Many happy returns, we say. At least once a year. What should we say when that wish is no longer a blessing but a curse?
You never see him at rest. If you hear the gate opening when the birds announce the rising sun, it is him with a vessel full of frothing milk, that he has just drawn from the cow.
Are you willing to forgo your afternoon nap and walk a few meters to the coconut plantation that kisses the edge of the backwaters? You will see him there at work. He will not stop working but if you can walk along and pay attention, he will readily share his wisdom in gentle words. If you are not distracted by the water birds following the tractor, he will explain the mechanics and commercials of cultivating paddy. He may even offer you a tender coconut to savor.
During the day, you will find him zipping about on his motorcycle. Errands never end. There are at least five homes of the extended family that count on his visits so that things get done. Then there are visits to the bank, to the panchayat office. He barely has time. If he spots you walking by, he will stop, park the bike and talk as if he has all the time for you.
You will not want to get too close to the cows when he is tending to them in the shed next to the house. They do not look very friendly and are given to shaking their heads, making their horns bang noisily against the wooden railings. He remonstrates with one for not eating properly. There comes a prancing calf that gets a hug and a kiss. He has simply become one of them. You watch and wonder.
The pages of the calendar keep flipping, bringing along the special day. He makes a special visit to the temple and there is a special sweet dish cooking at home. Looking at his hearty smile you sincerely wish the day would return many happy times. He is special. He deserves it.
When that day came the last time, you did not want to wish him that. He was laid low by cancer. You flinched at the sight of the helpless figure on the bed, all bones and bedsores. You saw an apology on his face for not being able to get up and talk to you and share tea with you.
He is gone. At last.
All of us must. But not the lingering way he did.
What do you say when, to wish for even one more return of the day, would be so insensitive, so cruel? Keeping in mind the only gift that matters and the inevitability of the end, perhaps it is time we learned to say, “Live full, die well.”