Written By: Shaurya Arya-Kanojia
A layer of dust sat on the shelf. On it, among other collectibles,
including an hour glass, a globe lamp, a set of encyclopedias,
sat a picture frame. Staring out of it, in a sepia toned setting, were two kids.
Two shabby, silly, ridiculously happy kids. And behind them, the minivan.
The minivan I remembered so well, with its peeling turquoise color,
the shine of its chrome hood, its gleaming handles, and the sun
reflecting on the clean windshield.
And we, the two kids, with our uncombed hair, pimples on our cheeks,
and wearing fat smiles, looking straight into the camera.
“Stand straight and quit it!” our mother yelled; but we knew, and we saw,
how she smiled that warm smile as she took our picture. “Say cheese,” she said.
I screamed cheese. But my brother – the elder,
taller, handsomer, more mischievous of us, the one who spilled his glass of milk
in the drain every day, the one who forced me to eat his greens – shouted, “No please!”
We laughed so hard, me and my brother, but we didn’t see, our mother, who, despite asking my brother to “watch your mouth,” sniggered behind the camera herself. She pushed the button, and the joy of those two shabby pre-adolescent boys standing under the spring sun – the sky above them blue as the ocean, the air smelling of fresh oranges - was immortalized forever.
And as I, now a thirty year old man, stood opposite the picture, the rag I had thought of dusting the shelf with in my hand, I lost myself in the memory of the day.
We had driven along the lake. Us two kids, our heads sticking out the window, the wind ruffling our already ruffled hair. We screamed at those driving past us, screamed how we were going to rule the world one day; the ambitions of the over-ambitious.
We bumped our fists in the air, reveling in the excitement of all the opportunities that, just like the open road, lay ahead of us. Our mother, behind the wheel, screamed at us to come back inside, “or else you’ll find yourself kicked off the van.” But then, she smiled her motherly smile, the one that seeks all happiness for her children.
The road was long, and the trip memorable. The sun gleamed on the lake’s surface, and my mother, obsessed with her camera, made her two boys, the darling of her lives, stand in front of it; so she could capture us, with our shabby hair and our big smiles, and freeze that moment in time. “Say cheese” would again be followed with a “No please.”
And the two of us would, again, break into a laughter that would melt her heart.
On the way, she bought us candies and chips, and all the junk that was unhealthy for us. We accepted it all, our arms filled with goodies, not questioning why we were so lucky today.
We made a brief pit stop. “Sorry boys. Lady emergency,” she said, as she pulled over the van along the curb. “Ugh,” my brother replied, a flash of red spreading on his face, “we didn’t need to know THAT!” She pulled his cheek and ruffled his hair, knowing how he disliked being treated like a kid.
The smile returned on her face, and we, her two sons, saw a bead of tear run down her face.
She tore herself from the moment, and rushed to the ladies room. And we, the two boys with a mother who loved us more than the world, sat in the van; looking forward to an exciting journey planned ahead.
Halfway through our candies, our hands sticky, our mouths sweetened, she returned. “Sorry, boys,” she said, heaving herself into her seat. I saw her checking herself in the rear view mirror, and noticed her noticing something on her lips. A red drop of something, it looked to me. But before I could nudge my brother, she wiped it away; and, seeing me see her, smiled. Her eyes were moist, but before the tears would start rolling down, she snatched herself away. “Here we go!” she screamed,the excitement feigned.
Like the makeup she uses to hide her blemishes, I thought. Meanwhile, my brother, unbeknownst, unaware, thumped his fist in the air, and repeated after her, “Here we go!”
We lunched at a cafe called Grilly’s. Standing at the counter, the menu written on the wall in dazzling greens and blues and pinks, our mother allowed us to order chicken and gravy; while she stuck with a salad. “Are you okay?” my brother asked her, “Didn’t you say you only eat salads when you’re weak and sick?” She patted him on the shoulder, and, embarrassed in front of the waitress, said, “I don’t feel like it.” And then, she looked at me, and she saw in my eyes that I knew. But maybe I didn’t. Maybe, I thought, I was as clueless as him. She only shook her head, and mouthed the words, “Don’t tell him.”
We ate heartily, laughed plentifully. At the next stop, we stopped by the beach. She let her boys play in the water, roll around in the sand, chase each other; while she, who I could tell by now was sick, sat a fair distance away, watching us play. We’d run a fair distance. He carried on into the water, but I turned to look back; and I saw her, my mother, coughing into her handkerchief. I want to imagine it wasn’t terror that I saw on her face, as she looked into the cloth before folding it and putting in her pocket, but I knew what I saw. What I saw, from a distance, was my ailing, my possibly dying mother.
We went to the museum next, even took the guided tour, which she’d always said was too expensive for us. We took the trolley up the hill, to see the magic show that she knew we, her two boys, loved; she let us buy ourselves the costly, autographed magic pack we’d always wanted. And we’d accepted the gifts with a smile on her faces and unadulterated happiness in our hearts. But we didn’t see her standing in a corner – as my brother and I tore the plastic off the pack, jeering and shouting, all exhilarated – crying her silent tears, crying because time was short, and her boys had a long way to go.
It would only be, a year from then, between which we made several rounds to the hospital, saw her coughing more and more blood, swallowing pills that made her weaker, disoriented, that brought out the worst of her, before I would learn what the word “cancer” meant. But she had prepared me and my brother for the eventuality. And, as we saw her, burning on a pyre – she who always wore a bright
smile, who cared for her boys more than the world, who took us on an unforgettable trip even though she was struggling – we knew she was in a better place.
And, now, I stand facing the picture on the dusty shelf, a sepia toned portrait of two ugly pimple-stricken boys, with ridiculous smiles on their faces, the boys who had all the happiness in the world, because they had a mother to look over them, I feel the bottomless void in my heart open up once again, and out comes the pain, the sorrow, the cries, but, with it, also a smile, as I feel nostalgic, melancholic, of our last trip together.
Shaurya Arya-Kanojia is the author of End of the Rope, published last year under the banner of Locksley Hall Publishing (https://amzn.to/3bcQbaY ) and part of the editorial team of Ayaskala literary magazine. He holds considerable experience of working as a Content Writer and loves to dabble with the suspense-thriller genre by writing stories, some of which can be read at: http://kathakahaani.wordpress.com/.