Immigrant Bengalis

The Talisman
Indrani Mondal

[Editor’s Note: The following is a real-life experience that is narrated in the third person]

Nisha woke up with a start.  She had been talking in her sleep again.  Her lips were still moving and she was bathed in sweat.  But this time she instantly knew why.  She remembered her dream, rather nightmare, vividly. 

A thief ran away furtively with something, something she needed.  She screamed at the top of her voice, “Please, please stop! Don’t take it away … it’s really important”, and tore after the bundled-up, masked figure.  She was out of breath and frantic.  Something precious to her was stolen and she was desperate to get it back. But the thief escaped. 

“Are you learning a new language, dear?” her husband, Sid, had asked curiously a few days back.   “You muttered strange words loudly in your sleep!  Planning to escape to some far-off, pandemic-free country?”  He sounded amused at the irony of his words, unaware of her unease.  

Nisha woke most mornings drained, exhausted, panic stricken.   Perhaps it was sleep apnea or acid reflux or her meds.  Most likely it was her continuous, latent worry about Sid’s underlying health complications of which he was never careful enough. 

This broken sleep syndrome became so pronounced that she grew scared to go to bed and tried to get her night’s rest on their living room couch downstairs.  But this made her more tired than ever.  She kept half an ear open to hear if her husband needed help getting up at night in their bedroom upstairs.

Nisha quickly sat up in bed, panting as if she had actually been running.  With an acute sense of loss, of being violated, she wondered what valuables had been stolen from her.  Was this why she couldn’t sleep continuously at night?  She looked around blankly trying to take in her surroundings.  She was half hanging from the edge of their queen bed, their blanket bundled around her.  Her husband lay curled up at the other end without his blanket, in a fitful sleep.  Still in a daze, she made a mental note.  She would sleep in the adjoining guest room from now on, not to disturb her recuperating husband who was a light sleeper.  As quietly and quickly as possible, she left the bed, went out, leaving the bedroom door ajar so she could hear him call if he needed her. 

As if sleep walking, Nisha came downstairs.  She went to the dark sunroom, found her favorite window and drew open the blinds mechanically.  Like her wake-up times lately, it was not yet dawn.  Outside there was no moon.  A cold dull hue from the sky glanced off the snow-covered backyard.  The landscape looked otherworldly and pensive.  The pale gleam touched the leaves of her houseplants near the window, oriental jasmine, hibiscus, red chili and orchids.  Although it was warm inside, the plants seemed drawn and distant as if intuiting the outside chill and Nisha’s restless distraction. 

She found a chair, half sat on it and leaned against the window longingly, all spent and disheveled before day had even broken.  The snow swept, iridescent predawn stared detachedly back at her.  Though she sat quiet, why was her mind so wind tossed and scattered?  Deep inside, she heard drip, drip, as if there was a steady erosion of her inner peace.  There was nothing she could do to stop it.  Is that why she felt edgy, empty, lost?  What was she hungering for? 

She was aware that her personal pleasures and part time work-from-home schedule were vanishing fast.  Early morning walks ending at the local Cafe redolent with the smell of fresh brew, where the owner took the time to chat with her and had come to learn how strong she liked her coffee, uninterrupted mid-morning virtual client meetings, lunch on a park bench while scribbling lines in her journal, evening walks by the neighborhood lake watching dollops of color wink through clouds in the western sky above rooftops -- these were becoming invaluable cameos of another time. 

Not that she hadn’t tried to keep up her practices.  But on occasion when she was immersed in or away for some job she had to complete, Sid would text her or say robustly, “No problem! You do your stuff, dear, I’ll just take the car and finish up my things!” 

At first, when Sid came home after three weeks at acute rehab, Nisha thought he could handle it.  But it wasn’t that easy.  Sid refused to admit his double vision hindered his driving skill and disregarded his do-s and don’t-s.  He ended up in car accidents, none too serious thankfully, but involving unplanned car-related expenses and more physical and occupational therapy sessions for Sid to improve his judgement, reaction time and overall health. That meant more schedules and regulations to follow, which Sid hated of course.  Worse, Sid’s nerves and confidence were rattled and he became all the more restless.

Both of them argued.  Nisha tried to caution him but that only made him complain, “You’re so negative!  You never encourage me to do things I’m told not to do!”  He flew into rages, knocked down vases, mugs whatever was within hands reach, ripped pages from magazines, yelled, “If I die, you’ll be the cause, hear me loud and clear!” 

Nisha cried, ran to hug him.  When he shook her off in disgust, she tried not to be too emotional, wiped off her tears and said as gently as she could, “I know you didn’t mean that, Sid.” 

He had continued to accuse her, “Are you trying to mother me by any chance?  Well! It’s not working!”  

Whether he was angry at himself or her she was too distraught to tell.

Without further ado, Nisha made a daily schedule of all the places Sid had to visit, doctors, therapists and regular errands.  She started driving him.  But even that didn’t always go smooth.  Once on the highway on the way to his new specialist, Nisha had misheard her GPS and taken the wrong exit. 

Sid must have resolved to drive himself for just when Nisha had accelerated back onto the highway from the next exit, he suddenly swung open his passenger door declaring angrily, “I have to drive now or you’ll wander round this whole city wasting gas.  Do you even know how expensive it is now?”  Nisha’s heart skipped a beat.  She had to use all her patience to have him close the door of their speeding car, maneuver her car on her lane and quieten her husband, all altogether, as quickly as her wits would allow. 

After that Nisha began planning along with Sid, asking him where he would like to go and how. But she soon found out he hardly had any plans of what he wanted to do. It was only when she turned to her stuff, after taking care of his main requirements, that he started remembering more things he would like to do.  That meant the whole cycle of doing what when by whom started again and then she would have to stop doing her jobs anyway so she could give him time.  His therapist and cardiologist had advised Sid should not feel unsettled.  So, she took Sid with her wherever she went or whatever she did so she could help him with whatever unplanned requirements he came up with.

Nisha learnt to turn her focus wholly on her husband, away from herself, even feeling guilty if she thought about what she herself needed and why. 

Sid’s morning ritual would start soon, getting up and getting cleaned up for the day.  This would be punctuated with listening to his problems of nothing being in the right place ever with no help around to fix them.  She tried many a time to explain to him how blessed they were that his recovery had been quick but Sid remained a giant gumball of dissatisfaction. 

Nisha tried to ease Sid’s daily tasks in little ways.  She started making his oatmeal breakfast for him.  But that set him off on a tirade of issues, “Are you by any chance trying to control me dear?” he would begin. “Well, it’s not working cause my milk is not heated enough, the fruits are not properly chopped, the walnut and almond slices are so few I can actually count them in my bowl!” he would declare.  Then he would continue to comment grandly, “In case you forgot, this is my breakfast!  I alone decide what to eat and how much!”  

To prevent such innocuous stress from ruining their morning and to make Sid feel more independent, Nisha let him get his own breakfast ready.  That meant her continuous overseeing without intrusion, to ensure he did not cut himself (which would be harmful as he was on blood thinners), did not burn himself or forget to turn off the stovetop and used kitchen appliances safely.  Many a time he left his spoon in the microwave while preparing his breakfast. Luckily Nisha would be close enough to catch the burnt smell and see the flying sparks, turning off the microwave just in time. 

On such occasions, Sid commented nonchalantly, “I don’t believe this!  How did the spoon get there?  Sure, you didn’t put it there by mistake, honey?”  She couldn’t understand if he was being funny or sinister.

Some such ‘surprise’ awaited her almost every morning so she had to be on her toes always.  Nisha tried to laugh them off as a mischievous child’s defensiveness.  In any case, there were lots of cleaning up to do afterwards, so that breakfast took up the better part of her morning. 

Before long it was lunch time and the ordeal began again.  Nisha’s efforts at serving Sid a suitable afternoon meal remained, for him, quite an affront. 

Flushed with disbelief, he would never cease to bemoan, “Does anyone around here have any idea of what a good healthy lunch actually is?”  Or “Are you and my dietician conspiring to get rid of plain and simple taste from my meals?”

Lately Sid had become closer with their children now that they were away from home.  Their elder son was working and their daughter was a college senior.  As they couldn’t come home often, they sent him gifts which he loved.  They were mostly books and word puzzles now, as medically recommended, to facilitate their dad’s focus.  Sid started ignoring their gifts for his attention had grown short and he hated to sit still.  Nisha understood he was trying.  She made it a point to compliment him whenever he was able to hold his fixed focus on any reading even for half an hour.  The peace and quiet on those rare occasions were real treats for Nisha. 

Was that why she was now staring outside at the quiet, sleepy earth, half-awake in this ghostly pre-dawn?  Was the stillness of the space beyond the window so attractive to her starved mind?  She was finding out the hard way it was one thing to comprehend in her head and another to cope with real time situations every day. 

The evenings were non-stop TV spiced with Sid’s endless commentaries on sitcoms and movies in his vernacular and English.  His remarks were invariably highlighted with his take on how other countries should learn to be savvier in acting, filmmaking and broadcasting.  There were also continuous debates on politics, current news, finance and local happenings.  Actually, Nisha and Sid, did not really debate, cause Nisha had noticed much to her dismay, that a previously cogent Sid, would after his recent hospitalization, fly into unwarranted personal attacks whenever he was presented with any view different than his. 

There was no room for healthy discussion or robust evolving views on any topic anymore.  Now Sid he was always right and Nisha, as he decisively declared, was simply unfit to comprehend any high-level details.  To do away with burnout from such scalding remarks, she had tried to leave him with his evening TV shows and get on with her household chores of laundry, cleaning, planning jobs for the week, paying bills and so on.  But Sid called for her every few minutes saying he was thirsty or would fidget around the kitchen trying to make tea, forget where the tea bags were, brew the tea too long and grumble that the tea was too bitter.  Several times he unmindfully picked up the hot kettle without a towel or mitt setting up such a hue and cry that Nisha had to drop her tasks and help him.  Maybe these were just his ways of drawing her attention or trying to show he was busy too, Nisha reasoned.  Whatever it was it only made the evenings more hectic.

She started sitting close by him in the living room trying to concentrate on her own jigsaw or needlework.  Reading or writing were out of question, for he often voiced how offended he was if she forgot to help him maneuver his channels when he couldn’t remember the buttons on the remote.  Nisha was belligerent and weepy in turns and had to check herself from retorting vehemently causing more pain all around.   Instead, she tried to recount in her head their past fun times together and once in a while showed Sid their albums, but he seldom had the patience to look at them with interest. 

When Nisha stole away to get ready for bed or to catch a little respite for herself by reading or writing before turning in for the night, he would often follow her to the bathroom or study, rattling off endless "to do" tasks three to four weeks down the road.  She tried to keep her calm, promising to look into them later, but Sid’s accusations at her lack of instant proactive response would spew unchecked.  In vain Nisha continued to convince him to list out to-do-s so they could both plan the next morning with fresh minds.  Attempted negotiations and loving reasonings only increased distrust and misgivings on both sides. When she didn’t reply for fear of making matters worse, Sid would have the last word finding yet another undisputed evidence of his wife’s carelessness and imprudent housekeeping along with her being his unnecessarily overprotective nurse.  Of late she just let him go on talking till he lost his voice and started coughing.  Sadly, her own sense of inadequacy deepened.  

Armed with an enormous file of coupons and colored sale fliers, one day of the week in the afternoon, Sid liked to shop four or five grocery stores. On Wednesdays.  It had to be Wednesdays.  No amount of suggesting or requesting or explaining would make Sid change his mind about the day of the week he had fixed for his grocery errands.  The reason was he had just been graced with senior citizen status and local groceries had senior sales only on that particular day of the week.  He liked repeating this justification and chuckled like a kid who had been handed a prize.  In fact, Sid repeated this piece of info almost every week to nail the undisputed fact of his still keen brain power and attention to detail.  It didn’t matter to him that most of the stuff he got was on sale anyway and his senior discount couldn’t be applied to them at all.  All Nisha’s gentle reminders about this were in vain.

Once when Sid shopped happily and Nisha counted how many more stores they still had to visit, she heard a ping on her phone.  She mostly didn’t answer texts.  She had nothing to say anyway!  But this time it was from Eliza, who she hadn’t heard from for a while.  

“Hi Nisha” her message said, “Why aren’t you joining our Zoom Book Club?  Miss your poems and stories!  Hope all’s well!”  Nisha stood quite still trying to fight back tears.  No, not as much as she missed seeing and hearing her writing buddies.  Would she ever find the time to return to the group?  Suddenly she knew what a bird with a clipped wing felt when it struggled to fly.  Sid’s choice of his grocery shopping day was the only day of the week when Nisha had her favorite Book Club meets.   Thus, her participation there became a thing of the past. 

She tried to compare his sense of achievement on these outings with her delight at attending her Club and always felt the scales tip in his favor.  Her personal loves quickly slid far down on her list of priorities.  She even ended up cancelling her own health checkups to accommodate his.  No wonder that Nisha’s age was progressing a little faster than she had bargained for, and not just chronologically.

Sid was recovering from his third stroke as a result of an acute chronic heart ailment leading to on-going cerebral attacks.  In spite of such long term, underlying health issues, Nisha could not but appreciate his positivity, tenacity and sharpness that had made him hold on to his job as an awarded tech research scientist and product engineer till his full retirement age through two previous strokes and four ministrokes (Transient Ischemic Attacks).  She admired his zest for participating in all day-to-day activities in his own way, even though, as the boss of the house, which he liked to call himself, he refused to take her help.  In this way he often messed up simple things, dumping the fault on her when things went wrong.  Be that as it may, she was unequivocally glad to have him around the house. 

She forgot this was sometimes at the cost of the most rudimentary requirements of her own wellbeing as her own recent nervous breakdown had proved clearly.  Their children never failed to caution her that this cost was surely too high.  But Nisha was engulfed with remorse at her bouts of thoughtless selfishness and refused to agree.  It was when Sid fought her support, that she buckled under. Things would have been different if Sid had taken his health monitoring in good spirit.  But he was so unmindful of ‘health is wealth’ that it was hard for him to admit he had guidelines to follow.  She tried her best to make him feel that she was on his side in this journey and hated herself for being unable to convey that message to him.  A war raged within leaving her fatigued and frazzled.

Already she was forgetting names of friends, authors, books and even some of her all-time favorite quotes, as she found out quite shockingly, when writing an article for a local newspaper the other day.  She simply had no time to read, write, even chat with friends.  Of course, the incessant waves of the pandemic had not made matters easier.  She ended up refusing rides or sit ins by friends and neighbors.  Her only thoughts were about Sid’s ailments, doctors, therapists and medications.  Nisha became doubly anxious and watched him constantly for telltale signs of sickness.  Her own space was well and truly gone.

Right now, for example, half her mind was still upstairs trying to hear if her sleep chatter a while back had inadvertently woken her husband.  She ran to the stairs quite a few times, thinking she had heard Sid call for her. 

Was the rage at being unable to stanch the steady drain of her favorite things building up in her?  Her whole being racked convulsively at what she was being forced to let go, both for herself and her husband.  Yet she had no way to stop this plunder.  She was witnessing in front of her eyes how day by day her dear fun-loving husband was disintegrating, for no fault of his own but because health was not on his side.  As luck would have it, so many tough restrictions were being imposed on this adventurous, inventive person that he was steadily losing trust in his once deeply loved wife. 

Because Nisha found it emotionally hard to deal with many of Sid’s strange explosive reactions, their kids and friends often suggested she should seriously consider moving Sid to a nursing home or hiring a home aid so Nisha could go about her own life with more freedom.  But Nisha could never let go of her commitment and faith in her memory of how they had married as students far away from the land they were born in.  Sid had always been a caring husband, constantly vigilant even during her difficult pregnancies and difficult career choices.  His was a travelling job but he was still her very rock holding her hand in many important decisions of her life.  She had left a promising academic career to join the corporate sector which paid more so they could take care of their two growing children.  Whether it was love or gratitude she did not know, but it made it impossible for her to disengage herself from her responsibility now.  Also, to be seriously considered was the huge economic factor involved in professional caregiving. 

Nisha decided to care for Sid fulltime right after his second major stroke, several years before her own retirement age.  It had been more than a heartache to leave her fulltime job and energetic work environ.  It made her lonelier than ever.  Also, as first-generation immigrants, they had no family around and few friends.  No wonder her energy, self-worth and confidence felt under attack every day. 

It was such an irony that Sid and Nisha had come to this country to make a better life for themselves and their children.   Whatever happened to that dream?  A few years back it had seemed she was getting close to realizing it in her lifetime, but then all too soon it was snatched away.  Was this petty self-pity?  Nisha shuddered in disgust at her own weakness.   But then what about her right for regaining that good life she had worked so hard for?

In her wildest imagination this was hardly how she had envisioned Sid and her golden years to turn out.  They were both brilliant students and decided to work, marry and make their home here to give themselves and their children opportunities they had missed in their own formative years.  But immigrating to a new country and adapting and understanding new mores of lifestyle and work culture had not been without challenges of their own.  Sid and Nisha had both held on to each other and braved through them in the hope that their children would go into higher studies and eventually have a more established life than their parents.  According to their plans that would happen before Sid and Nisha’s retirement and thankfully it had. Both kids were educated, and secure in their own fields of study and work.  Then wasn’t it only warranted that Sid and Nisha would finally have their own time to enjoy as they pleased and spend as they wanted? 

Sid’s wanderlust made him love travel more than Nisha.  During their working years, they had taken road trips regularly but had decided to put all exotic vacations on hold till the time was right -- after retirement.  So now would be the perfect time to go around the world, explore new places and people and enrich and broaden the quality of their lives.  Maybe the upper and lower extremities of the world, Artic, Antarctic, the islands in the Southern hemisphere where Christmas is in summer, nostalgic trips to their homeland of rice fields and brimming rivers, coconut palms swaying by the green waters of the Indian ocean, the hot desert of Sahara, the cold desert of Gobi, colorful bazaars of the Middle East, gorgeous blue and white Greece, the Vatican, Mediterranean civilizations, Europe replete with history, the birthplace of Harry Potter, the Pacific islands, the two Americas and so so much more.  Even now there was a collage of all these places with pictures on Sid’s laptop wallpaper, silent witness to this dream of peaceful, stress-free later years.  It was the talisman that had made them survive through rough waters many times earlier, both financially and socially. 

But after his third stoke Sid’s doctors found out that his heart was getting weaker and so they were not sure how his heart and heart devices would withstand long airplane flights or strenuous travel to far away destinations.  

Was that talisman being stolen now?  Was that the nightmare Nisha was having so constantly?  Nisha felt cornered.  How could she stop this terrible theft?   After all she owed it to herself and Sid to stop it.  Sid’s questionable health had taken away this treasure from him and there was nothing she could do but be by him through it all.  For all her good intentions however, in the process, something precious was getting lost from within her too!  Though she tried desperately to stop that, she couldn’t find Sid by her side more than just physically.

This tug of war of promises to herself and her dear husband was imperceptibly tearing her asunder.  Was that why she yelled and stormed in impotent rage in her sleep?  Her insides flailing like a sweet water river fish suffocating in the deep, salty currents of the ocean?

Nisha shuddered, feeling helpless and disconsolate.  She gulped in deep long breaths and bent down to touch the green leaves of the houseplants around her.   That’s when she saw it. 

A single purple orchid just bloomed from a row of withered buds.  It stretched its petals slowly towards the growing light from the window.  Nisha felt the x-ray vision of her heart actually see the sinews in the petals unfurl one by one, in the direction of the coming day.  Suddenly life and beauty of life flowed into her veins quenching her hunger. 

Upstairs she heard Sid stir.  “Nisha! Nisha!” he called loudly. “Where did you go?” He would soon get ready to come down the stairs and Nisha would try to keep her eye on him without offending.  But she couldn’t share this soul stirring find right here right now with him. 

Sid had been irate the other day when he found her here watering the plants.  Now-a-days indoor greens gave him severe allergies.  He just couldn’t understand why.  Instead, he grew upset to see her where he couldn’t join easily like before and lashed out, “Can’t you get rid of those unhealthy space hoggers instead of spending time on them?  See I can’t even find a clean little corner for myself!  There’s too much stuff in this house anywhere I go!” 

Nisha dreaded the wheels of distress and despair to be set in motion again.

She continued to stroke the velvet petals of the orchid quietly.  She filled her heart with the strength and charm of this bloom and collected it as her new talisman.  She wished for the umpteenth time, she could show Sid her treasured find, share with him her delight at discovering this newfound talisman of joy.  Maybe he would feel it is alright to enjoy every moment of every day and not fritter it away with meaningless bickering, shadowed by might have been or useless denials.   

She had to admit, on worse days, tantrums and tensions would again push her over the edge.  Communication would break down. The unwarranted forces of blame and hate would manage to make her slip from the solid ground of steely will, hurtling her into the void, all her positive intentions sucked out by the intensity of the fall. 

If she survived, it would be because she’d hold on to better days of untangled common sense, continuing to fight with the renewed promise never to give up trying.  Trying to heal each other, by finding and keeping her talisman in simple secrets of beauty and happiness still existing in ordinary life around her, no matter how often thieves invaded to steal the talisman away.     

(Posted July 10, 2022)

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