Looking back, I realize that in my battle with the killer disease, my side had a stronger force lined up. From the moment the news got out that my condition was dicey, we knew we were not alone. Siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews, elders in the family, colleagues and friends enlisted themselves voluntarily on our side of the battle line. And the number kept multiplying. We were inundated with telephone calls – from all parts of the country and the world. Though the omnipresent enemy performing his dance of death continued to cast his eerie shadow on us, he was kept at bay by the hands of my comrades–in-arms, extended in gestures of solidarity.
I can never forget the day I landed in the Nedumbaserry airport in Kochi to start the treatment. As I was wheeled out of the airport, I saw my all our siblings - both Sunny’s and mine- who were in India waiting to receive us. Spontaneously, I waved out to them animatedly, and only then remembered that it was not a happy occasion that had brought them all there together to receive me. I told myself I should behave, but try as I did, I simply could not put a lid on my excitement. What I was I so happy about? The meaning of their presence there? Or was it that I was just happy to be alive to be at the receiving end of all that affection? I do not know. But one thing I knew for sure. My God was with me.
Difficult days followed my arrival in Kochi. Chemotherapy was everything I had feared it would be. But the ordeal was not mine alone. Looking back I’m amazed at how so many people threw themselves into this mission of helping me tide over this terrible crisis.
Sometimes well meaning friends tell me I should put those traumatic days behind me, and look ahead. But how can I do that? The twelve months that followed the diagnosis was a period in which the film fell from my eyes and I soldiered on through traumatic but apocalyptical days to arrive at the beautiful truth that no enemy can overcome us if Man and God gang up together.
But there were some few rare moments that I’d like to put behind me forever - moments when the horror stories I’d heard about the disease which afflicted me would surge up from some hidden regions of my mind and topple my mental equilibrium. At other times, images of the ravages that this disease can inflict on the helpless human being- images which I had personally witnessed- appeared out of nowhere and lingered menacingly before the mind’s eye. Those were terrible dark moments when a pall of gloom would shroud me and a heaviness seemed to settle physically in the chest cavity, almost choking me. The intensity of the feeling would soon diminish but its fall out was a feeling of withdrawal from life, a suspension of that sense of belonging to the stream of life flowing around me. The people with whom I interacted – even my close ones – would then seem to inhabit a world that was no longer mine – or would not be for long. Believe me, those were moments of utter loneliness when I felt no one could reach me.
It was in one such moment that my brother came to tell me that his son, my nephew was releasing a music CD that he had composed and that he wanted me to be the first customer. He asked me to get ready for the small function that that was to be organized in my sister-n-law’s house where I was during the period of treatment.
‘You’d better hurry”, I told him. “My hair has started falling”.
“So what”, butted in my young nephew Sunil. “It’ll come back”. He said it casually, as though I was making much do about nothing. Sunil’s conviction about a return to normalcy, and the dismissive tone in which he referred to my illness had the impact of lightening that heaviness in my chest.
Strange, how that little episode blew away the oppressive dark mood. With all the excitement about and preparation for the CD release rituals, I was, without my realising it, abruptly yanked back to the life I had begun to lose grip over.
The mind does not always obey us. It sometimes strays into areas around which we would, if possible, have put an electric fencing. But I am glad that these desolate areas are generously spotted with oases in which the truant mind can dwell, forgetting the arid misery that surrounded these cool regions. Heart warming memories inhabit these oases. Not great heroic deeds that call for Homeric similies to describe them; but their impact on me lies beyond words and they leave me speechless with gratitutde - - -
Like my husband’s sisters whose kept aside the normal routine of their lives during the entire period of the chemo cycles!
Or my siblings who were always around to accompany us to the hospital , doc’s house - -
Or My daughter arriving from the US like a santa with suitcases fill of food supplements to fortifiy me against the disease, or going down on all fours to scrub and clean and carve out a super sterilised space for me.
Or my son rushing down funds even without asking us whether we needed it.
“Have dates and six pieces of cashew nuts daily. It’s a tested and tried diet to sustain normal blood count”. That was the then Manager of the College where I worked, a priest whose rough and tough exterior scarcely revealed his real nature. His call came while I was hospitalized for neutropenia management. I was touched, to say the least.
“Take this daily”, said my younger brother, handing over a tin of Amway’s food supplement. He earnestly pointed out how one of our relatives who was afflicted by cancer a decade ago was still around, despite the prognosis which gave her not more than a year.
“Miss, I just wanted to hear your voice. Take it easy. You’ll be fine. This is part of life”. My lawyer friend from Changanasserry.
“Amma, will you loose your hair?”. My son from far away. Helpless. Miserable. Unable to make an effort to sound normal. It was my turn to sound frivolous “Yeah yeah. You know I always wanted to chop off my hair, but never had the guts”. I didn’t fool him any. “It’s Ok, so long as you are OK”. There was something in his voice which told me he was not OK.
Tender coconut water was the only thing I could stomach in those terrible days when my whole system was revolting against the fumes of chemo. My sister-in-law’s husband used to pick them up every day whenever he saw them while driving, in order to ensure that the shortage in our nearby market did not hit me –with the result that at one point, there were enough tender coconuts in the house to start a business.
It warms my heart when I think of my son-in-law, who had come down from the US, bringing his aged parents from Mumbai and spending a whole day with me in the room of the Ladies Hostel where I stayed during the radiation treatment, taking special permission from the sisters who managed the hostel.
A painting of Mother Mary on my wall takes me back to a day in the week before the chemotherapy treatment began. Three colleagues, all retired, pleaded to be allowed to come. I agreed, but reluctantly ‘cos I had some hang-up about being seen in my handicapped condition. After the bone surgery, I moved about – hopped about would be more correct- with the help of a walker. But the minute I saw them, I was glad they came. Not just glad - immensely happy. Suddenly we were talking of the good old days, of politics, movies – like the old times. And the disease and impending chemotherapy seemed not formidable enough to cast a shadow on me. One of them had painted that picture for me, framed it and brought that bulky piece all the way from Trivandrum. It now adorns a wall in my house, a sweet reminder that the beauty of friendship and camaraderie that we tend to take for granted most of the time.
Technology also did its part in brightening up those days. Not a day began or ended without good morning and good night text messages from Chinny, my friend and colleague from Mavelikara. She knew the dates when chemo had to be administered and send messages most appropriate to the occasion. And most of them were uproariously funny that they had the instant effect of making the world look a better place!
And then there was my brother in the USA, whom we refer to in jest as DR.Pal on account of his encyclopaedic knowledge about diseases, medicines, alternate treatments, health diet, food supplements, the works. He spent days browsing the net for information on my type of carcinoma, downloaded information regarding the success stories of certain food supplements and dietary habits in combating cancer, and consolidated, edited and sent the matter to me as attachment. He was not the only one. My niece from the US emailed a few downloads of blogs of people with complaints similar to mine, who worked their way back to normal life. Reading these material did a whale of a lot of good to me. I began to gain confidence that with a change in life style, I’d come out of it.
The room in the ladies hostel near the hospital where I underwent radiotherapy never ever looked like that of a patient suffering from cancer. Sally, my colleague kept me company during most of the 2 months I spent there. When she had business of her own to attend to, three other colleagues,Annakutty,Rosemary and Teresa or my sister- in- law maymol took over. No matter who was with me, we had a thumping time.
I sometimes wonder why people were so good to me. Like that song goes
Somewhere in my youth or childhood,
I must have done something good,
Cos nothing comes from nothing,
Nothing ever does.
But , for the life of me, I cannot remember that good deed I had done – if I did-which explains my husband’s and our siblings, or Sr. Geo Maria, my former principal’s or Sally’s or Teresa’s or Rosemole’s or Annakutty's determined efforts not to surrender me to the foe.
Yes, not a day passes without me trying to figure out what I had done to deserve so much affection from so many people. During the course of my treatment, I had occasion to meet a lot of patients and listen to the heart breaking stories of isolation during this traumatic period, of the unbearable misery rising from the absence of people to extend that hand of support, or shortage of funds to carry on the expensive treatment..
Yes. My comrade-in-arms got their act together. They were determined that I pull my self through the great trial. And I felt I owed it to them to do that.
Never, never shall I take their solidarity for granted. I consider myself singularly blessed, for, I have seen the dreadful anguish of those who were not so lucky.