Yesterday I felt out of sorts. The first day of the week was starting badly. For the first time, some operational issues at work seemed insurmountable. After a rather sobering meeting with my partners, I left for the day.
I needed to bring my mother to a specialist. To check a persistent condition – incessant coughing when she drinks. Her voice is now hoarse. Doctors explained it as a sign of her throat muscles weakening with age. As her cough worsened, I spoke to an ENT doctor friend. He asked to see her as soon as possible.
The day started badly. The afternoon was about to get worse. A lot worse. Within minutes of inspection, the doctor was certain my mother’s condition was not related to her throat muscles. The look on his face told me I was about to experience the delivery of bad news. One I read about, watched in movies, heard in stories related by others, but never experienced first hand. He spoke steadily without mincing his words; in a manner I got the facts without any unnecessary negative emotion beyond what the news would bring.
My doctor friend has an upbeat face. He speaks with the most reassuring tone of voice. Yet I had to reprocess what he said in my head. I heard my mother has a tumor growing in her thyroid. The medical terms kept coming. I was asked to google ‘Palsy Paralysis’ and ‘Recurrent Laryngeal Nerve’.
Gradually I understood. My mother has Thyroid Cancer. The tumor has paralyzed her left vocal cord and if the coughing persists unabated, there is a chance of lung infection. This tumour may spread. This, the doctor said, “is a nasty tumor”. Despite this description, I had to ask something that made sense in my world of comprehension, “so is this tumor malignant?”
The doctor gave me a which-part-of-nasty-don’t-you-understand look. “Yes, very much so” he said. I finally got it. The C word was never spoken. My mother could start connecting the dots and be unduly worried. Sitting in one corner, Siti was trying to make sense of the whole session. The room started to spin like a dream sequence in ‘Inception’. But I was standing still.
“Of course we have to send her for tests. It is late now. We will arrange for a thyroid ultrasound and chest X-Ray tomorrow morning. We will also take some issues from the tumor for examination.” the doctor said. He added he was 99 percent sure of his prognosis.
I looked at my mother. She smiled at me. At that point, something clicked. She may or may not know. Like some major issues in our lives, she has chosen not to ask. But her smile was brave and real. I told myself – I need to be brave. I will grieve, I will be afraid, I will be sad. But I will be brave.
I resumed what I thought was normal and constructive conversation with the doctor. We arranged for what needed to be done today. In the car, she was her cheerful self. Siti was holding back tears and looked away. I texted and delivered the bad news. The hard truths. To loved ones. To friends. To colleagues.
How does one prepare for such an episode in life? What does one do in the hours that follow such a piece of news? The times I spent with my mother flashed on the windscreen as I drove home from the hospital. From a very difficult, temperamental, not unloving mother, she changed practically overnight into this perennially happy and positive person when she was almost 70. Some cynics will have you believe no one can really change, especially at her age. But change she did.
While I tried to cope with this reality, I kept asking how could something positive come out of this? There is something my mother and my whole family worry about me – my monster of a temper. It has plagued my entire adult life. Followed me like a sinister shadow. Walking away from this shadow will be life changing. Looking at my mom, I made a silent promise. To make this change. However difficult. It is something she has prayed for.
When we reached home, I decided to buy durians for her. It is her favorite fruit. On this day, I wanted her to enjoy this fruit.
Today the ultrasound and X-Ray went smoothly. But we needed to wait two hours for the results. When we saw the doctor again, it was pass noon. He explained pretty much the same facts, this time my brother and sister were also present. At 86, surgery and chemotherapy are not options. Yet other means of treatment cannot cure her growing cancer.
I didn’t sleep well. But not badly. I knew I would have a full day ahead. I told myself I would be strong for today. And the days ahead. Those days with my mother. And those when she is no longer with me.