By Kunal Mehra
It’s early April. It’s windy and sunny; when the air is still, it’s warm, but when it does blow, I wish I had a jacket with me. The cherry blossoms are at their peak. On my daily lunchtime walk, I visit a tree—that I call Jessup, because it’s on Jessup Ave—and spend a few minutes under its blossoms. Some of them are done: they’re dried up, brown and tired. Others are just starting to bloom: you can see them curled up inside their warm cocoon, waiting for…something…I don’t know how each flower decides when it’s going to open up. There are others that are blooming at their full soft pink potential: petals wide open, stamens greeting the world. And then, there are those on the ground, blown down by the wind. Some are done—you can tell they’ve aged and have lived their lives—while others haven’t even opened up and are still resting in the womb of their buds. It reminds me of life: of what hasn’t yet birthed, of what is growing, of what is almost done and of what’s done. It’s too overwhelming, this commotion of beauty and sorrow, life and death, hopes and dreams, aspirations and unexpected endings. I walk away, stifling tears in my chest. ~ You may never read this letter, my unborn son, but I still want to write it. You were never expressed. You never came to fruition, you never blossomed, you never even grew as a bud on the branch of life. I know that ultimately, I’m to blame for it. You could have been a bud about to open, or a flower with its petals wide open, smiling at me; or maybe you might have been one of those unlucky ones that get blown down to the ground by an unexpected gust of wind. I don’t know. I have no way to predict what and who you would have become. All I know is that you are a thought in my mind, a dream that I harbored, but never worked upon. It hurts; deep within me, your absence hurts. I can’t pinpoint where exactly, but somewhere in me, that void is there, a void that I thought I’d at-least partly fill up with you, but instead, it’s a gaping hole, with echoes of regret and sadness bouncing around. ~ There was that day when a guy ran a stop sign at forty-five mph and totaled my car. That was almost eighteen years ago, but its effects still linger on. It changed the course of my life in ways that I had not anticipated: I started having aches and pains in places that I never even thought could hurt. I started having restrictions on what I could and couldn’t do: I bumped into a rod in my garage over a year ago and my knee still hurts from it. I couldn’t lift more than five pounds without my back being unhappy. I couldn’t even imagine sleeping with an infant or a toddler next to me, in my bed, because I couldn’t handle anyone bumping into me. I can’t have people hugging or patting me on the back, because it hurts for days. I’ve been on medical leave from work thrice in the past nineteen years. When it comes to being a father, I feel that it would be quite hard, if not impossible, for me to both be a good parent and take care of myself, mentally and physically. How am I supposed to raise you if we couldn’t even play Keep Away in the backyard without me constantly worrying that you might hit my knee with the ball? What kind of dad wants to hold his son up in his arms, but can’t, because he’s afraid of being in pain? What would I do when you run up to me on the couch and play with my glasses? Would I tell you that you can’t do that because daddy’s glasses can’t be touched by anyone, or else it causes neck pain that can last for days? What would I say if you wanted my help with your homework, but I’m mentally and physically exhausted from being in pain for weeks and don’t have an ounce of energy for myself, let alone to help you? Healing from chronic pain can be a full-time job and, on some days, can be draining. On those days, the last thing I’d want is to have someone else to take care of, as much as I’d like to. Yes, I am living a ‘normal’ life: I work five days a week; last year, I walked over two-thousand miles, despite my challenges. I know it sounds contradictory, but that’s my reality: I can walk two thousand miles a year (something for which I’m extremely grateful), but I can’t have a six-year-old sitting on my lap. How do I explain that to people? When I tell them, most don’t believe me; they say that I’m just making excuses: If I can work five days a week, why can’t I raise a kid? People raise kids amidst all kinds of dire circumstances. And maybe that’s true. Perhaps I’m just too scared to do something that might not be as scary and tough as I think it is. There may come a time when I might muster up enough courage to bring you to fruition; after all, Jessup still births its flowers regardless of all the harsh winters it’s been through. Maybe once you bloom into my life, that might heal my body in ways that I had not anticipated. But what if it doesn’t and instead, things get harder? I don’t want to have you start to blossom and then realize that there’s no way I can handle this. That’s not fair to you or me or your could-have-been-mom, who doesn’t want to have kids. (Although, if I didn’t have these challenges, I may have convinced her otherwise…I don’t know). ~ You know how some dreams are always recurring? The ones whose settings might change, but the essence is the same? I have one of those dreams: you’re about six years old. We’re walking on a trail in a rain-forest. The song sparrows are chirping and there’s a creek flowing nearby. You ask me where the birds are. I point up with my finger, but you still can’t see them. I put you up on my shoulders and point towards the sparrows. You start clapping and giggling. ‘Sparrows, daddy! Sparrows!’ We continue walking on the trail, you up on my shoulders, my hands holding on to your legs, one of your hands tapping on my head as the other one points up at the sparrows, tears dripping down my face. That dream keeps showing up, again and again. The trail we’re on changes, but everything else is the same—the firmness of my hands around your legs, your unbridled laughter, my heart full to the brim with joy so thick that it reminds me of being enveloped in winter fog. ~ I try to console myself on days when the dream is unbearably sad. I tell myself that you’re here, with me, next to me, on my shoulders; you just haven’t physically manifested, yet. The whole thing reminds me of a bud that never bloomed. It’s there in the trunk, in the earth; it just hasn’t decided to show up yet. If I look closely—or maybe tune in closely—I could locate the bud that never blossomed, that never said ‘hi’ to the world, that the world never got to say ‘I love you’ to. I touch one of Jessup’s blossoms. It’s fragile, it’s precious and it’s a blessing. I feel a tightness in my chest that eases up when I let go of the blossom. I then put my finger on a bare part of the branch, one that has neither a bud nor a blossom, just cold brown rough branch. I let it stay there for a few seconds as the wind blows the flowers onto the ground. I close my eyes and imagine that you’re within me, that you’re a bud that I chose not to nourish. It’s saddening, but also, in an ironic way, relieving. I know that you’re within me, that you’ll be with me for as long as I’m here. We may not see each other and I may never get to go hiking with you, but the essence of the bud is always present in the tree, regardless of whether and when and where it blooms. It’s a cheap consolation I’m offering myself—like telling someone you’re going to a national park, but instead, you just watch its webcam from your home—but for now, it’s the best I can do. I hope you’ll forgive me. And I hope you know what a blessing your ‘presence’ is to me, how much solace I find in knowing that you’re with me, especially in times when your absence hurts me, when I’m wondering whether I’m really living the life I ought to, whether I’ve made a mistake that I can’t fix, whether I have to wait another lifetime—another spring?—for you to blossom. After all, that’s what your name—Ashish—means: a blessing. Love, Kunal
Kunal Mehra is a multimedia artist who likes photography, filmmaking, writing, and hiking. He grew up in India and has been living in Portland, OR since 2002. His writing has been published by the Press Pause Press, Active Muse, and Fleas on the Dog magazine, amongst others.