Aakash held the boarding passes in one hand, flapping them anxiously on the other. His eyes were fixed on the lady standing at the Check-in counter, taking her boarding pass. A lot depended on whether or not she got the exact seat which he needed her to. His entire plan was contingent on that. The thought made his palms sweat. On the way back from the counter, she passed a furtive smile towards him. She did get that exact seat!
He sighed in relief.
Just then, Ariana tapped on his shoulder. It was time to board.
But when the flight landed at the Goa airport, Aakash felt his excitement turn into an unknown fear. What if things with Ariana didn’t exactly pan out the way he expected them to? What was his Plan B? How then, would he deal with all that was yet to come?
Thankfully, before the sudden panic could make his legs turn to foam, Ariana joined him after collecting their bags. She gestured him to move towards the exit. As Ariana spotted their driver holding the hotel placard, with “Ariana and Aakash Saxena” written on it, she squarely missed another one only a few feet away, calling out to one “Geetika Varma”. It was a placard from the same hotel. And it was calling out to the same lady who had smiled at Aakash at the Delhi airport and had been chatting with Ariana throughout the three-hour long flight.
‘Dad?! Dad?!... Wake up, sleepy head!’ Ariana’s mellow voice filled up the room.
She pulled back the curtains, turning the room aglow with golden light. Aakash got up, rubbing his eyes. And the first thought that struck him, like most mornings, was that how much Ariana was like her mother Riya. Even in regard to the smallest of the habits and traits. The way she would wake up in the morning so full of energy. The way she would tap the pen on the table as she thought of what to write next. The way she would chew her nails when upset or confused. It was hard to believe sometimes, that Ariana had never even met Riya.
‘It’s ten!’ Ariana charged again, finding him still lolling about in his bed. ‘They would wrap up the breakfast buffet in thirty minutes. Hurry up!’
‘Oh! In that case… why don’t you run along? I will catch up with you in fifteen. I need to…’
‘Yeah, Yeah! I know… Yoga.’ Ariana rolled her eyes. She found Aakash’s latest fascination with Yoga quite amusing, given that he had never really been the exercising kind.
‘Dad, Yoga has been known to fix a lot of issues… but “a midlife crisis” isn’t one of them!’ She chuckled and shut the door behind her. That was another thing she got from Riya, Aakash thought; a fantastic sense of humor.
Aakash exhaled heavily and smiled. Sometimes it was hard for him to believe, how far his daughter and he had managed to come, without Riya by their side. Ariana was growing up to be such a spirited, talented and wonderful child. Her happiness was the most precious thing to him in this world.
He took a deep breath and tried getting out of bed. As expected, his legs didn’t respond to his brain’s command. With great effort, he lifted each leg with his hands and slung it off the bed. Some sensation returned to his dead legs as his feet touched the cold marble floor. He wiggled his toes and rubbed his thighs vigorously, to increase the blood flow. The mirror in front of him caught the image of his face, with the shock and horror written all over it.
He might not have as much time as he thought. It was progressing too fast!
Walking into the restaurant, he spotted Ariana and Geetika sitting together, chatting animatedly. He prepared himself to feign his next reaction – surprise! All these chance meetings of Ariana and Geetika had been meticulously planned by him; from getting the seat next to them on the plane, to sharing a table at breakfast. What he hadn’t planned for, however, was how difficult it would be for him to pretend to be a stranger to Geetika. The woman he was madly in love with.
Ariana spotted him and waved him over.
‘Dad! Remember her? From the plane? She is staying here too. Isn’t that cool?’
He pretended to have trouble recalling her name. ‘Oh!... Small world, eh? Umm… Geetika, right?’
She smiled in response as they all sat down.
He pointed at Ariana’s plate, ‘That looks delicious. Would you please be a doll and get some of that for your old man?’ That was his way of making Ariana serve him his breakfast; without having to disclose that he doesn’t feel confident enough to walk the entire length of the buffet table, while holding a heavy plate full of food, without toppling over.
‘Lazy old man, you mean?’ Ariana chided him, albeit already on her feet. Despite her pretense of being irritated, she loved pampering her father like that.
Geetika could barely wait until Ariana was out of the earshot. ‘You were right! She is such an adorable girl. So spirited! And mature, too! Hard to believe that she is only fourteen.’ She gushed.
Aakash’s face beamed with parental pride. He slid his hand closer to Geetika’s and stroked her fingers gently. ‘Yes. She is.’ Floating in Geetika’s eyes was the anxiety she was trying her best to hide. He caught that. To be honest, the butterflies in his own stomach hadn’t quite settled down, since they boarded the flight from Delhi. But he had faith and she needed to keep it too.
‘It is all going to be alright. I promise. I know my daughter.’ He smiled warmly.
She exhaled heavily and nodded. ‘You’re right… Anyway, how are you this morning?’
Aakash’s cheery expressions evaporated fast. ‘Same trouble getting up. My left arm too feels less alive today. I did an extra ten minutes of physiotherapy… but it keeps getting difficult with every passing day.’
Her eyes welled up, thinking of his plight and how much worse it was going to get, soon. But noticing Ariana approach, she quickly wiped them.
Ariana settled back into her seat and decreed. ‘There you go! Now eat up and get ready… We are all going shopping. It is going to be a long day.’
‘What? Shopping already? We just arrived yesterday. I am still tired from all the traveling.’
‘Tired!... Really?... From a three hour flight?’ Ariana snapped back. ‘Come’on Dad! Don’t be a spoil sport!’
Geetika chimed in, as planned. ‘Actually Ariana… I meant that only you and I go shopping. I have hired a Scooty. That’s the way one travels best in Goa. So there’s room for only one. Only if your Dad allows, of course.’
Ariana stopped chewing. ‘Oh?… Yes, I would love that! But… I don’t know… Dad has never let me go alone with anyone.’ She looked at Aakash. ‘Umm… Dad?’
Aakash replied nonchalantly, with his mouth full. ‘Yup! Go right ahead.’
‘Are you… sure?’ Ariana was quite surprised at how easily she got the permission. Back home, she hardly ever got permission to go out with her friends, even the ones she had known for years.
‘Of course! I mean… what is Geetika going to do? Kidnap you?’ He chuckled and went back to eating, but then looked back up with dramatic wide eyes. ‘Or she might… if it is my lucky day!’
‘Ha… Ha… Ha. Look at you trying to be funny.’ Ariana slapped his arm playfully. ‘It’s a good thing, though. Now that you would soon lose your good looks to old age, you would need something to keep the charm going for you.’
‘And look at you… trying to be lippy with the man who is going to sponsor your shopping!’
Ariana stuck out a tongue to her father who responded the same way. The whole episode made Geetika chortle out loud. She loved how beautiful, fun and precious, this father-daughter duo’s chemistry was.
For the next few days, Geetika and Ariana were practically inseparable. The sparks between them were palpable and promising. Without even realizing it, they both had fitted snugly into a void in each other’s life. Those were just the signs Aakash had been waiting, rather praying for. One evening, he and his daughter were sitting on the balcony after a long day at the beach. Ariana was gushing on and on about how amazing a person Geetika was. How she would love to stay in touch with her, even when they got back to Delhi. Aakash could see, if there ever would be a perfect time to have the talk, he had been meaning to, it was this.
He took Ariana’s hand in his and told her everything. About how he and Geetika had known each other for the last five years. How they had fallen in love and wanted to get married now. And hence, how they had planned this whole trip so that Ariana could get to know and judge Geetika objectively.
From her stoic face, it was hard to judge if she was angry or hurt. Aakash squeezed her hand gently and braced himself to tell her the rest of it, which was going to be even more painful and shocking.
‘There’s something else, Ariana… Geetika is also my neurologist.’
Those words jolted Ariana out of her stunned silence. ‘Your what?!... What do you need a neurologist for?’
Aakash balked. This confession, this moment, was going to change his little girl’s life, forever. ‘Do you know what MS is?’
She weakly nodded in a no. But, her glazed eyes were screaming that she doesn’t want to know either. Because she could sense, it means something really horrible.
‘It’s… Multiple Sclerosis. It’s an autoimmune disease… and… Well, I’ll spare you the bio lesson.’ He chuckled nervously, in his effort to lighten the moment. Looking at his daughter’s crestfallen face, he realized how futile that attempt was.
‘Sweetheart… I don’t want you to worry. I am getting the best medical help I can. And they have caught my illness pretty early on. I take the medicines and do the required exercises… Which means I would have quite a few good years…’
‘What do you mean by “a few good years”?!’ Ariana’s horrified shriek cracked under the weight of those words. Aakash wiped off her tears and pulled her closer.
‘It is attacking my nervous system slowly and gradually. I already have trouble walking and lifting things… That’s why I quit my job and started consulting from home… The thing is… It’s a progressive disease… It will get worse with time.’
He deliberately stopped at that vague explanation. As he and his daughter would learn to live with this disease; she would have all the time to know what it was and how it would slowly eat up their lives. How it will weaken the use of Aakash’s limbs and organs until, one day, they would all stop functioning. But, for now, this much was enough.
Ariana dug her face deeper into her father’s shoulders and started to sob.
Aakash let a few minutes slip away, for the pain to settle down a bit. Then he continued, ‘Geetika has been with me through it all. Over time, we got pretty close… As you have seen, she is an amazing woman. I love her. And we want to get married… But you know I wouldn’t, without your consent.’
Ariana didn’t say anything. It was too soon for words, anyway. Aakash gave a peck on his daughter’s forehead gently and let it linger.
‘The day you were born Ariana… The day your mother… passed away.’ It still caused him too much pain, to think of Riya. ‘… I made a promise to you… that keeping you safe and happy would be my sole purpose in life. And nothing changes that. It’s just… I didn’t expect my life to be so… short…’
The waves on the beach crashed violently against the rocks, dotting the silence of the dark night.
The soft yet persistent knocking at the door woke up Geetika. Her eyes automatically shot to the clock. It was half past one. Could it be Aakash at this hour of the night?
She opened the door warily and saw Ariana standing there. Confused. Sad. Shattered.
Ariana walked past Geetika and sat on the bed with a resigned thud, her eyes wistfully lost in another world. Geetika too came inside and sat next to her. From the fact that Ariana was in her room at this hour of the night, it wasn’t hard for Geetika to guess what must have transpired between the father and the daughter. The two of them just sat there, crushed with the inscrutability of this tormenting moment. After a long pause, Ariana spoke.
‘I know him… He is worried about what will happen to me once he is gone... That’s why he is thinking of marrying… I’m not saying that he doesn’t love you… But…’ She struggled to explain herself.
Geetika stroked Ariana’s back, lovingly; allowing her the time to come to terms with her own thoughts. The gesture broke Ariana’s resolve to stay composed. She broke down. Geetika let her purge for a while.
After she settled down, she looked at Geetika and threw out loud, the question that had dragged her here in the middle of the night. ‘But… I need to know… why are you doing this? I mean… I know you love him. But marrying him? Knowing well enough, what would happen to him in the future and how bad the rest of his days would be… Why?’
Geetika was startled by the sheer honesty and profundity of the question, coming from someone who was barely fourteen. She gathered her wits and spoke, ‘Ariana, I have loved the wrong kind of man… once, a long time ago… and every single day of being married to him drained me of my will to live. But when I met your father… I realized how fulfilling true love and a meaningful companionship can be…’
She looked into Ariana’s eyes. ‘In the last few years that I have known Aakash… I have seen him struggle with his illness… and lose… but never have I seen it break him… What breaks him instead, is worrying every single moment about what would happen to you once he is gone.’
She paused to wipe her tears. ‘Despite all my medical expertise, there isn’t much I can do for Aakash as my patient… But if I can give the man I love, the comfort of knowing that he would not leave his daughter all alone in this world… Tell me, shouldn’t I do that?’
Ariana stopped chewing her nails anxiously and looked back up. She still had a lot of questions and doubts. But she could feel the obvious honesty in Geetika’s words starting to melt them away, already.
‘I… cannot believe this is happening… My dad is all I have… I feel so… helpless. Is there nothing I can do?’
Geetika pulled her closer. ‘You can. We can… We can all be a family; a happy, complete family…’
A long, thick pause descended upon the room, broken finally by Ariana’s painful plea.
‘And then?’ She begged for a sign of hope.
‘Then…’ Geetika replied, with the heaviest words she had ever had to speak. ‘You and I would help each other learn to live again… without him.’