It was on the Sunday before Christmas that I saw the note, crunched and spotted with what seemed like red ink. I sawit in the waste bin after I had finished setting up the Christmas tree.
The bin was by the tree, where I had put it to dispose of the decoration waste after fetching it from the rear veranda where it usually sat. It was a covered bin and the black plastic bin liner was peeping out from under the cover. I had almost finished the task – it had taken longer than usual as I had no help this year – and barring disposal of the waste, I was done. It was well after sunset – around Eight O Clock I’d say - andin keeping with the festive season I was impatient to imbue the Christmas Spirit.
Setting up the Christmas tree was both an obsession and my joy every year. I had been doing it since I was a child and never let go of the tradition. It gave me a sense of joy and festivity that perhaps the abstract thought of a Child, even a special Child, being born in Bethlehem could not bring. It was through that tree, whether it was an old tattered one or the brand new one we had bought last year that I rejoiced in the birth of Jesus. More than that, the Christmas tree brought the family together for an occasional sing song or a chit chat in the week before and after Christmas and as we sat around the tree and the crib below it, I somehow felt at peace with myself and others.
In so far as it was my obsession, it was always up to me to set up the Christmas tree before I got married and after. My wife Evelyn (Evie for nearly 26 years now) was supportive in this endeavour, but never very helpful. She observed from afar, going about keeping the house spic and span in anticipation of Christmas. I was comfortable with that now after many years, because our only son was always part of my Christmas capers!
Shannonwas always my aide-de-camp for a variety of Christmas endeavours from baking to roasting to cleaning - despite his busy schedule of studies and parties. Last year was especially good - we had a great time doing things together, probably the best time since he was little wanna be Sachin Tendulkar - as he was between college and a job.
With memories of yester year flooding my mind, and the craving for the spirit of the season crowding them in, my mind was in a state of flux. I knew I had to clean up before my wife wandered in from the kitchen. Evie was a stickler for neatness and in her present state of mind I knew would harangue me for even the slightest deviation in this regard... I gathered the debris - the fallen leaves, blobs of cotton, torn wrapping paper, pieces of twine, the extra sand of the crib, the broken decorations and statuettes - rolled them into an old tired newspaper and went towards the bin lying near the tree to dump it in. I placed my leg on the bin's cover pedal and it opened.
I was about to throw in the rolled up garbage when I saw it... A crunched piece of paper, flecked in red lying at the bottom of the bin. I noticed it immediately becauseEvie had just changed the bin's plastic liner and the bin was empty. The red on black was a marked contrast and stood out even in my crowded mind.
I bent over and picked it up. Still conscious of what I would have to face if I did not clean up my mess quickly - You develop this sixth sense after many years of marriage and it was especially acute recently - I held it in my left hand and dumped the garbage in with my right, my leg on the pedal till it went right in. Then boom the cover came down with a thud, heard in the kitchen.
I carried the bin back to where it belonged minus the crunched up note. The Christmas lights and the guiding star had begun to twinkle and Christmas was in the air. But I was afraid. Why, I was not sure. I had not felt this way in a long long time.
"David", my wife called just then as she saw me passing the kitchen door. “Yea, coming” I shouted back and hurried on to the back veranda and deposited the bin. I quickly put the piece of paper into my pant pocket and turned and rushed back inside, eager to cover my apprehension.The scrappy piece of paper was beginning burn a hole in my pocket and in my mind. Why was I being so paranoid I wondered?
She was in the kitchen, cutting up fish for the freezer and our future. “Evelyn, what? “I shouted again 500 meters from the kitchen door. There was no answer – I always used her full name when I was displeased or interrupted or prevented from doing something I had set my mind on doing. In the instant case it was opening out the scrappy piece of paper I had found in the bin.
I screamed half way to the kitchen, what do you want? I wanted to avoid a face to face conversation, worried that my face would display my apprehension - I was very expressive that way. I was the guy who could cry at the movie theatre. However, since there was no answer, I had no choice but to enter the kitchen screaming “Whaaat?” not realising I had screamed. This irritated her no end. She shouted back “why can’t you speak softly? “Because you can’t hear” I shouted back.
I quickly realised this conversation would go nowhere. It was the beginning of many such conversations we had been having in the recent past.
Not that such instances were absent previously, but we always made light of it in a short while. These episodes had been going on for some time now.
I still remember the day the fairy tale unravelled.
That fateful day in September, I returned from work as usual – mentally preparing for another monotonous and routine evening. But it was not to be. Evie was at front door waiting to greet me - something she had not done recently, presuming perhaps that as our marriage progressed, I would find my own way in. I was happy at the return to what I thought were days of yore, but the moment I saw her face, I knew something was wrong – She looked tense and her eyes were teary, not in an obvious way, but it was evident to the experienced eye and certainly mine was an experienced eye!
She gave me the bad news – “Shannon hassome rashes and fever and is very listless. He is very weak” Has he eaten I asked. “No not since his breakfast which itself he left half eaten.”
I went in and found him lying on the sofa watching a movie on TV. His eyes were half shut. He was hot to the touch and had a rash across both his hands. I didn’t think much of it and thought it might be an allergic reaction, but became alarmed when I recalled that Evie had said he had not eaten the whole day.
He was weak and listless like Evie said, unlike I had ever seen him anytime recently. I quietly left him and went into the kitchen. My wife followed me. In my heart I knew it was something serious and I told her so. We decided to go to the nearest hospital immediately – our presumption was that an injection and a bottle of drips would sort the problem out. We were dead wrong.
Three days later he was dead, our only son, a joy when he was born, and a joy just before he passed away in my wife's arms. She was inconsolable as was I.
Last month he would have turned 23.
As a couple, as parents, we were broken for he was the loveand fun factor of our family. A happy go lucky guy with a strong sense of humour, and always the life of a party! Indeed his life giving skills were much sought after for survival! Still, he was conscious of his goals if not conscientious about them and fulfilled them his own way, but fulfil them he did and we respected him for that and it never qualified our love and in turn he loved us for that.
Everything we did was for him. He was the biggest part of our lives – even when he was not around. In turn, many occasions taught us that we were a big part of his life too in the most unobtrusive way - When we were unwell, in distress or in conflict, he was as disturbed as we were, but discreetly.
The funeral was a blur and never registered in our conscious memories. He was still alive for us. But it seemed that we were dead.
Evelyn felt depressed. She was getting used to the melancholic feeling invading her being and plaguing her every waking hour ever since Shannon went away. She still believed he was out on one of his numerous outings with his friends - He would come home late at night and wake up late, especially during his hols from college and work, and then disappear again. But just the fact that he existed would console her at such times. She had loved him with all her heart and now that he had gone away, her heart was no longer in her life. It had become mechanical, much like the engine of a car – As long as it is on it whirrs away.
As Evelyn kept her hands busy, her mind drifted.
Her husband was understanding - as understanding as he could be in the circumstances. He was smarting inside – She could tell from his irritability and his increased affinity to the bottle - it only increased in intensity as Christmas approached.
Evelyn was tired. Tired of life itself. On the one side she was trying to cope with life without her son for the sake of her husband, while on the other he was drifting away from her. No longer his gregarious self, he too was wallowing in self-pity, and him hitting the bottle to combat his grief, the way he was doing it – it was the last straw on the camel’s back.
The only way she knew how to deal with her grief was to give him grief, day after day and night after night. Nothing he did would ever be right. He could never replace her loss, no matter how much he tried and he tried – being useful around the house, gentle with her in word and deed and giving her hugs and holds when he felt she needed them. But her loss defined her acceptance. Denial was better, it was safer.
She went on the offensive. She went overboard with taunts and it was not because she didn’t love him anymore - she still did - but she didn’t care anymore.Ah yes! That was the difference she thought. She was beyond caring, beyond feeling, beyond healing. She had done that all her life - caring for others - her son, her husband, her family his family, her friends, his friends - she was the glue that stuck them together, the one they would call when they needed advice, the one that one could depend on in any situation. She was the strong one.
But she had one secret she had not revealed to anyone. So little did they know that she drew a lot of strength from her husband, from his sane advice, but now the effect of both were waning, He had begun to drown his sorrows in the bottle and started withdrawing from conversations with her - to the outside world he still put up a brave face, but to her, he was a broken record, that she believed could never ever be fixed and certainly she didn’t care enough to try.
Her thoughts revolved around the loss of her son, her plans for and with him, and the empty future she faced without him. Her husband was no longer in her picture and staying strong for others, was a no brainer – She longed for comfort, rebutting every effort by anyone strongly, fearing she would have to accept her loss.
She began to suppress her feelings, trying to portray strength and calmness as was expected of her, but her effort manifested itself in taunts, silences and cold wars at home and crying spells among her friends - She had a few and they did their best to give her the strength and comfort she needed - but it was transient. At home she felt lonely like a single island in a big ocean.
By the time December began, the month of joy, the joy was totally and absolutely absent in both of them. The bickering, the drinking and the fights only got worse.
She did not even look up when David entered the kitchen to fulfil his spiritual fervour for the night. Her eyes had begun to fill up.
I left the kitchen in a huff, picking up my Vodka bottle, a glass and some ice from the ice tray in the fridge on the way. Evie continued to clean the fish, not bothering to look up. I went to the veranda, and sat down near the Christmas tree basking in its twinkling lights and poured a double, added the ice, a dash of lime, took in two quick sips and stared vacantly at the crib as if hoping for some sort of divine intervention in our lives.
The paper was still burning a hole in my pocket and in my mind – Why I still could not fathom. It seemed like an ordinary paper with some writing on it possibly thrown away while Evelyn was cleaning the house. But something was out of kilt. I could feel it in my bones.She would never but never soil a new bin liner with a single piece of paper when she could well have thrown it away in the previous one, which had become full. She was very meticulous that way.
I did try to reason with myself, that she might have been too lazy and to open the now tied disposal bag, throw it in and knot it up again – but couldn’t reconcile to the fact. There was one other thing. There were dark brown stains on the paper – why my mindinstantaneously pictured dried blood I couldn’t fathom unless it was a remanent of the nightmare I had almost daily since Shannon had died. The nightmare had a lot of blood – mainly pouring out of Shannon’s nostrils and mouth on the last day of his life.
After Shannon died, I had tried to remain strong for Evelyn, despite my own grief. I tried to hold her when she cried, - she pushed me away. Tried to tell her to think positively, when I myself struggled with the word and I failed – “Keep your positive thoughts to yourself, she would say. “Look at you drowning your sorrows in liquor and trying to lecture me”, was another of her favourite lines.
I stayed away from work for almost three months doing almost everything around the house, but she would not let me do that too – she wanted to keep herself busy, and I was at a loose end. I decided to return to work sooner than later. I was scared to leave her alone, when all she wanted me to do was just that. After a while I gave up trying to play healer, and found my own solace – Vodka.
Lost in thoughts, I was near the bottom of my glass when I removed the paper from my pant pocket and carefully opened it. It was badly creased and the writing was a little wobbly, but unmistakably it was Evelyn’s handwriting - the slightly left sloping rounded letters were distinctive. Lest I spoil the ambient and calming effect of the lit Christmas tree by putting on the light to read the handwriting, I used my mobile’s torch to read the note. I noticed that the hand writing covered about three-fourth’s of the page
My eyes skimmed the page in the harsh glare of the mobile torchlight...
My dearest dearest David,
I ‘m confused. Of late we have grown apart emotionally and mentally. I blame myself. I love you still, as much as I loved you when I married you, but I loved our only son more perhaps. His sudden loss, is something I cannot reconcile to. I’ve tried, taken the advice of so many to heart, even yours, though you may not believe it so, given that I’ve pushed you out of my way or ignored you as much as possible, or it may seem that way to you.
The emotional bond with Shannon was so strong, born of a difficult conception, a difficult pregnancy and then a difficult labour that I cannot let go of him though I am grounded in the reality that he is gone. Is it an excuse for me to shy away from living as many have suggested? I don’t know and I really don’t care. That single emotion of undeserved loss is eating at my insides like I’m worm infested and I believe that no amount of medicine, not sleeping tablets, nor any other kind will help me fill that void...
The vodka drifted quickly to my feet, which now had become wooden. My eyes welled – I was an emotional guy and a sucker for tragedy and loss stories. Only this was not a story. It was real. The blood was real. My blood froze, my thoughts froze. But I continued reading – there was not much else I could think of doing – I wanted to see where this was going.
David, I know that you feel the loss as much as I do, and you have taken it very hard. You tried to be strong for me, when I should have been strong for you. My past and my friends always led me to believe that I had the strength, but all the accolades and all my self-belief, collapsed with Shannon. Maybe your grief, maybe my behaviour, pushed you to drink more than you should – whatever your excuse is, it’s yours – I may have a part in it, and if I do I’m sorry.
Christmas is approaching and the togetherness we shared as a family for the last 25 years or so will be missing and I can’t bear it. I thought you would not take out the Christmas tree this year, and when you did, I went numb. I cannot share Christmas with you alone this year in the absence of Shannon
I went numb. I dropped the note, got up and ran to the kitchen, knocking down the vodka bottle in the process. It shattered, but I didn’t care.
Evie was still cleaning the fish at the kitchen sink. She had a knife in her hands. I stood in the doorway and looked at her. I couldn’t control myself. I went up to her and put my arms around her from behind. I didn’t say anything. She stopped what she was doing but didn’t turn around. I kissed her on her neck and said “Merry Christmas. Let’s go for Mass together. Let us remember our times with Shanon together. Let’s share our pain. We have only each other. That’s what Shannon would have us do. He enjoyed seeing us together”.
I wasn’t sure of how she would react. I had not measured my words. My outburst was spontaneous and genuine, born out of the angst of her missive. Suddenly it dawned on me she wanted me to find it. She was crying out for help.
Unexpectedly she dropped the knife, turned and put her arms around me, rested her face on my chest and cried her heart out. She had never done that before, not even when Shannon had passed away in her arms. I cried too, and as she wiped the tears from my eyes with her fingers stained with raw fish, I noticed the plaster on her finger and the blood stains on it.
I knew then it would be a joyful Christmas, because our child had revived our faith in each other from up above – We would once again sit around the Christmas tree basking its peaceful glow.