I recall from my notes that it was the 30th of March, 2011 when it was time for the first hospital visit. I’d had had to wait for till the end of the final exams for that winter, what seemed to me as unwanted diversion, to be neglected in my purposeful inattention. Examinations were a monotone in my previously very colorful life, always a continuous, familiar dread. They were a cycle of stress and exultation, undulating between happiness, striving and achievement. Exams they were always something to be dealt with. They had always been important. Funny thing is, something had come plain detached from my brain. Disentangled. Unhinged. What the hell? You expect me to understand what happens to a voltmeter connected in series with a capacitor when my father is weak from being injected with dreadful chemicals? Exams didn’t seem to hold any relevance to my life anymore. No bearing. I couldn't connect them to anything that was going to influence my near future. They had shrunk in value and regard before what stood in front of me. Frame of Mind became an alien phrase to me, inexplicable. Because I could never quite find a term that could explain the lack of the frame of mind. I didn’t have a frame of mind. I had with me only a nothingness.
Papa had just reduced to a tiny voice at the other end of the mobile phone, and home, a small, sorry silence. Amma would leave the house before I woke up, and breakfast, lunch and dinner would be lined up for me on the table. And also at the end of the thread, silence, frustrating and impatient the subliminal fear. Fear was a leech, biting and sucking at the idling brain. The days were drugged and weary. Very soon energy, vitality and optimism had vanished from my soul. I didn’t protest the lack of purposefulness. I didn’t complain. I didn’t think. Maybe not thinking was a protection, I was isolating myself from what I perceived as horror. It was meager escape, hardly a comfort. But I choose to walk a thin line rather than dive right in and try to be a shoulder. I refused to explain, even utterance made the fear definite and solid. My acceptance of the situation would be more than gradual.
“How are you?” “Are you good today?” I was afraid to ask those questions, because I didn’t want to hear an “I feel so weak today.” How do you respond to such things? All I was a reassurance, even if it was a blatant lie. I didn’t ask questions, I got down to my knees and prayed. I prayed when I was home alone, when I was scared. I prayed for better days, I prayed for this storm to pass. And as Amma came back from the hospital with absolute exhaustion eating at her, I would just sit there and stare, not saying a word. Later, I would overhear her report the day’s work to grandmother over the phone, absorbing the details, wishing that tomorrow would be so much nicer. I was too afraid to ask.
BCNU chemo was the hardest things that he had to face. Nothing in his life had given him a greater amount of pain, and me, a greater amount of terror. It was when things suffocated me. I felt gagged by the fear. It pressed on me from all sides, so that my anger translated into crumpled bits of paper everywhere. The disquiet was a tear. Elsewhere, homework was crumpled and forgotten.
The days were ruthless in their stray, unguided dissatisfaction. They were days of endless wait, fervent prayers, and crumpled paper. They were days of hopelessness, continual distress and lingering fear. They would also come be the days of my biggest lessons. I would always remember the days before the visits for their brutal abandonment, helplessness and punishing silence.
Defining moments come.
Tomorrow is our defining day.
The clouds gathered today: dubious and murky. I risked a peep at the skies…threatening, depressing grey — sinister wisps of thought were cocooned together and growing tremendously. They gathered by the multitude. Stalling.
“What will happen tomorrow?” he asked softly, lying down on the sofa.
I saw his eyes, so childlike with it's questions. So readable. So loving. So like my Papa.
“Nothing”, I said. Nothing was a lie of an answer. A lot of things will happen, I know. But nothing bad will. The answer seemed to dissolve itself in a deliquescent conversation as he stared deep into apprehensions I was only beginning to understand.
I thought I saw a fear, but his eyes were swimming in something distant, futuristic.
The clouds were building.
I repeated in a mimicked voice, “noothinnggg will happen, pa.”
I felt my affection reach out to him.
It saturated the air.
Outside, suddenly, the cloud cover broke and it rained down like never before.
I broke free awhile, and walked barefoot on the grass and looked to the skies. They were still grey, sinister, foreboding. But it wasn't that scary anymore. It was utterly beautiful. The skies had rained down life. Everything was alive and everything was celebrating: reliving, breathing, and existing.
I wished Papa could have walked those steps to see. I know he will, 3 months from now.
After tomorrow. After the defining moment of self-belief. After that incredible courage.
We’ll need courage tomorrow. We’ll need to believe in ourselves. We’ll need to hold onto each other. We’ll need the prayers, the assurance, god. We’ll need to face this with everything we’ve got. We need to keep believing in the better tomorrow's, because I then wouldn't need to close my eyes to see a better day.
There are no choices anymore. But there is resilience, papa. There is tons of love. We can do anything.
In our defining moments, as clouds gather, we’ll do beautifully: with courage. With Optimism. With love. And THEN, the clouds will break and it’s going to rain down LIFE like never before.
Like today. Like the simple lesson that the skies taught me.
We will know courage, papa…in our defining moments. We will know courage. I’m with you.
(Tomorrow chemo includes a high level dosage of BCNU/ Carmustine: a cytotoxin. It’s a severe dose, 6 times the dose that is being administered right now. It's the highest dose he's ever going to get and it has more than mild side-effects. Tomorrow, also, I’m facing a major examination. It’s just the beginning of Finals season. Testing times. But I know we’ll both make it through. Keep us in your prayers.)
I linger on the dining table, wander to a laptop, I write, I think, I scribble: Chemical equations, homework, a little bit of poetry at the edge of post-it notes. It’s work, a distraction, a submersion. The little daily things, the chores: definitive, discreet, unobtrusively by myself. An easy pretense, but reality comes prodding every so often---as questions.
I hear her weeping in the kitchen, such a quiet, personal sniffling. I wonder what I can say, or what I should be saying. Maybe abandon the twiddling with the calculator and go hug her. Maybe just say: if you cry, well, I wouldn’t know what to do…because I always thought you were stronger than me, amma….because really, you’ve been the one who always knew everything. But then she turns around and stares right into my eyes and asks---“He’ll be all right, right?”
And then, suddenly, all the chords that hold me, all the millions of things that I am connected to, the complex, the magnanimous, the mundane, the special, the interesting…..slip away. And in that one question, I am completely blinded. It blindfolds me, and the oblivious pretense, the daily drudgery, the world, the friends, everything---evaporates. And I see only him before me, and only my papa. And I know that he’s all that ever matters. He’s my everything. I try to force this smile. It’s weak, harrowed, slow. But I manage to make it wider. “It’ll be all right….don’t you worry.”
I wonder why I should be the one saying it, like I know all the answers. Maybe she expects me to—maybe it’s my turn now. Somewhere in the back of my heart, I know what it means to love. I know that I love my papa, I know that we’ll make it, I know that nothing is insurmountable. I know that I’ll do everything, everything, everything….to make this better. Because, papa, you’re going to be alive that day when I wear that black graduation cap and throw it up in the air with a smile as it reaches the heavens! Because you are going to be there when I excitedly bang open the door and tell you I got my driving license. You are going to be there when I buy you something spectacular with my first salary, or when I cook something totally ridiculous without salt which you’ll have to gorge through and fake encouragement.
Because you are going to be proud, when we change the world.
Call me selfish, but I sort of am. And I’ve been proud of who you’ve been all along. I tell them, I tell, “My papa went to IIT.” Or “he’s travelled so many countries.”
But next time, I’ll tell them “My papa loves me.” And that, just that--is enough. It's more than enough: it's my all.
And despite everything, don’t you love those moments that we are able to get together and laugh over something entirely stupid like the lame jokes of how someone’s kid ran for the swimming pool? I love it when we can laugh like that. I love how you laugh, and how it’s so continuous, genuine, just so priceless. It sounds like it could go on forever.
And to keep hearing that: again, again & again-- there is nothing in the world that I’d want more.
When you walked in and asked me today, “Aren’t you scared that by next week I’d have completed my chemo for BMT transplant?” I clicked my pen a couple of times before you left.
I know that wasn’t an answer, but the truth is I’m absolutely petrified, papa.
But there is a greater truth: You’ll be all right.
And at the heart of all matters, THAT is an answer I know.
I wondered why it seemed so irrelevant to me, all this while. They had propounded philosophies, built stories, constructed morals, lessons. And to me, it only expressed itself with a gracious simplicity: happiness and love. That is all I ever made of it, and thought I lived on stable ground: an easy flatland, serving and eternal--like love was an immediate favor. But now, at the verge of uncertainty, hanging there precariously….I felt terror whip through me like flashes of blinding insight. Again, again and again. Distress was never more sudden.
Is it possible for a single day to change your entire existence? One word: Cancer. One thought: let him live. One hope: God. One binding force: Love. One expression: I cannot do without.
Papa has cancer. Papa has cancer, Papa has cancer….
And today morning, the only thought that occupied me was which eye-shadow would suit wedding wear. Sure. Life can change, and in a split second, take a turn of magnanimous proportions. There is such a brutal beauty to everything. And the wonder, the anguish, the hurt, the questions, the fear of it all, left me in the dark. Literally.
I tried not to be loud with the crying, as grandmother’s steady breathing ensured she was finally asleep. They had tried to be as consoling as humanly possible, but this was way beyond absolute repair. Shock is not an easy thing to handle, especially when it comes unexpected.
The soft blue curtains billowed, and the eerie other world into which I would never anymore belong stared back at me: an indistinguishable veil of velvet black feeding the blindness. Every soul, every neighbor, every known face would wake up and walk these streets to enjoy a normal day tomorrow, but I knew mine wouldn’t be the same. The unfairness was profound. As was the determination to endure and emerge: victorious. God would be the only friend.
That was going to be the longest nights of my life, bleak, degreeless and expanding to accommodate the daggers of questions that I threw at the invisible walls, at the past, at fate. It was unending and unbelievable that the scepter of longevity now rested in the hands of this evil disease, trickling through the blood of my favorite person in the whole wide world: authority with the totally wrong agents. I knew that I had no choice but to stand up, be brave and put on a fight. It was time to awaken a new me, uneasily called forth.
The violence of emotion rattled everything. There was only this darkness, this pain, this reality. The terror crawled up and through me: I’ve never known how to be brave, or responsible!!!
I didn’t want to be noble, the valiant one who is affected by all the woes in the world. I didn't wish upon such things as a child. This wasn't like a choice. I just wanted things to be normal again: things I had never been grateful for, but now knew that I would be. I wanted to travel the world with Papa, to laugh with him, to talk to him right, to do him proud, to be his proud daughter, to live, love and celebrate every little thing that we've ever shared...to be able to sit with him and go over a huge mound of dusty albums and go, "See, papa, we've done all these amazing things together! Isn't our life awesome?"
The torment was raw, as the night sky changed from the velvet to somber gray, to pink to ochre—with an approach of a new dawn, knowledge dawned like a solace.
There wasn’t much, but there was faith: we would pray, we would cure, we’d be together….and that was enough for the light to shine upon us and melt the wispy clouds of doubt away. I couldn’t care for the statistics, the words, the science of it all. I just knew….I knew that in the back of my heart, we’d heal, papa. And for all it’s worth, I knew that from today, I wouldn’t take life for granted.
Because I’ve always loved you.
And because in the end, the sun will shine upon us.
And today papa, I'll say that we've come a furlong far. Hang in there. I'm with you and I love you so much that you wouldn't believe it! :)
Because even though everything seems painful, insane, pointless, or downright scary, I'm right in saying that in the end, we wake up from every nightmare that we endure.
The mirror that hangs docile on the bathroom wall in a corner of the marriage hall concedes. I turn away from the reflection and shuffle out to take a quick peek. They are gathering. By the multitude.
It all comes back to me, pulling me behind rather forcefully as I gather unprecedented momentum. I'm at granny's place now. I allow the ancient swing of my sweeter childhood days to rock me in joyous disregard like the familiar and naïve times, legs dangling freely, weary but happily so, succumbing to a fresh batch of laughter every once in a while. Never have I felt more alive! Today had been the best of days.
Someone should have looked at me, I think. Cousin’s weddings don’t come every day you know. Neither do opportunities. And today, I had been on my best behavior. Yes, someone would have noticed me.....
Why couldn’t everything just stay this way?-- Full of nameless anticipation, quiet expectation that quickened the heart so wonderfully…...If there was something beautiful about life, I thought, it had to be this. It was amazing to be caught in this web, smiling without knowing why.
My day dreams are fantastic, but I spot intrusions. Such a bother!! Oh, those trivialities. The hiss of something in the kitchen, the loud clank of something else in the distance, a phone ringing….I ignore it all. In my peaceful reverie, everything is perfect. Needless to say, the grandparents leave the pampered kid to day-dream; Thatha attends the phone call.
It is the busy, pleasant happiness of a preoccupied heart.
It was a magical day, Papa. In fact, it was your biggest gift to me. A plane ticket home. To everything I had ever wished for. I didn’t need no Disneyland and you knew how to pick your presents. I flitted, in between the clouds, in between sleep and wakefulness. Time seems to have discovered relapse. Maybe it had stopped. Maybe, Papa, the globe was too big a place for me to fit my head into. I didn’t know.
“And my heart is too light for anything to matter,” I wrote on the 19th of August, “Anything to matter at all.”
Beneath, the bloated pacific spanned the spaces, sparkling brilliantly in its amethyst glory, and the soul felt it’s throb, the low hum of its dips and fluid curves, the playful energy which exploded on many hundreds of shores, the raw majesty in its ecstatic pulse, the assured calm that it feigned from distance, the mischief, the shimmer, the vital force. It occupied me expansively like the lingering boom of a drum gently sounded. I was overwhelmed without a reason. As it filled me, I let it, settling into sleep-- this time, unencumbered.
It was strange. Happiness didn’t come in purity. It came with the pain of going so away from you, to half way across the globe. It came with the guilt that I hadn’t said the proper goodbyes, when my hurry made me ignorant. When I had overlooked your presence, when I had laughed off your remarks, when I had buried our conversations in mad excitement. The pleasant frenzy might have bothered you…oh, why couldn’t I behave? If I told you, you’d think I would be lying. Because I don’t behave, and I don’t tell you the things I’m supposed to, I know. But you see, Papa, no matter how much I cannot behave, no matter how much I never show it so splendidly, no matter how caught up I am in a the things that will not matter, I’ll never forget to love you. And then, some more.
I knew I was heading towards something special. New Horizons were emerging. Both outside my window and within a grasp of an invisible future.
The song became lullaby, repeating again and again.
I was moving away, and towards--an adventure.
And then, I allowed the revebrations to break on distant shores.....