 1…2…3… in his head before he forms a smile on that face of his. He just keeps on distracting himself from his inadequacies and focuses on what he can do with what he has.
I just don’t understand how! I can’t even look at my own child with affection even after seven years of trying. I just can’t let go of my pain. I can’t think of a single moment in these seven years when I have been happy or smiled genuinely or tried to be anything but miserable! Not even for Ishaan, my own son!
I see him walk around the room, chatting with all the patients, even some therapists. All of them exchanging pleasantries like there is nothing wrong in this room. Like everyone is whole. And they have just paid so much for physical therapy because they need a place to socialise. Façade. Masks. Everyone is wearing them. The patients, the therapists, the relatives. None of them seems to acknowledge how difficult it is to go through what they are going through. Or they have become accustomed? Have they accepted? Does it not pain after a while?
How am I so miserable then? Why could I not accept anything? Why seven years were also not enough to make me come to terms with my pain? Why Matthew could smile within six months of his accident and encourage others and I would zone out the moment I would hand Ishaan to his doctor? She must be thinking what a terrible mother I am. I don’t care if my child learns to do anything. I don’t play with him, encourage him. I just sit. Fulfil my responsibility of bringing him for physical therapy.
And she may not be wrong. I am a terrible mother. I am probably the reason my child has cerebral palsy in the first place. And yes, I don’t care. In fact, these sessions are the only time when I can get some break form my child. Taking care of him is a full time responsibility. The only thing I can do with my life. The only thing I don’t want to do with my life.
Matthew has completed one circle around the room and our eyes meet again. I never really stopped looking at him. He is uncomfortable with my gaze. Maybe I look at him with too much intensity. Maybe my eyes blame him for being so optimistic. He never really tells me anything. Maybe he is afraid that I would snap. Maybe I would snap. I don’t know.
Ishaan loves him. Every time he comes near our mat where Ishaan’s therapy takes place, he and Ishaan make faces at each other. Ishaan is just learning to walk. Although he is seven, most of his milestones are delayed, his limbs are weak and stiff. They say it is some tonal abnormality. Botox helped him a little physically, but his development is still very slow. He cannot even compensate his weaknesses by his intelligence. He is simply, disabled.
I tried calling him special. Like everyone does. I tried accepting his short-comings like all these people in the room were accepting theirs. Like all the other parents did for their children. I couldn’t.
Matthew almost reached our mat. And for the first time, I saw Ishaan running. He ran to Matthew and tried to hug him. He lost balance, Matthew lost balance. They both fell. Matthew’s doctor who would walk behind him for such tricky situations tried to hold him down. Ishaan’s therapist also leaped to save him. A few other people helped Matthew sit on his wheel chair. Surprisingly, Ishaan didn’t cry. He was laughing instead.
I was glued to my seat. There was nothing I could’ve done anyway. A few judgemental eyes looked at me with disgust. I had learned long ago to not care about what people thought of me. So much for calling him ‘special’ and ‘differently abled’! No one could treat him like a normal kid how much ever they pretended to! If a normal child had fallen while running, nobody would’ve made such a fuss. I may be brutal, but at least I wasn’t fake. That fall was harmless. It didn’t even harm his self-confidence.
Although, I could see Matthew’s self-confidence shake. He hated when people had to help him. He wanted to learn to do everything on his own much sooner than he could. It was remarkable in its own way that he transferred himself from wheelchair to bed, bed to wheelchair and then wheelchair to crutches on his own. He wore his own orthotic without aid and tried to do everything he could without assistance. He hated that his physio kept walking behind him, but times like these, he had to admit that he needed her to break his fall.
I eyed him with bitter triumph. This time he didn’t break eye contact either. I understood why he didn’t address me in general. My eyes shook his hope. He saw a great deal of reality reflected in them. But now, his hope was already shaken, he didn’t need to look away to keep it in place.
Ishaan’s therapist declared his session to be over. I smiled at her mechanically. Then I smiled at Ishaan with a little warmth. I maybe bitter, but he was my child. He grabbed my hand and we were headed towards the exit. Matthew declared himself done for the day and dragged his wheelchair behind us. I had a feeling he would strike a conversation today. It had almost been six months of silent communication between us.
“Hey Neha!” he called me, just like I had predicted. I stopped for him to catch up.
We turned. Ishaan was more than happy to see Matthew around. I, on the other hand, didn’t know how to handle the situation.
“Yes, Matthew.” I was curt.
He smiled. Rather smirked. I hated it on his face. Resented it. Really!
“Hating is your hobby or something?” he asked upfront, quite casually.
“Get to the point, Matthew.”
“You know it, Neha. I don’t need to be more verbose.” He said looking at me intently.
I found myself melting. I realised that I wasn’t the only one who could see through him. He could do the same. And this hadn’t happened to me in seven years. No one really understood me, not even my parents!
“I don’t hate. I resent you. I resent your optimism, your will power, your motivation! I.AM.BITTER. Happy?”
He only smiled. And it wasn’t even a triumphant smile. It was so full of kindness that I hated him even more! DAMN. Do I really hate him?
“This. Exactly this. You think that whatever might happen, you can always smile! Who are you? Are you some angel who used to live in heaven? Are you god???? What are you?!! TELL ME!!”
“Jeez. Calm down, Neha! You know that your child can hear you right?”
I took a deep breath. Exhaled it all. Turned. Began walking to my car.
“Neha!” Matthew tried to catch up on his wheelchair.
I don’t know why I stopped.
He was sitting next to be as I stood holding Ishaan’s hand. Ishaan tried to hug him again, only this time, nobody fell. Matthew returned his gesture.
“How can you not love this child?” he asked me genuinely.
I smiled. What else could I do? I didn’t know how exactly I was supposed to answer that question.
“You think I have an option here? He was inside me, he was a part of me!! I don’t get to choose whether to love him or not. Biology established our love right when I discovered I was having him. Even though abortion statistics are so high, no woman can go through it without extreme mental trauma. So stop judging me for not being fake!”
He simply raised his brows at me! God, he was so exasperating!!!
“I was nineteen! NINETEEN! When I discovered I was pregnant. I was such a strong, fierce woman. I did everything with passion. I was in my second year of law school. I had three more years to graduate. I was so upfront in my classes, during case discussions, on the stage, on the field. And when I fell in love, I did that with ferocity too. I was reckless. So was he. We were two crazy youngsters, drunk on the idea of love. When I told him that we had not been responsible, he said, we made a baby and being a dad is as responsible I can get in life.”
I realised why I hated Matthew so much. Even though he was very different from Sameer, he had the same ability of generating euphemisms. Matthew unconsciously reminded me of Sameer!
“I was not too sure, but we had been pretty late in the discovery and the doctor wasn’t very keen on abortion on health and development grounds. Of course, our parents were involved by then. The doctor suggested adoption, where we directly hand the child to infertile parents. But Sameer badly wanted to be a dad! We had arguments for days!! I had my dreams, my education, my career ahead. I was too young to be a mom. He was too young for being a dad! He was just three years senior to me. We had no jobs, no finances. It was an insane idea, but he didn’t want his child killed. He was ready to raise him as a single dad if I didn’t want to.
“He proposed to me. He wanted to build a forever. He volunteered taking care of our kid while I pursued my education. He planned a start-up which he could run from home and support our house. He planned everything. I was scared, but I gave in. He was asking for no sacrifices, no inputs. He had no demands. He was just there to give and give.”
At this point, I didn’t even know I was standing in the parking lot of a hospital. My vision was blurry, my eyes were full of tears which were not flowing out but not going away either. I stood there, a grieving mess and Matthew took the liberty to hold my hand.
He didn’t say anything, just kept rubbing the back of my hand. It had been seven years since I had experienced a comforting touch. I felt like I could let go, and I cried. I don’t know for how long I had been crying. I never cried in front of Ishaan, he would get worried. But, in that parking lot, maybe I had reached my break point. I could no longer hold it inside.
“So, was it an accident?” he asked when he felt like I was ready to talk again.
“Yeah! I was full term. I still wasn’t sure about getting married and bringing up a child with him. At 19, I didn’t want so many responsibilities. I was always in the moment kind of a girl, and bringing that child on earth felt right in the moment. It was just a week for my due date, we were returning from an appointment. He really had become a very responsible man. I could see it in how he drove. But there were other reckless kids on the road. I didn’t even understand what turned our world upside down, quite literally…
“We were taken to nearest hospitals. I was cut open, but Ishaan had suffered brain damage. Sameer was gone. And I was hoping the world would turn itself upside down again and everything would be normal again! But it didn’t! Nothing.Ever.Did!
“I was nineteen, a single mom, with a crippled illegitimate child. My parents wanted me to give him to some home. His parents were simply not interested. I couldn’t do it. I told you, biology doesn’t give that option to us moms. We love our children. And I did love Sameer, deeply, madly! Ishaan was a child of love, how could I just give him away?
“So, I and Ishaan became permanent inmates of a small room in my parent’s apartment. My dad agreed to pay for his treatment. But asking for a nanny, or for my education was out of question. Even if he could afford these things somehow, he would’ve made me give up my child. Anyway, Ishaan required full attention. I couldn’t possibly leave him alone. No one loved him like he should’ve been loved. Even I couldn’t. His face reminded me of a lost love and broken dreams. It made me guilty for bringing him on this earth when I was going to be a terrible mom. You see, I had no manual for being a mom. I was abandoned for bringing shame to the family and ruining my life. So I became what situations made me. I just had no control!! I had no control!!”
He shook his head.
“You have all the control, Neha. You are in charge! And even you know that deep down. You are just so used to being miserable that you use it as your defence mechanism. You know that this can be handled. You know but you don’t want to! You know what do I tell myself every day? That I should not forget I am a soldier. Maybe I cannot go back to the battlefield now, but the universe has brought battlefield here for me. All my life is a battle now. But I never lose control. I am always in charge of my actions. Of my failures and growths. One accident can change your life, ask me! And yes you can’t control that! But how to take it ahead from there can definitely be controlled!”
There. The exasperating little prick was back again! All those right things and philosophies!
“You know why you hate me so much?” he probably had read the annoyance on my face.
I just shook my head.
“Because I am the guy on the wheelchair. You cannot ignore the guy on the wheelchair. Why do you think other patients listen to me more than their doctors? Because when someone who is complete tells you, you can do something very hard; you think, ‘Huh! What does he know!?’ But when a guy on the wheelchair can say the same thing with a smile, it is hard to ignore! Because if he can, so can you!
“Neha, it is not like I have it all figured out. It is hard. I know. This is rock bottom. How further can you go from here? You have only one option. You gotta rise! I am going one step at a time to pick my pieces. Right now, I just want to be independent. Then I will find a job, a place, a purpose. Something. It will take time, but I will find it… and if a guy on the wheelchair can, so can you!”
He was right. I could not take him or his words lightly. He had inspired every cell of my body. He had made me luminous in 7 minutes while I was miserable for 7 long years! I could not sleep that night. I even played with Ishaan. I think we even laughed! I don’t know after how long I used my muscles that drew a smile on my face that they ached a little. Sweet pain.
I regretted not loving Ishaan enough. I regretted not getting up after the worst setback life gave me. I regretted wasting my ferocity. I regretted believing that being a parent took away everything from me. I regretted blaming love and motherhood for my lack of motivation and misery. But above all, I regretted having regrets!
I was going to change it. I just had to figure out how!
Next day at the therapy session, our eyes met again. He smiled. I smiled. Neither of us looked away. I bet he could read the fresh resolve on my face. He took his rounds, Ishaan finished his therapy. For the first time, I took a real interest in what he did! When we were out again, I stopped Matthew from getting into his car.
“Hey!” I said as I came running with Ishaan almost being dragged along with me.
He stopped and smiled!
“You said, you were looking for a job, a place and a purpose?” I said catching my breath.
“What if I offer you all of it?” I asked with too much hope on my face.
He just raised his brows.
“Well, I am thinking of going ahead with Sameer’s start up idea. And also, starting a small day care for kids like Ishaan. You could be there, supervise everything with a few volunteers or nannies, which can be figured out. And at the same time assist me with the desk work. We could take a two bedroom apartment, modify it to suit you and other children, you could live there, maybe even I and Ishaan for some time till we can afford our own place. We could pool our resources. You would be working and serving! What do you think?” I had blabbered everything in one breath, all that I had been thinking all night. I knew it wasn’t as easy as it sounded but it was a start! It was something!!
“Well, I think… I think… you really weren’t lying about being fiery and smart.”
I almost giggled.
“Well, I also don’t like debts. You fix me, I fix you!” I said smiling.
And I don’t remember how long we just stood there in the parking lot laughing, teasing, hoping….
Hope, is indeed the most beautiful thing. I was choking in its absence. And when it danced in my lawn, I realised how easy it was to breathe. How one person can light up your world like flood lights light up a terrace in house parties! But mainly, you have to open your gates for the light to enter. Even a small crevice is enough for the hope to light up the dust particles and make them glow like pixies. But hope, needs to exist. Hope needs to thrive. It needs to build. It needs to grow. Only then you can truly live….