Like father, like son

by Abhinav Kukreja

I was always the kid who looked like his mother. My younger brother however, carried the baton from the father’s side forward. Same face, same features, same urge to never read, it was sort of the beautiful redundancy grandparents expect to see in their grandchildren. I wasn’t a bit like my old man. In fact, if you saw us together, you wouldn’t think of me as his son.

 There are some things some people are inherently good at. My father was great at arm wrestling. From being just a tool to impress the ladies, to national level gold medals hanging in his closet, it was just something in his life that had remained …constant.

 I was the same. Across all the beautiful discrepancies that made me more like my mother – the excess of emotion compared to my father’s ruthless pragmatism, the passion for literature compared to his for the morning news, arm wrestling was something that united us.

 It was never something I enjoyed doing, though. Heck, it was never something that I thought I would enjoy doing. But I practiced anyway. I practiced because it made him happy. I practiced because just like him, this was something I was inherently good at. I practiced because for a few brief seconds, I was more than just an offspring. For a few seconds, we were father and son, in the utopian sense of the phrase.

 Ten years of passive practice later, I became the son he would show off. I became the son he would bet on. I was the son who defeated every single person who came across the table – everyone but him.

 Part of me wanted to take him down. Part of me wanted to keep losing so I could just extend this unspoken about union. Not like I had a choice in the matter. He was just way too good for me. We never spoke about me defeating him, because we both knew it wasn’t a possibility.

 And then, early onset Parkinson’s.

 Tell an all star track runner that he can no longer run, and it will break him. It will crush his spirit and it will dampen his hope. He will begin to detest himself, and hate his body. And lastly, his anatomy- the one thing that he used to be proud of, would turn into his greatest source of embarrassment and incompetence.

 My father was the same. He slipped into depression, as his brain slowly commanded his body to give up on strength. He lost weight, he lost his appetite, and slowly, he began to lose his identity. To others, it was simple old ageing. To me, it was more like decay.

 The biggest damage was caused to his ego. From the man who took his family out of obliterating poverty, he became the man who was too egoistic to let go of his past and accept the new way of life. He wasn’t sick per se, but he felt like he was handicapped. I’m not saying that he didn’t fight it. But how do you expect someone to beat their own selves?

Slowly, his left side began to give up on him. It reached the point where he could no longer swing his left arm while walking. It crushed me to see him like that, to the point that I felt myself slipping into depression myself. He was my go-to guy. He was the pillar of strength, the guy who magically solved all my problems, and the guy who told me he would kill for me.

 My mother told me that ageing was a part of life, and that I failed to see the grace in his growing up. There is no grace in decay. There is no grace in the damaging ego of the only breadwinner of the family. That’s something my mother never understood. Or maybe she understood this better than all of us.

 We still arm-wrestled. I saw his strength diminishing. It was a slow process, but by the end of it, the outcome was nothing short of catastrophic. I was the only person he would arm wrestle. I was the only person who knew how weak his arm was getting. Perhaps he felt it himself, but if he did, he never spoke about it.

 And then came the night that I had waited for my entire life. We arm-wrestled a total of seven times in ten minutes. He won the first time. I won the second, and I swear I was beyond ecstatic. For a few seconds, I was the kid again who dreamt to beat his father at the only thing they shared. And then it hit me.

 I think it was his eyes, more than anything. They were impassive. Then I saw his lips – tightly gripped. He tried his level best not to let out a smile of embarrassment. Somehow I felt he was staring at me, inquiring how this had happened. I knew him better than to look him in the eye. I had no answer anyway. I was just as perplexed as he was.

 Believe me, I was happy. This was the proudest day of my life as a son. But I knew myself, and I knew him and I knew that my win was less about me, and more about him.

 We went at it for the third time. This time, I just focused on technique. I beat him again.

 He gave me a smile I had never seen before. It was part embarrassment and part pride. I looked down my shoulder, towards the right, only to see my mother staring back at me. She had the same look that my grandfather and brother did. In fact, I’m certain that all of us were thinking the exact same thing, but we just had different ways of portraying it.

 I let him win the fourth time. And the fifth. And the sixth. And the seventh. When I got ready for the eighth time, pretending to be enthusiastic about beating him again, I think he caught my bluff. He got up and he went back to his room. I cannot possibly comment on the look he had on his face. I think it was half parts disappointment and half parts resentment. I don’t think he was disappointed in himself. I think he was disappointed in me.

 I knew he would hate my guts for letting him win on purpose. He had too much ego to win when he didn’t deserve to. Any other day, and I would have crushed his hopes for a victory. I would have defeated him again and again, and then mocked him for bullying me throughout my life.

 The order was restored in the house. My family was no longer looking at us shell-shocked. My mother was back in the kitchen. My grandfather was back to his daily peg of whiskey. My brother was back to staring at his phone.

 We had both been selfish. He’d been selfish because he was angry with me for not being his reality check. In my defense, which son wants to be the final nail in the coffin of his father’s ego? I’d been selfish too. I’d been selfish because I had tried to save the only thing that kept us together.