Monday, November 21, 2011

Mile markers

The purple of her hands taunted me with their frailty

Zip. Zip.

Arun's hoodie engulfed me - just as well, since I was desperately trying to ignore the shrill noises of the highway. I chanced a peek forward, Ty was driving. When did he grow a foot? His toes still barely grazed the acceleration. My little guy.

Speedometer, 148mph. Gas, empty, full, running on empty. A stuttering hysterical laugh threatened to break free from my throat. Ty, driving? Ty, swerving. On a packed, deserted highway. Sports cars racing past us, chasing us. Glance out the window, nothing. Ty, underage, younger than age, shorter than height, running in the driver's seat.

Ty, sitting in the witness box. "Lighten your chest, son." "Not your son."
Ty, glaring insolently. "You will answer the question." "Fine. Lighten my chest." He let loose a lusty breath, a brazen smirk flitting across his face. "Yeah?" The cloud of air dissipated, no trace. 
Ty, poker-faced. "She was too much." "Too much?" "You heard me."
I was barely enough. A tease of a taste, inspiring a craving - a single pistachio, the early hours of a TV marathon. Nicknames sagging with the weight of nightmares and sanguine expectation.

Blink, and suddenly it's dad in the driver's seat. Ty's next to me in the backseat, yanking my ponytail while shoving his size 3 foot under my rib cage. The car rang with the impish cheer of his two-index-finger years, vibrated with the thrum of the highway.

Arun sized him up, ever the skeptic, then huffed out a rueful chuckle. "Harass me? If anything, I was the bad influence. I gave her the caffeine addiction, after all. And phone calls at 3 in the morning." "And then she screwed up."
"Yes?" His whisper fell heavy with rust and ashes. "Wish I could say yes. The only thing she did wrong was ask for too much. And I knocked her down for it. Repeatedly."
Because I had too much to give. It pounded through me, clawed out of me, innocence with wax fingers running from a frenzied blaze.

Adrenaline swept through my veins like chilled lava. My hand inched out from the sleeve, its destination left stranded as my grip collapsed. An origami kitten fluttered to the seat by Ty's foot, traces of red ink visible through the folds.

"She cared too much." Angel carded her fingers through her own hair, a distorted mirror of a taunting memory - an impertinent vision of thrones and grapes and a hand languidly soothing over my scalp. "I wrote her letters. I handed her my story, mystery, in a soundtrack. She listened to it, heard what I didn't even know was there. And I couldn't take it back. So I took me back instead."
Because I didn't belong, until you. You translated the crescendo of shadows into a symphony, and now without you, it's morphed into a chanting litany, static in my ear.

The car weaved through ghosts on the street, Dad at helm. Suddenly, gunshot, a red rose bloomed from his shoulder, proud green stem and prickly thorns. No bullet. Another pop, a bullet hole nowhere close to us, yet in the car seat next to Ty, next to me, no, Ty, no, wait…
If I closed my eyes, I could almost pretend it sounded like popcorn exploding in the microwave at movie night. Loud, irregular.

Mrs. Relnik's fingernails tapped a staccato rhythm against the rail. "She forged her mom's signature on a form once." "See, Your Honor, a bad--"
A distracted musing cut through his slow build. "She made a pop-up book about dinosaurs on long-lost planets. I framed one of the patterns she colored for me." "Framed, ma'am?" A stammer - he cut himself off in surprise.
I won a spelling bee for you. It's been my little secret.

Steady. If they would just steady, if the lurches would settle, if the bullets would stop whizzing, I could play the game. Massage the magic spot on my neck, vanish for a little while. Maybe a long one…

The knowledge lurked, crushing and panting, behind his languid gaze. "We could've been twins, you know? Should've been." "T--twins?"
Xavi's eyebrow quirked up even as his voice quieted to a murmur. "Well, different moms. Different birthdays. Minor details." He tossed out a nonchalant smirk.
The smirk was always your tell. Yours to show, mine to know, a bitter aftertaste in both our jugulars.

Ty, all trust and bristling energy, squirming to the tempo of the silencer. His earnest, naïve adoration drools a flood, painting a lake over the road. And the car grows gestures, beating through the sweat of vision.

"I guess...I guess it got too hard." "What did?"
She gave a helpless chuckle, a frantic hand wave with long, artists' fingers -- tried to encompass the words she couldn't lift, the milky threads of burning summer woven into a raging waterfall. "Everything. Phonecalls. Emails. Goodness, I make it sound like we broke up or something. Listen, I don't know, okay! Ask me anything else and I'll know. But if I knew this… well, you wouldn't have dragged me here if I knew." "Listen, Ms. Penny--"
And there was the haughty stare, relishing in delivering a challenge. "Penny to my friends. That's Penelope to you, sir. Why would I tell you anything worth sharing?"
The worst things about the desert are the mirages. A gleefully tempered tempest turned into a parched wasteland, turn of the hat. You put super glue on my idioms, until I sagged under the agony and tore through skin.

Floating an achingly idyllic path as Airplane Ty whizzes around the car, his lilt tripping over his tongue, undulating with eternity. The brakes suddenly hydroplane a powerful void, leaving behind lather and a choppy shore.

"Once in a dozen paces--" "--Excuse me?"
"You're excused." "That's not what I--"
"I know that's not what you. So what are you?" "This isn't about--"
"--Like hell it isn't!"
"Ma'am, let me finish. Once in a dozen paces, and it wasn't enough. But you knead the dough and hope like hell [AHEM] it rises." "Yes, but--"
"I do believe I'm getting kicked out for impertinence. Just too bad, hm?"

The gavel banged onto its bed of petals, deep maroon pulsing with rusted hope.

Friday, September 16, 2011

One Year Later

So much can happen in one year.

One year ago,
I moved to a new city
Rohit, Varun and I started on the next big journeys of our lives
I had to relearn how to forge new friendships
Meghu started her last year of high school
Neha was about to get married
The world was a little bit less of a minefield. Or a little bit more. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell.

One year ago, September 11th was the last day I saw you.
One year ago, September 16th was the day you took your last breath.

Anniversaries are strange creatures. They force you to remember, and dredge up the oddest musings along the way.

Mama and Papa redid your room a couple of months after, and converted it to a mandir. I think it helped lift the stifling aura of grief that had engulfed the room for seven years, since Barimama left us from there, right where your bed was. It was a ‘circle of life’ moment, where my two doting grandparents, who had devoted their lives to caring for each other and their family, inhabited and vacated the same space.

Whenever I need a moment, some breathing room, I sit in your room, and I can see both your faces – okay, okay, I confess, that might be because your portraits are hanging on the wall. But you know what I mean. You usually have. It sounds corny, but…I feel like I’m enveloped by that same sense of security and comfort I used to get when I was five years old, running rampant around the house under your watchful eyes. I had missed that, for the past few years, and you helped me find it again when I wasn’t expecting to.

Meghu and I still cannot bring ourselves to use your bathroom. The whole room was your space, but the bathroom especially feels like an invasion of space. It feels wrong. You had your weakest moments there, which broke our hearts even as they wove us closer together. I used it once, for the first time this summer since you left, and I couldn’t go back in afterward.

I’ve been working on my letter to you for the past 24 hours, struggling with what I wanted to share, what I was feeling, how to articulate the thoughts that have been running rampant in my head for the past several days. Today, one of my very good friends pulled me out of my head and helped me re-energize. It was a variation on your question, you know? Beta, itna kyun sochthe ho?

I never got a chance to work through a lot of my feelings surrounding how you left us, those last couple of years. Everyone should get a mandatory vacation from life for a few days after having to bid someone adieu – we need that time to process what happened, and I don’t know if I ever properly did.

While you were alive, somehow there was always an irrational hope for a miracle, defying all common sense and scientific precedent. You were my grandfather. You survived a motorcycle accident. You swam from shore-to-shore of the Ganga. You could survive anything.

When Barimama left, I was there for all the days leading up to it, and I was there minutes after it happened. When you left, I wasn’t there for those last two weeks; I last saw you five days before it happened, and couldn’t make it home until 24 hours after. Until today, I don’t think I ever realized what a significant impact that left on me.

I felt guilty for the longest time, for not being there with you. And sometimes it still doesn’t feel real, until I go back home for the weekend and the house is dead silent.

At times I feel as if I never got a chance to process that you were gone and not coming back. You left right as I began on the path that I had told you I would follow when I was a six-year-old who refused to acknowledge that she couldn’t fix her grandmother. You would treat me to a gentle smile, maybe a little indulgent, but you never laughed off my childish insistence. And that persistent support pushed me forward, reminded me what I was working toward.

Today I can say, while I fervently wish you were here to share these moments with me in person, I know you and Barimama are both watching from somewhere – probably shaking your heads and laughing a little at my antics along the way. I know, I know, I have a ways to go. But you set me on the right track, and I intend to keep at it.

Your leaving brought with it a sense of vulnerability – in sense of self, in relationships, in my perceptions of strength and eternity. You were our center, I think. And now that you’re gone, the rest of us are still trying to find and hold onto a new one. 

मेरी हँसी तो मेरे ग़मों का लिबास है, लेकिन ज़माना कहाँ उतना ग़म्शनास है । 
जब मैं उदास था तो ज़माना था खुश, अब मैं खुश हूँ तो ज़माना उदास है ।।

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Kick in the Pants

Med school started 'forreal forreal' yesterday, with Host Defenses and Infectious Diseases. So far, it is busting our chops big time. And it's barely been two days.

Exam day Tuesday didn't go quite as Ian had hoped. And tragically, this is Ian's new reality:

In other news, things I've learned so far:

The only way to get better is to get wayy worse first

And there is a profound revelation reflected in Ian's shaved head
(yes, his nose is actually that hooked. Peer closely the next time you see him; it'll creep him out)

This is kind of turning into the 'Ekta and Ian' show, isn't it? Only good things can come of it.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Don't Forget the Confetti

Today we are featuring some guest art by [drumrollllll] IAN P! Dutifully doodled on the last day of lectures before our long weekend, between the hours of 1000 and 1200. Make of that what you will.

Every exam day, Ian comes with high hopes -- of gifted A's, laptops in the air, and confetti:

 And tragically, every exam day, those hopes are dashed.

Hope springs eternal.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Fatal flaw, redeemed

A week or so ago, I was telling a friend I had identified one of my social fatal flaws: the inability to tell a white lie. I call this a fatal flaw half in jest, half with gravity.

Since when is honesty bad? An overwhelming majority of our interactions with people are made up of white lies, to make ourselves, our friends and our family feel a little better, or less worse, about themselves or a situation, to soften a proverbial blow, to keep hope alive and postpone disappointment.

What does this have to do with anything? This is not a complete non sequitur.

Last Wednesday, I attended a Peds/Neuro co-sponsored talk on learning/developmental disabilities. The speakers were two mothers. The first was not a doctor, and her daughter was born with and/or developed: central brain damage, cerebral palsy, seizures, scoliosis, osteoporosis. The second was a neonatologist, and her son had regressive autism, meaning his development was normal until he hit two years old, when he stopped speaking and responding.

The mothers were amazingly strong, self-aware, and human, admitting their weaknesses, yet not letting those weaknesses rule their actions. They spoke about their kids, the difficulties they have faced in getting the support they need, the communication issues between the kids and their parents -- how their receptive language far exceeds their expressive language, making it difficult to interpret their needs. Theirs were heartbreaking stories -- yet they came asking for awareness and advocacy, not sympathy, as mothers protecting their children and the hundreds of thousands other children whose voices are not heard.

Someone asked the mothers a question toward the end, one that stuck with me, and probably everyone who heard their stories - when you see someone in a wheelchair at the grocery store, a person with cognitive disabilities standing ahead of you in line at the cashier, what do you do? I confess that my curiosity flares up; I want to ask questions, but it's inappropriate, so I hold my tongue. But because of that, I feel awkward - should I look? Will they see my questions mirrored on my face and resent it? Should I say hello? Is it welcome? Should I look away? Isn't it rude?

Someone asked, and the mothers said: Be honest, but remember that they are there, and acknowledge them. And then added, we have kids with special needs, and we still feel awkward. It doesn't go away.

It's human.

I remember my frustration whenever someone was over at our house, and would inevitably approach my grandfather and say, "Do you remember who I am?" Once. Twice. Then, "Remember me? I'm XYZ, your son's friend." To which my grandfather would reply, "Ohh, yes, yes, I remember you, XYZ." They took it at face value -- the more sentimental would turn and say, "See? He remembers!" and the more pragmatic would nod and carry on. Eventually, my grandfather learned to game the conversation before it really began. "Do you remember who I am?" "Of course, beta [son], how could I forget?" He used the ambiguous pronoun to his full advantage.

He may have been losing his memory, and many of his higher cognitive functions, but he was still sharp, which combined with frustration was a powerful weapon. He refused to be treated as the vocal equivalent of a mime. Eventually he lost his self-defense mechanisms -- given Alzheimer's progression, it was inevitable. But the visitors' questions persisted, even though it was clear as day he had little awareness of his surroundings. It was easy for me to defend him, and to some degree denigrate the questioners. Why torture an already tortured elderly man?

But last week, I was forced to face my confusion on interacting with people who have special needs. And I realized, when faced with my grandfather, those visitors were struck with the same uncertainties and an odd mixture of concern and curiosity. Wasn't this the least offensive way to express that they care?

Curiosity can be empowering, because curiosity begets knowledge, which boasts a certain heft, shape, specificity. My mother would claim I was cursed with too many questions. I would argue I was blessed with a billion feline lives. The confounding variable in these interactions wasn't curiosity, but fear - of judgment, of perception, of hoof-in-mouth disease.

I bore witness to my grandfather's regression for four years, and the frustrating interactions he put up with throughout. But now, I can finally try to pinpoint where we go wrong. Perhaps curiosity not completely unwelcome, but only when accompanied by honest empathy. Empty words are empty. False assurances are false. Glossy conversation tries to pull a curtain over reality.

It sounds very kindergarten, but we sometimes forget the Golden Rule and instead make a spectacle out of a "freak show." But regardless of the exterior, be it glamorous or thorny, inside is someone with feelings and a personality who struggles to express themselves, or sometimes lacks the consciousness to do so. Don't mistake that hurdle for a weakness.

To take a cue from Laurel, sheath any sense of "unquestioned entitlement," and recognize their sense of self is not comprised solely or entirely of their disability. Be curious, do your homework, but don't impose yourself on them.

Let them carry on with their lives, as you carry on with your own. And if the two happen to intersect, address them with dignity, and acknowledge their humanity with your own. Wield your honesty as a gentle tool of awareness instead of a harsh weapon of insensitivity.

Fear is paralyzing. Honesty is inspiring. Initiative is rewarding.

Humanity brings us to our knees.

What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
- William Wordsworth
Excerpt from "Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood"


Sunday, April 10, 2011

Dukes and Pirates

Signs my caffeine detox worked (AKA, ET on one cup of coffee today):

(Disclaimer: May also be signs of excessive studying and pod-induced claustrophobia. 
Read as: side effects of medical school. 
AMCAS should issue a warning label.)

 - I spontaneously start dancing in my seat like a jitterbug

(Please note, this is NOT me attempting to swing dance in my seat, which would have disastrous results, such as me falling out of my chair and suffering a traumatic brain injury after hitting my head on the corner of my bed, or perhaps more tragically, falling out of my chair and toppling my desk over, killing my cool stereo system in the process).

- I facilitate a rum-war between my Lego Jack Sparrow and my teddy finger puppet pirates

- I want to dunk Liz in a pit of green Nickelodeon goo to commemorate her birthday (HAPPY BARFDAY!)

- I work on a ridiculous blog entry instead of studying.

Ok, who am I kidding? That happens almost every time.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Exam-time Munchies

I know, I know, people get them all the time. But I don't get them barely ever.

Being hungry for a snack is so inconvenient when you don't have any good snacks at hand. Luckily, I remembered just in time that I still had some tortilla chips in my cabinet, and salsa in the fridge. Just in time for what, you ask? Some kind of colossal disaster, I'm sure, but luckily we will never have cause to find out, until the next time I have a salt-craving.

I'm waiting for my ghrelin to calm down and my leptin to kick in so that my stomach stops grumbling at me (and no, those are not monsters hiding in my closet; they are intestinal hormones! I bet whoever named them got a good chuckle out of it). I think if I were to name a hormone, I'd call it "savvy," for a multitude of reasons. Other suggestions?

You know what's awkward? When your stomach starts grumbling at you while you're trying to study in a quiet pod surrounded by other quietly studious people with tamer stomachs. My stomach has no sense of propriety. Granted, it is my stomach after all, but still! Poor excuse!

You know what's brilliant? Always over-estimating either how many chips or how much salsa you need to put on your plate at snack time. You leave yourself the perfect excuse to go back and fetch more of the other to make up the difference. *grin* Sometimes, eating junk food is totally worth it. Now if only I had some sharp cheddar cheese, or samosas, or chaat, or bhel puri…...

Instead, I am settling (not too much) for this, against the lovely backdrop that is the disaster zone otherwise known as my desk:

Isn't caffeine supposed to be an appetite suppressant? I guess it's busy enough keeping me awake and "focused" right now.

I suppose it's a good thing that now I can't stop thinking about renal clearance.