The Centurion Next Door
Written by Nandini Sethi
The clock struck 12:00 and exactly a minute later my phone began to ring. The house was eerily quiet, typical for this time of night, and I scrambled to answer the call before I woke any of the kids up.
“Did you wish her yet?” Came the voice from the other end, no greetings or apologies for disturbing me at midnight.
“It’s only been a minute, if you could just give me-”, but I was interrupted again, this time by a note slightly angrier and more agitated. “I hope all the preparations have been made. You know I won’t be able to make it in time”. And then the line went dead.
The preparations were all for the centurion next door. It was her 100th birthday, and we decided to go all out for the celebrations: a three-tier cake, confetti, gifts, an elaborate guest list, and everything else that you would do for a birthday party that everyone but you enjoyed. For reasons unexplained and silly to us, she was adamant on living alone instead of being with her family.
But she trusted me with her life; no matter the time of day, she would ring me up without any hesitation to come help her, whether to replace a broken bulb or figure out the electricity bill, I was her go-to person. And I liked it that way.
That’s why her 100th birthday was a big deal. I know she put all her faith in me, and I didn’t want to disappoint her. My husband was away on a business trip, so I had to make all the arrangements by myself. I didn’t mind it; I was kind of a control freak anyway.
2. The Centurion
A garden party is what she had planned for me. As I was wheeled into the beautiful green lawn, I was greeted by all my son’s friends, my extended family, and of course Aisha and her two sons.
The sight was pretty like a postcard: pastel mats atop lush green grass, sweet vanilla cupcakes wafting the air along with the earthy scent of wet mud, oh and the gentle music playing in the background, everything seemed calm and in place, like this was meant to be.
After cutting the cake and opening some presents, the guests began to leave, and a few moments later I was left alone with Aisha.
“Thank you my dear, this party was everything I could have imagined, and more”.
She smiled at me as she took another bite of the cake, then taking my hand in hers, she began to dance lightly, humming along to the tune of my favorite childhood song, a song I never knew she had even heard.
I was happy, warm, and blessed to celebrate my 100th birthday the way I did. What I didn’t know was that this was the last time I would be so joyous in the presence of my loving Aisha.
There is one thing that took me some time to understand and process, and it is that grief, like happiness, comes in bouts, stays for a time, and gradually fizzles out one day when you don’t realize.
The first time I experienced grief was when my pet dog Millie had to be put to sleep one Thursday morning after a brief struggle with cancer. I remember the long days that slowly faded into even longer nights, as my dad stroked my hair and sang me his mother’s favourite songs to put me to sleep.
In hindsight, he was there with me at every turning point in my life, every moment where the fleeting emotion of grief felt like it was lasting too long, and I felt like there was nothing I could do to help myself.
That’s why when I received the phone call and heard the dreaded words I hoped I never would, I lost all control of my mind and senses, and broke down completely. I couldn’t believe he’s gone.
4. The Centurion
When you’re 100 years old, death becomes a part of your life. You see loved ones you knew and grew up with go, and you see people’s expression change from disinterest to admiration as if they were thinking, “how long do you think she’s got?”
The first time I witnessed grief, and I mean truly experienced it, was when I woke up one to day to cries of my 10-year-old son, begging and pleading his fish to move in his little tank. To me the whole situation didn’t mean much, but as I saw a little boy’s body tremble with sobs as he spoke to an unmoving goldfish, asking him to do his tricks, I realized what a broken heart is. And that takes time to heal. It was this lesson I learnt that day that would guide me through my losses today.
Watching my strong mother’s will completely shatter wasn’t easy to watch for me or my family. I couldn’t gather much information through her broken sobs but I grasped some bits and pieces to understand that it was a heart attack that killed him.
The news was unsettling and shook all of us to the core. While everyone around me digested the fact and attempted to console my mother, I had something else weighing on my mind.
Given the circumstances, I had understood that it was my responsibility to break some bad news to the centurion next door; something none of us would want to sign up for, but it seemed like I was the only one in a fit state.
As I gathered the courage and walked up to her door, I wished for better days.
6. The Centurion
When you reach a certain age, you begin feeling guilty for a lot of things that you do. I am 100, but I see 50-year old’s dying, 20-year old’s suffering from diseases I can’t even pronounce, and 10-year old’s getting into accidents they weren’t responsible for.
I feel guilty today too, for living and breathing, as I watch a young man break some news to me, which clearly brings him a lot of pain. Living a dependent life becomes inevitable after a point and it isn’t easy witnessing people around you make compromises to accommodate you.
I wish he didn’t have to be the messenger, because I hated seeing the soft features on his gentle face droop as he wiped away the tears that he clearly was fighting. I didn’t realize when I started tearing up too.
It was hard for me to collect myself and face the world again, but I wasn’t one to back down from my responsibilities. I was grateful for all the people who were there to hold me when I was down, but it was time to get back and do what I did best: take control of the situation.
I called the caterers and florists, I made preparations for a beautiful ceremony that I knew my father would love. But when the day came, I couldn’t bear the thought of having to face his family: his sisters and aunts, friends, and ex-colleagues, but most of all his mother.
My father had told me once: sometimes in life even when we feel broken and down, we must muster up strength for the sake of others, those who are much more vulnerable and helpless than us. Sometimes, we have to be there for others even when there’s no one for us.
With immense sorrow and heartache, I made my way towards the main door, to get to the house of the centurion next door. I know I had just lost my father, but she had just lost her son.
8. The Centurion
It was a lovely memorial, with every one of my family members gathered in our garden as we recalled the times we spent with him. As the sun slipped behind the trees and the guests made their way back home, I looked towards my precious Aisha to wheel me back inside.
Losing people around you is painful, but coming to terms with your own’s son’s death feels like an arrow to the heart. I wanted to sob, scream, shout, anything- but I knew how much my dear Aisha was struggling; and sometimes, we must pretend to be strong, even when we’re completely broken inside, so that we can lessen the burden of our loved ones. This was something I had told my son when he became a father for the first time.
As I lay in my bed, sighing at the photograph of my son on the walls, I wished his next life to be better than this. And with one final look, I let sleep overtake my heavy eyelids.