Love in the Time of Cancer

Modern Family

Love in the Time of Cancer

Illustration: Akshita Monga

There are two phases in my life that will forever remain lucid. The first dates back to about 20 years ago, when I was about five. My younger siblings hadn’t yet come along, so it was mostly my mother and I. We’d spend our time writing letters to Disney to suggest alternative plotlines for the Little Mermaid, and to Santa to ask for a miniature house so my doll and bear could finally move in together. I wrote to newspapers and magazines about my thoughts, which even as a five-year-old, I was told should be expressed. It was a house full of postcards, books, music and crayons.

Of the patches of memory that shine through remembrance, that part of my life is perennially lucent. The other, under exactly opposite circumstances, is the part where my mother was diagnosed with cancer.

I remember that evening in disconcertingly sharp detail. My mother entered the room, her face contorted into an expression I’ve never seen before and have been haunted by since, and told us that she had cancer. I remember the tick of each minute as the hours passed us by as we sat on the couch, in a bundle of limbs, hugging each other and crying.

We do not weigh the world with empathy, until crisis makes us. I looked at how tiny my brother’s hands were, balled into fists, holding on to her like he did when he fell asleep, afraid to wake up. How my sister could still curl along the folds of my mother’s stomach, like a child woken up from childhood. I traced the crow’s feet on my mother’s face, furrowed by years of laughter into the landscape of her skin, growing deeper with the combined weight of all of our tears. My father stared at the horoscopes in the newspaper, unable to look in the eye, this crumpled mass in the living room. He reminded me of the facade that stands erect even when the scaffolding has collapsed.

My mother’s cancer had also come at a time when she and I were already at a difficult crossroads in our relationship. As I had grown older, acquired two younger siblings, my brain had begun swimming in a cocktail of hormones that gave me breasts in exchange for my emotional stability. My mother and I fought nonstop. None of those dainty Lizzy McGuire-esque disagreements too – these were proper metal concert mosh pits without the moshing. Words were hurled like uppercuts and we’d slug it out until a knockout.

Readers are complicated adults and therefore, complicated to parent. My mother and I had been meandering along the tedious middle of our storyline before the cancer came. And then, it was time to really grow up.

The true anthropological victory of mankind is logistics. When crisis befalls you, it comes with its own workload. Doctors have to be called, relatives and babysitters arranged, tests done, people informed, transitions made without fuss or ceremony, because time is hurrying you along lest you stop and stare at the mess you’re in. I was 17 years old at the time and I’ve carried the idea that work is an antiseptic to sadness since then – solely because without the checklists and preparations, the lunches that had to be packed, between phone calls and visits, I would not have been able to deal with this.

Of course, when you wish for something, life gives it to you in excess. There was no paucity of things that I had to do. The aunt who moved in with us to help out was less hands-on a woman than my mother, so I would wake up at 4 am to study, iron the uniforms of all the children in the house (including the aunt’s), and return from school to pack dinner for everyone in the hospital.

After the perspective-parade which took me infinitely inwards, visiting her in the hospital was the out-of-body experience that I needed.

During the time that my mother was away at hospital, was also when I began my slow journey of reconciliation with her. So much of what she had been saying filtered through to me when she was gone. One of the things that would constantly rankle me was her insistence that organising my studies was child’s play. But this crash course in adulthood really did put the triviality of say, completing a chapter, in its place.

After the perspective-parade which took me infinitely inwards, visiting her in the hospital was the out-of-body experience that I needed. The first day, she was quiet. But her eyes were wide open, staring at everyone, punctuating the low hum of conversation with a word or two. On the second day, she was animatedly ruing about how she’s so fat, that the surgeon who operated on her had said he had to go through layers of lipids to get to the tumour that had caused all the chaos. When a person who’s been diagnosed with cancer chooses to focus on their body-image issues, you know they’re planning to walk and diet the fat away once they’re up and running. That’s how you know, that they want to be up and running. I can’t express what a boost your own hope gets when someone who should give up refuses to acknowledge it as an option.

Our lives had been cut open and stitched back up. But everything heals. Over time, my mother recovered. She was still pale and spoke slowly, but she dealt with it with humour and the memory of better times.

I am told that these intense experiences inevitably change you and alter the course of your path. I am not sure whether I changed, but I just promised myself that I’d let my mother go back to that chirpy figure from my childhood; give her a break from the harried-soccer mom lifestyle that she wasn’t enjoying. So I took on that role instead.

Suddenly, I was the one fussing over whether this or that was clean, doing small chores around the house, telling the siblings to work hard. My mother, meanwhile, would gang up with the young ’uns and laugh at me. The collective jokes that they’ve made on my neurosis could fill a book.

I became the neurotic mother so my mother could become a child again. For every task that I took on, it guaranteed her a few extra hours that she could use to go for a walk, dive into her secret stash of Mills and Boons when she thought we weren’t looking, and gab on the phone with her friends. She reclaimed parts of herself that she’d lost to time, one small joy at a time. In looking out for her like that, I became the mother my mother needed. I think I’ve been that person ever since.

Today, my siblings have flown the coop. My share of motherhood is over and I don’t think I’ll have kids of my own. My only interaction with infants is their photos on my timeline and the secret mash ups I do with Idris Elba to see what our gorgeous British accented babies would look like. But I know that if I was to actually have said baby I would have the panic attack to end all panic attacks and make Idris consider his life choices.

We all make choices from our childhoods. We’re all shaped from that place. It may not be good, it may not be fair. But it’s a familial switch that flips. If we simply agree to go along, it’s a life-altering affair.