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Often you come across five-word horror stories with knocking mirrors and drifting blankets but these five-words break the sanest of minds: “Yes! He has terminal cancer.”
My folks retired from Melbourne at the start of February this year. No sooner had they left, then we had the itch to import the next set of parents to our home in Aussie land. Both Shahzeel and I are creepers; we need our family to survive, more so, if we are on foreign land.
We got my father-in-law’s passport renewed and the formalities of the visa rolling. And then he got sick – without remission, as we learnt later.
“Abba, you have shed a lot of weight?” “Haan beta. I feel drained as well. I will get it tested as soon as possible.”
This conversation between my husband and my father-in-law (Abba) ended up with a plethora of tests and clinic visits, in April this year. Lassitude soon transformed into a perpetual fever which refused to leave his crippled body. It elevated every 4-6 hours and crushed each bone in his anatomy. Daily we went to bed in Melbourne hoping that he would pick himself up the next day, but then every morning, hope failed us.
Abba was given the medications for urinary infection and then Tuberculosis but nothing seemed to add up and work for him.
With the commencement of May, came Ramzan. Over the years, I have witnessed Shahzeel observe this month with the utmost conviction but this year he kneeled and begged like never before. Being an ardent practising Muslim, he drowned himself in seeking HIS blessings. Understandably, he needed it most at that hour.
It was five days before Eid, and we knew we would keep it low-key as our life felt out of balance. I just collected my car keys to pick up Mysha (my 5-year-old) from her Kindergarten when I heard him from his study.
“Haan”, I replied as I approached him in the room.
“I’m looking at the flight tickets to Kanpur and I found the one I can take tomorrow.”
“What? You are leaving for the hometown, that too tomorrow morning? All of a sudden?”
“It’s not sudden. I know I want to be with Abba. Something is wrong. I should have been there.” His sixth sense prevailed.
“What about your work?”
“I will talk to my managers. Honestly, at this point, that’s my last concern.” Like always, he was sorted in his head.
“Okay.” I placed my hand on his shoulder.
“I know all will be fine.” If anything my 18 years long alliance with him has taught me, it is to believe – in him, in myself, in us.
“I would love for Mysha and you to come along. I know she has Kindergarten to attend but then what if..” he paused.
“What?” I was not prepared for what he said next.
“What if we don’t make it on this year’s Eid and he doesn’t make it to the next year?” He said unapologetically, trusting his intuitions.
I wanted to tell him that he was overthinking but I did not because I had no idea of what was in store for us. Who knows HIS plans and HIS way of working?
After Shahzeel’s one-liner, no questions were asked. That night, I packed bags for all of us while he booked tickets for the three of us.
The plan was to go to India, give Abba the support he needed at that hour, catch hold of the correct diagnosis, and help him recover; celebrate Eid as a family, and be back to Melbourne in ten days.
As I write this, 10 days have converted into 100 in a blink. That’s life!
The very next morning as we locked the doors of our fully functional home in Melbourne, we had no notion what and when we would return to.
On June 01 this year, we arrived from 4 degree Celsius (Melbourne) to 40 degree Celsius (Kanpur).
With drooping eyelids, flying miles covering Melbourne – Bangkok – Delhi – Kanpur, we took one look at Abba, as we stepped into my in-laws’ place, and we knew it! Something was wrong, very wrong but still, we were oblivious to the severity. There was a drastic change from when we had seen him last – he was an assembly of only bones and skin, the pulp was missing.
On the same day as our arrival, Shahzeel started running in every possible direction to reach a conclusion. It’s frustrating when you can’t label a disease to align with its symptoms. You lose time and worst of all, your patience but no matter how hard you try, nothing happens before time.
Within three days of our arrival in India, came Eid, which was celebrated as festivals are meant to be – surrounded by family. I believe in the power of the photographs and so I clicked innumerable ones that day. No one can hold on to time, but thanks to this invention, we can hold on to a still moment of the time spent.
Then very next day we came out from the picture(s) to the real world and so came more tests and more visits to the hospitals. After ruling out all the other possibilities, we convinced Abba to go in for a biopsy and there it was! We finally succeeded in hitting the head of the nail and that biopsy report was the last nail in the coffin of our hopes.
The C-word made its presence felt in our lives and we knew the battle had started. A part of us whispered that we won’t win but the better part growled – we will give one hell of a fight. It was a fight between fate and perseverance, fight between faith and the second-leading cause of death in the world.
I still remember the day Shahzeel summoned the courage to take Abba for the PET scan. The metastatic nature of Abba’s cancer showed its ugly hidden face and the pancreas was identified as the primary source.
That was the day when I saw my husband’s shattered interior within the gathered exterior as he said, “Sab Khatam”. There were no room for tears in his eyes, just despair – an utter state of helplessness.
Shameel, Shahzeel’s youngest brother confided while holding his breath, “Bahut darr lag raha hai Bhabhi” (I am very scared). His eyes held fear as the words muffled from his throat.
When an unbelievable fact slaps you, you take time to absorb that piece. We could not afford to buy time to undergo the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) but landed on the sixth one fairly quickly – resilience.
As a person, I am extremely pragmatic about life. I talk about death more than I should admit. So much so, that my mother often misunderstands my nerves of steel to be detachment. I am highly emotional as a person but in times of need, I channel my inner strength as that is the only way I know, to handle a situation like this.
Shahzeel is more or less on the same lines, but then the person in question is his Abba – a combination of both mother and father to him.
When we discovered the monstrosity that had hit our shore, we came up with solutions. One thing I knew above anything was to be Shahzeel’s support system, as he would be acting so for his family. He is the eldest of the three brothers and I know how sincerely he takes his responsibilities. He could have easily divided work between the three brothers; instead, he took his father’s well-being all on himself. Some may call it ludicrous, but that’s how he rolls. Knowing Shahzeel, I find my role at the back-end. While he streamlined all his energy for hospitals and as a prime caregiver, I signed up to take care of our daughter single-handedly.
After realizing that it will be a long run, we paused our life in Melbourne to be here with Abba – the clock was ticking and we were making each moment count! I enrolled Mysha in a school here as we had no idea how long we would be here and I did not want her to miss out the routine of going to school.
A day will come when she will reset her clock to be back to Kindergarten in Melbourne but then Mysha has learnt the art of acclimatization. Nothing in life comes easy and it’s great that she is learning it early.
Thanks to the cooperation of Shahzeel’s reporting head, he started working in India for an American client. There were days he was on client calls from noon to evening followed by massaging Abba’s legs or sponging his forehead the whole night but he didn’t budge because some people are designed to serve.
If you read my work, you know what a bond he shares with his father. He is the quintessential Shravan Kumar and then one day, this phrase came with a literal meaning.
Given Abba’s situation, he has been advised palliative chemotherapy treatment, and for the initial sessions, Shahzeel and Abba travelled to Delhi. Shameel’s home in Gurgaon acted as Abba’s resting nest for those initial days. Unfortunately, the building Shameel puts up at did not have an elevator and to add misery to the persisting situation – the man stays on the fourth floor. Though Abba could walk down the stairs, climbing stairs was taxing for his frail body.
Shahzeel has always carried his family’s responsibilities on his shoulders and for those days they stayed in Delhi, Shahzeel and Shameel carried Abba in their arms to make it to the fourth floor. Life comes in full circle making these golden lines sparkle more – aaj ungli thaam ke teri, tujhe mein chalna sikhaoon, kal haath pakadna mera, jab mein boodha ho jaoon (Let me teach you to walk today, holding my fingers; one day when I am old, be there to hold my hand…)
When in a hospital, Shahzeel fed him, bathed him and helped him as he struggled with the drawstring of his pajamas. The last part left Abba red and then Shahzeel politely pitched in with, “Bachpan mein aap madad kartey they, ab hamari baari”. (You did it for us as children, now it’s my turn…)
In the last 100 days, we have been through a hurricane of emotions. Chemotherapy has become integrated with our existence. A rigid diet, inclusion of beetroots and carrots, abstinence from numerous food items, popping pills and a food chart has been synced to our home dynamics. It may be a single person who is clouted by this disease but the whole family is undergoing the ordeal.
There are times when you don’t know how to feel. You do realize what you are up against and you know it’s a tough road ahead but life moves on and so do you. We are celebrating life the way it should be. We won’t die before we actually do!
Currently, we are at a phase where we want things to be painless and peaceful. We have kept the details closest to our hearts and we intend to keep it that way. Divulging too much of the information has never done good to anyone. My father-in-law doesn’t know how to use Google and so he can sleep at night; ignorance may not be bliss, but it is doing wonders for him and we like it that way.
I am glad that we did follow our heart and it spoke to us. When you channel your inner voice, it delivers you the best – it guided us to be here and we are glad we are here now. It will be a challenge to leave him here and move to our lives in Melbourne when we do, but then we are taking each day as it comes.
Life moves on and the moments will be captured but the picture in the canvas won’t be the same again – it will feel incomplete – but then that’s the circle of life.
And then as believers, we have five-word faith stories, “We’ll fight till the end.”
First published at author’s blog
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