He was dying. His eyes were hazy with trying not to drift off to sleep. She hated keeping him awake, against the pull of morphine, but if there was ever a moment where she’d felt stubbornly selfish, this was it. She needed him.
“Hmm?” he answered no more than a faint rumble in his chest.
She snuggled closer to him, laying her head on his bony chest to silently say how much she appreciated that he was even trying. Proximity had always been their secret language; she would sit closer to him at the dinner table after he had a rough fight with mom, knowing he took it harder than her, never forgetting a painful word, brain tremendously sensitive; or cling hard to his hand when he came to PTAs, inordinately proud of her witty father in front of the other children.
“Baba, what was your grandmother’s maiden name?”
“Just Madhuridebi. Women those days didn’t really have last names attached to theirs”. Rumble rumble.
She could feel and hear the breath vibrating through his larynx, remembering how he would laugh at parties and refuse to sing when people asked, saying he had ruined his throat smoking. How he loved his cigarettes, eyes narrowed against the smoke, careful to direct the fumes away from her.
“Can you whistle?”
“I don’t know, babu. I haven’t tried.”
And suddenly, she was sobbing. Papa loved to whistle. He was exceptionally good, carrying every nuance of a tune, his range extraordinary. He’d step off the lift whistling as he came home, and she would know he was here even before his finger touched the doorbell. It told her more than anything how much the cancer had broken his spirit, because Baba was so suggestible when it came to music – even the rapping of fingernails on a table would set him whistling a song with a matching tempo.
She wanted to hear him whistle just once. And more than that, for him to hear himself. So she raised her head from his chest, and looked him in the eye.
His brown eyes had greyed with age, making him look slightly blind. He smiled.
“You sing first”.
When the hospital staff wheeled out his body the following morning, they studiously ignored the only crying nurse at the nursing station. She kept saying over and over again, “But he could have been on India’s Got Talent.”