The Paradigm Shift
She snuggled into her coat just a little bit more, as the biting wind whiplashed her face. The fairy lights, that they had so painstakingly put on, twinkled even as tendrils of sunlight whispered through the amethyst sky. Riddhima passed a faint smile in a general direction but the truth was, she was hurting. The place that had once reverberated with their laughter was now nothing but a fetid cesspool of memories that made her heart ache, the sense of loss almost choking her.
The soft murmurs of commiseration enveloped her and the all too familiar lump in her throat made it impossible for her to respond. She was mechanical, robotic, even. Her replies were laconic to the point of rudeness, but no one blamed her. She took in one more unbearably painful deep breath as she struggled with her overflowing emotions.
She looked at her husband a few feet away, the same brusqueness marked his actions too. They were both bereaved and although they had planned this, months ago, neither of them was prepared for it. Riddhima looked at the medley of people, their hushed whispers of condolences wrapping around the gathering like a shroud. She looked absentmindedly at the specks of dust dancing in front of her eyes and in no time her eyes had teared up, her heart clenching unpleasantly with pain, her control almost shattered. And just when a tear slipped out, hanging dangerously on the eyelashes of her kohl-lined eyes, he was there, wiping it off with his thumb, an identical tear vivid in his own blue eyes.
“No crying, remember?”
His voice, thick with his own anguish brought her out of her musings and she hastily blinked the tears back, even as she wiped his tear before it fell. This was a promise they had given her and if nothing, they’d honor this.
They stood together, hand in hand, acknowledging the condolences, the hand-squeezes, the sympathetic smiles, not once wavering in their control.
His warm hand, holding her small one caused awareness to seep in. The lilting notes of the music did nothing to help her composure and she tuned it out, lest she cried again. She willed herself to focus on her surroundings. The gushing noise from the waves and the salty smell of sea air revived her to some extent and she found in herself a small reserve of strength, to go on with the rest of it.
To an outsider it probably looked like a soiree, she mused. Minus the somber air, of course. No one had worn black, Anokhi had vehemently disagreed to it. She saw faint, reminiscing smiles on people’s faces and she was glad. Another one of Anokhi’s wishes was fulfilled. The incessant tapping on her shoulder jolted her out of her thoughts.
“Riddhima!” his concerned voice made its way through her and she apologized.
“I was lost in thought, sorry.”
He murmured an affectionate “It’s okay.” Before making her face the projection. “Baby, look. Anokhi’s friends have prepared a video. Come, we’ll go sit, okay?”
She nodded, looking at him with apprehension. A video? She wasn’t sure if she could stand a video, it was too painful. He blinked reassuringly and some of her fear evaporated. She wondered how he did it. He was in as much pain as she was, yet he was so strong. Giving his hand an affectionate squeeze she sat down beside him. The video started playing and almost instantly she was enwreathed in memories.
She sat there, holding her bundle of joy in her fatigued arms. She was her perfect thing. Riddhima hadn’t known that something would trounce over her love for Armaan, but her baby girl, their baby girl, took her breath away. Her tiny hands fisted her mother’s little finger and unshed tears of happiness sparkled in Riddhima’s eyes. This was why she’d born the pain. Their baby girl, was their miracle. She looked at him looking at the two of them with unabashed love pouring from every inch of his gaze. She motioned him to come closer and hold her. The fear which was ultimately submerged by awe in his eyes was a moment that would forever be etched in her memory. He held both mother and daughter close, savoring the moment. At that moment, she opened her baby eyes and looked at her parents, her eyes widening with every passing second. In that instant, they knew they’d chosen the perfect name for her. She was their special baby. “Anokhi Armaan Malik” they whispered, as he snuck a chaste kiss on her lips before the nurse came in.
They’d finished cleaning up, Anokhi’s seventh birthday party had been a grand success. “Moooom?” “Daaaaad?”
“We’re in the living room, baby!” He smiled as she ran towards them, hugging them tightly. “That was the best birthday ever, Mom! Thank You!”
Riddhima smiled at her bubbly daughter, kissing her forehead. She watched as he settled Anokhi on his lap. “Where’s our return gift?” he asked her mischievously. “What return gift?” She watched the father-daughter duo revel in the moment and smiled, shaking her head. He was such a kid when it came to her. “You gave all your friend’s return gifts, where’s mine and mom’s?” Anokhi laughed, the tinkling sound filling the house with warmth. “I’m your return gift daddy! See you’ve got the best return gift of them all!”
As Riddhima returned with hot chocolate for everyone, she laughed when she saw him tickling her even as tears of mirth poured out of their daughter’s eyes.
“Mr. Malik your daughter has Lymphoma, cancer of the lymph nodes. Typically, it’s a solid tumor of lymphoid cells….symptoms are fever…anorexia…extreme weight loss…thankfully it’s the beginning…radiation or chemotherapy will work…”
The doctor continued to speak, but Riddhima had frozen at “Lymphoma”. She wanted this to be a bad dream. It couldn’t be true, they had done nothing to deserve this. What had turned out to be a check-up for extreme fever for Anokhi, had morphed into a full-fledged nightmare for them. She looked at her baby girl, sleeping on the hospital bed, the fluids feeding her intravenously. It agonized her to see her daughter like that, among needles and bottles of glucose. She turned to her husband, the doctor had left them to deal with the blow. She’d sobbed ceaselessly into his shirt, staining it with her tears while he buried her face into the crook of her neck, letting the pain out. She’d cried for quite a while until they were both ready. Their daughter was eleven, she didn’t have to go through this. They were ready to fight. Fight for their daughter’s life.
“They said it would go away mom, the doctor promised!” Riddhima held her, helplessness adorning every part of her features as her daughter cried in her embrace. The cancer had relapsed and there wasn’t much chance of it going away now. She looked at her husband, he was discussing further treatment for their daughter and she was happy she had him. He had been her pillar of strength, Riddhima didn’t know what she would do, who she would be, if not for Armaan.
“I’m only fifteen mom, I don’t want to die, please!” Try as she may, to control them, the sobs made their way out. She couldn’t imagine it. Anokhi couldn’t die. Not now, not like this. She felt Armaan take them both in a rib-crashing hug as the three of them came to terms with yet another obstacle. She looked into his cerulean eyes, as they winced, each time a sob cut through Anokhi’s petite frame.
“I’m going to die, aren’t I?” The roar of the waves near their beach cottage suddenly seemed louder. Deafening silence enveloped the two adults in the room and she clenched Armaan’s hand at her daughter’s question. The utterly blasé tone in which Anokhi had uttered the sentence surprised her. It was true, but they would die fighting before they admit it.
“No baby, you’re going to sur-”
“No, mom, I’m not going to survive it. Not this time. I overheard Dr. Kevin say that I have, six months at the most.”
“Anokhi, don’t talk like that, the chemo-”
“The chemo isn’t helping dad! I’m tired of it! Can’t we just stop the treatment?”
“And let you go? There is no way I’m doing that, Anokhi!”
“Dad, please! The chemo hurts! And I’m not going to make it anyway, can’t I just live the last few months of my life in peace? I hate the hospital! Please dad, I don’t want to do it anymore, please!”
The desperation in her voice nearly undid him, she could see that. They put her to sleep and made their way out of her room, it was time they talked.
“You’re just going to let go? Armaan you can’t do that!”
“It’s hurting her, Riddhima.” He murmured, tiredly. It was the hardest thing he’d done.
“She’s just a kid Armaan, she doesn’t know anything! Please, we can’t let her die!” the tears never stopped. Why didn’t he get it?
“I don’t want to do this either, Riddhima, but we have to. And she’s not wrong, you know that!”
“So you’re going to let her die. You’re going to let MY daughter die?” her maternal instincts took over her, blocking out all reason and any specks of logic that had nested in her mind.
He shook her by her shoulders. “OUR daughter, Riddhima! You think this is easy for me?” she saw the tortured look in his eyes and melted into his embrace, apologizing. Letting go was the hardest thing they’d done.
“I love you Mom, and you too Dad. I’m so glad I got parents like you, you’re the best, period.”
“Sshh, don’t talk baby, you’re weakening yourself.” Riddhima held her tears back. They both knew this was the last time they were seeing their daughter alive.
“Don’t cry, okay? Remember what Abhishek Bachchan said in that Simi Garewal show? Don’t cry that it’s over, smile that it happened. And don’t let anyone wear black at the funeral, I hate black, it’s depressing.”
A watery smile made its way up the couple’s faces. She remembered Simi Garewal of all people, right now?
“Okay, baby girl, no tears and no black, I swear.”
Anokhi looked at her dad, “Pinky Swear?” Armaan nearly lost it when she said that. She’d say that when she made the most important of promises. “Pinky swear, baby girl.” He whispered.
Riddhima saw her daughter put up a brave front as she bid good-bye to all her friends. And then it was time. Almost. She heard her daughter whisper a soft “I’m scared” that only she could hear and Riddhima bent down to kiss Anokhi’s forehead. “It won’t hurt sweetheart. We love you.”
And the shrill beep of the ventilator told her that their baby girl, had made her journey across the horizon.
And they were all born pretty in New York City tonight,
And someone’s little girl was taken from the world tonight,
Under the Stars and Stripes.
As strong as you were, tender you go.
I’m watching you breathing, for the last time.
A song for your heart, but when it is quiet,
I know what it means and I’ll carry you home.
I’ll carry you home…
As the last few verses from the song floated into her head, she looked at the teenagers on the stage. The video had been absolutely beautiful, showing her just how much their daughter had touched people. And now her friends were singing the song for her. The wind blew across her face, making her realize she’s cried quite a bit. She wiped her tears and glanced over to see how Armaan was doing. He was no better, the tear tracks on his face shone clearly on his face. She squeezed his hand ever so lightly and was relieved when he returned the gesture.
It was an hour later when they were the only ones left on the beach. It was a starry night, with the stars twinkling merrily at them. She looked up; she missed her daughter already. Her ready wit; her ringing, boisterous laugh; her squeals when she had tickle fests with her father; they would all be missed. Her memories were tucked in every crevice of their house. She felt Armaan wrap an arm around her shoulder and with a sigh, she sank into his hold. They walked to their house, with Anokhi’s photo in their hands. She’d inherited her father’s blue eyes and trademark smirk. Riddhima trailed her hand on the picture, the pain nagging every corner of her heart, waiting to be set free.
Riddhima sat on their bed, having changed. Her eyes remained fixed on Anohi’s photo, until he wrapped his arms from behind her. And then she broke down. Turning around she hid herself in his shoulder, her body racking with sobs. She couldn’t help it, it was too damn painful. She felt him shed silent tears on her shoulder and she ruffled his hair, as they held each other, comforted each other through each slash of pain that made their hearts spasm.
They broke away, hours later. Riddhima looked at him as she pulled away. He was everything to her. She remembered him changing Anokhi’s diapers; pushing her on the swing set; teaching her how to ride a cycle; worrying himself to death when she came home late from a party; researching on Lymphoma overnight because he wasn’t in the medical field and wasn’t aware of the disease; supporting their daughter throughout while being Riddhima’s reserve of strength. She gazed at him, a new found love and respect blooming in her heart. Time had changed his appearance, he wore glasses now and there were a few strands of gray hair [although he would never admit it] and in the last few months he looked like he’d aged fifty years. She ran her hand over the tired lines of his face as he closed his eyes. They’d done it. Anokhi may not have survived, but they’d done it. They’d fought for her, with one hundred percent commitment and Riddhima felt an odd sense of peace envelope them.
He placed a chaste kiss on her lips before she slept, secure in his embrace.
She sat on the bench, her legs crossed. It was almost time for sunrise. It was freezing out there and she’d bundled up in warm clothes. Riddhima felt him sit beside her and she murmured a thank you when he passed her coffee. She scooted closer to him, as fuchsia merged into topaz and the Sun dazzled on them, shining with all it’s glory. They watched the sunrise together the tranquility encompassing them in it’s embrace. She looked at him and a small smile tugged at their lips. It would take months, years maybe, and maybe the pain would never go away. But the soft smile on his lips, her hand in his and the memory of their daughter told her that they’d get through this. Together. And Riddhima fell in love with her husband all over again, the pain of losing her daughter already starting to heal.