By Sowmiya Ashok Feb. 22, 2017
My mother and I lived under the same roof after two decades and clashed, as mothers and daughters do, about “settling down”. All that changed when I got a renal tumour.
Inarrowly missed losing an eye when I was 11 years old. The rains had left the front yard slushy and my canvas shoes sent me flying toward the sidewalk when I ran to catch the school bus. I remember holding on to my face; blood dripping on my white uniform; and hearing my father, as he bundled me into our Maruti Omni, say: “We won’t tell your mother about this. She will worry.”
Twenty years later, I hung about in the arrivals lounge of the Chennai Airport waiting nervously for my mother who was aboard a delayed British Airways flight. We hugged each other tightly when she arrived – a long and reassuring hug, halfway between the arrivals gate and the Madras Coffee House, with her luggage trolley adrift, in everyone else’s way. We stood there and silently told each other we would get through whatever lies ahead.
A fortnight prior, my world had spun on its head and here was my long-distance mother responding to the news in her signature way: promptly flying halfway across the world, changing into her super-mom costume somewhere over the Middle East, and storing all her energy to gift it to me.
In late August 2016, my mother had moved with a giant shipment to New York City for a new job, motivated largely by proximity to me. We would live under the same roof after two decades and we would clash, as mothers and daughters do, about our distinct definitions over “settling down”.
Two months later, with a strange inkling that I was never to return, I flew out of JFK with airfare borrowed from her, packing my bags for a brief holiday in India. While there, I chose a Sunday morning to get a routine master health check-up. I shopped for blood tests and scans as casually as I would check off boxes while rating the ambience in a new restaurant, and joined a queue of senior citizens waiting to pee in a bottle. Many hours later, after a duty doctor had repeatedly poked my side with an ultrasound stick, I was told that one of my organs had quietly sprouted a strange growth. That evening I picked up the reports: There was a mass on my left kidney. And the dimensions were enormous.
I hadn’t been prepared for surgery. I watched my doctor at Apollo Hospital, used to dealing mostly with geriatric patients with faulty kidneys, quietly study my scans and rename my mass a tumour. Tears poured down my cheeks as I was told that this may not be good news. Renal masses were rarely benign. I had to stay strong, my life was not in any kind of danger (at least not yet), but surgery was inevitable. I might have to lose my entire left kidney.
Her stories soothed me, as if they were from the medieval ages, even as I put my faith in modern medicine that I was sure would have me back on my feet in no time.
In the weeks before my mother arrived, my agnostic self allowed friends and family to believe. I let my forehead transform into a canvas of holy powders, and quietly nodded when relatives thanked God that I had two kidneys. “People live for a hundred years with just one,” said an older relative, a certified homeopath, who offered me an endless supply of Alfa-G tonic (with Ginseng), a concoction marketed by a white woman holding her waist on the box. I texted a bunch of friends and asked if we could get together for some beers (my anaesthetist had okayed me for one stiff drink!) We sat around a friend’s living room and christened my kidney “Senthil”, and the tumour a “bowler hat”. The WhatsApp group wishing Senthil farewell had talk of constructing a giant billboard outside the hospital with condolences to a floating kidney.
If my father had been alive he would have spent the day of my surgery smoking nervously. If my grandfather had been alive he would have sat next to my mother for the entire six hours and read an ode to Lord Vishnu. But both these men had died several years ago, with one of them taking with him a sense of humour that was particularly useful in grim hospital settings. So, on December 12, as howling winds brought down 1,00,000 Chennai trees, it was just my mother in Room 2307 working on a Sudoku and sending group SMS updates to well-wishers. I had been wheeled away, after high-fiving my doctor, close to 11 am wearing pigtails, compression socks, and a carefully constructed positive attitude. My mother was told she shouldn’t expect word for at least five hours.
I spent the first night at the hospital lapping up my mother’s stories of childbirth and her hysterectomy. She spoke of the strength she derived from her mother and grandmother as they nursed her back to good health. She would repeat all of this to me in the weeks after my surgery when I stood naked in front of her, embarrassed that she had to see her grown-up daughter this way. Her stories soothed me, as if they were from the medieval ages, even as I put my faith in modern medicine that I was sure would have me back on my feet in no time.
Forty-eight hours after robotic arms, carefully manoeuvred by my doctor, sliced off the tumour along with half my kidney, I was back on my feet – gingerly – after my first solid meal in three days. My mother, who had barely gotten over her jetlag, had hovered over me with every kind of liquid item that Apollo’s menu offered. It was now time for solids. Soon she would be caught by the ward boy eating the beetroot halwa that had come for me. Our time together at the hospital contained pain, chronic constipation, an AR Rahman ’90s playlist on my mother’s iPod, and my most treasured hour: Piecing together Jayalalithaa’s 75 days in a ward just down the corridor through the vivid imagination of the nursing staff in my urology wing.
My mother and I spent four weeks together, the longest in 20 years. On our first week back from the hospital, with my stitches provoked by coughs or laughter, we watched Mr Bean singing “O Mio Babbino Caro” on television. That afternoon my doctor informed my mother that he had seen my biopsy results. It was top news: I had a very rare benign tumour made of smooth muscle and, apart from patiently resting through my recovery period, absolutely no follow-ups were needed.
I vomited my dinner on the night my mother flew back to New York. It was a tearful climax to our bittersweet time together. That night, I clutched the schedule she had meticulously jotted down for me to follow and cried myself to sleep. My mother to me was like the charging point for electric cars I had seen on my trip to California last summer. Silently passing on all her energy just by stroking my hair.
We had discovered each other as adults yet she’d allowed me to slip back so easily into being her baby. This week we marked six weeks since my surgery. “OMG I can fold my legs again without pain,” I texted her. “When the time is right, everything falls into place…” she texted back. I was reminded of something my grandmother had once told me: “When you were born, your great grandmother had read your horoscope. She had said then that yours and your mother’s lives were linked. You will keep each other strong and healthy.”
Sowmiya Ashok is an independent journalist based in Chennai. She is a graduate of the Columbia Journalism School and was a political reporter for The Hindu. She has also written for Mint.