The ocean blushed a rosy hue as it swallowed the last slice of the boiling sun. The craggy edges of the mountainside shimmered, far across my window. The waves of the Polzeath were a soft splash of lace against the feet of the boulders.
Nikki has got me a hospital room with a view! She always does things in style. That silly child! I know that my end is nearing. The various tubes and needles sticking into my aged and wrinkled skin don't bother me anymore.
Nikki is a well known name today in the research for cancer treatment. All my life I had worried for nothing. About how she would cope or survive without me… after me. I can now exit this world without a burden on my mind. I had never in my wildest dreams imagined that she would be so wise, independent and worldly smart. After great persuasion, I was convinced to go along with her decision in a last ditch attempt to salvage my failing health. Nikki wanted to leave no stone unturned. I can see her through the glass walls from where I'm now, in a serious discussion with her team. She turns her head for a moment to look at me and gives me a tender, loving smile. A slight nod of assurance too, which makes me close my fluttering eyelids and rewind my life…
The narrow streets of Ross and Mells flow like rivers, winding around hills and meadows. For the most part, the lanes are two cars wide and the corners are blind, obscured behind the overgrowths and clumps of rhododendron skirting the curbs that have been growing wild and riotous through the high summer and rain. Sometimes, the yellow, blue and magenta blooms are darker hues from the overhanging branches of trees.
As a young and childless widow, I had willingly entered into an arranged remarriage with a Indian widower from the United Kingdom with a five year old girl and moved from my hometown in India. I had fallen in love with Nikki's cherubic face and had embraced her as my own. Her hair softly reflected the sunlight. From under long raven bangs, shone eyes, the colour of flowing brooks and below that, a pert nose honey sprayed with freckles.
Here was a perplexed, scared and scarred child and I knew right then, that all she needed was something steady to hold onto. And perhaps, that in rescuing her, I was rescuing myself too.
She clutched a dainty handmade posy of daisies, bluebells and violets from the garden and held it out to me hesitantly. Taking her soft hands in mine, I kissed her on her forehead. Getting Nikki to accept me was going to be some task. While I lifted her petite frame into my arms, she didn't resist, but looked at my face intently… gauging me. I put the posy in a glass of water and placed it in the living room. Nikki's eyes spoke volumes that day and her lips parted into a shy smile. For me, a sunbeam was breaking through overcast clouds.
"But mama, I don't like greens. I hate Palak and all leafy vegetables and… and… coriander leaves…" She pouted. "And all the herbs as well!" She added firmly as an afterthought. I was amused when she had assertively babbled.
"Mama, this is so yummy. Can you make it more often?" I had disguised the much hated superfood spinach in a presentable way and lunch was a spread of saffron rice, naan and palak paneer. We would spend afternoons snuggling under a Winnie the Pooh quilt while I read Enid Blyton stories or fairy tales to her in my animated voice.
As bad luck would have it, I couldn't bear a child of my own without complications, I was told. Maybe this was meant to be. So that I could focus all my motherly love on Nikki.
Touch-me-nots were in abundance in wild random clumps fringing the curbs of the streets that we walked to school. "Look mama, I put the plants to sleep by patting them just like you always put me to sleep." She would look at me with pure joy as it closed shut when she touched it.
"Look mama, pigeon… sparrow… wren…" She would imitate their waddle and hop while they humoured her. Rainy days made Nikki very crestfallen as the birds would be nowhere to be seen. The touch-me-nots would be drenched closed. It was a forlorn walk to school wearing the much hated raincoat. “Mama, the rain will make my touch-me-nots grow and give them more pretty pink flowers, won't it?" My walking-talking doll as I always called her, would babble and chirp away relentlessly.
Many summers saw us by the Polzeath beach facing the deepest of Prussian blue waters. The sand here was the most gentle hue of muted gold. The weather-beaten lighthouse standing like a sentinel was the star of the scene. Nikki loved this beach for the driftwood that came upon the buoyant waves. Then there was the seaweed, flora of the briny waves, as emerald as any high summer foliage. The gusting ocean breeze whispered so sweetly upon this primrose sand sizzling with a steady warmth. On this beach, by the waves that savoured the sands in white lace, we remained, building sandcastles, collecting pebbles and seashells and steeping in the briny aroma, until the North Star emerged and the sky turned mauve.
Upon returning home, I would lay her socks and mittens knitted by her mother on the radiator, to soak the dampness. It was where I always put them along with her shawl with a lambkin appliqued on it by her mother as well. She liked the feeling of those mittens as if her hand was held with the last vestige of a memory of her departed mother's.
Mothers' Day crafts made for a bagful of gifts which I had preserved through a decade. The greetings written in doodle scrawls while in kindergarten had progressed over the years. From loopy irregular curves and lines to elegant confident strokes. As the years advanced, so did her gifts. A one-line greeting became four-line poems. The poems then made headway to page-long tributes. There weren't any Mothers' Day crafts from school at her age of thirteen, but precious pocket money was spent on miniature snow globes for me.
At seventeen, Nikki loses her father too during the pandemic, that ill-fated child. And I'm heaped with a cyclopean task of single-handedly raising a powerhouse exploding on adrenaline amidst my own trials and turmoils.
"House rules are meant to protect one's own, not bind them", I tried to reason with her. Nikki crossed her arms defiantly and glowered at me. She had enough volatility in her to raise the roof. Facing her, I speechlessly looked out of the window behind her and saw dark clouds gathering outside. Under the unbroken cloud, this late morning could be the pre-dawn. They hung heavy and low, auguring a tremendous explosion any moment with curtains of downpour. The dense clouds began to rumble as a war cry would. Bad weather was gathering on her usually sunny face.
"You're friggin' phobic…!" she raged.
This deliquency! Where did I go wrong? Did I teach her to talk like this?
The pressure cooker with the pigeon pea lentils for the dal fry hissing in the kitchen affirmed the rupture and collapse in my core. I could sense a similar steam rising in her too, ready to erupt with a great force of unending words any minute now. And it did! An outburst! A sea of emotions!
"I'm sick and tired of your rules! You will never be like the cool moms my friends have! How can you?! You aren't my mother at all! You're only a step-mother!" She lashed out, her eyes throwing daggers at me. Her piercing words were an icy slap that echoed dully. Brick by brick the castle that I had built for us came crumbling down in a heap of dust at my feet. That's what I had ultimately earned… Dust … To sweep away?
With a toss of her head, she stomped into her bedroom and slammed the door on me. I stood rooted, looking unseeingly out of the window, with the storm still raging outside, inside my teen, inside me…
She thinks she is wiser than me, suddenly more adult. Seventeen, I was told, is the age where they are half-baked and half-cooked. They don't like to talk, they don't like to listen. They have no attention span and are zoning out all the time. They don't like to be told, they don't like to obey. It takes sheer mental strength amid mental exhaustion amidst worry. Numb and bone-weary with a pounding migraine coming on in waves, I slump on the couch, pressing my temples.
Things were so smooth sailing this morning.This bright day was one lovely season of spring showers and rainbows. But every mizzle and every sky awash with rainbows follows with the whippings of a squall. Same is true in the seasons of human emotions. They are unpredictable. Raging storms cause a whirlwind consuming me. Flash floods keep rising higher and higher. While I try to keep my head above the water to gasp for breath. My migraine is thickening and weighing down on me. Nikki's harsh words have taken a huge toll. Bitterness has possessed her like a demon.
Where did I fail? Am I a failure?
I was a gawky seventeen-year old once upon a time. A very long time ago. Every generation, every era had its own challenges and choices. Its own freedom and its own restrictions. After sundown, we were house-bound. Shadows loomed large in dimly-lit alleys and lanes. People didn't venture out. Not even the grown-ups. In a quiet hometown, we made dinner and had it at home. Home! It was a protected sanctuary to return to. But with technology today, the dark alleys, the looming shadows, the lurking dangers and worse have found their way into the safe havens.
Social media they call it. Strangers have found a virtual entry into homes. And Nikki was getting suctioned into this quagmire. It was impossible to keep everything at bay. How could I possibly defend my fortress unarmed? I was defenseless against the invisible and the unknown. I have restless days and sleepless nights, keeping a watch on the clock, on her screen time. My heart races whenever I catch her looking at her phone, sneaking in a hint of a smile. What makes her grin so slyly… who could she be talking to? My blood runs cold at the horrors doing the rounds on cybercrime stories.
Nikki has found her tribe. Where I see uncertainty and dangers lurking in every corner and in every street, she sees the thrill and excitement with her new-found wings. Wings that are only as wispy and fragile as a dragonfly's. She thinks they are strong enough to span the vast expanse of the skies. She wants to be an eagle that soars high above the clouds, riding the breeze. She's like the juvenile lioness of the savanna. Wild and untamed. She's curious, with an unbounded energy. At the same time, she's also as gentle as a doe. Vulnerable and lively all at once. Docile and gentle in a heartbeat.
She tells me that she's my partner in joy, sorrow, game and crime. She's precious. She's my sunshine and also my sun. She's my world! And I can't imagine a world without her.
A cannonade of thunder jolted me back. What has gotten into the once sweet child?!
It was two hours and a little more. The door to her room remained shut. The torrential thunderstorm outside had almost abated to a gentle drizzle.
"She will come around when she cools down", I assured myself. My goal was to earn her trust. Her angst was justified. Right now, she hates to admit that she was wrong. Trying to find her own identity, her own niche at a phase like this was a colossal task. Meanwhile, during moments like these, I thought of myself as a lighthouse where I stood in my own light and shone it outward…
To warn my unsuspecting ship of the craggy rocks nearby. To guide my lost ship in a rolling fog to safe harbour with my beacon of light. I'm a lighthouse for my child to seek refuge in. Right now, she was a skiff that was thrashed about mercilessly by the tempestuous seas. A sea of volatile emotions, that needed an anchor.
I waited patiently…
The door to her room opened after a while. I was embraced in a bear-hug for what seemed like a lifetime. And a doe-eyed child was remorseful. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it, mom… I know you mean well. I thought it over and now it all makes sense to me. Do you still love me, mom?"
And undoubtedly, I do. I did love her fiercely and I told her so.
“What's for dinner, Mom?” She was ravenous by now with all that sulking, no doubt.
“Palak Paneer — your favourite.”
She let out a whoop of delight while I continued, “With saffron rice and dal fry." She twirled me round and round in a dance. The turbulent high tides had calmed down to feathery frothy waves. The rift had gradually healed. It always did. Life is like an hourglass full of sand. We tip it and the cup overflows again. Slow and steady…
I had earned Nikki's trust over the years and it was for keeps. I would be there when she crumbled, I would be there when she rose. I would let her walk her path, fuelled by her own zest for life. Never holding her back, but always walking two steps behind her. My hawk eyes would always do double time.I would let her see her follies and get her wisdom her own way. That way, she would pave new roads for herself. I would let her draw her own maps and explore uncharted territory. But I would always be her compass. I would always be her constellation to help her navigate through the oceans and the rough seas.
When she wanted to cross that bridge to come to me, I would always be there —
As solid as a rock,
As strong as a pillar
As resolute as a towering lighthouse.
When she finally reached for the sky, I prayed that that day she would be the wise adult in my life who would hold my hand in my mellow years and show me the way… like a true North Star!
Back to present day
Nikki's here by my bedside now, holding one of my palms delicately in both her hands and bringing it to her cheeks, eyes moist…
"Mom… you were more than a mother to me, a motherless child. I'm indebted to you forever. I'll try to be a 'Lighthouse' too, even though I can't hold a candle to you in any way, Mom…"
"You can and you will…I have faith in you, my North Star…" My voice is feeble and barely audible. Each breath is a struggle now and her sobbing sounds faint, almost fading away. The Polzeath shoreline is doused with a glow on this full moon night and the lighthouse looms in the distance with its scanning beacon. I can feel my eyelids getting leaden. There’s a solace and coziness as Nikki covers me with the lambkin appliqued shawl…
And the stars shine on…
Pic Courtesy: Pixabay **********