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Short Story - Groundhog's Shadow

 
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Groundhog's Shadow

February 2 had never ever been important in her life. It is not that Lucy was unfamiliar with the date or was ignorant about the significance people attach to this day. She was born and brought up in Pennsylvania and came across this date year after year. She clearly remembered the excitement people in her neighborhood expressed on this date when she was grew up as a child in Hershey. Contrary to what was happening around her, she was always a firm believer in science, seeking logical explanations for everything and not at all influenced by myths, magic or miracles. She was never convinced by anything short of scientific proof and validation. Her conviction in her own belief was so strong that she neither felt hurt if somebody called her a snob nor did she ever restrain herself from mocking others who believed in heir say, gossips or hypothetical marvels. Her school education in science and her finally opting for a nursing profession made her beliefs even stronger. She accepted nothing but evidence- based information. Lucy settled down in Philadelphia and Thomas Jefferson Hospital became a permanent place of work and worship for her.

After taking her last sip of coffee, Lucy looked at the calendar hanging on the wall. February 2 was smiling at her with a grin. It was too early for anything to happen. Jack was sleeping in his room. She had seen him a while ago. With an outside temperature of 10OF, even though the thermometer on the wall displayed a room temperature of 74O F she tucked in his comforter around him to keep him warm. She looked at the angel like expression on his innocent little face for a few moments as if she was taking a series of his snaps one after other. With a gentle affectionate pat on his head she returned to the living room.

 

She was conscious of the fact that it was too early but still decided to switch on the television. What a paradox ! It was biting cold outside her house and people on the TV show were talking about global warming. A direct telecast from Paris was airing the views of scientists from 113 countries who issued a landmark report saying that they have little doubt global warming is caused by man. They predicted that hotter temperatures and rises in sea level will "continue for centuries" no matter how much humans control their pollution. As an educated professional Lucy was conscious about environment and ecological changes but lately she was more concerned about present than future. Her immediate desire was that this winter passes off quickly and spring arrives soon, sooner than expected.

Lucy knew that there was still some time for the local news telecast. She looked through the window panes. Even with the early morning darkness she could see a white blanket of snow spread all over the place. Roads, houses, trees everything was painted white with snow. Even though the collection of snow was not more than 2 inches, with no moving traffic around her house, the atmosphere looked no different than Antarctica. The group of experts on the TV show were concluding their discussion. Lucy noticed that one of the discussant looked like an identical twin of her uncle, Uncle Bob.

With a strange feeling in her heart , after a ling time Lucy remembered uncle Bob, her mother’s brother, who was a farmer and had a vast farmland in Harrisburg. It used to be a fun to watch him on February 2, whenever Lucy visited him during her childhood days. Uncle Bob waited for this date every year for days on end and when the day finally arrived, he jumped with ecstasy and hope. “We will have an early spring this year”, was his mantra every year which rarely coincided with the verdict of “experts”. He was quite disappointed at such times but within few moments he made an instantaneous and revealing statement that “for certain next year is going to have an early spring”. With this prediction he primarily reassured himself for he was a farmer. As a farmer Uncle Bob always wanted snow to clear off quickly, temperature to go up, and crocus flowers to appear from nowhere to announce arrival of spring. Therefore believing in this kind of a prediction is always a wishful thinking of every farmer if his only source of income is his farmland. Lucy used to mock at him. Knowing his weakness for spring, Lucy made it a habit to tease him from the fall itself, “Uncle what is your prediction for this year?” Bob always fell in her trap. Even though he never forgot that Lucy was not serious, as if following a well drafted script for such an occasion, he scratched his head for a moment and then gave a calculated prediction, “ last 3 years had long winters, as usual. This is the fourth year. I think spring will arrive earlier this year”

“Has it anything to do with leap years.?” Lucy asked with an innocent grin, hiding her sarcastic smile. “No… not necessarily so….. but……you can’t have long winters for so many years at a stretch …. year after year…..it is not good for agriculture….” Bob sounded as if talking to himself from a deep furnace. “Is it a prediction or a wish?” Lucy burst into laughter and others joined her! Lucy quickly moved her gaze inside her living room and focused her eyes on the wall calendar. It was perhaps for the first time in her life she felt ashamed of herself . She felt sorry for herself for mocking at somebody disregarding his sentiments and for being so cruel to make him realize that he was ridiculous. She failed to understand why did she behave like that. At that age Lucy did not understand why Uncle Bob behaved like that. Today she could understand his feelings better when she was herself waiting for the opinion of the experts, whether spring will arrive early this year? She empathized with Uncle Bob because she was wearing the same glasses to look at the environment as her uncle did many years ago!
***
Lucy was quite satisfied with her life, with her profession as a Certified Nurse and Jack in her custody. Even after spending 2 years with George with live-in relationship, her 18 months of married life was a disaster. She was not sure what went wrong and how. She was also not certain whether it was only George or she was equally responsible for their break up. She could not think of any strategy which could have saved their marriage. She had to reconcile with her life. She moved out of his house, got a job in Thomas Jefferson Hospital and settled down in a small apartment on the Pine Street. It was a conscious decision by Lucy not to get married again. Most of her relatives and colleagues regarded her as weird, high headed and abnormal species not to get married again. She dated couple of young and middle aged men over a period of time but finally decided to raise her son as a single mother. For months she was unable to decide whether it was better to have a step- father for her son or not have a father at all. She was raised by her step- father who had modest means, had two daughters from his first marriage and a son from her mother, but looked after her well. She always felt that it is better to have a step- father than not to have a father. But her experience with George and the dates she had thereafter put her off against any alliance. She gradually got in to a cocoon and curled up in to a small world which had her hospital, her apartment and her 5 year old son Jack.

Life was moving with its own pace for Lucy and Jack. Both of them had learnt to enjoy every bit of life despite a definite vacuum in their lives. Even though they were at different level of intellectual and emotional maturity, they had learnt to comfort each other whenever one of them was in distress. For Lucy it was perhaps not so unusual but she was amazed to see how responsibly Jack behaved at such a tender age. Jack was hardly exposed to the picturesque landscape of rural Pennsylvania. All these years she visited her mother in Hershey only a couple of times and Jack met Uncle Bob only once. Somehow, Uncle Bob immensely influenced and made an impression on young Jack’s mind. Bob had a tremendous proficiency in describing the beauty of nature laced with his unique poetic imagination and Jack instantaneously visualized every bit of it as if he is watching it on a TV screen. No wonder Jack instantly fell in love with nature, the flowers, the trees, green grass, the tulips and the daffodils ! Jack always craved to go in to the green fields with Uncle Bob, drive a tractor, sleep under the shade of a tree, pluck an apple from the tree and roll over green grass. But in reality he was deprived of all these pleasures. Lucy could not afford a big house in the suburbs of Philadelphia. More than that security was an issue. After all it was not easy to raise a child as a single mother. Lucy realized that but was determined to provide the best possible childhood to her son.

It was only last summer when Lucy had the first jolt of a series of hapless events in her life. It started with a mild fever which Lucy disregarded for several days. But when Jack had a bout of epistaxis while he was in the school, Lucy knew for certain that she is in for a serious problem. Unfortunately Lucy proved to be right. The blood and bone marrow examination left nothing for imagination. The oncologist did not take too long to give an unequivocal opinion that Jack had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia subtype L3 with central nervous system involvement, with known poor prognosis. Lucy lost the hope with the first chemotherapy cycle itself, bad prognostic signs… Lucy knew for certain that she is going to be left alone soon, the only uncertainty was how soon ? Whenever she thought about it she felt a sudden chill going down her spine. The oncologist did not give up, but she knew there was little hope. Christmas this year happened to bring in another reason for extreme helplessness for Lucy. It was for the first time they quietly celebrated Christmas in their apartment. Lucy decided not to go to Hershey because Jack had another chemotherapy cycle a week earlier and had had too many problems following chemotherapy. His blood counts were too low and it was risky to travel. She decided to nurse him at home following chemotherapy and took all the precautions for barrier nursing. Christmas day passed of uneventfully except that Lucy, for the first time in last few years, asked Jack a question which she never asked before. “ Honey ! what did you ask Santa Claus ? What is your wish.?” Jack smiled without any answer. He looked intently at her face and as if he read in to her eyes, he came out slowly, “ I asked him for the green grass, the tulips and the daffodils ! Mom….. can I see all this soon…….”

“Yes my sweetie ! you can. We do have early spring sometime and we can see flowers and greenery all round us as early as late February….” “ I am sure Santa Claus will bring in early spring this year Mom” she could see a bright spark of hope and optimism in his eyes. His pale face suddenly started glowing with excitement and anticipation !

Lucy never thought about February 2 earlier in her life. But this year her expectation with this date was too high. The myth of groundhog’s shadow seemed to be a fact of life to her as much as for many others who believe it.. Uncle Bob firmly believed in the prediction. “After all he is also a sane person” thought Lucy, “ Why should people believe in this myth for years if it is not true. Why has it become a part of our culture? Why people gather in thousands to know if the groundhog can see the shadow? It might be true, after all we do sometimes have early spring …..” Lucy tried to convince herself . She wished that this myth happens to be true. She hoped this time the prediction is for early spring, and prayed for Jack to at least see the green grass and the crocus, the tulips and the daffodils before his next chemotherapy cycle - March 20..” She convinced herself about the validity of the observation of the experts and encouraged herself to accept their verdict as the gospel truth !
***

Jack was still sleeping. It was already 7.20 in the morning. Lucy ‘s eyes were focused on the TV screen. In a few minutes the news headlines moved in to news clip from Punxsutawney. More than 15,000 revelers had milled about in a misty snow waiting for the prediction, as fireworks exploded overhead and the "Pennsylvania Polka" and other music blared in the background. The background narration with the video clip was educating the viewers about the event. “ Groundhog shadow, one of the most phenomenal parts of American folklore, is an event when thousands of people descend on Punxsutawney, a town of 6,100 people about 65 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, to celebrate what had essentially been a German superstition. The Germans believed that if a hibernating animal cast a shadow on Feb. 2 - the Christian holiday of Candlemas - winter would last another six weeks. If no shadow was seen, legend said spring would come early. Since 1886, Phil – the chubby rodent - has seen his shadow 96 times, hasn't seen it 15 times and there are no records for nine years, according to the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. The last time Phil failed to see his shadow was in 1999………”

The commentary continued, “ you can see the huge crowd of people who firmly believe the Punxsutawney Phil has special powers of prognostication. You can see the excitement at the Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney. The colorful dresses and the groundhog masks which many people are wearing today depict a festive atmosphere. See the excitement to watch the Phil. Look at the placards- “We don’t need Doppler Radar, we have Phil !!”…… “Phil’s shadow can prevent global warming !!”… “Groundhog day… Half your hay !”…….After months of hibernation during winter, the rodent comes out of his burrow on this day to prognosticate the weather for the rest of the winter……for himself as well as for rest of the folks. If he sees his shadow he goes back to the burrow and if he doesn’t, an early spring is expected and Phil moves around. Not only that folks, our Phil even talks……! Yes ! Once he comes out of his burrow in front of thousands of followers from all over the world , one of the Phil’s handlers will hold him in air. His body will be tapped 3 times and then Phil will speak to the Groundhog Club president in "Groundhogese", a language only understood by the current president of the Inner Circle. His proclamation will then be translated for the world.”

Lucy intently concentrated on the screen. Everybody was curiously waiting for the verdict. The commentator was also excited and was speaking at the top of his voice, “ Folks… here we are.. February 2, Friday, at the Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney… we are experiencing the excitement like every year….. it is 7.38 in the morning…. the door of his burrow has been opened …Phil will come out to grace the occasion…… Phil’s all the 3 handlers are waiting with open hands to hold the magical weather prognostician, our own little chubby, Phil… our Punxsutawney Phil…!” The crowd cheered as if under a spell even without seeing the rodent. The commentator continued , “Phil seems to be still sleeping, his handlers are trying. Let us all be ready to receive our dear, naughty, chubby Phil………” The atmosphere thundered with another spell of a long applause. Suddenly the commentator’s voice became husky and with a deep breath he almost moaned, “ There seems to be some problem folks. Phil is still inside, the handlers are coaxing him to come out. Tthere is some hope. But….no….. all the handlers are shaking their heads…… it seems unusual …… such a thing has happened only once in 1943……it is going to be another record year …. the groundhog didn’t make an appearance this time…… sorry folks for the disappointment…. the handlers are closing the doors of the burrow… There is no weather prediction this year………” Lucy felt a strong thump in her chest and helplessly looked at the activity calendar with March 20 marked as Jacks’ next chemotherapy day!

Contributing Story Teller Ashok Patwari, former Professor of Pediatrics from Lady Hardinge Medical College New Delhi, currently working as Research Professor International Health, Boston University. Email: akpatwari@gmail.com 


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