Written by Nandini Sethi
I watched from the balcony of our 3-bedroom apartment as the ambulance wheeled Ma away, as she lay limp and cold on the stretcher, Dad holding her hand and answering all the paramedic’s questions. As the older sister, I vowed to stay back home and look after little Nina, promising dad nothing would go wrong. In hindsight, it was that day I decided to grow up, but now I realize it was too soon to be that mature. I was only 6 years old.
When dad returned the next day, without mom, I knew she wasn’t coming back home. Nina was young, so distracting her wasn’t too tricky, but understanding death as a 6-year-old wasn’t easy for me; I had so many questions that I was too afraid to ask out loud, not wanting to upset anyone, so I came to terms with the fact that I would have to accept reality as it is.
Surprisingly, things weren’t so bad after that. Dad, Nina, and I decided to move to a new house, just down the road, and make our lives as eventful as we could – we had just learnt an important lesson after all – life is too short.
The first thing we did was discard our run-down brown leather couch for a new sky blue one. It had white stripes and squiggly lines on it: to a contemporary interior designer, it was a nightmare, but to us, it was everything. The moment we got back home from school, we parked ourselves on the couch, watched TV, finished homework, and then waited for dad’s arrival on it. When he got back home from office, all we did was play on it – from board games to silly made-up excuses to jump around and cause ruckus.
One night, after putting Nina to bed, I sat down with him to ask him the questions I was afraid I would upset him with. To my surprise, he didn’t seem too bothered, in fact, it felt like he had thought through the whole situation in detail, just like I had, but from a more practical perspective.
“I know all the relatives just tell me Mom has gone to heaven or she has become a star, but I don’t think they realize I’m 6 years old, I’m not going to fall for their pathetic attempts to make me feel better,” I told him. He looked at me with an amused look in his eye that I had started seeing more often – a glint of happiness, and maybe even a little bit of pride.
“When did you get so big?” He asked me.
I didn’t say anything.
“No, mom isn’t a star in the sky or an angel in heaven, she’s probably already moved onto her next life, but I can’t tell you where she is.”
I nodded in understanding. The reality was a bit harsh, but I was strong enough to digest it. “I can tell you one thing though,” he added, “wherever she is, I know she is happy.”
Wasn’t that enough?
When I reached middle school, I made it my goal to get the best grades and make the greatest number of friends in my class. But as I hit my teens, my priorities changes: I became introverted and shy, only talking to those who would come to me first. I still got the best grades and aimed for bigger things in life: the best college, the best job, and the best life for myself. That’s why when I got into my dream university in New York, I didn’t stop celebrating for two whole weeks. Dad took Nina and me on a Goa trip and he even bought me a watch as a gift, his excuse being, when you look at the watch you will remember to call your old man and your sister back home. Even as we bid goodbye at the airport on our last night together, I still hugged him as tight as I did the day he took mom to the hospital and returned without her. Unconditional love doesn’t fade with time.
New York was just as the showed in the moves: glamorous, fast-paced, and a nightmare for slow customers. Although I have always been a big city girl, New York seemed like a whole galaxy away, and there’s no denying how intimidated I was even leaving the apartment alone. And the craziest part is that you don’t realize when you become used to it all: once upon a time this was an entirely new world to me, but today, right now, New York feels more like home than home ever did. So, when I see newcomers hesitantly enter a Starbuck today, I feel nothing but proud over how my journey panned out.
After graduating, I got a job and moved in with my boyfriend. Everything was going so well, and then one day I got a phone call from Nina; on seeing her face through my phone that day, I realized how much she had grown from being a little baby all those years ago.
“You’re never going to believe this! Oh my god! Oh my god!” She screamed into the phone. I could see dad smiling in the background.
“Oh my god, Nina, calm down and tell me what happened,” I couldn’t help the smile from spreading across my face watching them both so happy.
“Ahaan finally proposed to me!” She squealed.
“Wait, what?! Oh my god, tell me everything!” Now I was screaming too.
“To be honest, I saw this coming! Ahaan’s company offered him a job in Delhi, and I was wondering how we would make it work”, she paused to breathe, “then he got down on one knee and told me he wouldn’t want to live anywhere without me!”
This was actually insane. I couldn’t believe my baby sister was getting married, and to her childhood lover too!
I went into crazy mom mode after that call. Since the wedding was going to take place next month, we had to immediately begin the preparations. We booked our flight tickets back to India, and jumped straight into all the business – catering, flowers, clothes, bookings! Dad, Nina, and I went into every bridal wear shop, consulted every designer in town, and made sure of all the details. Together.
The days of the prep flew past. It didn’t hit me until the actual day that Nina was moving away. From the corner of the room, I watched dad watching Nina as she was getting ready and putting on mom’s diamond earrings.
There was a look of hesitance in his eyes – like he was happy but also not. If I was going back to New York in a couple of day and Nina to Delhi after tonight, where would dad be?
Well, as it turns out, he would be in Goa. He didn’t waste a minute self-loathing in loneliness – the moment he got the chance, he packed his bags and moved to a new city and started a new chapter in his life. Just like he told me to do back in New York.
And he didn’t move on to be a boring old man and live peacefully in a house far away, no, he threw a housewarming party for all his family and friends in Goa and sent the invitations far and wide.
At the housewarming, Nina and I decided to a surprise him with a present he won’t ever forget. We had to pull a few strings, but we managed to make it work.
So, the night after the party, we decided to spend some time together, one last time before everyone went their own way. We blindfolded dad and guided him into the house.
“Girls, what is all this?” He asked, feigning annoyance but secretly eager to know what the surprise was.
“Open your eyes. Slowly, please,” Nina said.
I didn’t know where took – at the surprise or at Dad’s face. But one look at his widening eyes and tight-lipped smile brought tears to my eyes. To an outsider, it would seem like he didn’t like our present – his eyes moist and expression neutral, but we knew this was his way of embracing his emotions and coming to terms with what was before him. What life was throwing at him this time.
“Dad? Do you like it?” I asked in a low voice, not wanting to break the moment of comfortable solitude, but still eager to know what he was thinking.
He wiped away a stray tear and made his way forward. Slowly, he seated himself on his brand-new couch, new and blue, the same way he did 20 years ago, stealthily, and happily. I don’t know how we managed to get the exact couch after all these years with the stripes and all. Although we did have to pay a hefty sum to custom make an already ready couch, watching Dad’s face light up was worth every little penny.
“I don’t know what to say,” Dad spoke after a whole minute.
“You don’t have to say anything,” Nina replied.
“I still feel like I can see you two girls jumping on this sofa, making a mess and watching TV on it.” He spoke.
Nostalgic and emotional, we listed out all the memories we shared on the blue sofa – from spilling ice cream and trying to hide the stains, to jumping on dad’s back and taking long afternoon naps on it, our conversation went on for hours.
The special moment seemed like the perfect end to this chapter of our lives. Like as if this one blue couch could keep us tied together while living in completely different parts of the world. I sighed contently. I was looking forward to seeing what else life had in store for me, where my memories would take me and what they would make me.
“Nothing has changed,” Dad said after a beat of silence,“ this couch is still an interior designer’s nightmare.”