The Cicadas' Song
It was a humid evening. Summer, with its cheery mornings and picnic-perfect atmosphere, had descended to a dolefully sultry monsoon. On a quiet night, amidst the occasional car whizzing past, one could hear the croaking and chirping of frogs and cicadas, singing away mirthfully in anticipation of the first showers. Most people would have looked forward to the impending rainfall, desperately waiting for a friendlier weather. She wasn't most people.
Perched on the sofa, she was flipping through the television channels until she found the one she was looking for. She looked at the time, only fifteen minutes till the show started. The show, Scars On Stars, was a documentary of astronomy, and had won a permanently reserved slot in her evening routine. She set about preparing her staple TV-viewing refreshments, keeping one eye on the clock. Just as she was about to plop down again, she heard a struggle against the door. After a quick peek through the slit, she unlocked the jammed latch.
"We really need to do something about this bolt," the man said as he entered. "I have already broken three keys trying to unlock the damn thing."
"You know your sly segue tactics don't work on me Pa," she quipped. "You're late. Again. Save your excuses now, show's about to start. Freshen up and come quickly, the snacks and drinks are ready."
With a guilty smile, he hurriedly made his way to follow his daughter's command, but not before giving her a quick, customary pat on the head. They had been alone for a more than a decade now, and naturally, had grown to become each other's world. They picked up Scars On Stars shortly after they lost her mother. He was trying to distract her young, impressionable mind from the tragedy when he stumbled upon the show. It was the first thing in weeks that had held her attention, so the two of them huddled near the TV in rapt attention. It gradually transformed from a coping mechanism to a ritual, adding another concrete layer to the solid foundation of the duo's relationship.
As the introductory music played, he hastily took his spot on the futon. After he settled down, munching on his favourite crackers, she asked him, "So, how was your day? Did that meeting go well?"
"Yes, we got the account! Although the AC in the conference room is under repair, so we had to sit in this sweltering heat. It really should rain any day now, God knows we need it."
"You and your precious rainfall. I will never understand for the life of me, the appeal of swampy puddles and damp clothes. Slipping on stairwells, that icky feeling all day long, drowsiness that shrouds the entire city; how can you like this climate Papa?"
"This is nature's self-cleansing routine, kiddo. The Universe washing away humankind's misery, if you will. But, to each their own. Tell me about your day now."
"Same old, same old. I'm still hopelessly stuck with my research. It's been what, four months, since I last made any progress. At this point, I'm wondering if I should just give up while I'm still ahead."
"Sweetie, we've had this conversation. Okay tell me, do you still love what you do everyday?"
"Of course I do Dad, but that's not going to help me, is it? I don't want to look back on this day five years later, wishing that I'd done something valuable with my time."
"You kids these days really amuse me. Either you love something but don't pursue it with all your soul, or you learn to love the mundane life that the world dictates for you because you have no idea what you're looking for. Life's too short to spend it in anticipation of tomorrow, honey. Try to do justice to your today, and the instant you feel like you're not living the best version of yourself, go and do whatever you need to do to change that. Don't get me wrong, yeah? You know I don't believe in the mainstream `never give up` narrative, but I do believe in giving up for the right reasons, which impatience is not. Life takes time to shape up, you just need to stick with it long enough."
And so, they chatted alongside the show. This was her favourite part of the day, unwinding with her father, talking about life and love and everything in between. Amidst his office and her thesis, life went on.
***A Few Weeks Later***
She was sitting in her cubicle, working on the same problem that had her stymied since the past few months. It was getting increasingly difficult to remain optimistic, even with her father's comforting words. Their last conversation had invigorated her, but it didn't help her much in the workplace practically. Lost in thought, she was fiddling around with her papers, when she felt somebody standing behind her.
"Good evening, Professor. I didn't see you there."
"How's it going here?" the woman asked. She was an experienced member of the faculty, kind with her mentees but demanding of results. The Professor had guided her for a long time now, and she knew her well enough to not beat around the bush. "Figured it out yet?"
"Not yet, unfortunately. But I'm on it every waking hour of every day."
"You know you don't have a lot of time, right? We have the review coming up in a few months. If they don't qualify you, you'll have to be transferred to another team."
"I realise that, ma'am. I really am trying my best."
"Keep at it. I have not seen many diligent candidates as you. It'd be a shame if it doesn't go your way."
And with that, the Professor walked away. The pressure was starting to build up. She had always had an impeccable record, academically and otherwise. Getting this doctorate had been a dream of hers for as long as she could remember, one that her father now shared with her. Now, it seemed like an elusive mirage, close but not close enough.
She was buried in her work when she got the call. She was too preoccupied to register the speaker in one go. When she finally did, her blood ran cold. Her father had met with an accident on his way to work, and was hospitalised immediately.
Too panicked to cry, she rushed to the address they had given her. He had been more than a parent to her. Her closest confidant, her guiding spirit, the voice in her head whenever she found herself in a pickle. The thought of this insufferable loss was more than she could bear, so she focused all her energies into what she could control - getting to him.
As she reached the reception, she shouted for assistance with all the desperation of an anguished child, pleading to be taken to her father with a kind of fixation only the grief-stricken exhibit. A young resident turned to see what the commotion was about, that's when he spotted her. He ran toward her, politely requesting the spectators to give them some space. After he calmed her down, at least as well as he could, she recognised him. He was an old neighbour, who had moved away a few years ago. Finding somebody familiar in that dreadful place helped her regain rationality. After completing the formalities, he sat her down to explain it all.
"Listen," he said patiently, "don't worry. I spoke with the doctor in-charge. He is my direct supervisor here, and is very experienced. He says Uncle seems to be doing well as of now. There has been some damage as often happens in accident cases, but nothing too alarming. They're waiting on some test results, but it looks like he'll be fine."
She breathed a sigh of relief. With everything that was going on, it was hard to not believe that powers greater than them were against her. But, this news re-instilled her faith in the Universe. Her father remained unconscious for a few days, but he eventually came around. He sounded his jovial, old self, only slightly weaker due to the strain. She visited him everyday, sleeping on the uncomfortable sofa in the visitors' lounge most nights. This morning, they were watching a rerun of Scars On Stars. They had to miss the usual episodes to let him get adequate rest.
"Sweetheart, I really appreciate your concern but trust me, I feel fine," he said to her as the show cut to break. "The team of doctors here are taking very good care of me, bless their souls. You need to go home and get some rest. I'll be back in no time"
"You couldn't cross the road without my help Papa. Trust me, you're getting old," she smirked sarcastically. She was maintaining the best of spirits, but it was all a façade. She was too terrified to leave him alone for long periods, imagining the worst. "Besides, who'll watch the show with you? Your block-headed resident is dense about space."
Since that fateful day, she had reconnected with her old neighbour. They had been great friends until he had to move away. So, it didn't take them any time to fall back into their camaraderie. Their constant joking around helped keep her father upbeat, and provided her with infallible support. Just as she mentioned him, the resident entered the room. He looked graver than usual lively self.
"Good morning, Uncle. I hope I'm not interrupting anything. How are you feeling today?"
"Not at all. We were just talking about you. As I have repeatedly told this little monkey here, I feel A-OK. A little fatigued sure, but that's normal at my age."
"That's great to hear."
The friend in her sensed the apprehension in the young doctor's voice. "Is everything okay? You don't sound very well."
Just the question he didn't want to answer. But, it was his moral duty, as a doctor and friend. "Actually, can we talk for a bit? There has been some new development."
Her father sat up. Suddenly, the ambience of the room changed from innocently playful to that of trepidation. "Tell us."
"Remember how we had taken a bunch of tests when you were first admitted? We just got your results back. We cross-referenced them to be absolutely sure."
"Don't beat around the bush, is he okay? Did the accident cause any serious, irreversible damage?" she asked eagerly.
"No, he is absolutely fine on that front. The scans showed something else. I don't know how else to say this, so I'll just say it. We detected a mass near your throat, Uncle. On further inspection, it was found to be.."
"Found to be what?"
"..esophageal cancer. The team wanted me to break it to you, but the doctors will brief you in more detail soon. I'm so sorry. If it's any consolation, it appears to be in Stage II. We have a great oncology department here. And we have seen significant success and remission in cases like yours. We were lucky, we detected it relatively early. The team is of the opinion that we should start the treatment right away."
She hadn't heard much after cancer. They couldn't catch a break. Life had tested them at every step, and at every step they had endured. But not this. Not her father. Not after they had such a narrow escape. She felt like she couldn't breathe, like she needed to get away somewhere really far, really soon. But this was not the time. Right now, she had to be the same pillar of strength that her father had been for so many years. Right now, she realised, he needed her.
"Oh, okay. Just one quick question. Can we do this after the show ends? Last twenty minutes, I really want to see that supernova," her father asked earnestly. The three of them looked at each other, in dead silence, and then they burst into laughter. She looked at that impossibly resilient man. The man who had taught her everything she knew today, the man that made her everything she was. As she watched his eyes sparkle with laughter, she realised he never needed her to be his strength; he had that in abundance, enough for both of them. All he ever needed was his daughter by his side, his one companion through life. His indomitable spirit would help them sail through this, just as it had done in other terrible times.
***A Few Days Later***
Whenever she visited him, she waited till her father fell asleep. Then, with a quick kiss and a prayer for his health, she left for home so as to not cause him any further distress. Since the day of the diagnosis, she had seemingly handled herself well. But for all her display. she was only a child, grappling with the harsh reality of her last parent's sickness. Everywhere she went, the fear of bereavement plagued her, haunting everything she did ever since.
As she was leaving, the resident caught up with her. He had been a source of tremendous support, constantly checking up on her and his patient. It was bizarre how they found each other when she needed it the most, it almost made her believe in the `meant-to-be` narrative she never bought into.
"Hey there, wait up! Uncle seemed very well today, didn't he?"
"Yes, he did. You're taking good care of him. I don't know how can I ever repay you." She was growing more distant from her old, merry self by the day. She often spoke in subdued tones now, with a maturity that disheartened her audience.
"Please, don't embarrass me. Anyway, I was heading out for chai as well, it's been a long day. Join me?"
And so, they went over to the makeshift stall a little ways from the hospital. With tarpaulin for a roof, and a table for a kitchen, that little shop served the best tea in the locality. As they sipped, he asked her, "It looks like a pleasant day. I'd love to go for a nice, long walk. I'm so exhausted, it'd be just what I need. Care to accompany me?"
"No sorry, I should be getting back home. There is a lot I have to figure out right now, the sooner I get to it the better." She was seldom interested in anything these days. Anxiety and despair gripped her, and she felt like she was merely playing a role in her own life. It was all she could do not to spiral down.
"I understand. I can't even imagine what you must be going through. Tell me, how are you really?"
That was it. That was all it took. The rock solid exterior that she had built to delude people and her own fragile heart, melted away in front of the genuine kindness and concerned eyes of her old friend.
"You really want to know how I am? Really? I'm miserable. I have never known pain like this before. I was not more than fifteen years old when I lost Ma. It was awful, but I had Pops. He was the light at the end of a dark tunnel that always kept me going, no matter what. And now, I'm expected to deal with the fact that that light will soon extinguish? I have doctors and websites and well-wishers throwing all sorts of stats at me; remission times, chemo sessions, survival rates. I don't understand your pagan math, these numbers are of no consequence to me. All I know is, in that building, in a morbid little room, lies the best man I know. One who believes in the fairness of the Universe, one who keeps his faith even when there's nothing left to hope for. And now, I have to count my days with him. Maybe a year, maybe five, but somebody somewhere has written him off of the Universe he so ardently believed in, way before his time. Not to add to that, I will probably fail to give him the one thing he lived for - my research is a bust. All that work, all those hours - it will all amount to nothing. Maybe in a year, maybe in five, but it's doomed, just as the most precious being in the world. Is that real enough for you?"
Everybody around was in stunned silence. The other patrons, not knowing what to do, stepped away to give her some space. He, on the other hand, calmly listened to every word she had to say, he knew she needed to let it out. Then, with his handkerchief, he wiped the tears she didn't even realise she had cried. He gave her a moment to collect herself, and then beckoned to her, as if to ask permission to speak.
"It is. And I'm glad you think of me enough to tell me the truth, thank you. Now listen to me for a minute, will you? All this agony, this suffering that you talk of? It's not real yet. Your father, as of this moment, is here. As alive as you and me, and probably ten times healthier, at least in his soul. And your thesis? I have seen your eyes ignite with a fervor that would put fire to shame, when you talk about your work. That doesn't seem like nothing to me. Please forgive me if I overstep my bounds, but don't you see? These woes that have you heartbroken are not even warranted right now. You're living in the future, my friend, and in the process, you're letting today pass you by. Life's too short to spend it in anticipation of tomorrow. In this moment, right now, you have your father, and you have a purpose that drives you. Life will shape up eventually, with or without you. You have to decide whether you want to be around to when that happens, or if you want to be a bystander in your own story. Be fair to your father, to your work, and to yourself. But most of all, be fair to this moment right here. It won't come back once you let it go."
Standing there, listening to him say the words her father often said to her, something happened. She realised, she had imprisoned herself in a cage of the future. She had let so many days go by, in dread of what's to come, that it never occurred to her to live fully in the very instant she had spent hours thinking of. The epiphany, once she realised it, liberated her. She looked at him, with grateful eyes and an overwhelmed heart, and quietly made a mental note to thank him later.
As if on cue, they heard clouds thundering in the distance. It seemed as if the Universe, in solidarity of her newfound perspective and resolve, wanted to nudge her to live her life anew, by committing to every moment. And sure enough, there it was. The season's first rain, washing away the collective grief of the Earth.
"Damn, I remember you hate it when it rains. Guess we'll just have to wait it out here," he said, looking toward the skies.
She looked at him, and stuck her hand out from under the tarpaulin in answer. Slowly, unsure of herself, she stepped out and let the water drench her completely. In that moment, she lived. She lived for her father, and she lived for herself.
"Hey Mr. Doctor, how about that walk now? We can catch Scars On Stars with Dad when we're back. He'd love to hear about the petrichor firsthand."
"You sure?" he asked, half in awe, half in glee.
She smiled at him as she pulled him toward the horizon. And so they went, walking in the rain, talking and jumping in puddles, with the cicadas singing in the distance.