The dream, in itself wasn’t bothersome. It was the analysis, looking for a hidden message which was tiring. Her mind was working overtime again, trying to find meaning where, probably, there was none. Just like the old hibiscus tree in the garden that she thought, talked to her. She had planted it soon after her marriage and had watched it grow and bloom. Initially disappointed by the commonness of its plain red flowers instead of the fancy double blossom orange and salmon, she had learnt to be grateful for its year round flowering and very little need for care. After three decades it was getting old, the trunk was knobbly, the leaves had lost lustre and the flowers were scarce. Still not willing to cut it down, she pondered whether it had outlived its usefulness, just like her.
The dream got more vivid each time she was in it. She was dropping off her son for his first day in nursery school. He had seemed ready, almost enthusiastic about this milestone. For the past month he had been trying to get on the school bus after his sister. He had packed some books in a miniature backpack and had been carrying them around. So the distressed, sobbing boy who clung to her with all his might came as a surprise. She peeled away his fingers from her arm and wondered if she was doing the right thing. Should she give it another six months, let the boy grow up some more. While she deliberated, the class teacher walked up to them and led him away with little ado. As her weeping son tried to wriggle out of her firm grip, the teacher looked back, “Don’t worry he will stop crying once you leave ” she said in a kind voice.
She walked out of the school and to her car and then turned back. She decided to hang around just a little longer. To make sure that her son was okay and, also, to ease the lump in her throat. So she went to the rear of the building and peeked through the window. Sure enough, he had stopped crying. He was carefully stacking building blocks on to a lopsided tower. He wasn’t his usual cheerful self, nevertheless he looked engrossed in the task at hand. And as she watched she detected a hint of his shy smile return. He will be fine, she surmised and turned away.
Man in a hurry
He had always been in a hurry to grow up. Wanting to wear shoes a size too big, insisting on full pants instead of shorts. He was unwilling to write the alphabets because he couldn’t identify those letters in her scrawl. He wanted to write like her, imitate her ‘doctor scribble’ ! He filled his textbooks with this illegible doodle, calling it grownup handwriting. He constantly scanned his upper lip for signs of sprouting. Once as a joke she had stuck a poorly crafted moustache on him while he was sleeping. He proudly strutted it around and refused to take it off for days. Unlike others of his age, he had a deep sense of loyalty and could keep a secret forever. He was an old soul in a child’s body.There was an undercurrent theme of seriousness, gravitas and maturity well beyond his years.
In contrast to his constant endeavour to rush things, she willed time to slow down. She often wondered about this paradox in their approach to life. He couldn’t wait for the future to unfold and she wanted to hang on to the present, stop it from whizzing past too soon. He had his whole life ahead of him. She felt that most of hers was over. They agreed on one thing though, that life was a one way street and they could only move ahead. They still disagreed on the speed. He wanted to hurtle through life at breakneck speed and she wandered through it at a more leisurely pace.
Irrespective of their feelings, time took its own time and now it was time. To her it seemed just yesterday when her son had entered ‘the system’ and now he was educated and done. He had learnt whatever a curriculum could teach him and would learn the rest from life. After graduating he had landed a plum job in a tech hub down south and was gearing to leave. Till now he had been a short drive away, making it easy to stay in touch. It often surprised her that he chose weekly visits to their home in the suburbs over chilling out in the metropolis where he studied. She felt fortunate that he opted for the dull languor of home over the exciting possibilities the city offered. But now things were about to change. He would no longer be within, what he liked to call, shouting distance. He would be gone and with the pressure of work and the effort to live life, his visits were bound to become brief and infrequent
Mothers and Daughters
With a daughter who had a nest of her own and a son ready to take wing she had prepared well for the inevitability of an empty nest. She had watched her mum’s world crumble when she and her siblings left home. Stripped of the role of ‘doting mother’ there had been nothing left for her mum to do, no one to be and nowhere to go. She was troubled by these memories and had pledged to not let it happen to herself. She had strived to build a life for herself, a parallel universe, in which her happiness and self worth didn’t depend on her children. Her mother had been caught off guard, she inferred, that is why she had suffered. She, on the other hand, had prepared for this moment with diligence. She was ready or so she thought. She had reasoned that time and space is a state of mind and need not stretch infinitely before her. That space could be filled with projects and patients and time could be broken down with deadlines. She had built up her medical practice just enough to keep herself busy, still leaving time to read and reflect. She intended to involve herself in free service, to give back some of what she had received. She had also joined some ‘society women’ groups, something which she wouldn’t have imagined doing a decade ago. She hoped the theme parties and chitchat would keep her busy. She had discovered a nascent passion for writing. She planned to keep her mind engaged constructively, anything to keep self pity and desolation at bay.
She believed that she could live multiple lives in a lifetime by reliving the good times. So she dwelled in the past, reminiscing happy experiences. Aided by old memorabilia which her daughter aptly called her ‘emotional baggage’ she spent hours looking at his first booties, his favourite toys and his handiwork. She poured over his drawings of the family, stick figures with perfectly round bellies. She loved to look at his old photographs for indications of the person he would become. She looked for telltale signs of the future in the past, a frown, a disinterested look, a secret grin, a sideways glance, an unsure smile. an uneasy hug. She professed that these small gestures, immortalised on film could forecast the future of a relationship. Unlike predictions, it was an easy fun exercise because she already knew the future. It was the present.
She fought the melancholy with a mix of mounting panic and dwindling valour. It was going to be okay she had promised herself. A few years ago she had survived the ‘vidaai’ of her daughter who had got married and moved away. She had thought that her daughter would leave a vacuum, a gaping hole which would be hard to fill. But that is not what happened. The pain had slowly eased. She had found ways to occupy herself, learnt to make use of the extra time on her hands. They had been able to sustain a long distance relationship and she was still her confidante and counsellor. It had worked well and though she missed the physical closeness of her daughter, the addition of a loving and affectionate son-in-law to the family was compensation enough. But now that her son was getting ready to leave too, she felt that her whole world would go with him. She realised that there were unresolved feelings of loneliness and abandonment which kept surfacing at the most unexpected times. They would tip toe into her seemingly serene world and overwhelm it. They would knock out the air from her lungs, make her heart race and turn her knees to jelly.
She dreamt of him again. His eyes downcast, his head bent over, weeping quietly, his shoulders heaving imperceptibly. She tried to comfort him, tell him why this separation was necessary. She told him that she would be just a phone call away, that the time spent apart would pass in a flash. That no matter where he went, his home would be where he left it, waiting for his return. She continued to talk to him in a soothing tone and stooped to wipe his tears. That is when she noticed, as she peered closely at the upturned face she was dumbstruck. She was looking at her own tear stained face. She seemed so small, so helpless, so distraught, so heart broken. And when she looked up she realised that her son, towering over her, had been trying to console her, She was confused. When did this happen? When did he become the responsible adult in the relationship allowing her to regress to a child? When did he take over the role of the sensible guardian, the parent ? When was she reduced to a clingy, sobbing child who could not see the bigger picture, the greater good? Suddenly she was shaken out of her reverie and knew what had to be done. Amends had to be made. She had to reclaim her position as the parent, the nurturer, the primary caregiver. She was ashamed for having been so self centred, for being unfair, for seeing herself as the victim, for not looking beyond her own despondency. She was making it more difficult for him to leave. She had to be strong, to be the wind under his sails. She had to give him wings to fly away and return when he pleased. As a final act of this labour of love called motherhood she had to cut the umbilical cord and set her son free.
Like many mornings before this it was the first thought that came to her as she stirred awake . He was gone. And, soon, all those things which connected them would be gone too. But strangely, now, it seemed as a fog had lifted. Her heart knew that wherever he went a part of him would yearn for home. He would occasionally crave for the food she hurriedly cooked, skipping steps and substituting ingredients. In the fast pace of life, between board meetings and gala events he would miss the evenings spent doing nothing. As long as he had that desire to return home nothing could keep them apart. Nothing needed to change. Things could stay as they were. His room would wait for him and so will the ageing hibiscus, and some day, in the not so distant future, they would enjoy the fruit of the mango tree they had planted together.
With this new found faith, after months of sleeplessness, her lips curled into a faint smile as she drifted back into a sound slumber.
( carried in the Open Page of The Hindu as ‘ Beyond the empty nest’ on 9/7/2017. The subtitles were added by the editor)