Red, blue, green, orange, and yellow balloons with curly ribbon tails floated in the room. Four friends stood in a single line. Their hands spread out horizontally on each other shoulders. They were making slow movements of Hasapiko, accompanied by the music played on a bouzouki.
A cake sat on a table – a black forest cake with whipped cream, rich chocolate ganache, and sweet spiked cherries. Dorothy came and planted two candles, each shaped in the number 5.
Happy Birthday to you. Wish you a long and healthy life. The wishes of all the friends and relatives who gathered on my Birthday echoed in the hotel room as I ran the knife on the cake.
It was quite a special occasion. I turned 55 this day.
Long wooden tables draped with white cotton cloth stood in one corner of the room. For the buffet dinner, various appetizers, soups, salads, main dishes, and desserts were laid out.
Gifts wrapped in colored papers decorated the other corner. Bouquets of roses, lilies, sunflowers, orchids, and carnations.
I am not a party animal, but I was pleased as punch because everyone wished me a long and healthy life.
“You coughed the whole night,” Dorothy complained while brewing the coffee in the kitchen.
“I felt something stuck in my lungs all night,” I mumbled.
“Better to visit the doctor, “she suggested while holding the handle of the briki and pouring the coffee on two identical white cups.
“Aw, I hate going to the clinic. This coughing must be the effect of alcohol from last evening”, I said and looked greedily at the cups of coffee. “This would surely make me feel all right.”
“Pick up the kids from school today. I am going for a haircut at 4 O’clock. But, unfortunately, the public transport has called a strike, and the children can get no bus or tram to home today”, Dorothy said and raised the cup of tea to her lips.
The black Toyota Corolla vroomed out of the driveway and headed for the school. Cough, cough! This air will make me sick. Every middle-class family in this city owns two or more cars. And then the pollution from the factory. When will this inept government act?
Honk! The car behind yanked me out of my thoughts. The traffic signal had turned green, and the car roared again and reached the Daskalos International School parking lot.
Sophia and Adrian waved their classmates off and strode towards the parking lot. There were born on the same day, and ever since birth, they have been together through thick and thin. The black Toyota was right up in the left corner near the exit. Adrian looked at them and smiled. They sat in the car, and it headed back home. Adrian and Sophia were studying in class 11.
“Papa! What happened? You are coughing a lot today”, Sophia asked worriedly.
I answered, “I have been coughing since last night. I do not know what is wrong. It may be just a bad patch because of this polluted air. I hope this will soon pass.”
For a week, I coughed every once in a while. Dorothy cajoled me often to visit the doctor, but it fell on deaf ears. But soon, the cough turned more persistent with severe spells associated with wheezing and shortness of breath. Finally, I could no longer turn a blind eye to Dorothy’s intermittent cajoling, which turned now into a frequent scolding.
I finally visited our family doctor on a Friday- Mr. Peter Hondros. He was a man in his forties. Tall and slender like a giraffe. With eyes of an owl.
He checked my pulse and oxygen level and said, “Your lungs are in poor shape.”
I shuddered with fear.
“What do you suggest?”
“I want to see an X-ray of your lungs.”
I was kept in hospital for a week on oxygen therapy. A nurse placed tubes on my nostrils and a mask over my nose and mouth. An oxygen concentrator machine was plugged into an electrical socket and provided life-saving oxygen most of the time during my stay in the hospital.
I was diagnosed with lung disease. In medical terms also called chronic Bronchitis. An irreversible disease that can be slowed down, and its growth can be arrested, but the condition cannot be totally healed. I got the shock of my life.
Dorothy had lost sleep over trying to find a house in the country. She had invited one of her acquaintances home for dinner. This contact worked as a housing agent and had good links in the country far in the East. From my bedroom, I overheard the conversation:
“My husband had been very ill, and the doctor was insistent that we must give up living in the town. It was essential for him to breathe the purer air of the country if he was to get strong again. So, I was feverishly house hunting. Of course, I had seen innumerable houses, but there was something foreboding about all of them.”
The property dealer, a slim lady, draped in a shimmering blue tunic belted at the waist, replied, “Do not worry, Dorothy. That had also been the observations of many other house hunters. There is a small village up in the mountains in the east. There I would be able to get you a house for a minimal price yet very well maintained.”
“Thank you so much, Lila,” said Dorothy. Those words were music to her ears. She had been running pillar to post to get reasonable accommodation, but all her efforts were in vain.
They shook hands, and then the woman departed.
On a Friday, Dorothy and I left for Heben. Our new house was in that country. I opted for voluntary retirement. My office colleagues had arranged a farewell party, and my heart sank to leave all of them at once and go to a remote country. But we promised to keep in touch.
It was a wonderful home built extensively from wood and stone. The pine trees densely populated the land. The design focused on creating a house that blends with the natural environment, sustaining most of the existing pine trees. Two blocks, facing north and the other west, sit on different levels. They came together in the middle, with a wedge-shaped volume that formed the entrance and a vertical circulation that led to the home’s main spaces.
From the exterior, we could observe the glass walls that reflected that striking landscape, lush with trees and a tame wilderness, in the middle of which a pool was built.
Upon entering the home, the first thing that caught our attention was the height of its stone walls, which were crowned by a great wooden roof.
Its gorgeous living room had a chimney installed into one of the stone walls. Directly in front of the fireplace, we had a large glass wall, allowing the occupants to enjoy the breathtaking views the house provided. More attractive still was the fact that the views accompanied us to every room in the home, thus ensuring that the occupants had plenty of landscape to gaze upon.
Both Adrian and Sophia moved to a boarding school in the town. It was one of the leading institutions in the area. Students from faraway places were enrolled there. Dorothy and I used to go there once in three months to meet them and inquire about them in detail.
Life in the town and the country were different, like chalk and cheese. From the hustle and bustle of the town to the peaceful country in the embrace of nature. From the beeping and honking of numerous vehicles to the chirping and trilling of mountain songbirds. From the polluted and contaminated air of the town to the pure and refreshing breeze of the mountains. From the concrete jungle of the town to the snowcapped peaks of the country. I was over the moon with the changed location. I started coughing lesser and lesser over a period. Finally, I was on the mend.
We started going for a stroll every day. It was indeed a pleasure to walk in the mountains. Now and then, we would come across some stranger who would smile at us and greet us.
“Oh! Are there no old people like us here?” I asked.
“That is what it looks like,” nodded Dorothy.
I searched high and low in the neighborhood for couples of our age. Couples who were in their fifties or sixties. But I found it quite strange that I could not get any peers. I could see men and women in their thirties or twenties but not their forties or fifties. Ultimately, we decided that age does not matter in friendship, and we associated with a few couples in their thirties.
After a year, I was fit like a fiddle. I could easily stroll 10 km without straining myself a bit. A run of 2 or 3 km did not stress me physically. In a way, I was getting younger and stronger. The country conditions were doing wonders for me.
“Congratulations! You made us feel so proud”, I said with a sunny smile. Dorothy was also extremely delighted to know the news.
“Mom and Dad, Thank you so much! Without your motivation and support, I would not have topped in the 12th board exams”, Adrian said.
“Cheers!” we all said with the tinkling of our low-ball glasses with colorful plastic straws.
“Dad, your skin is glistening,” Sophia stated while slurping the orange juice.
“Yes! And now you have fewer wrinkles too”, confirmed Adrian jokingly.
The waiter in uniform soon arrived with four bowls on a serving tray. One bowl contained lemon chicken soup. The other was filled with bean soup. Colorful salads with an assortment of vegetables adorned the other two bowls.
“Ah! What a delight!” Sophia exclaimed with joy.
The aroma wafted in the air and entered our nostrils. It was difficult to hold our horses. We plunged into the food.
The waiter came again. This time with main dishes in four bowls. The bowls pinged and clanged as he placed them one after another. The first one contained “Moussaka”- a creamy, delicious dish made of spiced lamb cooked in tomato sauce and then layered with fried eggplant and bechamel sauce.
The second bowl was decorated with stuffed eggplants. They were first baked until soft and then filled with tomato-based meat sauce, topped with bechamel sauce and cheese, and baked till they got a beautiful golden color.
The other bowl was comprised of Lasagna. A dish consisted of baked layers of pasta, juicy minced beef, bechamel, and tomato sauce, topped with melted cheese.
And the last bowl was adorned with gyros.
Adrian smacked his lips. Dorothy took a deep breath in and said, “how mouthwatering the dishes smelled.”
“No more wait!” I said, and we all hit our plates.
Ah! the dishes melted in my mouth.
Sophia looked at Dorothy while cutting a chunk of meat,
“And mom, your skin is also turning youthful, and the white strands of hair are slowly vanishing.”
I guffawed. Adrian smiled. Dorothy blushed.
After lunch, I had another necessary appointment in the town. Then, I boarded a bus to the venue of the next meeting.
A man draped in a white suit sat opposite me. He smiled at me, lifted a small disc-shaped resonator, inserted tubes with earpieces into his ears, and placed the device’s drum against my chest.
“Excellent!” he said with a great sense of satisfaction.
I smiled with joy.
“One more test, and we are done for the day,” the doctor added.
He tugged a soft clip onto my nose to keep both nostrils closed. Then he placed a cup-like breathing mask around my mouth.
“Take a deep breath in.”
I breathed in as hard as I could.
“Very good! Now exhale with force.”
I mustered the strength and breathed out as hard as I could.
“Wow. I am amazed.” He continued, “I had diagnosed you with chronic bronchitis a year back, and now it seems that your condition has vastly improved.”
“Doctor, do I again need to come?”
“Stay in touch over the phone, and keep me posted about your condition.”
“If I revisit the town, I will drop by.”
“That would be great. I can do an examination again that time.”
We boarded the taxi to the country. The cab ran past multiple towns, villages, hotels, motels, hospitals, schools, and colleges snaked through highways, river bridges, and railways crossings, and reached the foothills of the eastern mountains.
I exclaimed, “Oh! Dear, look there.”
Dorothy burst out with joy and cried, “What a beauty!”
A placid turquoise lake stood at the foothills. It was oval. Yachts floated on it. Speedboats ran over it, full speed. Men, women, and children in swimsuits wallowed on the lake’s edges.
A grand statue made of Carrara marble stood on a rock in the center of the water body. It was of a goddess. Her gestures were feminine as she offered a goblet containing the elixir of eternal youth. The gentle flowing movement of her body, all the more elegant for its delicate marble skin, was arrested in the two containers made from rugged, gleaming metal. She was dressed in finely gathered drapery that played around her legs, accentuating rather than concealing her shape.
“Is that not the statue of Hebe?” asked Dorothy.
I nodded, “Yes, that is the statue of Hebe – the goddess of youth, the cupbearer of the gods who served ambrosia at the heavenly feast.”
The snow-peaked mountains stood behind the lake, shimmering in the sunlight. Fluffy white clouds in varied shapes hung on some peaks, perhaps dancing the waltz with them. The picturesque landscape cast a spell on us. Its enchanting and mesmerizing beauty spellbound us.
Soon we reached our home in the country- Heben, named after the goddess of youth. I opened the post box and saw a yellow letter asking me to visit the post office to collect a courier in 7 days.
The next day I headed for the local post office. It was around 3 km away from our home. I strolled down the road and reached it in 15 minutes. It was a white building. On the top of it hung a board with the following printed on it:
I stepped into the post office and looked everywhere. I saw a counter and a small queue of people standing out there. I went there and also stood in line. I saw a man behind the counter. He wore thick glasses sitting clumsily over his nose. Few fibers of white hair stood on his head. His black shirt contrasted against those white strands. His face was time-chiseled and weather-beaten. He looked at me and smiled sympathetically.
“How can I help you?”
“This is the letter which was left in my post box.”
“Yes! You have a courier from the town.”
“Here is your courier” He handed me a packet wrapped in brown paper.
I thanked him and went back home.
After a year, Sophia and Adrian visited us. The college was closed for summer vacation, and they wanted to visit us and see the country.
We went out to enjoy the cable car ride. Adrian and I were standing in the queue at the base station to buy the tickets. We were talking about politics and life.
“Excuse me,” a voice reached our ears. It was directed to us. I turned in the direction of the voice and saw a man. He looked identical to the man I saw in the post office one year back. Little younger, to be precise.
“Yes,” I said.
“Is this the queue for the ticket?” he asked while scanning my face.
“Yes. We are standing in the queue for the cable ride.”
He scanned my face thoroughly again and said, “I think I saw you somewhere.”
I quickly added, “In the post office.”
“Exactly. In the post office. You had come to collect your courier”, he remarked.
“But you look a little younger now.”
“And you too.”
Martin Hermes was transferred six and half months back from another town to Heben. He was living just a hundred meters away on another street. It is pretty strange that we never bumped into each other. Oh well, life is weird!
Sophia and Adrian shifted to the US for higher studies. Adrian enrolled for an MS degree in Engineering at Stanford University and Sophia for a master’s degree in Genetics.
Dorothy cried the day the children flew to the US. We had gone to the airport to see them off. It was five years since we had left the town for our abode in the country. The town looked still the same – the turbulent traffic. Smoke billowing out in the sky. The howl of hawkers. The honking and beeping of vehicles.
I boarded the tram to the clinic to meet the doctor. Since I was in the town, it made sense to meet Dr. Hondros.
“Ticket, please!” asked a man dressed in a white uniform. He was short and plump. Waddling like a duck.
I flashed my ticket out of my wallet.
“Senior Citizen?” he asked.
“Yes,” I nodded.
He looked askance at me, my face, my body, and my attire. He scanned me from head to toe.
“Very smart. Fudging certificates to get benefits”, he said sarcastically and moved away.
I reached the clinic of Dr. Hondros. He was in his room. I rang the bell.
“Please come in,” he said.
As I walked into the room, he froze in his chair. With mouth agape, he asked me to sit down. He kept staring at me with the wide opened eyes.
“Hope you are doing well, doctor.”
“Ye.. . Yes.”, he stammered.
But soon, he turned calm and said, “I want to take your blood sample and X-ray.”
The Samsung mobile beeped. There was a call. I rushed to pick up the call. I beamed wide-eyed when I saw the caller’s name on display.
The connection was quite bad as the voice cracked.
I moved closer to the WLAN router, and the sound became clearer.
“How are you and Adrian doing?”
“We both are fine. So there is good news.”
Meanwhile, Dorothy dashed out of the kitchen to listen to the conversation.
I switched on the camera to see the kids. The display flashed the live images of Sophia and Adrian.
Dorothy blushed with emotion to see the kids live.
“Oh! Mom and Dad, what are you both eating these days?” exclaimed Sophia with utter surprise.
“Why, what happened?”
“You both are like demigods.”
I laughed and said, “That’s a joke.”
“So here is the news. Any Guess?”
My heart pounded with the anticipation of the good news. Dorothy’s face reddened.
“No more patience. Reveal it fast”, I demanded.
“Both of us got jobs.”
“Adrian started working for a fortune 500 company. This company was one of the biggest software companies in the world, employing hundreds of thousands of workers worldwide.”
“I got a very lucrative job offer from a leading Bioinformatics firm, which I readily accepted. This company has very advanced and innovative human genetic laboratories. I am very happy now.”
I was over the moon. We both felt at the top of the world. The accomplishments of our children are our accomplishments too. We could not sleep that whole night because of extreme happiness.
It was time to walk down the aisle. Adrian had an American girlfriend, and Sophia was in an affair with a Canadian.
We boarded the flight to the US to attend the marriage ceremony.
After a long and non-stoppable flight of 15 hours, we reached the Los Angeles airport. This is one of the busiest airports in the world. After many difficulties, we stepped down from the aircraft and reached the counter where we needed to show our travel documents. There was a long queue of passengers waiting in front of the counters. Travelers of varied nationalities, races, colors, and religions.
“Passport, please!” asked a tall and sturdy black official at the counter. He wore a blue uniform.
I readily handed over the passport to him.
He saw the details in the passport and thoroughly scanned my face. Looked at me from head to toe. While his eyes ran all over me, I was stung with anxiety. Then, his eyes flashed back to the passport details, read and examined it more closely, and ran over me up and down again. At least three times.
A feeling of anxiety crept through me. I felt like a cat on hot bricks. With bated breath, I waited for the outcome.
“Have you come for cosmetic surgery?”
“No!” I answered in disgust.
He finally let us go.
The wedding took place in a Greek Orthodox church. The wedding service began with the lighting of the candles and the joining of the hands. Then, the grooms and the brides were given a taper candle called Lambathes. The candles were lit to symbolize the willingness of the couple to receive Christ, who would bless them through this sacrament.
The priest joined the right hands of the grooms and brides as he called upon God to unify the bride and the groom into one mind and body. Then, the priest said further prayers to grant them a long and peaceful life of health and happiness.
The grooms and the brides sipped the blessed wine from the same goblet. This act symbolizes that sharing all of life will double their happiness, and their sorrows will be only half as sad.
Since my return flight was to the town where I lived before, I wanted to visit our old family doctor. Therefore, I felt very obliged to meet him before leaving for the country.
I called up the clinic to fix an appointment.
“Peter here. Can I talk to Dr. Hondros?
“I am his son here.”
“I want to fix an appointment with Dr. Hondros.”
“Are you not aware of the news”?
“Sorry! He is no more.”
The son dropped a bombshell. I froze for a moment.
He continued, “We studied your blood sample and X-ray results. Must say very interesting case.”
“I will contact you again once I hear from medical experts on the matter.”
I bade him adieu and hung up the call.
Thirty years had passed since Adrian and Sophia left for the greener pastures in the US. Their career was a howling success. In less time, they rose to the highest echelons of their respective fields. Adrian was promoted to board member of the software company. Research papers by Sophia about genes and their roles in diseases were published in many national and international scientific journals. We were in seventh heaven when Sophia and Adrian sent us the stories of their successes.
But an eclipse soon ran over the sun of our happiness.
What misfortune had befallen us! Yet, both the children were extremely happy and were in the prime of their lives. And we parents kept wallowing in the pool of their glories. And suddenly, someone had pulled the rug from under our feet.
Sophia complained of a sore throat and a headache first. After a few weeks, her situation worsened, and she gasped for breath. She was hospitalized.
A few months later, Adrian was also diagnosed with the same condition and admitted to the hospital.
The disease ran in our family for generations. My father also died from the same disease. His brothers, too, suffered from this blood disorder and finally succumbed. So the disease is a curse that is hell-bent on wiping out our entire clan. Only I have been spared.
We hoped that both the children would recover. They were being treated by the best physicians and lung experts in the US.
The last time we talked to them, they were recuperating from the illness. Doctors said there was still a glimmer of hope. A lung transplant could be the ultimate solution. We heaved a sigh of relief. We had also planned to travel to the US to assist them during the operation and boost their morale.
But a month later, Adrian died. Then, a week after that, Sophia also succumbed to the disease.
The twins appeared to be bound by an invisible thread of life and death.
Our hearts ached. Our souls cried. We drowned in the sea of sorrows.
Sometimes we feel that destiny is playing a different ballgame with us. Stealing the life-years of children and adding them to us. Are we not the most brutal parents on this planet?
Life in the country remained no more charming. I must rather say it turned deadly dull. Sometimes I felt like going back to the pavilion, but I lost touch with all my friends in the town. They died one after another. Some died of disease. Others died of old age. The relatives succumbed to death or moved out of the town. If I ever go to town again, my memories will haunt me. I cannot dare to see the sight of those empty lanes without my friends. Those vacant houses. Those churches and masses without them. Those empty shopping malls and community centers.
Perhaps the cemetery is the only place to visit the town. There I can perhaps hear the whistling whispers of my friends and relatives. But I have no courage to go there either.
The town where I was born, grew up, and lived 55 years of my life. The town I know, like the back of my hand, knows in and out of me. But, alas! If I went out there, I would be a stranger in a strange land.
Though I made many friends in the country, I was closer to Martin. The older man whom I met in the post office that day. Now and then, we used to meet and share jokes. He was a widower. His wife died a long back when he was in the town.
We soon made a team of basketball players and started playing in tournaments in the country. It was a great time with country folks. We won many competitions, earning us many laurels from various quarters. We made many fans who used to circle us always when we went to play championships. We became heroes for many boys and girls.
Such was our fame that the local newspaper flashed once with the heading:
Meet basketball heroes – Peter and Martin, bringing glory to Heben
Our photos also figured under the title. Holding a trophy in hand and smiling at the larger audience.
But it was quite an uncanny feeling that the clock was anticlockwise for us. I looked into the mirror as clearly as I could. I saw a man. He was a reflection of my distant past, and that distant past has fortunately or unfortunately become my present. I gained many years, but I lost my life.
Doctors from many countries took our blood samples to examine our case. Unfortunately, chronic Bronchitis has always remained an irreversible disease. However, I did not only heal totally from the disease but also got younger and stronger every day. Today I look like a young man in his late twenties and Dorothy, a woman in her early twenties. It was a complete metamorphosis. Science soon calculated our age using the most widely used age clock known as the Horvath clock. It uses DNA methylation data to estimate age.
DNA methylation is an epigenetic change that refers to adding specific groups called methyl groups onto DNA at particular sites. The methylation state of the DNA contributes to whether specific genes are switched on or off, similar to post-it notes in a recipe book directing you to the recipes you’d like to open soon! Each methylation site can either be methylated or unmethylated and thus can be considered as a number – 1 for methylated and 0 for unmethylated. The Horvath clock uses the pattern of methylation across someone’s DNA to extract the pattern of 1s and 0s. Across the whole of someone’s DNA, the methylation pattern can be written as a code of sequence of 1s and 0s and fed into a computer. The computer can then compare the actual sequence with patterns from the very start of life and patterns from people at various stages of life. An algorithm can then try to calculate the likely biological age of a person by fitting the changes observed in their case into the pattern we see in other people.
The Horvath clock works surprisingly well, on average calculating age to within three years of a person’s actual age. However, it is not entirely understood what the clock measures, as it does not relate to a person’s biological age but chronological age. Usually, cells keep track of age through the number of times they divide.
Dorothy and I were seated at the dining table. It was coffee time. Two coffee cups were kept on the table.
I took a cup and said, ” Dear! Do you know that scientists have calculated our age based on DNA?”
“Yes, I read the news,” she said with a lump in her throat.
“Is it not quite amazing?”
She was silent. Tears welled up in her eyes.
“Do you remember my 55th birthday celebration in the town?”
“Yes, I do.”
“The colorful balloons. The sumptuous dinner. The hasapiko dance. The music. And the friends.”
“Yes, I can recall that event.”
“Everyone wished me a long and happy life.”
She bit her lips.
“And now we are healthy and in the prime of our youth.”
She did not react and lifted the cup to her lips and placed it back on the table.
“We are immortals,” I said with a sense of false pride.
Not a response.
“The goddess of youth and beauty – Hebe has blessed us.”
A big tear trickled down her face and plopped on the table.
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