Each breath came out more ragged than the last. She sat by his side, watching him die. A child, waiting for the death of her father, dry-eyed and light-chested.
Maybe that had something to do with the fact that the child was 35 years old and had a child of her own. Maybe, it had something to do with the fact that the man dying was 68 and had lived a decent life; or maybe it had everything to do with the fact that sorrow was an effort and she was too tired to make that effort.
Two months ago, she had buried her mother and four months before that, it had been her husband. The tears that she had were too dried up to be spared for this old man on the bed.
And yet, she couldn’t stop the memories from flashing through her mind…
“You are now old enough to understand this, honey. So, hear it well and remember it well,” he told her 7 year old self. “No full-blooded man would ever want to stay away from his wife by choice.”
“Why, daddy?” the little girl asked.
“Because, puffskin, every man loves a wife. Now, notice the usage of my words here- it need not be “HIS” wife, it is “A” wife,” and he winked at his daughter.
She wrinkled her nose and turned away.
“Now, me though, I’m a little different,” he gently put his arm around her shoulder and led her back into the house.
She was 11 and staying with her father over the weekend.
“What you said is not true; I know tons of people who live separate,” the daughter announced over dinner.
“Name one!” the father challenged, instantly recalling the conversation from 3 years ago.
“Mr. Miller,” she gave.
“Wife ran off with the fire man,” he countered.
“Wife went back to India.”
“Affair with the travelling secretary.”
“Didn’t have sex in the last five years!” he laughed.
“Now, how would you know that?”
“I know that look on his face, dear. I’ve been through it myself. Heck! I’m wearing it right now!”
“You are disgusting!”
“Well, that I am. But then, I’m a boy and that’s all boys think about- Sex!”
She wrinkled her nose and he let out a booming laugh.
“Do you remember what your mother tells you before every dance?”
She wrinkled her nose again and nodded.
“Do not trust anything with a dick. That is what they use to think with and that is all they can think about,” she recited.
“Believe her, child. Your mother is completely right- smart woman, that!” he winked at her, “Boys will be boys- and by that, I mean- sex-crazed, ass-wipes. Be it straight or gay- don’t you trust anything with a dick!”
“Don’t trust anything with a dick”- the one and only thing her mother and father had agreed upon. On not one other thing did they agree with each other upon- not on the choice of honeymoon, not on the name for their daughter, not on the concept of marriage and not even on the side of the bed to sleep on.
Father said that was the reason their marriage broke up.
Mother said it was because he was an ass-licking wanker who couldn’t get his dick up for a chick if they put a hot-wired rod in it.
She didn’t like it when her mother talked about her father. There would generally be a good collection and selection of adjectives used to describe the man in it and she did not like it. Like this one time that she remembered…
“Do you know what that asshole did today?” she was lying beside her mother on the bed they shared.
The daughter closed her eyes and did not reply.
The mother, though, refused to take the hint.
“He said he was going to get a job. But, today, when I went to get lunch, there he was, sitting with his poofter buddies drinking up the place- at 2 in the afternoon! And then, the barman tells me, he’s also been picking up the tab after all those goo-for-nothing sucker friends of his! Where does the fucker think the money comes from? Bloody fool! Does he even remember he has a daughter whose college fees he’ll have to pay? For all I know, the fucking rascal has been dipping into your college fund! Of all the dick-sucking, ass-wi…
“You really shouldn’t talk about him like that,” she stopped her mother, “He’s my father and I love him. You really shouldn’t be talking about him like that- not to me.”
The mother stared at her daughter with eyes that were slowly losing their rage-ensued brightness.
“Then, who should I talk to?” said the dim-eyed mother flatly and turned away.
In a life of 13 years, she had never felt worse and as she closed her eyes again, she conceded her mother’s point- if not to her, who will the woman talk to about her husband?
The daughter- that’s the second thing both of them had agreed upon, she realized. Through the troubled nights, through their fights and arguments and in the end, through their divorce, the daughter was the one thing holding them up, holding them together.
Unnoticed by the lady lost in her thoughts, the old man had opened his eyes.
“Puffskin,” he rasped out, “Where is little puffskin?”
“Off at school,” she whispered back to her father.
“Ah! School…” he closed his eyes and tried to take a breath, but collapsed in a fit of cough.
The girl immediately poured him a glass of water from the bedside container and held it to his lips while propping him up with her free hand. Slowly, the old man lay back down on the bed.
“You are a good girl, puffskin,” he whispered after a while, “Just tell little puffskin to remember…” she had to lean closer to listen now, “…grandfather’s lesson…never trust anything wit….”
“With a dick, I know,” she completed the sentence snatched from the old man by a coughing fit.
And just as suddenly, she felt a rush of anger towards the sickly old man on his death bed.
“She is only eight, you know,” she snapped.
The old man did not respond; could not respond.
“She is supposed to be looking at the world and thinking it is full of good, wonderful things! She is not supposed to be told not to trust people- not so soon! It is called innocence, daddy! Do you know what that means? You are not supposed to snatch a little girl’s innocence away!” she ranted. Hands clenched, she glared at him, the set of her lips challenging him to a fight and the confusion in her eyes begging him to pick his stance.
For a man on his death bed, the old man’s smile was very benevolent.
“Oh puffskin…” he whispered, “those rose-tinted glasses called innocence…when the world breaks them…in one satisfyingly loud crunch……it hurts…what I went through…none of you should have to……I’m not a bad person…puffskin…I was just trying…to be.. a.. parent…” his voice trailed off.
The silence that followed was painful- for her, embarrassed with her outburst; for him- for reasons too many to count.
Slowly, he lifted a trembling hand. She stepped forward reflexively and took it in hers.
“As long as…I did not trust…the world…I was safe……I married your mother…I got.. you…” a shallow breath helped him continue, “The moment I felt…I could trust…and revealed…to the world.. that I’m gay…I lost…everything.. and I…lost you…” a single tear escaped out of his sunken eyes, “I’m sorry…my little…girl, I really…wanted…to be.. straight……but, I could not……do it,” he closed his eyes as the tears now flowed fluidly.
She looked down at the hand that she was afraid to clutch for the fear of breaking it and then, she looked at the man whose heart had been broken since forever and yet, who had never let go of her hand.
“You never lost me, daddy,” she whispered with a lump in her throat, “You are the only dick I ever trusted,” and she bent down to kiss his wet cheek.
The cheek was wet, but the tears had stopped. The hand that had held hers throughout her childhood and even later, now grew lax and dropped with a dull thud back on the bed. She pressed a trembling palm against his chest and the heart beat that had lulled her to sleep so many times was no longer pulsing.
The tears, which she believed had dried up, flowed afresh and for the first time in the presence of her father, the little girl cried with no one to console her.