Baba died fifty years ago today. I guess most people would have said that it was about time but it was too soon for me. It was funny how he died. Since he was so old, he had stopped eating. I would lay his dinner in front of him but he would just look at it with his rheumy eyes and turn away as if in disgust. I would usually watch to see if he was going to eat on his own. And then I would feed him bit by bit. I would hold the spoon close to his mouth for several minutes before he would first take a taste and then slowly eat some. Even then, he wouldn’t eat very much. He got thinner by the day as I watched anxiously.
So it was during one of those times when I was feeding him when it happened. I was holding the spoon close to his mouth when he turned to look at me. I thought I saw gratitude in his eyes. I smiled and asked him why he was looking at me that way. He continued to look while his eyes kept closing like he was sleepy. Then he sighed deeply and laid his head on my lap, sighed one more time, and then just died. I still had the spoon of food in my hand. I stared at the head on my lap and I just knew he was gone. In fact, I knew the exact second that he breathed the last bit of life out of him.
I didn’t cry. I had known it was coming because everyone had said it would and Baba himself seemed to be telling me the same thing. Sometimes, when I was either feeding him or cleaning him, he would look at me like he was telling me that I needed to learn how to take care of myself without him. He knew that he was all I had. So when I sat with him in the evenings when the sun was slowly setting and everything around us looked golden, and there was a quiet that caused an ache in my heart for some unknown reason, he would try to sit up and lean against my arm. I knew he was trying to tell me that his time was almost up and that I needed to get used to a time when he wouldn’t be there leaning against me. But for me, at that time, the sound of him breathing was enough. I felt safe and at peace.
I met Baba when I first arrived in our home. And by the way, Baba was a dog. An ordinary breed, short squat and strong, with a tuft of fur missing from his square head. I think it went missing after he got into a fight with a street dog that inadvertently wandered near the shed, not unlike me. He was so different when I first met him. He was loud, very loud. He had the sort of angry bark that sent shivers down your spine. There was not a shred of friendliness in it. It just sounded like he would tear you to shreds if he could. He was just not the sort of dog you would have wanted to pat or stroke or even approach. Perhaps that’s why he was always leashed, or, I don’t know, perhaps he was very angry because he was always leashed. I am not sure which came first. See, I wasn’t there when he first came to our home. I don’t know if he started out as a cute, happy, little puppy that loved everyone and then grew up into an angry dog that hated everyone.
He was strong, so strong that he could pull down one of the sturdy poles that was planted firmly in the stone floor to hold up the shed at the back of the home, all by himself. Actually that was how I met him, by accident much like that street dog. I had just arrived in our home and I was exploring the place and there he was leashed to the shed in the backyard. As was always the case with him he hated first and so he hated me at the very first sight. I was a little taken aback when I heard a loud ferocious barking just a few feet away from where I stood. I hadn’t noticed him at first because he was lying in the shade. I think he had started growling under his breath when he saw me coming, like a sort of a warning. Silly me! I didn’t pay much attention and kept wandering around and that really got him mad. He dashed out into the light, teeth gnashing, barking his head off like he would chew me to pieces if he got a hold of me.
I gasped and took a few steps back, stumbling over some buckets which were lying around. I stared at him, shocked, breathing heavily. Thankfully he was leashed to the pole and couldn’t get to me. But I think the fact that he couldn’t get to me made him madder. He just kept hurling himself at me. And each time he threw himself in my direction the whole shed shook like it was all going to come tumbling down. I was so terrified that I was rooted to the ground and I just stood there in a trance with my mouth open and that made him more angry. Then the most horrifying thing happened. He pulled the whole pole to which he had been leashed down and brought the shed. down, with a loud crash. All I could hear was the sound of splintering wood and breaking roof tiles mingled with the wild growling and barking of Baba.
I screamed and the next thing I knew, I saw him, Baba, flying through the air towards me, pole and all. The pole that he dragged with him clanged horribly against the other poles as it hit them. I had no time to think. Well, actually I was so petrified that I didn’t think. I did the most ridiculous and unbelievable thing. I reached out and tickled his tummy that was exposed to me. I don’t think I quite meant to do that. I think I was trying to shield myself from him but it turned out that I was tickling his tummy. I was shocked but Baba was surprised and pleasantly so. In an instant, I could see that anger on his face melt and in its place settle a warm confusion, like he was feeling something that he had never felt before. His black lips that had curled to reveal gnashing teeth now softened to make him look like he was smiling. His eyes that had had the murderous glint of a killer softened. It was clear that he was confused but I was aghast. I was breathing hard and whimpering.
Baba was now standing right at my feet staring up at me. I am not sure what he was thinking and frankly, I am not sure what I was thinking. I reached out a limp hand, which he could have bitten off and weakly scratched his head. And that’s when I noticed the missing tuft of fur. In fact, the wound was still raw and it still had a bit of blood on it. I was careful to avoid that bald spot. I continued to scratch his head slowly. He stood still, stock still. And then the strangest thing happened, he sat down and looked up at me. I have a funny feeling that it was at that moment that he decided that I was a fool who didn’t quite know how to take care of myself and that he had to do that for me. He had that look of an old and wise man who is bemused by the recklessness of youth. I felt small, as I always felt in the presence of Baba.
From that day on, we became one, me and Baba. There was no Baba without me and no me without Baba. But I must say that it wasn’t like he suddenly transformed into a friendly Retriever. Baba never became friendly. He still hated everyone and looked at everyone like he would kill them if he could. But I think he sort of tolerated them for my sake. But even with me he wouldn’t wag his tail or play with me. I tried to play with him once but he looked at me like I was truly the idiot that he thought I was and I never tried again. He was a very serious dog. He would sit with me when I sat, lie with me when I went to bed and walk with me when I went anywhere, always watching. Watching every move I took and every move anyone made towards me. I very rarely went anywhere without Baba except to school. When I went to school, he would lie at the gate waiting for me and as soon as he caught a glimpse of me, he would stand up straight, like he was on duty again. That’s how he was with me, duty bound. And for all this, I took care of him. I fed him, sat with him, talked to him and bathed him. In fact I healed that wound that he had had on his head when I first met him. I did my best to get the fur to grow back, tried all sorts of remedies but nothing worked. The tuft was just gone. But it was then that I decided what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It’s funny. Like so many kids who owe their lives to their Babas, I owe mine to my Baba.
Baba wasn’t called Baba when I first met him. In fact, he had no name. Some people called him “Boy”, while others didn’t call him anything because they went nowhere near him. If they had to refer to him at all they would just refer to him as “The mad dog in the shed.” I started calling him Baba because it felt like that was what he was to me. Baba in my language means father. I believe it means the same in many languages. It just sort of came naturally and he began to respond to it. So it stuck. Baba he was but just to me. He wouldn’t respond if anyone else called him that. But then again, since he hated everyone, no one wanted to have anything to do with him. But everyone did stop calling him “Boy” or “The mad dog in the shed.” They started referring to him as “your dog’ when they spoke to me, or “Girl’s dog” when they spoke about him.
By the way, I do have a name. My name is May. But most people at home didn’t call me that because I was the youngest or because they didn’t know my name. And this home that I keep talking about, is the orphanage in which both Baba and I lived. In those days, it was called a Girls’ Home because it was for girls like me, girls with no parents or anyone to call their own. I think my parents died during the war, I don’t quite remember or even know. All I know is that for a while I stayed with a family. They were quite nice to me until they didn’t want me anymore. I still don’t know why. They took me to the home when I was about twelve and left me there and I never saw them again. I didn’t cry because I knew they were not my family. They had told me so.
So for Baba and me, the orphanage was our home. I think the man who started the home had found Baba running around outside the home as a puppy and had taken him in. But after he died, the people in the home didn’t know what to do with the dog and so leashed him to the shed, and there he remained as “the mad dog in the shed” until I came along. So I guess Baba and I shared a past, in a way. And actually, I don’t know what my own parents named me. “May” was the name given to me by the family that had liked me for a while and then had left me at the home.
After Baba died, I buried him in our favorite spot, under the large Angsana tree behind the home. We loved to sit there, Baba and I. He with his head on my lap and me reading my book as I scratched his head gently. Sometimes he would fall asleep so deeply that he would snore. I still remember that snore, like a deep rumble at the back of his throat. When I went to his grave to say goodbye when I finally left our home, I know I heard that rumble. I couldn’t help smiling. He was sound asleep.
“Dr. Lee, Apollo is waiting for you.” I look up and there waiting for me is my next patient, a German Shepherd. I smile and place the only photograph I have of Baba and me back in my drawer. One of the older girls in the home who had had a box camera had taken this. It was a yellowed black and white photo curling at the edges because of how often I take it out to look at or to show to the parents of my patients. There’s Baba sitting still as ever and staring into the camera like he hated it. And there’s me, a scrawny girl smiling shyly, with my hand as always on Baba’s head. We were such an odd pair. I made a mental note to have the photo laminated as I stood up to see my last patient for the day. I hurried towards my patient. I needed to get home early as the kids and grandkids were coming home to dinner.