“I don’t want you to leave me,” she said.
He looked at her, eyes heavy with grief. “Come here. Lie next to me.”
She joined him on their sleeping mat and molded herself into the curve of her young husband’s body, snuggling her cheek against his arm. It killed her knowing that in a day or two, his life would be over. She began to weep.
“Illa, pa. Don’t. Please don’t. You must be strong now. I need you to be strong.”
“I don’t want to live.”
He pulled her closer. “You must. For both of us. And for our son.”
Amirtha’s husband, the love of her life, was dying from AIDS, contracted when he had tattooed Amirtha’s name onto his fore arm. I had known Amirtha from when she had been a girl of 16, shortly before she had run off and married her lover against the wishes of both families. He had been my patient for several years and now his disease had progressed to the point that there was nothing the specialists could do. His kidneys had shut down.
“I’ve spoken at length with my mother. She promises to take care of you after I’m gone.”
“No, you must listen now. I’ve made sure you’ll always have a home. You won’t need to move out and have your reputation blackened by the village. You must be a good daughter-in-law and a good mother and walk with your head high. Do you hear me?”
Amirtha nodded. She could hardly breathe. This wasn’t happening. His heart was beating just fine. His arms around her were warm, strong.
“You must promise me something. Promise that you will live your life, understand? You will grieve for a time, but you will get through it and you will slowly forget me. I want you to wear nice saris. Put on nice jewelry. You didn’t know this, but I secretly bought some gold earrings for you. I hid them so they couldn’t sell them for my medical bills. They’re not large, but you will wear them. None of this widow business. Not for my beautiful wife.”
She tried to stop the tears, but they kept coming.
“I’m so sorry to abandon you, Amirtha. I need you to forgive me. Say it, ‘I forgive you.’
“Don’t talk like that.”
“Just say it. It’s important to me.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“I’m so relieved that you and our boy don’t have this disease. So relieved. And you must promise to give our son an education. Without an education, you can’t get by these days. Do you promise? Even if he doesn’t feel like going to school sometimes? You need to push him. Promise?”
“I’m sorry you fell in love with me. I’ve ruined your life.”
“Stop! Isn’t it hard enough with you dying? Don’t talk like that. I don’t regret being your wife for one second.”
He took her face in his hands. “I don’t deserve you, Amirtha.”
Though he had been trying to be brave, he too was crying now.
“There’s one more thing I want you to know, to really understand, Amirtha. Nobody, I mean nobody will ever love, the way I have loved you.”
He died two days later. That was two years ago now. Sometimes Amirtha comes to see me in clinic and we talk. Just as she promised her husband, she is wearing beautiful saris and working to support her family. Her son is going to school. He rarely talks of his father anymore. You wouldn’t know she’s a widow, looking at her.
But it’s never far from the surface, the grief she carries, day after day, as she makes her way without her man.
(name changed to protect privacy)