October, 2008. Life seemed perfect. Every night I used to sit on my dining table, typing out furiously on my mint-fresh lap-top. I was working on a novel set in the beautiful intoxicating bougainvillea laced world of JNU. Just a month back, I had gone back to JNU after years, a place which gave me knowledge, passion, love, music and most importantly a perspective to live and die for. As I wrote like a possessed woman in love night after night, I felt complete. And then came a phone-call from my sister telling me that my mom had a thigh bone fracture and she needed to have a surgery. At first I thought it to be a case of osteoporosis and booked my ticket to go to Bhubaneswar.
When I arrived on a rather cool October Tuesday, I saw her sitting on the bed, with her leg stretched. The bed had suddenly become her universe. I took over from my sister to look after my mother. I had no idea of what was coming ahead till my mom’s biopsy report told us in no uncertain terms that she had multiple myeloma (a cancer of plasma cells in the bone marrow). And when my sister told me this, I sobbed inconsolably. Four years ago, I had seen my sister-in-law fighting a year long absolutely bitter battle against cancer and finally succumbing to it. The memories of that lost battle came back to me like a movie.
But then sometimes life doesn’t give you the luxury to sit quietly in a corner and read even a two page medical report. As the chill ran down my spine, I wiped away my tears and entered into my mother’s room to give her a glass of milk. I made sure nothing could give her an inkling of the storm trying to overpower my essence. I learnt to coat my utter despair with humor. I could have been an award-winning actor then.
The following days involved innumerable painful tests and more tests which were even difficult to pronounce. She groaned in pain everytime we put her on a stretcher and took her to the hospital in an ambulance. And unknowingly I developed my phobia of an ambulance (little then I knew that one day my father would breathe his last in an ambulance). I remember walking all alone into the doctor’s room for having an open discussion on the line of treatment. I remember him looking at me from across the table littered with little notebooks, pens and pencils and then saying with a straight face, “You are sitting on a time bomb.” I listened to him carefully concealing my emotions like a sandwich wrapped in an aluminum foil, made mental notes of days that will see us together putting up a fight a battle against the most feared yet strangely mysterious disease mankind has ever experienced. As I walked out of his room which smelt and looked like any other air-conditioned hospital room after listening to him for almost an hour, I could feel the shaft of sunlight in every pore of my skin and yet I found a strange overwhelming darkness enveloping me.
After being with her for six weeks, I came back to Ahmedabad to resume my work. Cancer has the ability to rip you apart — mentally, physically, emotionally and financially. It can wipe off your bank balance in no time. For the first time, we as a family got into a long discussion on money. I came back to pick up the threads of a life I had put on hold for six weeks. I felt as if I have to relearn the art of living once again. I had to relearn meeting deadlines in a newspaper, writing a story and most importantly to connect with people around me. In the midst of all this, I looked around and realized the fundamentals of my life game had changed. I had no option but to change the strategy of the game to survive the game. Even if it’s not meant to win the game. I did exactly what Siddhartha Mukherjee wrote later in 2010 in his seminal book titled ‘The Emperor of All Maladies (A biography of cancer)’, “When you erase everything irrelevant and think of the fundamentals…. you know it’s not an ordinary battle. It’s a battle against cancer.” I learnt to erase. I started erasing mobile numbers of people who no longer mattered to me. I started blocking people from my G chat list. I chose to be with people who mattered to me following that life-changing six weeks of my life. I chose to move away from a very very intimate relationship which had been the core of my life till then. I chose to move away from intense love which had enveloped me completely and absolutely all my adult years. I chose to do that because suddenly that kind of all consuming intimacy seemed irrelevant to me. From my mother’s bedroom, he with all his brilliance and a fine analytical academic mind, looked too distant.
Like a maniac, I spent silent dark nights on the internet trying to make a sense of why my mother got what she got. What role her genetics played in this? I tried looking for answers in her side of family’s medical history. I made desperate attempts to understand what was happening within my mother’s body which brought me into this world. And when her first line of treatment completely failed after long grueling nine months (a rare case in medical history), my sister broke down over the phone as she made a long distance call to me. And that night, for the first time in my life, I felt scared. I kept the lights on throughout the night and waited for the morning to break. As the first soft rays of the morning sun sneaked into my room coyly, I realized that everything evolves, changes in life. The night becomes the morning, the sunrise becomes the sunset. And sometimes intense love also turns into indifference. Simple things become complicated. A daughter learns to face the Damocles’ sword hanging on her mom’s head. Behind the closed doors of my room, I burst into lonely tears. ‘Pure bad luck”, the doctor put it simply and emphatically when I called him up the next day. In my desperation, I asked him, “Doctor, tell me how long will she live? Six months, weeks or a year? Should I quit my job to be with her?’ He understood my desperation and tried to comfort me. I am grateful to him for that moment of hope in the midst of desperation.
Within weeks, I was back in Bhubaneswar as her condition deteriorated rapidly. My younger sister along with her kids flew down from Atlanta. As a family, we decided to be together while clinging on to hope. The doctor told all of us to be prepared for tough days ahead. I was in Bhubaneswar for a week. Her cancer had become much more aggressive than what it was before. We had no option but to choose an immensely painful advanced and final line of treatment. In that one week, I did not sleep for a minute. I was looking after her in the night in her ground floor bedroom. I saw her collapsing like a pack of cards on the bathroom floor and I quietly watched her crawling to the bed (the cancer had affected her neuropathy and that resulted in her collapsing any moment).
Seeing my 5 feet 5 inch once strong mom collapsing like that on the floor deeply humbled me. It made everything look so small, so trivial. I died a million deaths in those horrifying long nights. But I also had a reason to live. I wanted her to emerge victorious. And that time something deeper emerged within me. I became a different person. As I took the flight back to Ahmedabad, I checked in at counters like a machine. Her painful gut-wrenching screams haunted me, followed me to my humble two bed room apartment in the stillness of night. It did not help that we were almost 1500 kilometers away from each other. I just couldn’t sleep in my bedroom. The twitching of her body in great pain and agony did something to my physical being. For one whole year I had lost interest in my physical world. It did not matter to me whether the yellow cushion cover in my living room was gathering dust or the flower vase on the dining table had flowers wilted for long. I couldn’t bring myself to soak in physical pleasure. Suddenly the intoxicating feeling of making love felt like cold meat. I could very well live without it. Entangling of bodies in pleasure seemed distant, grossly meaningless. I had lost the sense of warmth in a body. For a year, I felt like an outsider in my own world. I had lost all tender sense of belongingness, physical intimacy, the ability to hold a person’s face in my hand. I had subconsciously embraced pain in my existence. That pain humbled me. It cleansed me of all trappings in the world. Like clarified butter, I learnt to shed the burden of arrogance of knowledge I have been carrying within myself since my student days. What JNU did not teach me, that dreaded ‘C’ word taught me. I suddenly felt much more aged than what I was actually.
It’s April, 2012 now and sometimes I look back at my life like an outsider and think ‘is it real?’ Last year, my father passed away ending years of companionship for my mom. There are times now when I talk to my mom about the years that have passed by, the collective struggle that we have gone through as a family, my personal quest to find an intimate sense of love and longing and of course her aspiration, her sense of hope and most importantly her desire. Believe it or not, all that she desires is that she should be able to comb her hair and put buttons on her blouse herself. And she should be able to whip a dish for me when I visit her. What you, me and many others in this world take for granted has become her desire, aspiration, goal. That’s what cancer does to you.
And last time, when I was there with her at home to observe my father’s first death anniversary, I so very wanted to put my head on her lap (like the way I used to do as a young girl). But then she looked so frail, so fragile that I could not bring myself to do that. Lest I hurt her physically. Instead, I just chose to lie down next to her in her bedroom which has not changed for years. The dressing table, the wardrobe, the music system— all have remained in the same position. Lying next to her, I closed my eyes. I thought of my father, my earlier fun-filled holidays, my loving friends who have stood by me like a rock, my lost love and most importantly that unfinished file titled ‘book’ in the ‘C’ drive of my lap-top.
I know I can never go back to my novel. Cancer makes or breaks relationships. Even as my mother was fighting her battle, I was fighting my battle to wean myself away from relationships which I thought were ‘Mine’. I can’t go back to a broken relationship. I don’t have it in me to finish that novel. Like my mom can’t go back on time machine, I can’t go back to the nights which saw me completely lost in the world of words and passion. I turned around and I could see my mom’s chest moving slowly in a rhythmical manner— up and down. Almost like a musical note. And then I realized that cancer has taught me to find a way between fantasy and reality. I walked out of her bedroom silently. Tip-toeing. As I used to do years ago. As a school girl.