Monday, November 19, 2007

The Return Trip

A car screeched to a halt outside the tall iron gates. Philip stepped out and walked in. He couldn’t walk as fast as he used to. There was a certain shortness of breath and a slight wheezing in his throat. Every few seconds, he drew in a long, painful breath. His body, once strong and muscular was now this and frail. Philip looked at the structure that stood before him. It was his first home.
The building must have been more than a hundred years old. The plaster had fallen off in many places showing the ugly rusted iron rods inside. Almost all the glass panes on the windows were broken. In the driveway, in place of his father’s car, slept a dog. The wrought iron balconies which had once been so beautiful were now old and rusted. The porch had been carpeted by leaves. He could hear the sea at the back of the house. The ancient rosewood doorframe was wrecked and the door was ajar.
Philip walked in to see what was left of the house. A few pieces of old broken furniture lay about. The floor was dusty and it was completely dark inside save the last few rays of the sinking sun which came in through the windows.
As he walked, the dust flew up, making him cough. He desperately looked for a place to sit. He found an old rickety chair and sat down to catch his breath. It was several minutes before he could regain control. Philip could feel the cancer growing inside his lungs. It had been three months now from that fateful day at the doctor’s office.
It was a cold white room full of instruments and papers and charts of human anatomy. All that had seemed to disappear the moment he heard the news. For the first few minutes he searched for a voice inside him. It seemed to have been lost somewhere. When he could finally talk, the only thing he could say was:
“How long is it going to be before I…?”
“We will keep the treatment going. There is always hope. The cancer is in the final stage but….”
“How much time?” interrupted Philip. He didn’t want to have any false hopes. He somehow knew what was coming his way.
“If the treatment fails…..four months…..six at the most.” said the doctor.
The treatment did fail. Philip’s state was deteriorating at an alarming rate. He probably wouldn’t live to see his 70th birthday in two month’s time. He had spent the last few months dividing his assets among his children. They did not know of his illness. He did not wish to tell them. There was no point to it.
The sudden creaking of the chair brought Philip back to the room he was sitting in. He saw his own name scratched out into the armrest. Suddenly a flood of memories came to him. He remembered sitting on the chair as a child, reading his books. Even then, the chair was rickety. He enjoyed imitating his grandfather by rocking the chair back and forth.
Life had changed a lot ever since. His father had been transferred to Bombay when Philip was just twelve. There wasn’t much to stay back for in the family home. He left the quiet life in Goa far behind. Philip went on to become an engineer. He made a big fortune for himself. Julie and the children were always there but he never gave them the attention they deserved. She died at forty. Even that didn’t make Philip spend more time with his children. There were enough governesses to look after them. Now, he didn’t blame them for settling in America and never giving him a second glance.
After all these years, in that ramshackle place, Philip’s heart was filled with regret. Maybe if he had been a more loving father, they would have been here with him. In the last few days of his life, he longed for the warmth of a family.
Sitting in that dusty old house, he could still smell his mother’s cake baking in the kitchen. There were still those classics playing on the gramophone by the window. His grandfather, on the rocking chair, would be reading out stories to him. For those few moments, he lived in a world he had left do far behind. A world he wanted to return to. And the house gave him the sense of security he needed.
Philip sat there for a few minutes, trying to relive his childhood. Then he got up and went to the back of the house. In the backyard, he saw the apple tree. As a child, he used to eat the apples that fell on the ground. He was too short to pick them from the tree. The ones on the ground were often rotten. He had, on his sixth birthday, tried to climb it but he had a very bad fall. He remembered telling the tree that he would grow taller by his next birthday. Then he would pick out the apples. The problem was that the tree also grew every year! Philip had never been able to catch up.
Over the years, this incident was lost somewhere in his memories. Now he looked at the skeleton of the tree before him. All the leaves had fallen and the bark was drying up. It was getting uprooted from the ground. The tree was dying. He smiled at the strange coincidence.
Philip strolled across the backyard and looked out to vast ocean beyond. The sun had set, leaving a faint glow on the sky. Another day in his life was over. Philip looked back at the seventy years of his life. He made money at the cost of his family. He neglected them when they needed him. And now when he was in need……he realised that however lonely he might have been in his life, he needed someone with him when he would be on his death bed.
He remembered all the PTA meetings he should have attended, all the cricket matches he missed. He rarely even had dinner at home. His children were strangers to him.
A silent tear rolled down his cheek. Then as if he was suddenly overcome by the feeling he had been suppressing for so long, Philip broke down. He crashed to the floor and sobbed for what seemed like an eternity. He wanted more time to apologise to his children. He wanted to live with them. He wanted to live. But it was too late now. He had lost. In spite of all his riches, he felt poor. The death before him had made him lonely and hollow inside.
He slowly gathered his strength and staggered back to the house. He had to go back to the hotel now.
Everyday Philip would come back to this house and just sat there thinking of the old days. Within a few weeks, Philip had to be admitted to the hospital. Even then, he would come there everyday with a ward boy.
Then, exactly two moths later, on his 70th birthday, Philip was on his death bed. The doctors forbade him to even move. He insisted, almost begged the doctors to let him go to the house. He told them to consider it his last wish. They agreed and made arrangements for him to go. On a wheelchair, Philip saw his home for the last time. Just as the sun was setting Philip closed his eyes. He gasped for a brief moment. The doctor accompanying him knew it was no use trying to revive him. Just then, there was a thud. The doctor went over to the backyard. The apple tree had completely uprooted and fallen to one side. Philip and his tree died together.

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