She had never really given much thought to what her last memory would be. Why should she? She figured that she would deal with death, the way she dealt with everything else in her life….face it when it came. It may be unpredictable but she didn’t care. She had learnt to expect the unexpected.
And yet she was shocked at what her last thought turned out to be. It wasn’t one of the happiest times in her life. It wasn’t a life lesson, something that had caused her pain but helped her grow. It wasn’t anything remotely as significant as that. It was just a song. A song which she had heard at her brother’s choir when she was 7 years old. It hadn’t been a particularly memorable performance as half the guys were participating forcefully. Nor had her brother been exceptionally great. But the song was what had crossed her mind at that last moment.
God only knows why we try and fail
Is this Heaven on earth or the fires of Hell?
I tried to be honest; it’s hard not to lie
Will you remember me after I die?
And that was it. Her last memory. Her last thought. That unlike that song, she had done nothing she could ask to be remembered for. She hadn’t been particularly bright. She hadn’t possessed any special talent of her own. She hadn’t saved a life. She had lived a normal unextraordinary life. She had just been one of those average persons who didn’t leave a mark on the world.
Yes, her family and friends would mourn about her. Yes, she would be missed by her loved ones. But other that she would just be one of those tragic headlines. ‘18 year old dies in a car accident.’ People would shake their heads in sympathy. Parents would hug their children extra hard at night. Brothers would behave extra kindly to their baby sisters for a moment. Best friends would squeeze each others’ hands gratefully. And that was it. After that one moment of fame, she would just fade away, leaving the world unchanged.
“It doesn’t hurt.”
“I don’t care about that.”
“Then what is it? People are usually full of questions at this point.”
“I don’t have any questions.”
“You are not going to Hell if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“Is this supposed to be some kind of a joke?”
“I am sorry. I understand that this is a lot to take in. Especially since you have to face this at such a young age. But it was such a tragic accident that….”
“Of course, that’s all I am now! A tragic accident!”
“That’s not true. You are so much more than that.”
“Oh really? Then please enlighten me. Name one extraordinary thing that I have done. One thing I will be remembered for.”
“You have got people who love you.”
“My family and a handful of friends? That doesn’t really count. I am telling you. I am not popular, or talented, or smart or….”
“Thanks. That really cheered me up.”
“I am sorry that you feel your life was insignificant. But is that what you are really worried about? Maybe you are just sad that you don’t have a future. That is understandable. That is common in early teenage deaths. They get depressed about having such an early ending. No marriage or kids or career or future…”
“Why would I be concerned about my future if my past was meaningless?”
“Again, it was not meaningless. You do have people who will always remember you.”
“You can’t play ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ with me. I haven’t done anything like that. It wouldn’t make a difference if I didn’t exist. I have done nothing to change the world.”
“Why are you humans so obsessed with changing the world? What’s all this addiction about leaving a mark on the Earth? Let me tell you, the Earth is too large to weep for every human it loses. So just focus on the people who matter.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Maybe you need to see it.”
She had asked for pancakes for breakfast.
“You are going to be late for college.”
“The first lecture is not important. It wouldn’t matter if I miss it.”
“Which lecture is it?”
“Since when did Maths become unimportant?”
“Since I started disliking it. Now can I get those pancakes please?”
She had scolded her for this careless approach of hers. She had told her that with such attitude she wouldn’t be able to go too far in life. She had then narrated a story about her own childhood. A story about how she too had hated Maths. She would come home after every single Maths test, complaining that she wanted to drop off Maths. And yet she managed to overcome her phobia for numbers. She tried hard, she persevered and eventually the numbers became her best friends. She had topped the class in Maths that year. She smiled at the end of her own story. She knew that she had exaggerated quite a bit. Maths had been her favorite subject since the moment she learnt to count. But that wouldn’t have made a very inspiring story. She looked at her daughter to see how she was reacting.
Her daughter rolled her eyes at her as she picked up an apple from the counter and headed out. She was muttering something under her breath about ‘being late.’
“I warned you about being late.”
“I thought I would be late for something worthwhile like pancakes. Not for fictional stories,” her daughter called back.
She blushed a little bit in embarrassment. Her daughter knew her too well to call her bluff. Maybe she should leave the inspirational talks for her own students.
“Don’t miss the lecture!” she called out but the door was already shut. She didn’t know whether her daughter had heard her.
After she got the phone call about the accident, she remembered feeling numb. There were cries and shouts all around her but she was feeling empty. She was wishing her last words had been something different. A ‘I love you.’ Or even a simple ‘Be careful.’ She wished she had allowed her daughter to bunk the lecture. How did bunking one lecture matter anyway? They would have stayed in the kitchen together, chatting like they did when she was young. She would have cooked her daughter pancakes, hugged her and told her how much she loved her. Pancakes! She hadn’t even listened to that one simple wish of her baby girl.
And so the next day, when the rest of the family was still sobbing in the backyard, refusing to eat anything, she stayed in the kitchen and made pancakes. Nobody else ate anything for breakfast that day but she did. She sat alone at the counter with tears dribbling down her cheeks, falling on her pancakes. Between sobs, she swallowed one bite after another. And that’s how she grieved; eating salty pancakes, trying to fulfill her daughter’s last wish alone.
He had taught his daughter how to dance. People laughed when they heard about this. Most fathers associated their first lesson with their daughters to be something mainstream. Riding a bicycle. Swimming. Horse riding. Something to ‘toughen her up.’ But he did not think there was anything feminine about dancing. It was simply art. A way to express feelings.
He had attended all of her dance recitals after that. He remembered being the only father at the performances and yet he didn’t care. He would cheer the loudest for his little angel. Unfortunately for him, her interest in this didn’t last much longer. As she grew up, he was politely informed that she no longer wanted to continue with her ballroom dancing lessons. He was told that ballroom dancing wasn’t ‘in’ anymore. She wanted to take up hip hop instead, like the rest of her friends. He told her he understood. He was aware that she was at a stage where peoples’ opinions about her mattered. She was trying so hard to fit in with her peers. And so he attended all her hip hop performances loyally, inwardly cringing at the loud, raucous music. But even then, he was the only father, cheering the loudest for his baby.
She was sleeping. That’s what he pretended when he saw her body. She was dressed in a pale blue dress which he knew she would have hated. And she was sleeping peacefully. There were still scars on her body and that large bruise on her head. But even in this way, he couldn’t help noticing how graceful she looked. Even in this immobile state, she looked like a swan gliding over the smooth waters. He remembered how she had come crying once before her ballroom dancing performance, telling him that she hated her costume.
It wasn’t her fault. The teacher had chosen some kind of hideous bright pink frock. He looked around and saw the mothers assuring their girls that they looked beautiful. Then he looked at his teary 6 year old and bent down to kiss her forehead. He told her a quote that he had heard long ago. He told her she was art. And art isn’t supposed to be perfect. It is supposed to make you feel something.
And that’s what he was thinking about when he saw his angel lying still, covered with bruises and scars. He was barely listening to the priest gushing about what a cheerful, loving, gentle girl she had been. He knew better than to believe that. She wasn’t always cheerful. In fact she had always been more of a cynic.
As for gentle, he scoffed when he heard that term. She was the rough and tough girl who spoke what came to her mind. She didn’t always think about the consequences when she blurted out the first thought that came to her mind. She wasn’t the perfect angel whom she was being described as. She was rude. She was bratty. She was blunt. She was far from perfect. But he didn’t love her inspite of her imperfections. He loved her because of them.
They became best friends because they had so much in common. They met in kindergarten when they both reached for the same set of building blocks. Hesitant smiles were exchanged as either of them realized they were not the only ones choosing blocks over soft toys. With a simple,” Want to play together?” they began a friendship which lasted a lifetime.
As time progressed, their common interests grew. They both wanted to be actresses. They would spend their summer holidays in the attics, digging up old clothes from the boxes. They would dress up in the weirdest mismatched outfits and enact plays and their favourite movie scenes. They both loved the same kind of pizza toppings. Extra cheese, mushrooms, tomatoes and no black olives. They would order large pizzas and eat them while watching old black and white romcoms. There would be a large pile of black olives in the box, which they would carefully remove from their pizzas. Her mother would always complain as to why they didn’t just order pizzas without olives. But they would grin at each other as there was no logic to that. It was just their thing. Both of them were outdoor people. Their favourite pastimes would include biking all over the city, playing lawn tennis, swimming in the local pool and just racing each other down the slopes.
As times passed, they started to change. They had reached a stage where the questioned everything they once believed in. Neither of them wanted to be an actress anymore. She had started taking a serious interest in Geography and wanted to do something in that field. Her best friend was still in the decision making process but her interest in acting had long faded away. She didn’t like to eat pizzas anymore as she had become so much more health conscious. Her best friend still ate them but no longer asked for extra cheese. Her best friend confessed to her sheepishly that she had started liking black olives now, something which she had pretended to faint in shock at. She still went for bike rides and swimming. Although her best friend accompanied her sometimes, she was no longer the frisky outdoor person she had once been. She much rather preferred reading a book or a quiet chat indoors.
It wasn’t until the day of the funeral that she realized that had nothing in common anymore. They were like chalk and cheese, two completely opposite people. The reason why they had actually become friends was gone. And yet, they were closer than ever. When she was gone, it was like a part of her own soul was lost. She knew that she could never be the same again. Maybe after a few months, a year, she would be able to recall their memories without crying. But the hole in her heart would always remain. Because, no matter how same or different they had been, she had been the person who had been with her through everything. She had watched her change, a little bit everyday. And with every shade of her character, with every new irritating habit had she picked up, with every new change in her, she loved her best friend all over again.
He had never said ‘I love you’ to his sister. Maybe once or twice when they were little. But he couldn’t remember any specific moment when he had actually voiced it out. And the same went for her. He had heard her squeal ‘Awww babes I love you’ innumerable times to her friends. He had heard her say it to her parents when she kissed them goodbye. Hell, he had even heard her whisper it to those soap opera actors when she watched television with gooey eyes. But never once had these words been exchanged between the two of them.
He had never really thought about it. It had been one of those cliché lines which he didn’t have time for. But now he wished he would have said it. At least once. He wished he would have told her how much she meant to him. He wished he would have told her that inspite of their innumerable fights, she was a truly amazing sister. He wished he would have told her how much he loved the times when they rolled their eyes at each other during their parents’ lectures.
The times when they climbed the old banyan tree in their neighbourhood and it became their ‘secret hiding place.’ The times when they snuck out during their study sessions to play football in the muddy backyard. The times when he beat her and spent ages gloating over her loss. The times she seemed down and so he purposefully let her win, watching her smiling about this for the rest of the day. He loved the way it took so little to make her happy.
On the morning of her funeral, he mustered up the courage to talk to his father about this. He wondered out loud whether he had been an extremely callous person for never telling his sister that he loved her. His father smiled that sad smile of his and patted his head gently. He told him that,” Saying those words isn’t the only way of saying I love you.” That was one of those philosophical lines which usually made him and his sister exchange bored looks. But today she wasn’t there with him. He was all alone. And so for a change, he sat down and thought about those words. He thought about the times when they had actually said ‘I love you’ without really saying it.
And millions of tiny memories came rushing back to him. He thought of the time when he had fractured his leg playing football before his exams. His father had forbidden him from playing football for the rest of the year. And his sister had spent the entire evening pleading and convincing their father how much football meant to him.
He thought of the time when his sister had got dumped by the guy she loved. He remembered how he had beaten the guy black and blue and dragged him in front of his sister to apologize. He remembered the time she was going out for her first late night party. She had pranced inside his room excitedly wearing a strapless dress, asking him how she looked. He remembered being horrified as he emptied his cupboard from top to bottom, searching frantically for a jacket to cover her up. He remembered how she had rolled on the bed, laughing as his over-protective big brother behaviour.
He remembered how everytime she had carried a first aid kit with her to his football matches. When he noticed it for the first time, he asked her what it was for. She told him,” It’s so that you don’t lose whatever little brains you have by hitting your head too hard.” He had smacked her playfully for that but inwardly he was deeply touched.
He remembered how everytime before she went out at night, he would shout to her,” Call me if you reach alive.” It was their little ritual. And she would turn over her shoulder to wink at him as if to say,’ See you do love him.’ She would always call him when she reached. Never once had she forgotten. That was why, on that night, he started crying, as soon as his father walked into his room with that grave expression. He didn’t have to say anything. Her call never came and he just knew. He knew that she would never forget to call him to tell she had reached safely. He knew that she understood how anxious he would be. He knew that she understood how much he cared about her. He loved her. And she knew about it.
All those moments. “Dad please let him play football. I will do anything in return.” “If you ever break my sister’s heart again, I will not think twice before breaking your face.” “You are not going out in that dress. You are still a baby for God’s sakes.” “It’s so that you don’t lose whatever little brains you have by hitting your head too hard.” “Call me if you reach alive.”
And that’s how he realized that people say ‘I love you’ all the time. You just have to listen for it.
Her idea of being remembered had always been very clear. It was always about being a personality whose loss would make the whole world grieve. But now she wondered whether that ever actually happened. Did the world really grieve over the death of a famous actor or a millionaire? Yes, surely their contribution to the world was a great loss. But did people truly sob their hearts out for them? Did every night make them feel as if they never wanted to wake up? Did they wake up every morning, go through the day faking a smile and do it all over again until it isn’t so hard anymore? Did they feel a dull ache in their heart everytime they realized they would never see that person again?
No, they didn’t. And rightly so. Because they didn’t know him personally. They hadn’t watched the person grow up. They hadn’t watched the person crying their heart out during tough times. They hadn’t watched the person laugh wildly about stupid memories. They didn’t know his little quirks, his annoying traits, his pet peeves, his unchangeable habits. The only people who knew all this were the ones who had been through all of it with him. His family. His friends. His loved ones. And same was the case with her.
She hadn’t done anything extraordinary. She hadn’t achieved anything brilliant. She hadn’t made a change in the world. But inspite of all this, she would still be remembered. She would be remembered as a daughter, as a sister, as a friend. She would be remembered for making a difference in her loved ones’ lives. She would be remembered in their stories, in their memories, in their laughter, in their tears. She was loved deeply instead of widely. And that was okay. Because she would always be remembered by the people she loved.