I think we die in parts, in little kind installments from the moment we are born.
Those afternoons when you would tell me anecdotes about your childhood – your fascination with spiders, Egypt, dinosaurs, how you loved origami, and hung your favourite kite to dry on the clothesline, and made a paper maché bowl out of the tealeaf mush that flew around the backyard as the kite scattered itself to the breeze – I could bookmark all the fatalities that medical rooms and blood tests can never document. I knew the graph and flat-lines of your life’s pulse better than your childhood doctor, an effeminate man you adored, who made you open your mouth and say aaa while he flashed a torch that smelled of swimming pools in your eyes.
On the way back from the railway station with your father, you bought parakeets from the store at the red light. You got home and fed them grain and stroked their wings, and you held your parents’ hands, opened the door to their cage, and let them fly away. You watched them trying their wings, and you saw clearly the well-practiced eagle dart out of nowhere, and you couldn’t see Peter and Paul anymore; and you cried when you thought that maybe they thought this was what you meant when you said goodbye goodbye, that you meant for this to happen. You died a little that day, but of course, it had begun earlier. Life is a process of dying, isn’t it? I wonder why we say we are living, when we’re dying all along every moment.
You told me about your ‘childhood Delhi home’; about how you learnt to cycle on the roads of your colony, stopping to suck the juice out of the yellow and peeping peach honeysuckle by the road (your mother had told you not to steal from the bees, and so you became a seven year old protector of pollen), how betrayed you felt when the training wheels cunningly disappeared from your green Atlas bicycle, and furiously you pedaled straight into the gutter. You cut your knee and flecks of grainy dirt stuck to your elbows; snapping at your father, in tears, you kicked your cycle and broke a nail. Two days later, your hand stuttered as you released one handle – when you pulled into the driveway, it was with your left hand hanging nonchalantly by your side on a two-wheeled bicycle. Though you might disagree, that was another dying, the glorious kind.
Sometimes I forget, you tell me, the names of the places I’ve lived in. Sometimes I remember the wrong things at the wrong places, like being fourteen and discovering beautiful things like Coldplay and Avril Lavigne in the city where I actually was just eight and had a pet rabbit. A memory is made of all these parts, like the diagram of a flower’s anatomy you learn in tenth grade, and I could tell you a story about the worst argument I had with my mom verbatim, but I could be banging the doors of the old red brick bungalow we lived in when I was ten, my favourite place when we had fourteen pet cats- an entire family line- and they draped themselves royally around the mini forest around our driveway and lawns. Everyone of them, you laugh, had their own tree.
You die when Michael Jackson’s daughter speaks in her piping, tearful voice at his Memorial. You die at the first chords of a song you adore by instinct, or each time you see the medicine from the government store not working on the fawn stray dog who walks you to the bus-stop every morning, and hides behind the garbage bins, trembling in his bones to excrete the warm chapatis you feed him three times a day.
You flat-lined when your favourite cat died. She got lost, you correct me, maybe she’s still out there. You tell me about her, her papaya fetish and curling up with her under the bed and how she wouldn’t give birth unless you sat next to her and held her paw. You tell me about how fierce she was, and you count off on your fingers the chameleons, birds, bats, reptiles, rabbits, mice, she had injured and killed. I hate it when anyone else hurts any animal, you confess, but Candy, I would forgive her anything. You show me a crescent scar on your hand, right at the foot of your thumb, this is Candy’s souvenir, it is nearly ten years old, and it will never go away. You are crying now, and you tell me she isn’t lost, she is dead. She would always come back, you say, always, she would crawl her dying body back to the doorstep, she would limp back on an infected leg after a brave dog fight- but she would come back. It is not easy, you tell me, to find a presence in your life you trust so implicitly that its absence could only mean death.
We die more often as we grow older. Suddenly, the world is populated with all things potent and it makes sense, then- all the times your mother held you close and said I want to keep you safe from everything, from the whole wide world.
But you survived your ends, all the dents and the gore. You grew up in death’s long afterthought; you left stray crayon marks on walls, notches marking your height, and scraps of paper listing songs you love and strange words mingling with dust in jagged corners of drawers. Your geography was particular to streetlights, and the phases of the moon. Adolescence is so much more about all the things you choose never to do, and yours was set in sleepy cities and fiery cardiac fluctuations. You are made of forgotten things, of shirts people wore for too many summers, of photographs burnt with uniforms on war fields, love stories that were never told. Your pockets bulged with settled dust, crumpled notes, change in old currencies, sharp pins that pricked your nimble fingers.
Each time I notch the timeline of your life, I make one on mine too; this odd cledonomancy marks us parallel, as if we held our breath and slowly exhaled together to marry our respiration, a marching band of two people dying together.
We are telling stories, you say, we are alive even as we are dying.