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Our Last Summer
A PERSONAL MEMOIR
By Ajay Peter Manuel
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Ajay Peter Manuel
All rights reserved.
"In life, there are no ends, only new beginnings."
The silence permeating the atmosphere within the small gathering of figures in black coats and hats surrounding the garden compound gave way to a sudden tremor of raucous ovation that lit the night sky.
A person in the crowd could easily identify the contrasting colors of the scenario. The bright stage, lighting around the garden, and flashing cameras were overshadowed by the friendly commotion of graduation caps flung in the air as students and friends embraced one another in joy. It was graduation night for the class of 2009.
The happiness that sustained the emotions felt within that short instance of laughter and applause was accompanied by tears; tears flowed as I embraced my dear friend Cindy and whispered my well wishes for her future. We would now begin our selective journeys in life. This would be our last night together.
The crowd slowly dissipated toward the main quad; a grand buffet had been arranged a few feet away from the garden. The quad was a wide, concrete assembly formally used for school announcements. Tonight, it served to entertain the students, professors, and families. Life passed by in a glance that night. I enjoyed each and every moment, and I indulged myself in the freshness of it all: the family pictures, the melancholic and somber farewells, and the delicious graduation cake.
Wherever I turned, I was greeted by well wishes for my future. I felt at home with my company that night. I anticipated a bright and adventurous future, but my heart was still laden with emotions suppressed deep within me. I was disappointed by how a memorable part of my life—that I had wanted to last forever—had found its course all too soon.
I was spent emotionally when I returned home from the prom at one o'clock in the morning. The streets were empty but familiar. A few lampposts lit up the street corners. I favored walking in the darkness. It gave me a sense of closure from the outside world, allowing me to balance the emotional tides in my heart. After moments of random wanderings, I finally made it back to my apartment complex. My family and I lived in an apartment on the third floor. The expansive complex had a swimming pool near the gates that also enclosed the parking spaces.
I had informed my family earlier about the prom. I knew that Mom and Dad would be exhausted after the long day, but when I entered the apartment, I had a preemptive notion that they were still awake—and awaiting my arrival. They would always wait to bid me good night, no matter how long it took or how late it was. They loved me so much.
Our apartment complex was about fifteen minutes away from KAS. The prom had taken place at a nearby location, making my walk home a suitable distance. From our kitchen, we could see directly across to the airport. The opposite streets were lined with restaurants that remained open for the night.
The apartment opened to a wide veranda filled with couches, showcases of ceramic figurines, art tapestries, and a large TV that could be seen across from the entrance. To the left, a series of pillars and corridors separated the kitchen and the dining table. There were three bedrooms. My parents used the master bedroom in the far right corner of the apartment. Annie and I occupied the bedrooms at the opposite end of the apartment.
Slipping off my shoes quietly, I made my way down to Annie's room. I saw a light shining through the crevices of the door and knew she might be up reading a book as usual. Without the knowledge of our parents, she would use any opportunity to pull me to her room so we could read books together or talk the night away until she fell asleep on my shoulder. This would finally allow me to tuck her in and then pursue the sleep that I needed.
With the occasional creaking of the door, I slowly nudged my head around the corner to find Annie, surprisingly, fast asleep under the blanket. Her copy of The Berenstain Bears was tucked under her arms. Her small, round face poked out from the corners of the blanket. With her rosy complexion, she appeared cute and angelic. In reality, she was an exemplary model of Loki, the Norse god of mischief.
She had wept sincerely throughout the graduation ceremony. It finally dawned on her that I would now be absent from school, and she would miss my company. After receiving my diploma, I had teased her about crying. Shunning my remarks, she had given me a warm hug, a kiss on the cheek, and had whispered, "I love you" in my ear. Although she often enjoyed getting me in trouble, her actions tonight showed that she still loved her older brother.
Being careful not to wake her up, I gently tugged the book from under her arms, lightly stroked her cheeks, and gave her a small kiss on the forehead. She was fast asleep. After tucking her in and turning down the lamp, I proceeded to my parents' room.
In the hallway, I paused briefly at Grandpa Antony's (Mom's father) portrait. Six years had passed since his death. I loved him greatly. He had been a wonderful mentor. His death came as a shock to all of us, and I was distraught the day we received the sad news. I was certain that he had been there in the crowd with my family tonight, cheering me on, and wishing well for my future. The thought made me smile.
As I approached my parents' room, I heard their conversing voices. I stepped in to find them relaxing on the bed. The lights were on, and their faces brightened as they saw me approach. Giving them both hugs, I got down on my knees and received their blessings. This was a customary gesture in our culture, in respect of our elders. I considered my family to be my world. Due to weak and strained relations, our family was perceived as outcasts, isolated from our relatives. Consequently, my family and I were dependent upon each other at some level. I had great respect for my parents, and I loved them dearly.
Dad was like my best friend. A great man in all his actions, I wished to emulate him in life. Besides Mom and Annie, he was the one other person I could talk to about anything. Dad's dreamy personality was balanced by Mom's practicality; together, they were my best counsel.
We were still surprised by how the years had passed before this momentous occasion. Under financial distress, Dad worked hard in his younger years, when we were in India, to support the family. Considering this, he shared only a few memories of my childhood. He never had the chance to see me grow up; ergo he was shocked that I had already graduated from school. Mom, meanwhile, had been a constant companion. She held me close all my life; beneath her stern attitudes, she had great love. She was the heart of our family.
Late as it was, I quickly delved into the details of the prom. A few minutes later, I was kicked out of the room to get some well-deserved sleep after a great year of success and achievement. I couldn't fall asleep very easily. In bed, I recollected the memories of my journey through high school. I finally dozed off after a few hours of being immersed in contentious feelings.
I spent the following day as a lazy bilge rat, starving from the physical and mental fatigue I had accumulated over the year. Dad was to attend a meeting in Malawi. He was the sponsorship and grants manager at PLAN International. After much persuasion, I assisted him in packing and his subsequent departure.
Dad and I were comic relief for our family. In his absence, the week dragged on and was filled with boredom. Because of my busy, selfish focus on academics and social life at school, I had lost several opportunities to bond with my family. Now that I had graduated, I wanted to spend quality time with my parents and enjoy this period of respite.
To keep busy, I spent the week packing away the gigantic collection of folders, binders, and notebooks I had accumulated during high school. It was an extensive renovation of my room, and the mess was unbelievable. It amused me that I had retained notes and papers since ninth grade. As tiresome as it was, I found great joy in the effort.
Browsing through my folders, I was struck by a bout of nostalgia. This made it even more difficult to throw away what I found, ranging from scrap sketches to random paper conversations. It represented a vast portion of my high school memories. In the end, it took the combined efforts of Mom and Annie to persuade me to actually clean my room rather than organize a secondary memory storage plan.
We had lived in Sudan for four years. Dad's work was beneficial to the family; it provided the opportunity for an international education for Annie and me. Simultaneously, our constant transfers from one country to another meant we never had a permanent home. I did not have friends on a daily basis, but I couldn't deny the strong feeling of home that I identified with my memories and life in Sudan. This may be due to my experiences as a maturing teenager over my years at KAS.
Dad's contract in Sudan was initially supposed to last until my graduation. We were given the option of extending the contract for an extra year—thanks to Dad's extraordinary work ethic and achievements in his organization. We greeted him on his return from Malawi the following week. As usual, we couldn't conceal our excitement for the souvenirs and gifts he had brought from his trip. Dad's return trips were always enjoyable. Dad would endorse his role as a griot (an African storyteller) while relating his adventures abroad. Mom, Annie, and I were an eager audience.
His return also foreshadowed the necessity for a discussion regarding the family's future. I had an invitation to a get-together with my friends one evening, and I couldn't hide my grumpy attitude toward my parents. My mood was partially ruined because of a heated discussion with them earlier that evening about my plans for university.
I had expressed my desire to study abroad, particularly in Canada. With my performance in high school and my outstanding academic profile, my professors believed I could easily secure admission to the highest-ranked universities. The one major obstacle in our way was money.
Dad had toiled and worked hard for the happiness of our family for more than twenty years. His reason for working with PLAN stemmed from his personal attitudes toward helping communities—and his desire to provide his children with the benefits of a good education and upbringing. Dad had incurred financial challenges in order for us to have secure lives with wonderful benefits in Egypt and Sudan. Furthermore, as time passed by, there were clear signs of his aging—physically, mentally, and spiritually.
His work had gradually developed into a burden that he carried for the sake of his family. It didn't help when he lost his best friends. They were jealous of his success, and they only cared about his friendship in the context of his financial status. Slowly but surely, he also began to lose his vigor and interest in his job; it started exercising ignorant politics above moral attitudes. He even confessed once that he was at a loss toward his sense of identity and happiness.
If I were to opt for my higher studies abroad, it would only mean that he would have to continue his work in PLAN—and his burdensome life. I felt guilty and depressed by this thought.
My desire was to prove to my parents that I could find my own place, cultivate my own life, and support the family so that Mom and Dad could settle down peacefully. I dreamed of a day when I could return home, welcomed by the happiness in their eyes and the overwhelming love and warmth of my family's presence. My eagerness to reach higher grounds and goals could only be accomplished if I studied in Canada. During the party, I was lost in speculation about what to do, and my failure to support my parents.
When I returned home that night, I realized it was all about a choice that had to be made. This one choice had the potential to change my life. Confused, I made a wish that something would happen in the near future to help with my decision. The wish came true faster than I expected.
After a few days, I received the results of my application to the University of Alberta. To my surprise, I had secured several scholarships and awards granting me a total of $64,000 in financial aid. The amount was incredible, and it was enough to seal my years in Canada. The awards were divided over the four years of my academic program. I would be required to partake in on- and off-campus employment to garner further income and financial assistance.
Even with the good news, a large sum of money was still required from my parents to support my education at the University of Alberta. Upon hearing the results, Dad congratulated me on my achievements, noting that my hard work in high school had paid off. When I asked if I could go to Canada, he smiled and said, "I'll think about it."
With that reaction, I had a good hunch I had secured my dream of studying in Canada. A certain degree of guilt remained in my heart about the decision, and I knew I wanted to share this with him. I just had to find the opportune moment to do so. It happened one night when Dad and I took a stroll to get food at a nearby restaurant.
When he brought up the topic, I was surprised that he already knew my feelings. It made it a lot easier for me, and I was glad to share my thoughts about all the changes occurring in my life. Minutes seemed like hours, but Dad was firm and strong with his decision.
He said, "Son, I live my life for you, and I'm very proud of you. But don't ever feel guilty for what you have now. I know the pain that I felt at your age when I didn't have the needs to sustain and fuel my dreams. If I had, I would have a different life. But, now, even if I were offered the chance to live my life over, I wouldn't change one bit of it. You know why? 'Cause I found three beautiful stars that guide me, keep me warm, and love me for all they have: you, Mom, and Annie. I'm so proud of you for sharing this with me, but as your father, I believe in my responsibility to provide you the best I can so that, one day, you can do the same for one who may follow your side. I'm happy with the choice I have made to send you to Canada for your higher studies. I know it will be difficult, but with the support, love, and compassion that I get from the three of you, nothing in life seems impossible to me. I want to see you accomplish your dreams, and reach for the skies."
"No buts. If you feel you owe me something, I ask for one favor. Do your best, live your life the way you want to, reach your goals, establish your future, and—most importantly—take care of your family and love them for all you have. Will you do that for me?"
Those words melted away my fears. Where there had been doubt, there was conviction. I now had a purpose and a future to look forward to. I replied, "I will, Dad. That's a promise."
"Good! Now let's go get our food because I'm hungry—and I know your mom is going to kill me if we are late!"
It only struck me then that Dad had intentionally walked us past the restaurant several times during our conversation so he could give me his undivided attention. I had been so immersed in our conversation that I had failed to recognize this.
Only a week remained until we were to head back to Madurai to meet Grandma Mary. My grandparents from Dad's side of the family had passed away before my birth. Grandma Mary was our immediate relation from Mom's side of the family. She moved into our house in Madurai after Grandpa Antony's death.
Approaching the date of our departure, I felt I needed to make up for my glum appearance at my friends' party earlier on. My family had yet to decide if I would go to Canada directly from India or if I would be returning to Sudan beforehand. Given this scenario, my friends and I presumed that this was our final gathering, and we arranged a farewell. It consisted of a small group of my closest friends who were still in Sudan. The same host of our previous get-together accommodated my farewell. This time, rather than being secluded in my thoughts, I enjoyed each and every moment of the party.
I took as many pictures as possible to sustain my final memories with my friends. Even if I were to return to Sudan before my departure to Canada, I would not be seeing most of my friends since they would depart during my absence. Lunch was self-provided. We said, "Let's cook ourselves some grub." Although there was a faint sense of disappointment in my departure, I was certain I would cross paths with many of my friends in the near future.
A few days later, I found myself seated on the seven-hour flight to Madurai. Relaxing my head on the windowpane, I looked out to the sky and began thinking about the last four years of my life at KAS. Eleventh grade, in particular, had been an exhilarating ride. There were several losses and surprises; I hadn't thought it possible to recover from the emotional injuries and entanglements I encountered that year. Somehow I had made it. I still remembered the wish.
Excerpted from Our Last Summer by Ajay Peter Manuel. Copyright © 2013 Ajay Peter Manuel. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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