The story of a woman who lost her daughter… And the man who found her.
“But I can’t take Lily with me! Are you nuts? What’ll the other guys think? And anyway, there are bound to be bachelor nights and drinks and stuff. Surely, you don’t expect me to take a three-year-old there, do you?” I felt a headache coming on. What the hell was I supposed to do? Right on cue, my daughter stirred and started screaming at the top of her lungs. How such a small kid can make so much noise eludes me. But before I could get up, my mother stood and picked Lily up from her crib. Holding her close, she shushed her while holding a bottle of milk to her lips. I smiled at her gratefully.
Raising a child without a mother is harder than you can imagine; but somehow Lily and I seem to have pulled it together. Even though Lily isn’t my own child, I would go against the whole world if that would make her happy.
I groaned at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. What will my college buddies say when they see me like this? I really needed to get more sleep. Working throughout the day and rocking Lily the whole night was taking its toll on my health. But I was looking forward to next week, as I would be getting a much-needed holiday. I was hoping mom would babysit her, but since she’s going to a conference…
“So, it’s just you and me, baby girl.” I whispered to my daughter and tickled her. She let out an excited squeal. Ah, if one could go back in time to that age when the world was innocent and life free from complications…If only we adults could see the world even as our children see, our lives would have been better, and livelier still.
It was still dawn when I stepped out of the cab and walked towards the entry gate of the Delhi airport. The early morning February air was pleasantly cold.
I was travelling to Bengaluru to attend a college friend’s wedding. It had been four years since we graduated from the same college. This wedding was also going to be a reunion of our batchmates. But what I didn’t know was that the reunion would begin much ahead of time; right in the queue in front of the airline counter.
I was almost sure it was she. Same height! Same long hair! Same complexion! Curiosity had my eyes glued to her. And then about 60-odd seconds later, when she turned, she proved me right. My ex-girlfriend stood two places ahead of me in that queue. We had never met after the college farewell. My daughter, who had been sleeping silently till then in my arms, fidgeted and started to cry. Great. I rocked her back and forth. Soon, she calmed down and started playing with my hair. Then, as I turned back to the counter, I saw my ex-girlfriend Royan, with her eyes round as saucers, staring at me.
I had barely got Lily strapped in her airplane seat when Royan plunked down beside me.
“Long time no see, huh?”
I smiled in response and fastened my own seatbelt. In fact, my mind was going bonkers trying to figure out why the hell it was that Royan had to get the seat next to mine. Although we hadn’t broken up on violent terms, it was still weird seeing her after so many years. Her face had lost its usual rosy colour, and looking closely, I saw that she had dark circles under her earth-brown eyes, which her makeup did very little to conceal. It might have been my imagination, but I saw pain, heartbreaking pain, in those eyes which had once enchanted me. Even though all this flashed through my mind in seconds, it was too late when I realised that the conversation ball was in my court.
“Uh, so how have things been with you?” Okay, it was lame. But that was the best I could come up with.
“Well, I got married….and then became a widow.” Now the pain in her eyes seemed to beckon me to comfort her.
“I’m so sorry. When did that happen?” I stammered.
“Three years ago. I married him soon after graduation.” She took a deep breath and gathered courage. “He committed suicide.”
“Oh.” This was surely a shock. Suicides are things that you read about in newspapers, they don’t happen to people who’re close to you. Again there was an uncomfortable silence. This time it was she who broke it.
“What’s her name?”
I looked up, questioning. She nodded her head towards my daughter who was clapping her hands and talking to herself.
“Lily,” I said and ruffled her raven hair. She laughed, and my heart skipped a beat. I was so in love with her.
Just then, Royan reached across and holding up her hand said “Hi, Lily! I’m Royan.” Lily replied in the only way she knows, by saying “Daddy”.
“Isn’t she cute? By the way, if you don’t mind my asking, where’s her mother?”
Why does everyone ask me that?
“She doesn’t have a mother.”
That seemed to stagger her, for she didn’t probe further. And I didn’t explain either. The truth wouldn’t make things better. And if lying would keep my daughter happy, then I don’t care if I become the most insipid liar in the world.
“Congratulations buddy! I see you finally found a girl who doesn’t mind living with the craziest, the most stubborn man that was ever born, huh?” I greeted Patrick aka Google (he was a know-it-all!), my best mate from college, and the future bridegroom.
“As smart-mouthed as ever, Jonathan?” He gave an exaggerated groan. “And here I was, thinking that maybe you’d changed for the better!”
Then his eyes landed on Lily, and the unasked question hovered in his eyes. Beside me, Royan was talking with Google’s fiancée Trisha. Even though she looked happy, my stubborn mind believed that there was an aura of grief emanating from her. Her every movement, every gesture seemed to me to have some hidden depth. Was I going nuts?
We reached our hotel, Silver Madison in a cab after an hour. Royan rarely talked during the ride, blaming the long flight for her tiredness. A few times I caught her looking at Lily with wistful longing. I knew there was nothing between us anymore but I was still concerned for her. Was it the loss of her husband that had made her so sad? Even as I watched, a tear fell from the corner of her eye and traced a silvery path down her cheek…
The marriage was perfect. Lily wasn’t. As soon as the ceremony started, she wanted to go for a stroll. Foreseeing her restlessness, I had brought along her favourite teddy. But she would have none of that. She dashed him to the ground and began tugging my shirt. I tried luring her with Google’s kitten, but to no avail. I had just about given up when Royan appeared out of nowhere.
“Do you mind if I take her? I’m going out for some air anyway.”
I was touched by her proposal. I had also noticed before that her being with Lily seemed to cheer her up. So I agreed. They were gone almost an hour. And when they did return, I couldn’t believe my eyes. My baby girl, who never warmed up to strangers quickly, was half asleep in Royan’s arms! And they looked so much like mother-daughter that I was badly startled. Maybe it was my mind playing tricks on me, but I could have sworn that Lily looked a lot like Royan…
I groaned and buried my face in my pillow. Why is it so difficult to make a three-year-old sleep at night? I dragged myself into a sitting position and looked at the bedside clock. One o’clock. Ugh. Why had I ever thought that bringing a kid with me on a trip was a good idea?
But on second thoughts, maybe I could take Lily out for a stroll inside the hotel’s compound. It would tire her and clear my mind of my recent rush of feelings for Royan. But I was in for a shock when I stepped outside my room, holding my baby girl’s little digits.
From somewhere in the large compound came the sound of soft crying. Was someone hurt? I slowly stole towards the direction of the weeping and saw…..Royan! What was she doing out so late? I watched as she wiped away her tears, even as they laid a fresh assault on her. Beside her lay a pink baby cap. My heart wanted to answer her pain, wanted to comfort her, hold her and never let go. But that wouldn’t be appropriate. I stayed in the shadows, wondering what to do, when she got up and went back to her room. An owl hooted nearby and it seemed as though it were also affected by the turmoil and vulnerability of the human soul…
It was on the day of Google and Trisha’s marriage reception that I came to know the real reason behind Royan’s anguish.
I had dressed up Lily in her favourite pink frock that day. And to my proud eyes, she looked akin to a princess, unsoiled and unscarred by the ravages of human life.
I remembered that fateful night three years ago very well. I had been walking home from work when I had seen her, lying on the front steps of a dilapidated building. She was quite tiny. But who had abandoned her there? There was not another soul in sight. A storm was brewing, so I had no choice but to take her along with me. And as it turns out, it was the best decision of my life.
Now, I felt a tear slip from my eye, as I wondered how it would have been if her mother had been here now. I slipped her shoes on and tenderly brushed the small birthmark she had just above her ankle. She deserved more than this. She deserved better than I could possibly hope to give her in a thousand years…
Just then, I spied a red-eyed Royan outside the reception pavilion. But when she saw me coming, she walked away.
“Hey, uh, do you know what’s happened to get her so upset?” I nudged Trisha.
“Well, she’s been this way ever since she lost her child.” Trisha whispered.
“She had a child?! When?”
“Almost three years ago. It was a girl. She gave birth soon after her husband’s death. It was while she was in the hospital that the infant became missing. She filed a police complaint, but it didn’t do any good. She still thinks that she’ll find her daughter one day. I don’t want to dash her hopes, but the way she keeps waiting breaks my heart. The first few months after the tragedy, she kept checking other babies’ ankles for the crescent-shaped birthmark that her daughter had.”
A crescent birthmark? That sounded somewhat familiar…
“Oh my God! It’s her!” I shouted and dashed towards the hotel to find Royan. The birthmark, her missing child, Lily’s mark on her ankle and her resemblance to Royan…it all made sense! Lily was Royan’s daughter!
Just then, my phone rang. It was her!
“This is the police, sir. There was an accident on the highway, and we found this phone on one of the victims. We suggest you come right over to St. Vincent’s Hospital where we’ll be bringing her.”
My throat went dry and my mind numb. Would Royan die without knowing her daughter had really come back to her? ________________________________________________________________
I drove as fast as I could. I had to unite Lily and Royan. It was true that Royan had already met Lily, but she hadn’t known then that she was her very flesh and blood. When I reached the hospital, I found that Royan was in a coma. The doctors said she was critical, and were doubtful as to whether she would linger till nightfall. She had lost a lot of blood, and one side of her head was badly smashed.
I slumped back against the door of the OT where she was being operated on. Lily was staring at me. I wiped my eyes and said,
“Your Mama, Lily. Do you want to meet your Mama?” I got no reply.
Anxious and tormented, I waited for the operation to finish. The metal from her car had pierced her lungs, which had started internal bleeding. Would they be able to stop it in time?
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the surgeon came out, his hands bloody.
“I’m sorry, sir. We can’t do anything more.”
“What about her daughter? She can’t die without knowing that her daughter is alive! God! How dare you part a mother and her child? She has to get up. She has to become well again, for Lily’s sake!” I was fast becoming hysterical. White-hot pain was blinding me. I seemed to be falling into a tunnel, out of which there was no way out. At last, release came to me in the form of hot, salty tears. There, in that hospital corridor, I kneeled and cried my heart out.
But I had to gather myself together. For Lily. For Royan. So I tried my best to stop sobbing and looked at the surgeon in his green overall.
“Can we see her one last time?”
They had cleaned and dressed her wounds and to me, it seemed that Royan would smile and get up and say that it was all a joke. But the various machines beeping around her told another story. I knew I didn’t have much time, so I lifted Lily onto her mother’s bed where she sat quietly, not knowing what to do. Then I softly started talking.
“I don’t know how it happened, whether it was by chance or destiny, but your daughter came to me. I know you’re very tired, Royan, but can you please just open your eyes for a minute to see her? You waited so long for her to come, and now you’ll just go? Don’t you want to tell her how much you love her? You have to wake up to see the love in her eyes. Please, Royan.” There my voice cracked and my tears fell on Royan. Her hand twitched. Then, ever so slowly, she opened her eyes. Quickly, I pulled back Lily’s sock, so that she could see the mark. The mark that was the seal of her love. Her breath caught and her eyes filled.
“My daughter.” She said, in a half-whisper and half-moan.
Lily reached for her face, and for the first time in her life, said, “Mama.”
Royan’s eyes half closed as she murmured, “my baby girl”.
Then…nothing. The machines went into a frenzy as the surgeon checked her pulse. Royan was no more. Mechanically, I picked Lily from the bed as the nurse spread a cloth over Royan’s inanimate body.
The boundaries that segregate life and death are but blurry and vague. Who can say where one ends and the other begins? But my heart was consoled that at least in the other world, Royan would not suffer the grief of not knowing her child, as she did in her earthly sojourn. Then I looked at Lily, who had a whole life ahead of her. It was then that I realised that everything happens for a reason…Some people call it God’s will, but I call it Destiny. And no matter how much you try to hide or run from it, in the end, it catches up with you…
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