What do you say in the face of death?
She was lying on the hospital bed. Her white hospital gown blended with the white sheet drawn just above her waist. Her left hand was clasping at both his hands. He was sitting on the chair besides her bed. They were looking at each other with intensity. As if to make sure that their faces would be imprinted permanently in their minds.
The wind, which plays with the curtain besides window, was silent. As if it, too, was listening and watching intently at these two.
She noticed me at the corner of her eye. She said:
“Go, now, with your friend. And come back later.”
He seemed about to speak. He opened his mouth to say something. But it takes a long time. He was always slow. Some people say that’s because his mind is simple. That is a gross underestimation. He is brilliant. He only seems slow when it comes to women and words. In other words, he is shy.
Not slow with women and words, I say:
“I can come back tomorrow. Just passing through. You lovebirds need the time together.”
“No! Go, now!”
I have often wondered how a small, sweet voice could carry such Imperial command. He stood up, with a last look. She looked at him with such love in her eyes that it tore my heart to see it.
I would have objected, and I often do, to stopping a loving moment. But the pity, and the understanding, and the Imperial command won through. So I complied.
I would have objected more strongly, command or not, if I knew that she had only hours to live.
They had been married only for a little more than a week.
But her command was more for him than for their being together. She knew that he, the inarticulate part of him, needed a sounding board, which is me, in our guys get together, where he could express his thoughts, his fears, his love for her, and what he is going to do with the rest of his life.
She understood the psychology of releasing pent up emotions to a trusted friend.
We first met in High School. Not really met, an encounter. Her first words to him directly, were an insult.
Our teacher was asking a question and picked him to answer it. He stood and said:
Seeing how this stranger was floundering, I whispered “Lord…”
“Lord…” he repeated.
“Byron!” he completed.
The teacher said “Very good!” while he nodded his thanks to me.
It was an utterly forgettable experience for me. Do a deed and forget it. Except at this instance she came to him after class and said:
“You’re not so bright, are you?” and seeing that he doesn’t have a response, she stalked off, probably counting another coup in her life. I would remember her first words to him.
“Now, that’s not very nice.” I said. I followed with:
“Who’s that girl?” I was intrigued. “She a girlfriend or something?”
“I haven’t met her before. I think her name is Anastasia.”
“Figures,” she’s either a spy or an assassin. “And what’s your name, by the way?
“Andrew” he said. “And I knew the answer to the question.”
“Well, you talk fine, now.” And we laughed.
We do “talk fine” together. An unlikely friendship. He was brilliant but shy. I was self-contained, I didn’t care what others thought of me. But I don’t put up with their nonsense.
In our group, Andy seldom talks. Anastasia was the opposite. She would lead the discussion. I just hung around.
Around school, and later after graduation, we would not be seen together. Just happens. He would not seek me out, and I didn’t either. Somehow we get together. And there, in our private get together, he would be articulate, brilliant, and laugh. It became a pattern. He was a loner. But I had lots of friend I hang out with. But somehow I don’t enjoy them as much as talks with Andy.
I liked the pattern. No pressure on our friendship. And while some friends go their way and others friends came, Andy was a fixture in my life.
We would discuss things we like: Thrillers. Sci-Fi. Literature. Bruce Lee, how he was the greatest fighter. Scarlett Johansson, Charlize Theron, and Margot Robbie.
The things we laugh at: Love Stories.
We like comedy love movies. “Pretty Woman” tops the list.
We hate the tragic love movies. Topping the list is “Romeo and Juliet.” How can you love a love story when the object of love dies?
I hate it.
I knew that since High School, Anastasia was never a love interest for Andy. Perhaps he hated her? As for me, I didn’t care. She was just background.
Anastasia surprised Andy one day by sending him an invitation to a party. He didn’t attend. I knew about it when he asked me: “Were you invited to Anastasia’s party?”
“No” and that was enough for him not to attend.
Several rejected invitations later, she figured out that in order for Andy to attend, she must invite me as well. I attended, more out of amusement rather than eagerness.
When we arrived she neglected him as well as can be expected. I had been curious if she had thawed enough to be friendlier, especially to Andy. Nope. Just a:
“Glad you came. Have a drink. Have some food. Have a seat.” And that’s it. The food and drinks were enjoyable. Andy and I were discussing “Never Let Me Go”, a British dystopian romantic tragedy film based on Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 novel.
Of course we hated it. But the concept of voluntary organ donation or harvesting was intriguing. Can such a society really exist? Andy, knowing how I stand, slyly asked.
Of course not! I would lead a revolution to end such nonsense! Andy laughed, and I saw in the periphery that Anastasia was looking at us.
We attended several invitations. Once, when I wasn’t able to attend, and Andy also didn’t, Anastasia addressed me directly:
“You should have called!”
“I sent my regrets through Andy.”
“We’ll, he didn’t call”. And she repeated “You should have called!”
I was more amused than angry. Aha! That’s the real reason: He didn’t call!
It was such a small thing, really. And it grew. She would give him small gifts, like snacks, and books. She gives it imperiously, as if we were expected to bow down or something. It’s not how she says it, it’s the manner
It’s what I call the imperious or command-decision voice. I find it comical to hear a soft-spoken voice used in a command-decision manner.
It became clear to all of us that there was a courtship going on. And the object of the action was largely unaware. Or refused to be aware.
I would paint a scenario to Andy in which I would pretend to be Anastasia and say, in the sexiest, girl voice I could muster:
“Oh Andy, remove my clothes, ravage me!” and I would switch and pretend to be Andy and respond:
And I would laugh and laugh!
Andy would hit my shoulder. Hard.
Andy and Anastasia both joined the University. Andy was well on the way to full Professorship and Anastasia was a few rungs lower.
Andy often discuss with me about Anastasia, in an off-hand way. Like if there was convocation, he would mention that she was there. But as far as I know they never had a relationship. They had a professional or civil relationship but not more than that.
I tried my best to guide him, recommending Dale Carnegie’s “How To Win Friends and Influence People”, and Mark Manson’s “Models: Attract Women Through Honesty”. It didn’t work. His preferences are along the line of Science-Socio-Economic-Political-Historical themes, which are fun topics, come to think of it.
Then a bombshell.
I learned from a friend in the University that Anastasia was going on leave to go to England to get married!
Using my investigative and interrogation skills, I learned the truth from friends in the University and others.
Anastasia was sick. Leukemia. And had a few months to live.
Andy didn’t know. He was oblivious.
Concerned for them both I wasted no time and dragged Andy to Anastasia’s home. We presented ourselves to Anastasia’s father.
“Oh! Anastasia’s boyfriend. Make yourselves at home while I call for Anastasia.” I was surprised at his description. I had hope.
She had on jeans and a white shirt. Her long hair was done up in a ponytail. She walked slowly towards us. Regal.
“Yes?” I still wonder how a soft voice can be so commanding. Taking the cue, I responded with a commanding tone. Bad tone to take with a Model, and against Dale Carnegie’s advice, but it was urgent.
“Are you leaving us to get married?”
Her eyes narrowed. Anger barely controlled.
“What is that to you?”
Uh-oh, I used a bad opening. I immediately switched to supplicatory, at-your-mercy tone.
“But your friends are here. Your life is here” and a desperate shot at the dark, “Andy is here.”
“Andy?” And we both looked at Andy, whose eyes were wide open, mouth partly open. And silent.
“Andy doesn’t care about me.” A soft, but deadly, statement.
“You’re wrong. He does. He cares so much about you. Andy is just slow and doesn’t show emotion. I’m sorry, Andy” directing it to Andy, “but deep down, he truly does. I know. I KNOW!”
“Then let him say it.”
I opened my mouth to speak again but Anastasia said:
“Hush. Let him speak.”
We both looked at Andy. He started “Uh…”
I was about to speak again, but she chilled me with another “Hush.”
“I know that I seem cold and distant. But you were always on my mind.” He started.
I tried to speak, but Anastasia beat me to it:
“That’s corny. I heard that song before.” She said.
That song was first sung by Gwen McCrae, followed by Brenda Lee and Elvis Presley way back in 1972, and a Grammy Award Winner version by Willie Nelson in 1982. I liked Brenda Lee’s version best. But back to the topic.
“I know,” Andy said. He would know. “but it really expressed what I have been unable to articulate all these years. It’s just that you’re so intimidating.”
I was surprised. I think it was the longest and well-designed speech Andy has made before an audience.
“Why?” Anastasia’s question was very challenging and intimidating at the same time. I don’t know how to answer it. But Andy did:
“There’s a lot of reasons. But it all summarizes to these: Whenever I see you I always feel I want to be the best person that I can be before you, and I love you.”
This time I was astonished! It was such a well-expressed sentiment and he never told me that. It was really touching.
Anastasia’s tears fell from her eyes. She covered her face and bowed and wept. We were silent. After a while, she said:
“It’s too late.” And cried again.
“We can call off the wedding. We can explain. I know some people.” I said, trying to salvage the situation.
“It’s not that” she said. “I wasn’t going away for a wedding. I don’t know how the story started. You see, I’m sick” and again cried.
This time, Andy led me:
“We know. That’s why we came.”
Understanding, but angry again, Anastasia said, “What do you want? I’ll be dead in a few months. Even weeks!”
“I want us to get married”
“Didn’t you hear me? How can you say that when we have no future?” And she cried more bitterly.
“We don’t have a future. But I am not going to end my life without having you as my wife, even for a little while. It’s my dream. We have today.” Andy said quietly.
She looked up. Surprise and gratefulness shone in her eyes. Their hands touched.
Feeling a little choked up myself I discreetly went to the garden. They have a lot of things to talk about.
I was best man in their wedding. Naturally.
The honeymoon was cut short because they had to go to the hospital. Anastasia was weak.
I often go to the hospital to visit. Sometimes, like now, Anastasia would order us to leave. And Andy would have his release by venting to me. It was sad.
Our reminiscence was interrupted with a signal at his cellphone. The hospital.
In her room the monitors were telling us that the patient was at her last stages. When she saw Andy she immediately clutched at his hands. Fiercely.
I stepped outside trying hard not to cry myself. Later I heard it. It was a long-drawn wailing sound coming from deep within and struggling to get out. It was a grief so great that it couldn’t express itself fully.
She was dead. I was grieved inside. Their love story was very, very sad.
I hated it.
When I came back to the room, he was still lying on the bed besides Anastasia. She was peaceful and composed, as if she was just sleeping. She had been dead about 8 minutes.
Then, as the doctors and the orderlies came, one of the orderlies spoke.
“Look, the monitor says the patient is still with us!”
As if to confirm the statement, one of the monitors beeped.
This was followed by a moan from Anastasia.
“Water” she said.
Andy was quick and brought it to her. She finished half the glass. Then she closed her eyes and slept. The doctors confirmed it. The monitors were alive. She was asleep.
Later, they found a donor for the stem cell transplant needed for her body to manufacture healthy blood cells. I brought water from Lourdes, in France, reputed to produce miracle cures. No stone unturned, so I also recommended it. She liked it.
And it seemed to work. She was recovering from her sickness. She was getting stronger. And Imperious, as the old Anastasia was.
In one of our conversations, she said:
“You know, I think it was Andy who changed my mind to live.”
“In what way? You were dead. We all saw it”
“I heard Andy’s grief. That slow, deep grief that came from down the guts. It was then I really knew how much he loved me. And I thought ‘what am I doing leaving a wonderful man behind?’ So I woke up.”
“How can you hear it when the monitors all indicated you were dead?”
“I don’t know. Have them fix their monitors.” she dismissed it. And smiled.
A few years later I was holding my god-daughter, Andy and Anastasia’s daughter. She also had fierce eyes, like her mother.
Ah! Another Anastasia in the making.
I still don’t like love stories, except for the comedy feel-good movies.
The Andy and Anastasia love story is the one that I could feel good about.
I loved it.