Cooing to the rhythm of her clapping hands, her petite frame swaying, Rosa knelt by the playpen that morning. Every contact with our nine-month-old son, Sanjay, gave her an opportunity to demonstrate a boundless capacity to mesmerize him.
“Say something, honey,” she said, as she pushed the strands of hair off his forehead.
“Dada, dada,” babbled Sanjay. In the slant of the early morning sun, his face filled with a smile, and his two pearl-white seeds of teeth gleamed through the saliva. His legs and arms flailed in frenzy.
Hoping to catch Rakesh before he left, I rushed to the kitchen, and poured myself a cup of coffee. Rakesh put his newspaper down, ready to head out.
“I’m going back to work on the first of June,” I said. “That’ll give me six weeks to get everything ready.”
Rakesh stood still for a moment, his face grim. He quietly picked up his briefcase.
“We’ll talk about it when I get back,” he said, and walked out, his retreating back a shade stiffer than usual.
Wrapped in a blanket of gloom, discussions of the past three months flooded back, the issue of returning to work contentious as ever.
My friends had suddenly metamorphosed into sweat-pant-wearing, diaper-bag-carrying women, whose animated discussions centered on the Parenting magazine articles, and benefits of organic foods. I loved sharing my experiences with them.
The excitement of discussing a difficult case with a consultant, listening to the patients with their trusted revelations, and frantically looking through Harrison’s Textbook of Medicine for clues to an eluding medical problem, was what was missing from my life. When a patient overdosed and was taken to the E.R., the urgency to respond to the pager in the midst of raucous Indian Association celebrations was an adrenaline rush. I felt important. Lives depended on my decisions. That was my life before Sanjay. Nowadays, my life had become demarcated as the time before Sanjay and after.
The Physician Desk Reference sat untouched; my stethoscope and reflex hammer were tucked away in a desk. The white coat with the logo of the medical group hung in the closet.
Before lunch, when Rosa took the baby for a walk, I lay down and listened to Lata Mangeshkar’s Shraddhanjali. That brought back old memories; memories of my father railing against women, who he thought, were unequal partners. He insisted that certain kinds of work were a privilege of an intellectual few who controlled the world. He wanted me to be one of the select few. “If you don’t get a good rank in college, you’re going to end up cooking and cleaning all day for someone else,” he said frequently. When I got married and moved to U.S., he felt gratified.
Against that background was Rakesh’s mother who stopped working after Rakesh, their only child, was born. She never returned to work. Rakesh held that as the ultimate flag of a mother’s sacrifice for the good of a child. He wanted to send Sanjay to India to be raised by his mother. Only when both sets of parents insisted that their health did not permit them to care for a young child, did he relent.
Five years of medical school and three years of training had to account for some responsibility of giving back to the community, I argued. It was too important an issue for me to be compromised by one person’s point of view. I was determined to stand firm.
After the walk, Rosa handed the baby to me, and went to fix his lunch. Sanjay’s fat little fingers explored my eyes and lips in delight; he grabbed my nose in his fist, and giggled in triumph. When I cradled him in my arms and swung him around, he loved the sudden rush of air in his face and started to chuckle. He was surprised when I stopped swinging and Rosa took him and put him in the feeding chair.
The first nanny the agency had sent lasted three weeks; she was more interested in her coffee breaks than changing diapers on time. For the next one, Rakesh had set up a hidden camera, and what a surprise that was! She had the phone glued to her ear while Sanjay played and cried by himself on the floor. I was terrified of leaving Sanjay with her. She had to go. But Rosa, she has been a godsend. Nanny problem solved, I called the Medical Director last week to let him know my intention to return to work. The nurse coordinator called later to welcome me back, and set up my schedule. I breathed a sigh of relief; the wheels were turning the way I wanted to see them go.
By six in the evening, a pot of sambar bubbled on the stove, ready to be seasoned and served. I lowered the flame to low. Chunks of sliced eggplants floated in the salted water, waiting to be fried and peppered. The lid on the rice cooker swayed and a whistling sound escaped from inside. For once I was happy to be busy. Rakesh should be home by six, unless a late patient in the office delayed him.
My hands trembled when I heard the garage door open and Rakesh’s car drive in. Sanjay was licking his spoon after dinner, and tearing at the bib, when Rakesh walked in. He went straight to the bedroom to change. Rosa cleaned up Sanjay and put him in the playpen and left for the day.
Rakesh came out, kissed the baby on his forehead, and sat on the stool across from the counter where I was dicing the onions. Resting his elbows on the counter, he folded his hands together. My heart pounded against the chest.
“Didn’t we decide that you’d stay home until the baby is five?” He said, his voice unusually harsh. “Why do you keep bringing it up, Anita?”
Sanjay stood up in the playpen, alert and attentive.
“We decided on no such thing,” I said, swallowing the words. “You suggested it and I thought about it. It’s important for me to work. We agreed before our marriage that I’d work even if we didn’t need the money.”
“It’s not a question of money. I’ve already told my parents that you’d be staying home until the baby is five.”
“For heaven’s sake, is that it? We are in America and they live in India. Why should this be an issue for them?”
“It’s not just them, it’s an issue for us too. I never thought you’d be so selfish. All that matters to you is your work. I’m surprised at you.”
Sanjay’s eyes filled with tears and his lips began to quiver.
“I love my son, and I love my work. What is wrong with that?” I said. I wanted to say if you’re so particular, why don’t you stay home, and raise the baby the way you want? But I knew that I’d be stepping over a line that should not be crossed. “I’ve already made arrangements with the clinic and told Dr. Martin.” I was not surprised when he pounded his fist on the counter, and a wrenching sound of agony escaped his lips.
Sanjay began to bawl.
I turned off the stove and picked up Sanjay, took him to his room, and rocked him to sleep. I heard the front door open and close. Rakesh did not return until late into the night.
The next three days were a silent affair, the longest we had held on to our anger in our three-year marriage. On the fourth day he reluctantly agreed that I could return to work; but he preferred that I work part-time.
When I did return to work in June, I got busy quite fast, filling in for the vacationing doctors. The first time I came home late, Rakesh glared at me as if he wanted to know how long it would take for me to build on my guilt and quit work or drop to part-time. That only strengthened my resolve to stay full-time.
There were times when Rosa had to stay over, until Rakesh came home, and I practiced my apologies on the twenty-minute drive to the house.
One morning, Rakesh reminded me about his conference in Atlanta where he was presenting a research paper. I had no problem with it.
“Why don’t you ask Rosa to stay with you while I’m gone?” he said. “She is so good with Sanjay, it’s amazing.”
“I can manage,” I said. The tone of his voice made me uneasy.
With Rakesh out of town, I started looking for all the disasters lurking in the shadows. Then it happened; an emergency consult was requested on a Friday at 5 p.m.
“All the doctors are gone. You’re on call for this evening,” the nurse reminded me, without a hint of sympathy.
Rosa was waiting for me to return so she could leave at six. Running to the hospital across the street, and up the two floors, I thought I could see the patient, give the orders after the lab results came back, and dictate from home. I was panting for breath when I went on the floor looking for the patient.
“He just went for MRI, doc,” the floor nurse said.
“Can I get you a cup of coffee or tea? I can get you a piece of cake if you’re hungry.”
“You don’t understand,” I said plopping down into a chair. Still out of breath and angry, I called Rosa. “I’m stuck at the hospital. I want you to stay with Sanjay until I get back.” The silence at the other end worried me.
“Mrs. Kapadia, I’d like to help, but today not a good day.”
“Please Rosa, I’m stuck here, don’t you understand?” Another silence.
“Tell you what. I have errands to run, I need buy groceries for my family. I take baby with me for the errands and bring back. That way you take time, o.k?”
“All right,” I said. “Make sure you take the baby seat from Mr. Kapadia’s car.”
The house was dark when I returned at 7:15 p.m., no one was home. I paced the front porch, looking at my watch every five minutes. Many cars went past the house, but none stopped. I went back inside, folded the blanket on the sofa and plumped up the pillows. I made myself a cup of tea and sat by the phone. I wished the walls could talk and tell me where they went. At eight the phone rang; it was the floor nurse from the hospital calling with the lab results on the consult I just did. I gave the orders, keeping an eye on the front door.
For the first time I wished Rakesh were with me, comforting me, and taking charge of the situation. I was furious with myself. Rakesh will be mad when he finds out I let the nanny take Sanjay out. What if Rosa met with an accident or was kidnapped? How could I live with it?
I wondered about Rosa; I knew nothing about her except that she had a husband and a disabled daughter. What if she disappeared with the baby and then demanded a ransom? She was too good to be true. I wondered if I should call the police. Praying to the powers in heaven to watch over my son, I promised that I’d never subject Sanjay’s safety to my conveniences. I wished I had listened to Rakesh and worked part-time.
I looked for Rosa’s home telephone number, but her last name slipped my mind. A dread started to take over. Trying to calm myself down, I methodically scanned through every page of the phone book for something familiar to identify her number. In desperation, I made a vow to donate hundred dollars to the temple if my son returned home safe. Finally I found her number under “Nanny.”
It was 8:30, and Rosa’s husband answered the phone. He said Rosa came home at 7:30 with the groceries, and took their daughter to buy a winter jacket that was on sale at Sears. Yes, the baby was with her, was he not supposed to be? “Do you want her cell phone number, Mrs. Kapadia?” he asked.
Rosa answered her cell phone immediately. “Mrs. Kapadia, do you need something from the store?” Her voice was calm. “Baby doing good.”
“Bring the baby home, now.”
“Yes, now. Baby needs to be fed. It’s past his bedtime. Don’t you look at the clock?” I no longer could control my anger.
“I fed the baby before seven, before I bring him out. Don’t worry Mrs. Kapadia, I bring baby now.”
The house illuminated, I waited in the driveway. Sanjay, tired, in distress, and wailing floated through my mind. When Rosa’s car came to a stop, I wanted to run and grab him. With a balloon in one hand and a lollipop in the other, he could not have looked happier. Rosa’s daughter came around the car limping, and said, “Bye, bye, prince.” He smiled for her too. Rosa unbuckled him, lifted him out of the seat, and handed him to me. Sanjay started to cry when I walked towards the house. He did not stop until Rosa assured him that she’d be back in the morning. My heart sank.
Sanjay quieted down when I set the train in motion. Holding him in my arms, I tousled his hair, and sang to him until he fell asleep.
How could I have let this happen? Thoughts swirled through my mind, thoughts about nurturing. What determined the strength of a bond between a child and a parent? My mother had nourished me, but my father had defined me. As a child, I needed them both for different reasons. I kissed Sanjay’s forehead and saw a hint of smile cross his lips.
The phone rang just as I changed, put Sanjay to bed, and walked back to my room. It was my mother. She wanted to know why I had not called her in a month.
“You must have been busy since you went back to work,” she said.
“Mummy, it’s not the work. You know how things are with a baby …”
“How can it not be work? You work full-time, right?”
Suddenly, I was defending my actions, not knowing what I had lost, or might lose. I argued with my mother, and cried.
“Nothing I cannot change,” I said. “I’m going part-time, just enough to keep my skills sharp.” My decision tumbled out.
I lay still that night, promising myself to find and bring back what had escaped me.
Suseela P. Ravi lives in the Bay area with her husband.