She is here! The tall woman in the long form fitting black dress, standing at the back of the crowd, several meters away from everyone else– that’s definitely her, Sarah. It’s been thirteen years since I last set eyes on her, but that’s one face I would never forget. The years had taken a toll on her– her cheeks look hollow, her eyes lifeless and the thick black hair that once framed her face is mostly silvery white now. She didn’t come alone. A man with long grey hair pulled back in a ponytail stood next to her and he had his arm around her shoulders protectively. In her hands, she held a small bouquet matching the one in mine. Pink carnations. Papa’s favorite. I am surprised that she remembered. I returned my attention to the dark cherry wood casket in front of me where my Papa Lay, looking calm, serene and finally at peace. There isn’t going to be any miracle that would make him rise again and come back to me. This is real. He is gone. And a part of my soul went with him.
Prayers were read, hymns were sung and eulogies were delivered. People talked about how brave Harry, the friend was–to fight against cancer knowing it was a losing battle. I hated it when people said that about him even though they hadn’t intended to disrespect his struggles. Harry, the father fought every single battle in his life with the same passion including his last one– the most ruthless of all. He would sit through the gruesome chemo sessions and then come home and pretend to enjoy the dinner I cook for him. Then the next day he would dress up and go to work as usual. The weaker his body got, the stronger his mind became. And I foolishly believed he would continue growing stronger until I saw him lying on the floor one day, cold and stiff.
As I watched the casket disappearing into the dark pit of emptiness, a lone tear fell down my cheek. Through the corner of my eye, I saw Sarah dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief too. I hadn’t expected her to come today. Why today? After all those years? Did Aunt Lily know Sarah was coming?
Sarah stayed at the back and I knew the exact moment she spotted me because her face had lost all its color and she looked like she had seen a ghost. Her husband/boyfriend was instantly beside her, rubbing her back soothingly to calm her down.
Thirteen years ago, I would have begged her to join me in the front. Holding hands, we would bid farewell to the man who loved both of us more than anything else in the world. But today it’s just me, his daughter, the only woman who loved him enough.
And Sarah...she stayed where she was, with the man whom she chose over her husband and daughter.
When I was 8, I thought Sarah, my mom was the most beautiful woman on earth. She looked exactly like one of the expensive dolls in my collection–fair skinned with long black hair and bright, sparkly eyes. I would look at my dark skin and corkscrew curls and wonder why I don’t look like her. Papa was not conventionally handsome, just a normal man of an average build. But I didn’t look like him either. My friends also started asking why I don’t look like my parents.
Unable to contain my curiosity any longer, I went to my mom.
“Mom, why don’t I look like you or Papa?”
Stunned and hurt, she sat in silence, trying to figure out how to answer my question.
The silence lasted for about a minute. Then she pulled me slowly towards her, cupped my face in her hands. And when she spoke, her voice was full of emotion.
“That’s because...honey, you didn’t come out of my tummy. But I still love you the same.”
I was deeply saddened by what I just heard. I wanted to come out of her tummy. I didn’t want anyone else.
As if sensing my distress, she hugged me tightly and pressed a kiss on my forehead. A kiss that didn’t come with a promise…
I learned a new word that day. Adopted. I also learned that cultural myths aren’t always true. Someone doesn’t have to be a birth mother to love a child dearly. My mom loved and cared for me like I was her own. With Papa away for work most of the time, she took care of the house and me. And I didn’t miss Papa at all.
It was my sixteenth birthday and I had been waiting for it for months. Papa said he had a surprise waiting for me at home. When I came home, it was just Papa and Aunt Lily, his sister. Mom was nowhere to be seen. Had she gone out to get my cake? But looking at Papa’s glum expression, I sensed something was wrong. Did mom have an accident?
“Can someone tell me what’s going on here?”I was nearly hysterical.
Papa had a small piece of paper clutched in his trembling hands. I snatched it from him before unfolding it to have a closer look. It was a note written in mom’s slanted handwriting.
I am leaving Harry. I have to. I am sorry.
I was screaming and cursing everybody and everything for making my life miserable. Aunt Lily kept trying to pacify me while Papa just sat there, numb and motionless. He looked like mom leaving us didn’t shock him at all. It was as if he knew she was going to pack up and leave one day. And that made me angrier. Maybe she would have stayed if he came home more frequently. Maybe she wouldn’t have left us if he showed her that he really cared for us. And just like that, I turned into a rebel teen overnight. I stopped going to school. I stopped speaking to Papa. I would stay locked inside my room for days without eating and speaking to anyone. Occasionally Aunt Lily would come to help out. It was through her that I slowly started seeing a different perspective of mom’s abandonment. She said mom was in love with another man before her marriage, but she was forced to marry Papa because of her family. And now her old boyfriend came back and she left with him. Papa knew she was leaving and he quietly signed off the divorce papers.
I never thought mom was unhappy with her life here. Once in a while she complained about Papa going away for weeks. But when Papa came, she looked happy and excited. I hated her for leaving her daughter. I hated her for betraying an innocent man. Above all, I hated that I still loved her, despite everything…
The aftermath of her abandonment was melodramatic and chaotic. But over time, it improved my relationship with my Papa. We decided to start over with a clean slate and rebuild and repair the broken bits of our past. Papa found another job near home, with a lesser pay than his previous one. A part of him blamed himself too for driving mom away with his lack of attention.
He never dated again.
“What do you want to do with your life Papa? “I asked. “Surely this is not the end right?”
“I like my life as it is.” He said affectionately. “I have you with me. The only woman who loved me enough.”
When I was 21, Papa was diagnosed with stage 2 prostate cancer and that news altered our lives forever. The years followed were a blur with me bouncing between pain and acceptance– pain of seeing him silently suffer and the slow acceptance that he didn’t have much time left.
“Noorie! I have been looking for you.” Aunt Lily grabbed my hand and pulled me to the small crowd of people waiting for me. After briefly thanking everyone for being here to pay respects for my Papa, I slowly started walking towards the car, Aunt Lily tagging along.
“I didn’t invite Sarah.’’ She whispered, distraught.
“I know. I didn’t think you would. But to be honest, it doesn’t matter anymore. She came. Out of obligation or choice. I don’t know. Like I said, it is not important. And now she is gone.” I replied in a dejected tone.
“No. She is not.”
Yes. I saw her too. She was standing in the parking lot, looking in my direction. I shook my head, indicating that I am not ready for whatever she has in mind.
Today isn’t the day for a stranger who left me with memories. Today is for my Papa who was just laid to rest.
Her intent gaze lingered on me for a moment, she then gave me an uncertain smile–a smile that said she was sorry for my loss–before she turned around and walked towards her car and the man waiting inside.
She lost him twice. I wanted to say I was sorry for her losses too. But I am not that person anymore. Between then and now, a lot has changed. I have learned to forgive and forget. Hand in hand, Papa and I fought our demons and made peace with them all. He was my rock and anchor and I was the only woman who loved him enough...