“Ma’am, would you like anything else?” The waiter’s polite voice startled Sandra.
She gathered her wits and managed to say, “No thanks! Can you get me the bill?”
She had been lost in a world that had taken her to a happier place in her past. Try as she might Sandra couldn’t help wipe off that dreamy smile that lingered on her lips. She liked to have her evening tea at this quiet little restaurant right below her office building before heading back home. She was in no hurry to finish the tea and usually she would sip it leisurely, letting its warmth linger on her lips. The restaurant was usually not busy, however today it was buzzing with life. Perhaps others had somehow discovered its subtle charm just like she and Ian had. Isn’t that why she came here every evening to meet with Ian and relive the time they had spend together, while recreating new ones.
Years ago on that fateful day Ian had made her promise, “ Darling, promise me you will always stay happy.”
Her heart was breaking that day, she felt that she would die or may be become insane. Yet through the tears streaming down her eyes she heard herself saying, “ I …I promise.”
What options did she have anyways? That was the only way she could give Ian some solace. Nothing had been in her control no matter how hard she tried. If it were in her power she would have put an end to her meaningless life Yes, it felt pointless, purposeless even criminal to live on. Many a times her conviction in the worthlessness of her life was so strong that she had attempted to end it. The only thing that stood between life and death for her was the promise she had made to Ian. Despite her prayers, God had not come to her rescue, neither that day nor when she banged her head till it bled, or when she got the bottle of sleeping pill, neither on the day when she had inched closer to the edge of the terrace. The only thing that had been her savior was her promise to Ian. It had stopped her from becoming her own greatest assaulter.
Today however, Sandra’s smile continued to linger on her lips even as she got into the car to drive back home. Today was different. It was unlike most days when she feared going back to the lonely plush 4-bedroom apartment she called home. On those dark days she felt as if she were opening the door to a dark tunnel filled with the most horrific nightmares. The roof seemed to cave in and the walls appeared to close on her. The feeling would pass when she brought up memories of Ian.
Today she didn’t feel the usual panic when she was heading back home. What had triggered this happy turn of events? Of course she had met with Ian at the restaurant but it was the Uber passing on the road that sparked a memory. There was nothing special about that simple Uber, but the cloud of dust blowing off the road as the wheels rolled by, flipped a page in her mind. It took her back to that Valentine’s Day trip about 5 years ago.
About 5 years back Sandra’s life was on a different track.
Sandra decided to make an ambitious Valentine’s Day Plan. To most people who didn’t know her well enough, it would have appeared just a normal weekend fun trip.
On the eve of Valentine’s Day a small troupe of friends (Sandra’s family and her friend’s) left for the desert safari. She had planned to camp in the desert overnight and then enjoy the glorious sunrise on 14 February, Valentine’s Day. The six families packed neatly in four vans were determined to have the time of their life. In the lead van, Rajat the self-proclaimed sloth was at the wheels, while Binita, his indulgent wife, seated in the passenger seat dutifully supplied his munching mouth with roasted peanuts from time to time. The four kids were comfortably huddled in the back seats, screaming out unstoppable strings of latest blockbuster hits. The kids were now almost ready to step into University. Ray, Sandra and Ian’s son was just waiting it out before the Universities open. Rita was in her final school year and would leave the nest next year. Rajat and Binita’s kids were of the same age and all four of them were childhood buddies.
Sandra and Ian were seated hand in hand, smiling at each other from time to time. It seemed like ages since they enjoyed this bliss. Rajat and Binita tried out- screaming the kids with the popular 80’s numbers, pleading for Ian and Sandra’s help, but were invariably beaten by the children. Yes, this noise, this racket was bliss for Sandra and Ian. This senseless playful clamor silenced the storm that had been wreathing havoc in their life.
Sandra had fought with all protests from the so-called, well-wishers. She had thrown herself into meticulously planning out the trip that was to be the beginning of her road to salvation. She and Ian savored the soft sultry spread of desert that stretched on either side of the road. They enjoyed, the sparse vegetation, the din inside the car, they relished the feeling that in this moment their life was full of vigor, activity and vivacity. After a cheery musical (though not quiet melodious) drive of about an hour, the small band of friends reached an uninhabited pristine stretch of flaxen desert, bedecked with sand dunes of all sizes and shapes. The seasoned men got down and released air from the tiers. Now the vans were ready to leave the beaten road and head for a roller coaster dune-bashing ride.
Rajat screamed at the occupants of his van, “Commandoes ready! All set! Seat beats on! HERE WE GOOOO!!!”
Sandra squeezed Ian’s hand harder as she smiled and cautioned the kids “Mind your heads kidoos…. double check and tighten your seat belts.”
Thereafter for 15 min, as the van swooshed and gushed on the sand, climbing here plunging there, all Sandra saw, heard and felt was Ian’s protective grip, the grin on his, the whooping, and happy screeches of all- this was what she wanted, these were the memories, the feelings which will inject happiness to each ounce of bleeding heart. Later when the men were erecting tents and put up camp fires, Sandra took out the homemade snacks and juices she had packed for everyone, mostly for Ian her husband of 20 long years.
When the campfire was blazing she along with the other women took out the pre-marinated dishes for barbeque. The kids too indulged in charring their marshmallows over the fire. Late into the night laughter, jokes, camp stories and innocuous repartee filled the space around the small troupe of friends. A few drifted with the natural delights of the cool desert , awe-stuck by the bright diamond like stars embellishing the dark sky, feeling the soft soothing sand, and savoring the tranquility scarce in the city.
The usually reticent Hassan became possessed, leaving his poor wife Shanaz- a victim of his sporadic romantic poetry-quiet embarrassed. The little kids who had toppled off to sleep were scooped up and deposited in their sleeping bags inside the tents. The sun was just about to climb the horizon when the six couples sauntered grudgingly to their respective tents. If possible they could have traded these relaxed moments for their entire stressful life in the city.
Inside the tent, Ian hugged Sandra warmly and planted a loving kiss on her forehead, “Thank you dear for this wonderful Valentine gift.”
“It was my gift too.” Sandra mumbled as she disguised a sob, feeling too overwhelmed by the blissful moment.
Everything that had transpired within a span of two years flashed before her eyes. It had begun with the news that her mother suffered a massive heart attack. Then came the devastating news that will haunt her forever. Her younger brother, a vibrant, handsome and successful youth, supposed to be the only support for her aging parents, succumbed to a freak accident. She had been struggling to find a mid-path between being a mother, wife, a long distance and only child for her aging, ailing parents. Her parents were never the kind who could adjust to an alien life in an alien country.
Despite her fears for their health and safety, and guilt at not being there for them she had to give in and respected their decisions to stay back in India. Travelling to and fro to India, attending to mothers medical urgencies, and trying to spend time with her parents had become a part of her life. She thought the worst was over, and had prepared her-self for her mother’s last call. She was taking each day as it came-well acquainted with the unpredictability of life. Perhaps life wanted to test her strength and bestowed her with yet another staggering blow.
A year and half after her brother’s demise, Ian had come home clutching his chest breathlessly, trying to get to his mobile quivering with pain. The doctors said he was lucky to be alive, with a huge malignant looking tumor seemed to be spreading through his organs.
Sandra’s life came crashing down when the doctors pronounced, “ He has 6 months. Please try to make his life as comfortable and happy as you can.”
Ray didn’t want to apply for his University and Rita cried her eyes out, ignoring all preparation for the final year examination. Sandra had never imagined Ian, a person so conscious of his diet and exercise regime could ever be afflicted by this conditions. “It is a genetic disease and no one can do anything about it. Please stop blaming yourself.” The doctor had tried to console Sandra.
Ian had to undergo an immediate intervention surgery as the tumor was blocking his artery and preventing him from breathing. After the operation she nursed Ian back to health but she was fast succumbing to depression. While recuperating from the operation Ian called over his family to his side.
“ Guys, you three are everything to me. Your happiness and future means the world to me. But all I see is you all throwing away your life because of this disease. It is as if my entire family is suffering because of me. Are you guys going to give me up so soon to Cancer? I see that you have accepted the death sentence the Doctor pronounced. Well, I am not ready to accept that! But when I see your glum and defeated faces I do not want to live a single day. If you really want me to fight this disease and put up my defenses against it, you all have to help me. Give your all to making my life happier than ever. You can do that by following your dreams with passion – even more than before. I will feed from that passion and gain strength from it. Can you all promise me that?”
All three of them had cried and then wiped off each other’s tears. Sandra promised herself that she would live her life to the fullest, grab each flicker of happiness and style monumental bliss out of the tiny seconds that were within her reach. She cannot waste time lamenting over what was not in her control and let the few pleasures she was still lucky to have escape her grip like the desert sand. Once Ian was a little better she had planned for the Valentine’s Day desert trip.
When Sandra entered her apartment the house was empty but today she had those glorious memories to give her company. As she entered the house she looked at her wristwatch. It was already 7 PM. Vaguely she thought of the ritual telephone call from her parents around 9 PM, before they retired to their beds. She glanced at the photograph of Ray, Rita, Ian and herself, on the side table near the entrance and stopped there for a while. The kids will be back for Christmas vacation and the house will be filled with noise once again. She will miss Ian’s booming voice but only till she closed her eyes, or sat at that small restaurant or even on that rocking chair in the living room. Yes, she missed his physical presence and sometimes she could hardly breath from that enormous realization.
But, then she would hear Ian’s voice and see his smiling face, “ My Dear, your love gave me the strength to put up a fight. We were given only 6 months but we managed to snatch 5 years of togetherness. Till you meet me on the other side can you promise me something? For the sake of the kids and the life we built together. “
“ Darling, promise me you will always stay happy.”