|Me and Rahul. |
I gave him a copy of this photo as an early birthday present.
But tonight at dinner, one of the students living in the hostel came up to me and asked if I would be moving to the hostel next week. No, I told him. I'll be leaving the school by then, to go back to the Philippines.
I watched the smile fall away from his face. "Why?" he asked me.
"Because it's my home," I answered, with less conviction than I expected.
"But my birthday is in June, ma'am." he said, not really understanding.
I didn't know quite what to say. I look into the boy's face for a good few seconds. Rahul, from Class V. Dark skin, long lashes, sweet smile. He was a naughty one, but he always listened to me. I once got him to finish his homework when none of the other teachers could.
I felt my breath catch in my throat as I faced the question in his eyes. I asked him when his birthday was exactly, for lack of anything else to say. He smiled and told me it was on June 29/
I told him I would send him an e-mail then, to greet him happy birthday. "Why ma'am?" he asked again. What could I have said? Because my visa is expiring, because I can't afford to stay longer, because I have a job and another life waiting for me back home? As reasonable as these answers were, I knew none of them could make him understand why I wouldn't be here for his birthday.
I don't remember what I answered, but it made him frown a little, and then smile again. He seemed half-content.
I moved to hug him, and he fell into my arms, and I might have broken down right then and there, if not for some part of my brain telling me, "you silly, it's not even goodbye yet!"
Then I went back to my room. And Krista showed me a card that Lavena, a girl from Class VI gave to her, a goodbye card, replete with stickers and drawings and the sweetest message written in broken English and innocent love.
I tried to sleep, but I couldn't keep the images out of my mind. "Mahal Kita" and "Palam" (paalam) in Lavena's curly hand, Rahul's expectant smile falling away, the view from over his shoulder as we exchanged a hug that I realized was the beginning of goodbye.
The finality of the experience hit me then, and that little box of parting gifts that Krista and I have been keeping in the corner of our room suddenly took over the entire space, leaving me hardly any room to breathe.
I know, I have always known, that this trip to India will be worth the heartache of its ending, if only for the things I've learned, the questions I've answered and the new questions I have discovered, the person I've become and still continue to be, the people I've met...
But this is the part where it feels like my heart can't handle the goodbye that is right around the corner. I know when the time comes, it will have no choice, but the prospect of leaving this little world that I've loved since the moment I arrived and returning to certain small tragedies and eroding routines is a little too heavy for me to accept.
Right now, I'm allowing myself to crumble under the weight of the inevitable goodbye, with the hope that by the time it needs to be said, my heart will be half-strong enough to say it.