Wrapping Noel in a white blanket, I put him to sleep by singing him his favorite lullaby. He instantly shut his eyes and immersed himself into a deep slumber. He looked exactly like his father when he slept, with his mouth open.
His father, Nikhil and I were friends since childhood. Our parents knew each other quite well. We never had the same group of friends and also never went to the same school or college but we spoke to each other almost every day and even though we had never met each other's friends, we knew about all the people in each other's lives.
On our respective birthdays, we would gift each other something unique and special. Like for example, for his 12th birthday, I gave him a sand-timer. Well actually it is an hour-glass but we would call it a sand-timer. I gave him that so that he would start understanding the importance of time and use it wisely.
And for my 17th birthday, he gave me a hand-made painting of little birds flying above the sky and a girl waving her hand them, with a smile. When I asked him what was the significance of that painting he had said, 'Well, Neesa, you tend to get attached to people very fast, isn't it. And when time comes to let them go, you break down and don't know how to handle yourself. So, I thought I will make this painting to show you that when someone leaves you, it is because it is time and you should let them go gracefully and not cry and be upset over it.'
'But what if that someone is a person who I love the most and don't want to let go?'
'See, no one is going to be with you forever. Everyone has a set time period. So when it is time for them to go, instead of crying, you should let them go with a smile. Don't be sad because they are going away but be happy that they have left you with wonderful memories to cherish.'
I had been upset the week before my birthday when my best friend, Kira, had left town to go and study in the city. And Nikhil had had enough of my crying and bawling. So probably that was why he had gifted me that painting. Anyway, I kept that painting in my room, hung across my cream colored wall.
Because he and I were so close all through our childhood and teenage years, I developed a deep liking for him. I will never know when the transition took place from a friend to lover, but it did and it was intense. I started dreaming of our future together. He always told me about his plans for future studies and I would accordingly adjust my plans so that they came into place with his.
It was on a winter evening at my house, on his 23rd birthday, when he announced to his parents and mine that he was going to go to America for pursuing his Masters. He almost burst with happiness and enthusiasm as he broke the news to all of us. His parents were ecstatic and my mother went into the kitchen to get a plate full of sweets to celebrate the good news. My dad was so happy as if it was me who was going to go to America and not him. But that was how close our families were. Our happiness was theirs and their happiness was ours. We were a painfully happy group of people.
I waited to be alone with Nikhil. When finally after around 15 minutes the elders were done with their celebrations, I took Nikhil out into the garden.
'So Neesa, what are you going to give me for my birthday this time?' he asked with a smile on his endearing face.
I closed my eyes shut for a few seconds and then took in a deep breath. 'The gift I was going to give him would change his and my life forever, for the good,' I thought
I opened my eyes and looked towards him and said,'Nikhil …. I love you. And …. And I want to get married to you and stay with you forever as your wife. '
Nikhil had just stared at me with his mouth open. I looked on to him for an answer. Obviously, it was going to be positive, but I wanted to hear it from him.
'Neesa, I … well Neesa I do adore you and I love you too, but only in a friend kind of way. I never saw you as my lover.' He paused for a second and continued 'I am really sorry for this but Neesa, I can't marry you. Please don't feel bad but this is what I have to say. I don't want to give you false hopes. You understand me right?'
Of course, I had to nod my head at that time. How could I tell him how heartbroken and sad I felt by his response? I had smiled and told him that it was okay and I would get over it. And we walked back home.
The following week, Nikhil took his flight to America. I did not go to see him off. I would have surely cried my heart out while watching him go. I made up some excuse and stayed back, crying in my room.
In the course of 3 years, Nikhil and I always kept in touch through emails and phone-calls. He would constantly ask me to Skype but I would refuse. I did that because I knew I would burst out crying watching his face on my computer screen and he would then know that I had been lying to him about my moving on and living a happy life. Yes, even after 3 years had passed I had not gotten over him.
Occasionally, I would ask him about his love life and he would just dodge that question. I never thought much about it and would change the course of my conversation. He had told me how he intended to settle over there and make America his home and I would listen with a heavy heart. And after our conversation would be over, I would cry while looking over our old photos and gifts that he had given me. I cursed myself for not going to the airport to see him off for the last time. I mean, I wasn't sure if I would get to see him unless I made a trip to America or he came back, both of which were unlikely.
As time passed by, I got busy with my work and he got busy with his projects in America and we started speaking to each other very rarely. Even our emails had reduced to just forward mails, which would be around once or twice in a month. Our yearly birthday gifts were replaced by the formal birthday card greetings that we would send each other by post. In short, our lives had got busy and there was no time to even tell a nice hello across to each other.
It was a few days before my 29th birthday that we got the sad news of Nikhil's demise. He was part of a delegation that was going to Spain for a conference. Their flight crashed due to glitches in the aircraft. The months following the sad news were a whirlwind. I did not come to know when the formalities had been completed and when we performed the last rites. I had become even more upset with the way life was turning out.
After a few months of Nikhil's demise, his parents were informed over the phone that Nikhil had fathered a child. The person who gave the news was the child's mother. She very casually told about how she and Nikhil had been in a relationship and how she accidently got pregnant. They had decided to get married but Nikhil was now no more and she did not want to bring up the child alone as a single unwed mother. She requested if they could take the child with them.
That night, Nikhil's parents and my parents spoke the matter over and were having heated discussions over what should be done. They were not able to reach a conclusive decision. I was in the room too, listening to their conversation but not saying a word. I had a lot of things in my mind. As I made peace with my mind I spoke aloud,' I will adopt the child and look after it. It needs someone to take care of it, so why not me?'
I still remember how stumped both the sets of parents were at my decision. It took a lot of convincing and cajoling but then they finally agreed and I flew to America to get Nikhil's child home.
That was then and now a year later, Nikhil's child, Noel who is 18 months old now, is my son.
As I put him to sleep, I look over to the painting that Nikhil had gifted me years ago on my birthday. What he had told me then was indeed true. All the past years I had been crying for not being able to let go of Nikhil but now I had learned to cherish and be happy with the memories that he had left me with, just like his painting.