“What is this?” the Chief asked, glowering at her over his spectacles.
“My leave application for tomorrow, sir,” replied Savya softly.
“Tomorrow is OPD day. I can’t sanction your leave,” he dismissed and went back to the case file on his desk, signalling the end of the interview.
“I’m sorry, sir. But, I cannot come tomorrow,” she said calmly.
The chief lifted his head and glowered at her again; longer this time.
“And why would that be?” he asked, mock-politely.
“We are taking a family trip tomorrow. I need to be there for that,” she replied in the same soft voice.
“You don’t need to be anywhere but here, in the hospital!” he thundered.
“I’m sorry, sir,” she said again, “I can’t miss this trip.”
Dr. Bhupesh, the Chief of second unit in the medicine department, prided himself on running a tight ship. Not once, had a subordinate, an intern, no less, had refused to do his bidding in this manner. His eyebrows bunched together and he could feel the saliva drying up in his mouth from all the sympathetic stimulation he was receiving. He regarded the girl standing in front of him gravely as ready-made threats of repercussion ran through his mind.
She was short and thin- a chit of a girl really. Her hair tied back, her apron appropriately white and uncrumpled and standing with her head straight and hands behind her back, he would have found nothing wrong with her if she hadn’t just taken the liberty to not adhere to his command.
“If you don’t show up tomorrow at 9 am sharp, I am going extend your duty for no less than a month during which you will report to me every morning at 9 and every afternoon at 2. If you want that, you can take your leave tomorrow. I am not going to sign this!” he swept her application off his table furiously.
“Okay, sir,” the girl said and leant down to pick up the paper. If she was shaken, it didn’t show on her face.
Her calmness in the face apparent danger only served to irritate the egomaniac in the chair.
“Okay, what?” he snapped.
“Okay to the extension, sir; because I can’t come tomorrow,” she replied, still polite.
Suddenly, the man felt deflated. None of his usual party tricks seemed to work on this girl and now, his arsenal was empty and he felt drained.
“Where to is this trip that makes it is so important?” he asked, completely baffled and secretly curious.
“I don’t know, sir,” she replied, a little smile playing on her lips, “The entire family is together on this trip. That is why it is so important.”
“You mean it is one of those 40 people packed in one bus kind of a trip?” he spat, his lip curling in disdain.
“Oh no, sir! It’s just my mother, father, sister and I,” she corrected him, smiling happily.
“That’s a trip you can take anytime then! Go on that trip some other time and come to the hospital tomorrow!” the man ordered, glaring at her.
“Sorry, sir. We might not be able to take it anytime,” she shook her head, “You see,” she continued calmly, “my mother has cancer.”
The doctor sat stunned in his seat and not because “cancer” was a foreign word to him. in his 30 years on the job, he had seen too many cancer patients to count and talked to innumerable members of the victims’ families and yet, this was the first time he met somebody with such self-containment. She might have said “my patient has diabetes” and the emotion in her voice wouldn’t have been any different. Yet, he couldn’t bring himself to call her callous.
He sighed and put his hand out for the application. He signed it and said, “This will be counted as two leaves for you.”
She nodded her head eagerly and bounced out happily. Only then did it occur to him, what it was that stumped him earlier- he had just witnessed, for the first time in his life, a person who made peace with cancer.
Everybody wonders. How can she be so casual about it?
It wasn’t easy.
We weren’t like this 7 years ago, when mom was first diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a healthy sized lump in her left breast- upper quadrant, painless, fixed to the underlying tissue. That was the first time I saw a breast examination. Later on, I took such a case in surgery rotations many times. But, the most vivid recollection I have is of my first case- my mother.
There is so much of apprehension in the word “cancer” itself. Mom cried when the doctor first suggested the diagnosis. She underwent all the investigations- FNAC, biopsy, serum markers…
When the diagnosis was finally confirmed, I think she was so shocked that she forgot to cry. There is an eternally optimistic part of our brain that seems to kick into action when we receive especially bad news. It tells us, “No, you are fine. Everything is fine.” And it repeats it so often that you believe it and in turn, disbelieve the news that you just got. My brain did that to me when I was 13 and received the news that my grandfather had died. I think the same thing happened to mom. Her brain was so busy telling her that everything was fine that it forgot activate the lachrymal system.
Dad cried. It was the first time I had seen him cry. He was standing out in the balcony and rubbing hard at his eyes. He didn’t let mom see how scared he was though. He wanted to be her rock.
My sister, Geetika, was 14 then. More than the diagnosis, what scared her was the way my parents went around with long-drawn faces after that. They didn’t want to tell her. But, she suspected something was wrong the moment we returned from that fateful trip to the hospital. That night I told her everything and held her as she made me promise that mom won’t die.
What did I do? I went online and devoured everything there was about breast cancer. Medscape to WebMD to forums for cancer patients to blogs of the survivors. I was still behind mom though, she was even more thorough than me. By the end of the week, we could both hold a discussion that would leave a lesser doctor in the dust. In the end, we agreed upon radical mastectomy.
The surgery, though, was only the beginning. Weeks of chemotherapy followed. There would be days when mom was so weak that she could hardly lean into the vomit bucket on her lap to throw up what she had eaten a minute ago. Her thick, lustrous hair fell out in clumps. Many nights, she cried herself to sleep. Many more nights, she couldn’t sleep at all. Her eyes became sunken, her cheeks hollow and she lost so much weight that her clothes seem to slip off of her.
It was difficult watching her go through it. I always had the commonly held fear of cancer. But, now, I hated cancer for what it was doing to her. There were times when I wished it was me in the bed instead of her. I would pray for anything, anything to return my mother to me as she used to be.
The stress took its toll on all of us too. Geetu’s grades slipped. Dad was suffering along with mom- through her sleepless nights, through her depression, through her pain. My studies took a backseat. The house that once used to be tinkling with laughter became more barren than a forgotten grave in a forgotten cemetery.
Then one day, mom woke up and discovered that all four of us were sleeping in the same room; that the four of us had spent more time together in the last one year than ever before and that in spite of that, all she could remember were heavy sighs and salty tears and the smell of a sterile hospital room. Mom realized that if she were to die tomorrow, these were not the memories that she wanted to take with her.
That day, we made a pact. We decided that no matter what happens, we were not going to let death take us while we are still alive. The pall on the house had to lift and for that, the effort had to come from us.
Mom made the start by smiling more. My sister began to start each day by giving thanks for what we do have and dad helped by hugging all of us more than ever before. Slowly, our facial muscles adapted to laughing again. Gradually, our minds began to venture out of the cancer-induced darkness and appreciate the visible wisps of light outside.
It wasn’t easy. But, it was a much-needed beginning.
It was two days later, when the attending doctor pulled her into a corner after rounds and demanded to know if her mother, indeed had cancer.
The attending shook her head and wondered why she never told any of them.
Savya shrugged and said, “I didn’t think it was such a big deal.”
Her attending stared at her like she couldn’t believe her eyes.
“Not a big deal?” she almost shrieked, “What is her stage?”
“Then, how can you say it is not a big deal?!” now, she did shriek, “What is wrong with you?”
Savya’s eyes opened wide. “Umm..” she stuttered, “My mother doesn’t think it’s a big deal. Then, what is the point in me thinking so?”
The attending shook her head again. “I don’t understand you, Savya. But, if you need any off time or anything else, then come to me,” she said and walked away, still shaking her head.
Mom slowly, but surely, got better. We were so happy and so proud of her and of ourselves that we pulled through it. We made it through together. Mom began to go back to work, slowly increasing her hours. Our life was almost back to normal.
Dad started to stay late at the office again. Geetu went back to being her chirpy self and I cleared my entrance exams. I was going to become a doctor; like the one that cured my mother.
Mom started cooking again too. Whenever I came home for holidays, I would get mom-made dal and mom-made halwa. Then, the summer after my second year, along with food, I got some news too.
The cancer was back; this time in the right breast.
My hand starting shaking and nausea kicked up from my stomach. “We were done!” I wanted to shout. I wanted to scream that this is unfair and demand a fair trial. I wanted to do a lot of things that wouldn’t have helped at all. So, I left the table, went to the toilet and did the only thing that seemed helpful- I threw up.
For the rest of the day, I locked myself up in my room and refused to see my mother.
The next morning, Geetika banged on my door loud enough bring it down. I opened the door (only to save it from a nasty end) and was awarded with a tight slap to my face. I could only stare at her in response, my shock was that great. Never had my younger sister the guts to slap me; kicking? Yes; hitting on the arm? Yes; knock to the head? Yes; even the occasional punch in the belly? Yes. But, a slap? Never!
“What is wrong with you?” she whispered through gritted teeth and pushing herself into the room. “Seriously? What is wrong with you? Is she not suffering enough? Do you want her to cry again? How can you do that to her? Don’t you realize how upsetting this is?”
“I..I..I….what did I do?” I finally exclaimed, red building up in my cheeks and in my chest.
“She is the one with cancer!” my sister pointed a finger furiously towards the door, “She is the one who gets to have a drama! Mom! Not you! All you get to do is support her, hold her up and take bloody good care of her!” She poked me hard in my chest with her rather pointed index finger, “Act your age, Savya! Or if not your age, then your profession!” She glared at me.
Tears that had already built up during the tirade, now started rolling down my cheeks.
“I..I’m…” I was choking on my own words.
Just as suddenly as she burst into my room, my sister was hugging me. She held me tight and let me cry all over her favourite night shirt.
“I know…its ok…I know…” she whispered.
It was only half an hour later that her co-intern and friend, Mihir, plopped down in the seat next to her and leaned in close, “So…your mother has cancer. Do tell me that it’s only a rumour?”
Savya turned in surprise. She put her finger on his forehead and pushed his head away from hers.
“Personal space, remember?” she said, turning back to the injections.
“Tell me it’s a rumour!” he whined
“Why would I make up a rumour?” she questioned wonderingly, “Of course, it is true.”
“Auntie has cancer?” he yelled.
“Yes and now, the next town also knows,” she said, exasperated.
“Bu…but…” he stuttered.
“What?” she finally turned to face him.
“I met her like hardly a month ago!”
“She didn’t look like a cancer patient to me, Savya!” he stage-whispered.
“And that is why you don’t have your degree yet!” his friend quipped.
“Seriously, Savy! Is she on chemo right now?”
“But, hair fall…cachexia…bad general condition…” he stopped himself.
“She’s using a wig for now and trust me, she used to be much heavier,” she chuckled.
Mihir stared at her for a moment.
“I still don’t get it. How are you being so casual about it?” he asked finally.
Savya shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess you can get used to anything if you are around it long enough.”
“Long enough? How long has it been?” he asked, surprised.
“Hmm…let’s see. The first time was about 6..no 7 years ago. That receded; then developed in the opposite breast about 4 or 5 years ago and finally, 18 months ago, we found liver mets. So, 7 years, we’ve been living with a new house guest,” she smiled.
“7 years…wow…I don’t even know what to say…” Mihir looked flabbergasted.
“Why do you have to say anything?” Savya said softly. Then, she patted him gently on the shoulder, “Don’t worry. She’s fine. Actually, she’s better than what you’d expect.”
That was the last time I turned my back on mom.
That day, after I calmed down, I went and hugged mom and apologised for my entirely unforgivable behaviour. Later that evening, we renewed the same pact that we had made some three years ago.
Yes, we had to live under a cloud called cancer. But, as long as we were all together, we decided we could at least enjoy the rain.
The treatment this time was even more protracted than last time. The surgery and chemo did only so much to help and mom never fully recovered from its side-effects before her liver metastasis was discovered and she was classified stage 4 (we don’t like the word terminal around here).
We still go through hell and back with her every three weeks. But, interspersed within those intervals, are moments of unadulterated happiness and stories of familiar fun.
Like the one, when we took mom wig shopping. Never before, I think, did we have such an avid photo shoot. We even have one of dad in an afro. As for Geetika and I, we were collecting ammunition against each other to be used when the time’s right. After all, what better details to share with your sibling’s friends than the ones which are most embarrassing.
Or the moment, when we gifted mom a poster of sorts for her birthday made with a collage of all our photos. She hung it up above the bed and surreptitiously wiped away a tear.
“I think I should start wearing shirts now. What do you think?” their mother looked at Geetika and Savya.
They were spread out under a shady tree and opening the lunch packets that were packed for the trip in the morning.
“You could. You are all flat-chested now anyway,” Geetika said.
“Yeah. They are so much more comfortable than sarees too,” Savya concurred.
“Ah! But, sarees are so airy,” their mother sighed, “I bet I’m the one feeling the coolest right now,” she challenged.
“Sure mom. With that logic, next time I wear a short shirt or mini skirt, you shouldn’t object!” her youngest daughter pounced.
“If she can’t, can I object?” their dad jumped in.
“Spoilsport!” Geetika pouted.
“And it is different for you two,” their mother added, “you are young and desirable; no breast cancers or mastectomies.” She laughed.
“Round 1: Mom and dad-1; Geetika- 0!” Savya declared.
No, we do not know how much time we have. We do not even expect to know how much we are given. What we do know is that the amount of time never mattered, it’s what we did with it that mattered. So, we are out to make the best of what we have. And when you have people as determined as we are, do you really think we’d let something stupid- like cancer- stand in our way?
Oh hell! No!