I had been running for over an hour, it seemed. Breathless and sweating, also due to the damp summer night heat. I was perspiring through the cotton voile that I was wearing, and the sweat beads were sliding off my eyelids, straining my eyes. As soon as I reached a bend that would take me home, I paused to look back, catching my breath at the same time. His flaming red eyes seemed larger than the last time I had seen them and much scarier. This was not the first time I was witnessing him. His Goliath figure seemed even more massive in the night. His face dark and stained with dried blood and hands stretched to grab me. His scratched face and body reeking of the stench from the dried wounds.
His pace increased as soon as he noticed that I had stopped to look back. In turn, I picked up my pace as I saw him inching towards me. Another bend and I would be home, I looked up to confirm. These turns were making my way uphill even more arduous than it was every day. And the excess weight of the baby I was carrying in my belly was not helping much. My steps were heavy and slow, and he was close on my heels right now. I had to escape his beastly claws, somehow. I could barely catch my breath, let alone find a voice to scream. I tripped on a rock and fell. Instinctively, my hand rested on my bulging belly. Within a few seconds, he stood close, his gnawing presence towering over my body. He smiled, a grotesque smile, as his bloodshot eyes threw a flame of fire on my belly and I burnt, my voice lost forever.
How beautiful is this breezy, fresh, spring morning… though my mind feels restless!What was the dream about last night, I kept wondering as I got dressed for work. Maybe I was subconsciously anxious about my pregnancy, just like every other expectant mother. Ever since I had known that I was pregnant, I had been in my best mood as long as I could remember. Surprisingly, I did not have any discomfort or nausea, like other women I knew had, during the first trimester and that just got me believing that I had set myself on a comfortable next few months as well. The people around me were as joyous and as relieved as I was, evidently. Then why was I getting such dreadful dreams?
Dr Kumar was the best guide I would have asked for during this journey. My first few medical tests at eleven weeks were perfect and I thought it was a great opportunity to celebrate with my college buddies, Wasim and Reza, with whom I had been friends for the last 8 years and now shared my travel portal business. After a round of a brilliant coffee, interesting chats, inquiry into my medical progress and general bickering, they dropped me off at Dr Kumar’s clinic. On my way, I kept looking out of the window from my rear seat, while the couple continued their chatter. It felt like the world was moving in slow motion, with the fleeting images changing one after another like a presentation carousel. The city, I had come to call home, for the past 10 years suddenly started getting fused into a long extending panorama.
Dr Kumar at the clinic was already waiting for me. A person who was always so encouraging and spirited, looked grim today. The aura of her room was a scary white.
“Seems like a gross case was attended before I stepped in today,” I remarked jovially. She smiled awkwardly, looking away from me, towards her laptop.
“Is everything okay,” I read her body language to have thrown an unassuming question towards her.
“I need to discuss something,” she sounded serious. “Why don’t you sit down comfortably first?”she gestured me to take the seat across from the table. I slid my bag on the adjoining chair and sat nervously, hoping to get some striking news about my pregnancy.
“Your blood reports came in today,” she laid out my reports in front of me, coming straight to the point. “I am observing a dip in your CD4 T cells since the last report.” Dr Kumar observed my intrigued expression to explain further, “It means that your white blood cells count is diminishing rapidly.” She paused for me to seek my response, in the absence of which, she continued, “We need to get some advance tests done.”
“What kind of tests?” I asked nervously.
“We may test for HIV again,” she declared.
It was windy, and my hair kept falling on my face due to the breeze. Every time I would try to keep them away, they would keep interrupting my view from the top. Standing on the edge of the terrace, 300 feet above the ground, my naked feet felt like melting butter at the moment. I was beginning to lose control over my body. I avoided looking down at the world below with cars moving at an impossible speed and the lights glittering like an angry dragon’s eyes. Instead, I looked at the vastness of the city and beyond the horizon. The stars were beginning to glow in the sky as the sun bid ‘good night’ to the day.
My deep breaths were no solace for the storm that I was experiencing inside. My baby moved inside as if it was trying to escape, knowing pretty well that if not now, she would never get a chance, ever. I turned around to look at the entrance of the terrace, my hair coursing away from my face. I noticed Wasim running towards me, in slow motion as if his feet were stepping to a transcendence that only he could hear. I, on the other hand, could hear the amplified sounds of my heartbeat echoing inside me, at double the pace. He ran, his hand extended towards me, shouting in my direction. I could see that he was trying to bellow, but I could hardly hear him. My heartbeat increased at an irregular pace, the sound resonating in my ear. Reza was a few paces behind him now, but he suddenly appeared closer.
A feeble smile played on my lips as their eyes met mine. Wasim’s extended hand reached out to me and he held my collar tight. With a swift move, he pulled me towards him and then pushed back, with full force, loosening the grip on my collar. My hands swung in all directions into the air, my body succumbing to the gravity. My clothes flew off my body and the bulge of my belly started tearing leaving the blood covering the most of my nakedness. My wounds oozed pus and blood, and my body kept splitting in shreds. I was plummeting, my hands flying about, the skin on my body tearing- piece by piece. Wasim and Reza looked down from the terrace at my mutilated pieces flying about, the blood finding its place in the thin air.
“What happened?” Reza asked me during lunch. “You have been unusually quiet.” I looked up from my bowl of salad and nodded.
“Is everything okay?” she inquired again.
“I… Er… I am going through a difficulty… er… physically.” I responded hesitatingly. And then as an afterthought, recovering from the initial hesitation, I said, “I have been getting nightmares. Strange nightmares.”
“Is the baby alright? When was the last time you visited Dr Kumar? Have you been exercising well?”she asked in a single breath.
Hesitatingly at first, but I decided to share the details with her nevertheless, “Reza, I am suffering from Lymphoma. The swelling in my neck is due to that, my white blood cells are infected. I have tested positive for HIV.” I said it all, in one breath. As if it did not matter anymore.
The colour of Reza’s face drained quickly. She slumped in her chair and looked deep into my eyes, grim and voiceless. For a few seconds, she and I sat there simply looking at each other, at the nothingness that was beginning to grow between us. If there was a silent conversation that was taking place, I was unsure how to respond to it. We sat there till Reza picked up the conversation from where we left, “Do you want to take a few days off to tend to your health? I mean at this time the baby and you need all the rest that your body can get.”
Her advice worked wonders for me for a few days. Being at home, not stressing about going to work each morning and tending to countless work-related issues was a welcome breather, however, a few days hence I started missing being out of the home, dealing with clients, even being in front of my laptop for long working hours. Neither Wasim nor Reza called me any of these days, which was bizarre by any standards. My visit to Dr Kumar’s clinic was not due for a few days. I was scheduled to have multiple medications, which was already a huge alteration in the way that I had perceived my health, only a few months ago. My baby bump was beginning to show, and the movement inside was the only piece of solace I could find in the grim schedule of my days. Expenses were mounting and now that I had not been to work for two weeks, I was beginning to wonder if everything was okay. I called Wasim to understand if there was something that I could contribute sitting back at home.
“Hi Wasim, how are you?” I sounded as chirpy as I could, given the conditions.
“Hi, sweetheart! How have you been?” he sounded as excited to hear my voice.
“I am okay… well, not really okay but I am trying to be my best,” I waited for the voice at the other end for a brief moment, and then continued, “actually, I was wondering if everything was okay at work. Seems liked you and Reza, both have forgotten about me.” My complaint was genuine, but I wondered if it mattered to him, because he did not seem to attend to the cue and continued with his queries.
“Is your health okay? Is there someone from the family to take care of you?” he inquired.
“You know, Wasim, no one from my family is ever going to visit me, ever, after all that I have been to them. In fact, no one even knows what I am going through. Six years is a long trough to traverse and recover from hate, you see. But enough about me… what’s been happening at work?” Wasim knew all about my relationship with my father. I quit my home many years ago after a fallout with him. And after commencing my business with Reza and Wasim, I had never looked back at my life from before. Now it was just too late to return.
Wasim broke my train of thought, “Work is okay. Reza and I are working hard to recover from the initial setback we faced when you left.” He suddenly sounded so cold. “You know there were a few employees who left after they got news about you. Rattan, Priya, Pihu and Sonal. All of them left, almost one after another, on the pretext of another, better job. It was tough managing the business without so many useful hands. Reza has been out of her wits just trying to get the operations running. And for me at finance, I have been shelling more money than making.” He concluded with a deep sigh.
“I was actually… er… Wasim, I was, in fact,…er… calling to know if I could borrow some money before we roll out the pay this month. I was hoping you could balance it accordingly.”
“Please… stop embarrassing me! It’s been tough here… we are barely making any money, darling. I wish there was something I could do right now,” not rude but Wasim’s response was totally unexpected. Was that the end of our conversation, I wondered? And before I could contemplate what exactly had transpired, he continued, “Sorry, but I can lend you something from my pocket. I think I will be able to spare some. Let me get back to my statement and I will call you, okay!” The pity that translated into his words was enough for my self-respecting soul to be pierced.
“No, it’s alright, Wasim. I will manage.” I could not believe my own words. A few months ago, I would have torn him down in pieces and yet here I was, feeble in spirit and body, barely enough for me to go by.
“Are you sure?” he asked as casually, “Reza and I shall visit you soon. You take care of your health, okay!” I may have just uttered a monosyllable ‘okay’ when I heard a click at the other end.
My world was whirring outside, and the commotion was being felt inside of my being. Almost instantly, I picked up my phone and called Reza, “Hi Reza, it’s been a while, you haven’t called?” It was more of an accusation than an innocent question.
“Er… Hi… er… I know. I am sorry, baby, it’s been maddening here. Work is… argh… so much, and the staff is less. Hey, did you know, some of our staff left almost one after another on the pretext that they have got better jobs?” she asked.
“How could I… you never called to tell me that!” I retorted in the most bitter voice I could find inside me.
“Oh yes, actually Wasim and I decided not to bother you with the mundane,” her voice was earnest, and I wanted to believe her but the rage that was developing inside was enough to have withdrawn my trust from her. “How have you been, anyway?”she asked me almost instantly.
“I have been sick, Reza.” I just could not control the wrath emanating from me with every passing minute.
“I am sorry, my friend, I have not been able to visit you. But Wasim and I were talking that we will visit you soon. How is the baby doing?” she hopped from one question to another hereafter, that I quickly lost all track of. My mind got lost in the conversation and then abruptly she said, “listen, I am meeting a few people in a few minutes, I will call you later.”
“Reza, I am coming back to work tomorrow.” The statement just breezed through as an afterthought to her queries. “I am bored sitting at home, so I am thinking I would feel better if I keep myself busy.”
“Yes, yes… of course,”she hesitated. “We would rather have you take care of your health but if you want to come back, why not. But listen, I have to leave now. I will call you soon.” And before I could say another word, I heard a click at the other end. My heart sank.Was this for real? These were supposed to be my friends! My ONLY friends!!
My mind was reeling with some zillion thoughts, all at the same time, around the two calls that I had just made. Wasim and Reza- they had been my friends forever, it seemed. Even when father and I fell out, they were the ones who believed in me. They were also the ones whom I trusted as much to have invested in a start-up of our own. More than that, they were the ones I had shared my fears and passion, laughter and tears, successes and opportunities. What was keeping them aloof now, I reckoned. And that, I needed to know! I braced myself for an altercation.
Next morning was another terrible one though. I was not expecting the beginning of the second trimester to be as bad, but I knew for sure, the Lymphoma was damaging my bloodstream severely. As I was wiping the blood from my mouth, I heard my phone ringing. Dr Kumar at the other end asked me to come to her clinic immediately. “But I am not due to meet you until this weekend,” I argued, the irritation evident in my voice, primarily because I wanted to get back to work today as promised to Reza.
“Actually, I am required to attend a lecture in Bonn this weekend. So, may I request you to visit today?” she almost pleaded.
Her voice made me feel guilty for snapping at her. At the moment, she was the only sanity I could find amidst the insanity around me. As I drove towards her clinic, weird thoughts started crossing my mind. What if at the actual day of delivery, there is no one to drive me to the hospital? What if I am even unable to make a call at the time of emergency? Who would be by my side when I would be fighting a life and death situation? Such thoughts often kept occurring in my mind recently and the answers to these were somehow too scary to even consider. In a span of so many years of my life, did I not have a single person to hold my hand during this phase? Fortunately, enough Dr Kumar was‚… and I was extremely thankful for that.
“My girl, you don’t look too great,” the concern in her matronly voice was the warmest blanket I could have asked for at the moment.
“I know. It’s been a terrible few days. But I am trusting the counsel Dr Prasad is giving me. I am so glad your reference worked. He is a great doctor. He has been giving me some great tips and exercises to keep me afloat,” I knew that whatever I was saying was already in Dr Kumar’s knowledge, but I wished to mention it to her too, simply to show my gratitude.
“In fact, it was Dr Prasad who had called me this morning about you. He thinks that you need to reconsider continuing with this pregnancy. He suggested that we step up on the medications for now. Also, a combination chemotherapy is required almost immediately,” Dr Kumar made it sound serious this time, which was unusual since she would be one always encouraging me to overcome my medical challenges.
After all that I had heard from Dr Kumar and had read about my ailment, I knew that I had a great chance of survival. But giving away my child was not one of my considerations.
“I am not sure Dr Kumar. I am unwilling to give away my child. Dr Prasad said…”
“… you have got to listen to me, young lady. Dr Prasad is the one who has suggested this, and I agree with him entirely. There is no reason we must continue with the pregnancy because it will only get difficult from here on, for you and the baby. There is a high risk you may lose the baby anyway, or the baby may get infected too. Would you like that?” With the last few words from Dr Kumar, my world started caving in. I did not know how to respond to this. Silent tears started turning my face into a mucus mess. Dr Kumar stood from her seat and came closer. Ignoring all protocol, between a doctor and a patient, she gave me a hug. “Think about it,”she finally said.
The white room shone in the tender morning sun. The summer breeze gently moved the white sheer curtains. The cradle rocked along with the melodic lullaby.
Lullaby, and good night, in the skies stars are bright.
May the moon’s silvery beams bring you sweet dreams.
Close your eyes now and rest, may these hours be blessed.
Till the sky’s bright with dawn when you wake with a yawn.
The bright peach satin ribbon that I held over it went through the ring on an end and across the ring on the other. Absolutely diagonally, another soft pink ribbon found its way to the rings. The blue and beige and lemon and carrot orange and melon and tea rose and bice and turquoise and all the possible colours that I could get, found their way into a weave over the cradle holding it on to its edge. The hues around the tiny cradle made it look heavenly. I tied a neat bow at each of the ends, all the while singing the lullaby.
Lullaby, and good night, you are mother’s delight.
I’ll protect you from harm, and you’ll wake in my arms.
Pleased with the work that I had put in all this time, I took the ends of the tails and knotted them together in a stronghold and raised the cradle onto a swing. The sound of the lullaby was as much in my mind as on my lips. I was enjoying the lilting sound of the music to myself as I held the cradle by the knot and jolted it out of the glass window across the balcony and on to the air. With the swoosh, the breeze took the cradle away, far away from me.
Everything around me went into a deafening silence for a moment. The ribbons kept loosening from my hold, the cradle sank in the clouds and beyond my view. The last bits of the satin slid off my hands leaving them bruised with cuts, blood dripping on the wooden floor.
The silence around me enveloped in its nothingness. And then I heard myself sing the lullaby again.
Sleepyhead, close your eyes, for I’m right beside you.
Guardian angels are near, so sleep without fear.