The doctor’s diagnosis was swift. An orthopedic surgeon is what he called himself. That came with all the credentials that he had acquired over the years. MBBS. FHRCS. MS – fancy alphabets that were tagged on to his name like the extensions of a comet’s tail. He didn’t even need to be a doctor to give the diagnosis. “This Sir,” he said, pausing as my father gazed at him anxiously. “This pain in the knee is just old age.” My Dad looked disappointed. “Old age? But the pain is just unbearable. I can’t even sleep at night!”
“I understand, Sir. I will give you painkillers to manage the pain, but really Sir, your knees are just fine for someone your age. It’s an age when your knees won’t be the same as your daughter’s,” he said, pointing to me, sitting in the chair opposite him, across his impressive oak table. My Dad and I glanced at each other. I tried to smile at the doctor, out of courtesy, even though I hated him at that moment, for sitting behind that glass-topped table and giving this smug diagnosis. Logic told me that the man was being practical. He had no reason to be emotional. My Dad was just another patient to him. His knee was just another X-Ray. Those knees did not speak to him the way it did to me. “Old age.” Those words echoed around, circles of echoes, bouncing off the walls of disappointment. Those words hung in that still room. A grisly skeleton was just next to me; its jaw open to the world, one limb askew. I longed to reach out and correct it, my sense of order wanting to impose sense even when there can be none.
My father’s shoulders drooped. Perhaps he wanted a more drastic verdict. One with a fancy Latin name that we could Google later. But Googling ‘old age’ doesn’t have the same feel, does it? We drove back in silence. The clock of old age was now an open cuckoo, the skeleton its limbs in my head, dancing wild patterns of Time.
Since that visit, my Dad seems to be aging faster. He no longer asks me about going to America or a trip to Singapore. He worries about just the act of walking itself. I have seen him walk more than 5 kilometers every day for as long as I could remember. “Five kilometers brisk walk!” he would say to anyone who asked. But now, he stopped taking those walks. “I don’t feel strong enough,” he would say. “I am 81 years old now!”. I would bite my lips, swallowing the urge to say that this is all in his head. How can old age be anywhere but in our head? Instead, he would take slow steps, tracing a straight line from one end of the terrace to another. When I asked him, he would blame Bangalore’s uneven pavements and pot-holed roads for not venturing out. He then got a walking stick to support himself. How I hated the sight of that stick! It symbolized everything that I hated about life itself. That Time moves on, and we are inexorably clasped in its embrace. Lovers never to part. Till death.
Since then, every day, I would wake up to the sound of that stick. Plonk. Plonk. Plonk. The tap of it a dull echo seared into my brain. It was a sound I would try hard to evade. Cotton plugs. Headphones. No matter what I tried, I would hear that sound even when I couldn’t. And then, I started seeing it every day. That gray head. The round plastic knob at the bottom. My Dad would place it next to my bookshelf, resting arrogantly against my treasured books. Its insolence angered me. I railed at my father for its use. “You don’t really need that! It’s just a crutch.” He would repeat tiredly the doctor’s words. “Old age, kano,” he would smile. “No. It’s not.” I couldn’t complete the sentence. What are you when old age is not? I would wake up to that sound again and again. The sound of it was now an echo in my feverish brain. I was Edgar Allan’s Poe’s beloved coffin, lugging the dead sounds of the past till it cast a fever on my sight. It became a reminder of the futility of our days. Of Life. Of Time. Until one day, I decided that it could not stay. It had to happen.
My father was at my sister’s house. That was the only time I had to smuggle it out of the house, and into my car. I drove away. I didn’t know where I was heading to. I didn’t know how far. I finally reached a vacant plot, one of those that warn you that “This site is not for sale,” and splash the owner’s name in bold letters of pride. I snatched it from the backseat and heaved it into the overgrown cluster of weeds.There. I had done it! I had thrown the reminder of age; the reminders of mortality; the frailty of dependence. I threw away Time because I wanted my father back.
The next day, when my father noticed that the stick was missing, I feigned ignorance. No servants were blamed for its disappearance and for some reason, my father didn’t replace that stick. Maybe, we agreed that we would walk just fine without it. If he was in pain while walking, he never said. And if I saw his face grimace in pain, I never asked.
But we slipped into a routine that made my life delicious in its comfort. In the morning, he would wake me up, and I would walk outside with him, through Bangalore’s narrow lanes. At times, he would lean on my arm for support. But most of the time though, it was I who was leaning on his arm for support. Because, you see, sometimes that is just what old age is.