Disclaimer: This is based on a true story, the names of the characters are changed to safeguard their privacy, this is not a literary work of any sorts. This is just an attempt to share my grief even when it makes little sense to post in a public platform.
WHO WILL DIE FIRST
“Shova Auntie has been diagnosed with breast cancer”, her voice was grim over the phone.
There was a long pause. I could almost tell she was sniffling.
“I am praying it is not terminal, but then her liver has spots, and that worries me a lot”, she added. My wife and Shova Auntie had been very close through last few years.
I had met Shova Auntie a day before, in her house, few miles away from ours and had delivered some homespun achaar my wife had made over the weekend. She was as vibrant and upbeat as usual, but did complain that she vomited in the morning and was feeling a little sick.
“I hate summer” she had bemoaned, “unless it is in Michigan or Wisconsin; the heat makes me sick you know.”
I had smiled; it was nothing unusual, the heat made me sicker.
And as it turned out, it required only one act of throwing up to make a person aware she had a tumor inside her right breast. There were times I vomited few times and did not even consider going to the doctor. But then maybe that was because I didn’t have breasts.
Her daughter Meena, who she lived with, noticed the fatigue and paleness in the evening, and believed something was wrong with her otherwise extremely healthy mother. For those who knew her well, also knew that Shova auntie was ‘never’ sick, and even when she was, she never complained.
‘When was the last time you performed mammogram’ - her doctor had asked right off the bat after doing few checks on her.
The question had stunned both of them. And they remained stunned throughout the remainder of the checks. As Meenadidi would describe later, it felt like a several lightning had simultaneously struck cowboys’ stadium on a Sunny day, while Dez Bryant was at the end zone, running for a touchdown. It was so sudden, so very sudden that they did not know how to react. Worst case scenario could have been jaundice, but breast cancer? Seriously??
First part is disbelief, second is denial, and third is fear - strictly in that order when one learns about a loved one who suddenly is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Her mammogram was scheduled instantly, so was her blood work, and when they both came out positive, a day was scheduled for mastectomy.
“Keep her in your prayers” Meenadidi had told us over the phone, “her tumor is as big as a baseball.”
DID SHE KNOW ABOUT IT? WHY DIDN’T SHE TELL ANYONE?
We had met Shova auntie after we had relocated from Boston two years ago. In her early sixties, she could easily be mistaken for someone in late forties. She was very vibrant, upbeat, absolutely beautiful, generous and extremely amicable. We had developed an immediate likeliness towards her; she was so different from most of the Nepalese we had met earlier. Having lived in America for the last thirty years, she never had an ounce of conceit in her. Unlike my aunts who had lived her a little longer but considered befriending fellow Nepalese a complete sacrilege, she was a friend to everyone.
I still remember when I walked in the party of ANA a decade ago and half of the Nepalese I greeted gave me cold shoulders, as if speaking a single non-urban Nepalese word was a matter of shame. Women flaunted their expensive sarees and bareback blouses and sipped cosmopolitan quietly and their men hung out with their own crowd who looked away when a stranger greeted them with friendly smile. It was something about that stare, cold shoulder and excessive usage of Nepalese slang that I could never understand. I mean why can’t a Nepali act like one among others? Why does it always have to be about the antagonism, ego and quest to urbanize all the time?
Considering what we had been through, the instant fondness for Shova auntie was natural. She had invited us for dinner a day after we met, and I drank several bottles of beer with her, as if she was a long lost friend I had met after several decades.
We went to see her in the hospital several times after her mastectomy, and her health gradually deteriorated after the biopsy of liver. The organ was almost non-functional and the cancer had spread as far as kidneys – it was a 4th stage breast cancer. I quickly googled; the survival rate for someone at that stage was 15%, and for someone whose vital organs had been affected, the lifespan was less than six months.
I wept silently.
“As soon as I am discharged we will sit together and play ‘marriage’ all day hai?” She held my hand lying down on a bed in the hospital one Monday evening as I was visiting her. She was now on support, fluids were being given to her constantly to keep her fed and hydrated. Her blood pressure had significantly lowered and she was visibly feeble. It was after her second episode of chemotherapy.
It requires a lot of perseverance to lie on a death bed and pretend everything is going to be alright. To top it off, it requires a significant amount of bravery to actually smile and give hope to others, that she actually might make it. She knew she was going to die, we did as well, but we never spoke about it. We often joked about one of the pretty nurses who came to attend her, she wished she were a man so she could flirt with her. At other times we spoke about making biriyani, kabobs, driving to Yellowstone and the recent sale in the mall.
I wonder how people handle themselves when they are aware they are going to die soon; very soon. If it were me I perhaps would just jump off that window, and end it all before it gets worse. I cannot handle pain, I cannot handle tears and I cannot handle despair. I am feeble person, a very weak person who doesn’t have hope for oneself, let alone provide others with one. I silently lauded Shova Auntie’s courage.
In next few days she would start hallucinating and would be moved to hospice. I googled that stage again, the damn pro-med website called it ‘end of days’. This was it – the last few days and curtains. I stopped visiting her when she was moved to hospice; I had actually stopped visiting her when she was hallucinating. The nurse would tell us later that she mercilessly pounded her belly with her fists, unable to bear the pain – her liver was on fire. She begged the nurse not to disclose it to her family and friends. She was careful not to cause us more pain.
My phone rang few days later as I was preparing to sleep. All I could hear was Meenadidi choking. Shova auntie had passed away minutes ago; she died exactly five weeks after she was diagnosed with cancer.
Also, she died on her birthday.
I stared at the TV I had turned off a moment ago. I kept staring at the screen until it grew blurry. My wife silently sat beside me in the couch, her head rested on my shoulder.
We both didn’t say a word for a long time.
My little daughter crept into the living room hearing my wife whimper; she snuggled into my lap and kissed me gently. My wife’s tears were enough to make her understand something was wrong, terribly wrong. She had never seen us crying.
I held hugged her tightly and whispered into her years “Shova auntie has gone to heaven, she will be happy there”.
She nodded, as if she understood every bit of it.
Later in the night I sent an email to my director about taking off tomorrow and reached out for that bottle of Bacardi I had never finished. I mixed it with coke, squeezed a lime and gulped the entire glass in a matter of seconds. I turned on the TV once again and watched the Letterman show. I felt giddy, a little pleased for no apparent reason and wanted to do something unusual. This was the first time I had witnessed someone close to me pass away all of a sudden. My grandfather had died when I was in tenth grade, but I had always despised him and never cared if he were any better alive than dead. And although it made no sense, I felt a strong urge to call my ex girlfriend in New Hampshire and tell her I still loved her.
Ironical as it might sound, I slept very well that night. By the time I woke up, it was already 9:00 am in the morning. We rushed to Meenadidi’s house and stayed there all day. Everyone was a little relieved that she had passed away. I learnt that the sorrow of one’s departure is before and after her death, not at the time one dies. We had grieved when she was ill, and her death provided a much needed respite. We actually didn’t speak about her at all. I found a bottle of vodka in Meenadidi’s fridge, made myself a tall drink, drank it with urgency and went out in her backyard to jump on a trampoline. I jumped until my knees gave in.
In the next few weeks me and my wife spoke very less. We requested our daughter not to speak anything about Shova auntie and that discussion regarding her was forbidden in our household. At times her sudden demise would just hit me and I paced back and forth in our backyard. I had started smoking again, after going cold turkey for eight good months. Sometimes at work I almost did call Shova Auntie’s cell asking her if she wants to participate and make momo with us. I finally deleted her cell phone number a week after her death. That caused more pain than learning about her death a week ago.
I still sit on that couch and watch TV every night, my wife still sits next to me and watches along. Like I mentioned above, we speak very less. We both have realized that the person who departs only has to bear the melancholy until she dies. For the ones who survive, the suffering is forever.
Me and my wife both stare at each other sometimes and ask silently.
Who will die first?
Last edited: 18-Jul-12 07:23 AM