|Perhaps it was a foregone conclusion that we would lose our mother to that mother of all diseases - namely, cancer.
My brother, then 6, and I, only 11, had already mutely observed her illness for about three-odd years. The first I heard of it was when she was taken to some doctor on account of something that I was too young to understand. My father simply told us to stay put in the house as he was going to the doctor with her.
My mother was called Zubeda. Everyone called her Zubi, and I still think that was a very sweet diminutive. She came from a financially sound family, and as my father was usually always in financial dire straits, she fell back on her mom or her brothers to meet her personal needs.
I remember the innumerable occasions when Mom would go to the doctor, and it was at about the age of eight, or thereabouts, that I actually learnt that she had cancer of the breast - the left one, to be precise.
Over the next two years or so, we went through a gamut of emotions, from among which I remember two very distinctly: confusion and fear. The confusion was on account of the fact that no one told us, the children, just how serious the illness was; the fear was a natural consequence of the first. I remember being first afraid when Dad told us that Mom would need to be hospitalised for surgery. When I asked what was wrong with her, I was simply told that she wasn't well. The doctors were going to find out just what it was that she had.
My confusion grew even more. On the second day, dad took us to visit mom. I slunk away to where the nurses were working. I remember asking the nurse on duty why mom was being kept in the hospital. I cannot exactly recall her answer, but it was the first time I heard the word "breast" - albeit in my local language as a word that meant the same thing. She told me that doctors had put in a needle into it and taken some liquid for examination. (A fine needle aspiration biopsy, perhaps?)
In my entire earlier life, I had never heard of such a thing, and I became inexplicably afraid for mom and her well-being.
Another surgery was carried out some months later, and this time it was in a hospital that even children knew was the most famous cancer hospital in our city, the Tata Memorial Hospital.
By now, I had gotten used to the word "cancer" being thrown around our household and during our customary three-monthly family get-togethers. I learnt from one uncle that this illness usually took the life of the affected person, and that he therefore felt sorry for my brother and me. Another aunt informed me that she was willing to allow us to stay at her place whenever we felt the urge to do so.
As children, we grew up in a very small house that was barely 20 sq. m. in size. This particular aunt's house was, by contrast, at least ten times larger, and surrounded by her own little kitchen patch and a garden with a swing. My brother and I were only too delighted to accept her invitation. My father too, I must say, agreed that this was a good arrangement. Hence, for many days every few months, we would be sent off to that aunt's house, and while there, we enjoyed the new settings and forgot the troubles of our own house and of our dear mom. I remember fighting with my brother to grab the swing first thing in the morning!
When we returned home after the "mini-holidays" we would find that Mom, instead of getting better, was growing more and more thin; alarmingly to me and my brother, her hair was falling out, and she had to constantly wear a sort of wrap-around cloth to cover the sparse hair that remained.
We also detected a change in her that grew ever more with each passing day. While she continued to love us, she would often stop mid-sentence while saying something and look at us, wide-eyed, trying to recall what it was that she was talking about. This amnesia for names of objects, for our own names, for events and for almost everything else, made me utterly horrified and frightened. It appears that the cancer had spread to her brain, though at that tender age, we were not aware of the reason. I began to imagine that she was going mad - and even asked this to my grandmother - Zubimom's mother, who admonished me and asked me to shut up. Then, more tenderly than I could have imagined, she hugged me and cried profusely on my shoulder. I remember crying with her, not able to understand what had caused her to cry, but instinctively knowing it had something to do with the one person we both loved: my mom, and her daughter.
About two months before she finally breathed her last, I woke up one morning to the strident calling out of Mom's name by my dad.
Mom was lying in her bed, staring up at the ceiling, completely unaware of the sound of her name being called out. I am talking about the days when most homes in India, including our own, did not have a telephone. I remember Dad telling me to "fill the buckets when the water comes in" (we used to get municipal water only for an hour daily mornings, and we had to operate hand pumps to get it into our taps), and to try and keep calling out to Mom while he went to call the doctor.
Scared out of my wits, I remember not attending to the water when it came in; I sat there in front of Mom, weeping uncontrollably, till Dad came back with the doctor. He shouted at me for not doing what he had told me to do (he was like that - a taskmaster and very, very scary when annoyed) - and he made me cry even more. My brother, who had been sleeping till then, got up and started to cry with me.
The doctor took one look at Mom and called Dad to him, asking both of us to remain out of earshot. I think by this time, the conclusion that he had reached must have been that Mom was beyond therapy and had a very short time to live.
Dad never told us what the doctor told him, but I detected a slight change in his stern demeanour from then on. He would fuss just that much more over the two of us. He would come to school to fetch us (on most other days, we would go back home on our own in public buses). He hired a female cook to come home and make food for us. In many small ways, the house routines began to change with Mom's illness. She was hospitalised for a few days only, and from that time till the final day of her passing, we all lived a suspenseful life, waiting for that something to happen - something tangible, and yet, something that we knew should not happen. We began to see more and more relatives coming in the afternoons to visit us. We ran up costs of entertaining these relatives, of higher electricity bills, of higher medical bills, and what not. I remember how my dad and mom's brother once came to within an inch of fighting as they negotiated how the increased costs were to be met. My uncle, I think, gave in by offering some money that Dad accepted gracelessly.
Diwali came and went in November, and our vacations came to an end in the third week of that month. Over the next ten or more days, Mom's condition continued to worsen. Although she moved around and did her own things, her amnesia had worsened to the point where intelligent conversation with her had become impossible. She would ask for "that blue thing", a fixation of her terribly overridden mind for almost anything from chocolate to towel, soap, dress, pen to radio ... I remember all of us running circles around her, frustrated that we could not understand her, and aggrieved that her condition had come to this. Time and again, dad would scream at her, "WHAT THE HELL DO YOU WANT?" My brother and I would cower under the table or chair while we tried to shut our eyes and ears to this - this unnecessary tirade.
I remember broaching this subject with Dad many years afterward. He told me that while he could not remember the specific instance of his behaviour, he felt very contrite about it and often balled his fists and banged on the door or the cupboard to vent off his helplessness at the way things were turning out.
On the fifth of December, Mom, in a moment of stark lucidity, reminded my brother that it was his birthday that day (it was), and also told him to call up Yunus - a friend of my brother - and wish him happy birthday as well as it was his birthday too (it was). She even asked my brother later in the evening how his friend's birthday party had gone (my brother HAD, in fact, been invited to Yunus's party, and he HAD gone, carrying with him a packet of biscuits as a gift for his friend). My brother replied that the party had been great. This was the last lucid conversation mom had in her life.
The next morning, we woke up to once again find her unresponsive, eyes open and staring right up. While Dad went to fetch the doctor, I remember dutifully filling the buckets with water as my brother and I took turns working the hand pump. While we were doing this, we heard Mom uttering a sharp sound. We both ran out to see what had happened and found her body jerking spasmodically.
It was a fit, or a convulsion, as we doctors refer to it. When her body stopped convulsing, she remained still, with eyes closed, her breathing coming in rasps. I ran to her side and tried to shake her awake. My brother came up to us and also started shaking her, following my action, as a younger, adoring sib will.
There was no response. Mom continued to breathe jerkily, eyes closed tightly. I tried to physically open them and begged her to look at me, saying "Look at me, mama, look at me!" repeatedly, but to no avail.
The doctor came and recommended that she be shifted immediately to a hospital nearby. Both my brother and I kept crying while Mom was lifted on to a stretcher and carried down where an ambulance waited to take her to the hospital. That was the last time we saw her alive.
Within two hours, we were summoned to the hospital by some of my relatives.
When we approached the bed where she lay, sleeping as if resting peacefully for the first time in many years, I knew that she was no more. Neither I nor my brother cried at all. We went and touched her face and sat down next to her. I told my brother that she was dead. My father and many other relatives looked on from where they stood around us. After a few more minutes, dad asked us to go with him outside the room. He hugged both of us and surrendered us to my uncle, who arranged for the two of us to be taken to his place while the formalities were sorted out.
After some six to eight hours, both of us were taken to the local mosque where Mom had been "prepared" for the burial. We were allowed to have one last glimpse of her. I remember looking at her face, so serene and composed, and the first thought that came to me was, "I think she is finally free from pain".
I cried a lot in the next few days, but all other emotions were drained and I remember looking forward to the Christmas holidays (we have just nine days of holidays in Christmas, from 24th December to 2nd January) as the fact of Mom's passing slowly faded from the top of my mind and became a never-to-be-forgotten memory.
This is the first time I have ever written about my mother's illness. I urge readers to comment upon it and tell me if it touched them at all. Thank you for a patient reading.