OLD BOTTLE, NEW WINE
Leper! He detested ugly things. And a leper was on the top of his list. The very sight of any beggar seeking alms with folded hands having no fingers, dragging feet, without any toes – brought goosebumps; and he immediately turned the direction of his sight or going.
And the report in his hand screamed that his loving wife of more than twenty-five years was diagnosed with leprosy. The world crashed. Though he could not imagine his life without her, life including her, but excluding some of her body parts was far worse. Death would be far better.
The untreated disease was considered very contagious. He could visualize himself trying to drive the car – with the stubs of hands on the steering wheel, and buttoning his shirt without the fingers.
The wife, a very mature businessperson, got herself admitted to a Centre specializing in the care of leprosy patients. Away from civilization, away from the pollution, away from the toxic thinkers. She dedicated herself – first to cure herself, and then to help cure others. The progress was slow, but with medicines, therapy, and positive attitude, the disease itself died – though not before leaving some marks on her body. During these times, she continued to exchange letters with her beloved husband – who replied to her – at first immediately, then gradually the process slowed down. She would be lucky to receive one reply in three-four months in exchange for her weekly letters. The day of her being certified as disease-free was her last day at the Centre. She had made her place in the Centre and the heart of everyone. With a mixed feeling, the staff bid farewell to her. ‘Our doors are always open to you.’ She looked forward to uniting with her husband and meeting the family and friends.
And what a welcome it was. The entire street leading to the main door of her house was decorated with banners and balloons. The children were on their best behaviour, and her husband had tears in his eyes. Unfortunately, there were too many people in the house, and he was so busy entertaining everyone that she had to control her craving to touch him, feel him. She was moved with all the love and affection showered on her.
The long day ended at last – and she went to ‘their bedroom’. The ambience of the room was the same as she had left it four years ago. Her wardrobe and her newly replenished make-up items, her favourite perfume, even the room freshener – nothing had changed. Yet something was amiss. The huge king size bed was replaced with a single bed. A single bed for a single person. Without saying anything, everything was said, and she understood.
Next few days, she noticed small changes in the behaviour of her husband (whose bedroom was at the farthest end of the house – far away from ‘their’ bedroom) and her children. Everyone was polite, but wouldn’t let her cook, clean or organize. The items she touched were immediately whisked away and sanitized. ‘You are still recovering – please don’t exert’ was the mantra. Human touch was out of the touch. Even her pet dog who, on seeing her after a long time, had jumped all over her and had licked her maimed hand – was whisked away – away from her.
This continued for a week. A terse telephone call elicited the required response. The next morning – very early – while everyone was still sleeping, a cab picked her with a small bag containing the family pictures and few clothes. She started her journey to the Centre again. Not as a patient.
She looked for the last time at the ‘dream’ house.
And she did not attempt to wipe off with her stubbed hands a single tear that trickled down her left eye.
“Honey, I am going to do the laundry. After that, I shall be attending to the garden – I need to trim some plants and apply fertilizers and weeds. I shall be with you soon.”
He spoke to his recently departed wife. His wife – the childhood friend, the philosopher, the guide, and his life. For a few days, he was lost without her. Then he learnt to cope with the loss ingeniously. She used to chide him that he was expert in not seeing what he did not want to see. ‘You have a very narrow sense of vision – and see only what you want to see.’ With that same expertise, he convinced himself that she was in the next room – and continued to live – not alone, but with her in the next room. His three children questioned his acumen and tried to convince him to move in – either with them or to a retirement home. He resisted, rebuffed, rebuked, and won.
“Honey, I have a bit of cough, and I have a little temperature. Do you think I should be worried?”
Reluctantly, he called his family physician. ‘The next available appointment is after seventeen days.’ He called his friend, who told him to go and get tested for Covid-19 immediately. ‘Do you want me to take you there?’
“No – one of my children will do so. Don’t worry.”
He called the youngest first. “Dad, I was going to call you – looks like Dolly caught something at the school. She has been coughing and has a slight fever. I hope it’s not that thing…”
He suppressed his own cough. He dialed the next number – that child did not pick up the phone. The last one was the eldest.
“Dad, tell me your symptoms. I am on the computer right now.”
The son ticked off the online checklist and demanded that the father should immediately go to the nearest Covid-19 Test Centre. No excuses.
“It’s nothing. It will pass. I shall take a Tylenol or two – and the fever will go away. The cough is asthmatic. I know my coughs.”
“No excuses. You must go right now.”
The father quivered. He hated the Hospitals and Medical Clinics. His wife always held his hand whenever he HAD to. How he missed her.
“Will you please take me there? Wait with me?”
“Dad – if you have IT, then I will also be exposed to it. I can’t afford to be sick now or ever. We had told you so many times to stay safe in the Retirement Home. But you are stubborn. Very stubborn. No wonder mom used to be always angry with you. And do you know what you are asking me? I have a fairly large bubble – and there are too many vulnerable people in it. I can’t. But you MUST GO! Promise me right now that you are going.”
“I will. I will. I will. Please don’t worry. I promise I will.” He crossed his right-hand fingers – a childhood habit whenever he told a lie.
He gulped down with a glass of warm water, the insults, the hurt and two Tylenol. He slumped on his favourite red recliner chair.
A single tear trickled down his right eye.