Saturday, November 13, 2010

They come with their stories


He’s slouching on the chair, weariness traversing the contours of his face. He has his head low as if to discipline an unnecessary reverie. A few words exchange and he finally looks this way. The brazen, penetrating eyes startle me. Somehow, they don’t seem to belong in a face so harrowed. Because the eyes have fire in them.

The doctor introduces me as an intern, and explains that I’m shadowing. I muster a meek smile and melt into the dark. A story unfolds.

Liver Cancer,” the oncologist talks, more to himself. “How do you feel?”


“You look good!”

“Well, I’m trying to.”

They talk prescription drugs and medications. The wife stays by his side, appearing natural and tolerant of the situation. She occasionally smiles, even. He is serious and sounds grave with his complaints, but she balances the talk beautifully, puncturing the gloomy conversation with something refreshing, an unusual question maybe. She’s trying hard to be cheerful, for the both of them. I pray for her to hang in there.

They’re good questions, the doctor says. We’ll do everything.

He sits back properly now, like somebody eager. Like somebody who knows he’s going to live. Like somebody who is reveling in that knowledge, like somebody who is sure of himself............

I am rather self-conscious and try to be as non-intrusive as possible. It is strange to just disappear into a corner and watch the biggest battle of life and not do anything about it.

The fire in his brilliant blue eyes still startle me. They talk progresses showing no sign of halting. He looks bored now, a little sober, I can see as they shake hands and head out the door. And then just as I start to think--- suddenly, we are done. As I scuttle after the doctor, the eyes flash with a ghost of a little hope. Something about those eyes introduce a little optimism to an agitated heart.

“Is he okay?” I ask hopefully.

“The cancer for this guy is in a serious stage. It’s metastasized to different parts of his body. So many cells to kill. It’s going to be real serious.”

The words leave me aghast. They have been brave.



The gravity if the situation is heavy in the next room, almost as heavy as the face that holds a countless wrinkles. There are pleas in this face, pleated in with the sorry helplessness of a silent sufferer. He rambles his burdens incessantly. There is no anger. No venom. No contempt. Just a complete acceptance. The weak voice is trying to push its point across, and the doctor grants him the time. As he struggles to make himself clear, his soft features mould into something empathetic, a weak-hearted attempt to look confident.

“Don’t you worry, we’ll make it go away. We’ll work as a team. We’re going to get together and come up with a nice plan for you. I’m sure we can do wonders.”

“Whatever you say.” His acceptance is unbelievable. I try to say something. The gravity is working on his shoulders, which look more burdened than I have ever seen.

I know I have to say something….but his pessimistic countenance leaves me bereft of words, the hopeless face is ridden with far more worries than I can read......


Maa.    Maaa…..”

She stirs a very very slowly, lazily. The freckled hands shakily reach out—searching, expectant. Immediately, they land in the daughter’s. They’re perfect—the ancient one interlocking the much younger one that she helped create. “I’m here, maa…”

Myeloma.” He says, “Do you know what that is?”

I nod.

We proceed.

The lady is listless. She cuddles back into her chair, like it will shelter her from all this incredulous nonsense. She is almost nodding now, fighting the sleep. The tired eyes are blinking, hazy and are dimmed by perpetual worry. Why? I don’t understand, the insolence seems to say. “Why do you make me undergo this at the age where I’d rather be doing something else? Cancer is such complete nonsense!”

There is sparse energy to her, but she’s managing. She’s pulling through. She knows she has to. I know she has been performing, and they are taking good care of her. There have been slightly depressing statistics lately, but there are better cures.

The daughter has a careful air. She is undaunted. Soon, the Myeloma should be gone. She tells me that I look awfully familiar, and I tell her I should meet her sometime. As I bid goodbye, I actually wish to never see her again. The hospital is not a nice place to make your home.

I look back. The ancient one has now dozed off, in quiet, instantaneous escape from all the torment. She has found her paradise, an exit, a way. In her own cradle, she must be going back to the times when life when she was young and unbothered by stressful excursions. I hope they will leave her unhampered for hours.


“He’s here.”

Kind, I think. It’s a kind face, a gracefully aged face, looking content today. “Thanks for calling me in today, doctor. I think you are doing a wonderful job. I believe in you.” He encourages.

“And you too, ma’m.” I return the pleasant smile. I like him.

The beautiful, intelligent face of the daughter is scribbling on a clipboard, keen and concerned.

“We’ll fix you.” The doctor promises.

The face is tremulous. A deep contentment oozes across it, reminding me of someone who is on the brink of an epic achievement. He is somebody who has lived his years well. He sighs, and then picks himself up again. “I know I can.”

“As long as you believe, I know you can too.” I talk to him within my head. We disperse. I’m touched by how the daughter affectionately walks him into the corridor. I wish to be more like her with my own father.


Here, we get many cases.” The doctor says, shuffling some pages. “And some of them are medical miracles. Like this lady. When she came in with lung cancer and an aggressive metastasis to different parts of the body, her CEA was so very high. They’ve dropped incredibly; she’s going to be an amazing survivor. She truly is a miracle.”

We heard you through the door, the husband says cordially. And we agree.

The experience has thawed her a little. I can only imagine the horrors she has faced. The voice is sharp, like a saw. She speaks in spurts, but with a depth gained only through experience. This woman is much more than just another survivor. She’s a marvel, a fighter, an inspiration.

And as I watch the miracle from a distance, I am overwhelmed. Life feels such a magnanimous gift, and some of us have to fight hard to preserve it, so securely. And as I glance upon pictures of such heroes staring back at me from glossy magazines, I feel the true magnitude of the emotion to its sincere depths. It’s time to move on.

Again and again. We see the defiant one, who refuses any treatment even if it risks her health; the shy eighty-year old who retires into her shell and talks little; the ambient and jovial young man who behaves like nothing’s the matter, the nervy and shaky soul that squeaks out in distress. I meet eyes that scream an apprehension, hope, love, trust, grit, confidence, persistence, and a mixture of many other things. The chemotherapy sessions. The nurses. The office. A biopsy. A bone marrow extraction. The world is whirling. My feelings are threatened; I’m befuddled, not knowing what exactly to feel. Everything descends on me like a comic tragedy fashioned by the gods: the baseless and shallow happiness of my life contrasting with the profundity in all these stories. My life feels inconsequential….so passing….irrelevant in front of the goliaths that come here. They are fighters. Survivors. Sometimes, soldiers. And this heart can only touch at the surface of their experiences, only wonder, only surmise….but even that much changes everything.


“The last one for today.”

I really start hoping that this is going to be different.

I know with an immediate certainty that this woman is unusual. For one, she is quietly chucking to herself and in jogging shoes. That is the first cancer patient I’ve seen today with that much genuine happiness. Even I appear more worried than her. I have to remind myself of that and correct my expression.

The brash, aggressive warmth in this punk-star and the effortless humor that tells me that despite everything, she is madly in love with life. She’s celebrating her last chemotherapy session. The triumph is alive, yelling from all over.

“So, you tell me that’s it? That I can’t come back? Oh my gosh, how rude to throw me out! For Pete’s sake, who will I tell my jokes to?”

The doctor cracks up. And then, we’re all laughing.

And as I let it go in the meaningless chortles in a sequestered room stuffed with its charts and prescriptions and languid white walls, I am grateful--grateful I came, that I tried to understand. Grateful that I was alive and that was so easy for me. To see life with its raw truths, unfolding and fighting to hang on, to see it for its unpredictability, its philosophy, its endurance….to see it through the veil of time: to see how different people face it—with courage, hope, optimism, grit, or triumph….within a single day… had moved me beyond expression, beyond rational thought, beyond everything. Today, I had seen a side of life that would have avoided even my imagination. I had stared courage right in the face.

Outside, I lifted my head up to the heavens and closed my eyes. The sun worked a mysterious charm, leaving trinkets on my skin. I inhaled some of the life around me, not knowing how much longer it would last. But despite the stories, despite the statistics, despite the pains, despite the daily struggles and hassles, despite the uncertainity, there was some amazing power to human endurance. Never had I come this close to understanding the human element, and it's inborn struggle for survival.. Despite everything, existence was beautiful.  And it was always stay that way.