The Trunk of the Banyan Tree

A cancer survivor being treated at a hospital in Srinagar. [FPK Photo/Zainab]

On Mother’s Day, Free Press Kashmir presents a story of a brave mother who put her family first in the wake a tragedy before falling to a grave malady.

Part I

Autumn of 2018, we were at our cousin’s place. Alrabie was getting married. Though we always imagined that his younger brother, Mehab, would get married first, but life doesn’t always work out the way we expect. It reminds us from time to time that we cannot take control of it.

The winter of 2017 refused to end like usual. It took Mehab away from us suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving a lot of things unfinished. It is difficult to realize such a sudden loss.

Some of us were still in denial. The regret of words unsaid, gratitude unexpressed, not enough time spent, and questions unanswered.

It was the first wedding in their family; the house was jingling with lights. A few extra strands were added as if to fill the darkness that Mehab had left behind. It took us two hours to put those lights in place. Zahra brought me a cup of tea. The singing of Kashmiri folk songs hasn’t stopped since the morning. Perhaps everyone was afraid of silence.

As I was sipping my tea, the soft rustling of autumn leaves became more evident to me and the music from inside began to fade. I began to think of Mehab; how he slept one night and didn’t wake up, and I realized it wasn’t just me. I knew he was commemorated by everyone in the house that day. I wondered if it would be easier if we were aware of how much time our loved ones have with us. The train of my thoughts suddenly came to a halt when I heard my mother’s sweet voice calling, “Aizdihar Aizdihar.” I knew she wouldn’t stop until she saw me. I rushed inside the living room. She gave me a long list of chores and hurried to the kitchen. Following her, I put the empty cup in the sink. Seeing her with Mehab’s mother put me at peace. My mother has always been compassionate and empathetic. Her energy was so loving and positive that no one could be worried around her. I volunteered to help the men out in the backyard.

Later that day, when I was serving kahwa to the guests, my younger sister rushed to me. Samah would always run to me when she didn’t know what to do. She took me to the room where my mom was sitting. Mom didn’t seem well. I asked her what was wrong. “It’s just a slight pain, don’t worry about it,” she calmed us down. “But where is it hurting?” I inquired. She took her hand and placed it on her chest. I asked Zahra for the keys to my car to take her to the hospital, but my mom refused. She expressed that she couldn’t leave as the ceremony was about to begin. She assured us that she probably wouldn’t need a doctor right away, but she would consult one after the wedding is over. She asked Zahra for a glass of lukewarm water and smiled at me, saying, “It will go away.” I sighed in relief as I believed her. Zahra got the glass of water and sat beside her. Zahra wasn’t my blood sister, but my mom always considered her, her own and she was always found around mom, even more than me or Samah.

As the night progressed, the pain in her chest worsened, but she didn’t wake us up. We got to know about it only in the morning. We insisted on heading to the hospital, but she managed to convince us again that it wasn’t going to last. We had her blood pressure checked and gave her medicine for the time being. She would feel better for some time, and in pain sometimes, but she stayed right there for Alrabie and his mother until the wedding wrapped up.

The very next day, we visited the nearby hospital for her check-up. The doctor advised a few blood tests along with an ECG, EEG, and a radiograph of the chest. It took us a whole day to complete all the investigations. Everything was fine according to the doctor. He prescribed only one medicine for a few days and said that there was nothing to worry about. We were relieved, but the pain continued to come and go for the next few weeks. We decided to take her to a specialist.

It was a four-hour drive followed by an hour of waiting. The consultant advised us to have a breast biopsy. It got Abu worried. I told him to have faith, even though I was worried in my heart. I could pretend that I was calm in front of Abu, but my mom could see my heart right through my eyes. So, she inquired about the procedure and asked me to stay positive.

On the day of the biopsy, mom woke up early, earlier than Abu, or maybe she didn’t sleep at all. We had a quick breakfast and made our way to the hospital. I was afraid because I knew the doctor was looking for cancerous cells. I didn’t want her to be taken to the operating room, but I also wanted to be done with the procedure as soon as possible. As she waited calmly, I looked at her. As much as I was afraid, I was equally confident that no such thing would touch her, that it was all being done to rule out any doubt.

The nurse called out, and before I could get up to take her to the OT, mom walked herself. She looked back from the theatre door to make sure we were alright.

Perhaps every mom is like that, putting everyone else’s comfort above her own. Even at that time when we should have been her strength, she was ours. For about ten minutes after mom walked in, I was constantly talking to Abu, whether to assure him or myself, I didn’t know. After that, I ran out of words. We sat there in silence for a while. Then I headed to the canteen to get Abu a drink. He was making the rounds of the corridor as I returned with the tea. “How long is it going to take?” he asked me. It felt like a lot of time had passed, but when I looked at my watch, only 35 minutes had ticked by. I seated Abu in the waiting area, but he stood back up quickly, looking at something behind me. I turned around, the light above the OT door indicated that the procedure was over.

We took mom home. They had to send the sample to the lab. It took two days to hear back from the lab. Those two days were all about being optimistic because mom wouldn’t let us lose faith for a second. The weather was getting colder every day. I was sitting in the dull sun with Samah and Zahra when my phone beeped. It was from the lab, with a link to access the report.

Samah was talking to me about something that I don’t remember. My heart was racing as I was logging in. I couldn’t figure out a word of what Samah was saying. Suddenly, the sun disappeared behind the clouds, and the last rays of sunshine that were there also disappeared. Samah and Zahra stepped inside to warm themselves. I sat there frozen. I was reading the report, again and again, hoping that I might have read it wrong. I was unable to get up from the chair. They had found a cancerous lesion in her right breast, as the doctor suspected.

At that moment, I had no idea what I was supposed to do. I gathered myself together and forwarded the report to the doctor. Someone wrapped me in a blanket from behind. It was mom. She sat in front of me and held my cold hands in her own. Her hands were warm, just like her heart.

She didn’t know about the report, and I didn’t know how to tell her.

We visited the doctor the next day. He referred us to an oncologist, who advised a Modified Radical Mastectomy. I was unable to process all of this. Just a month ago, we had no idea what awaited us. Life takes such adverse turns sometimes that it is challenging to make decisions, but there was nothing to decide; this wasn’t a choice. The mastectomy was scheduled for 20 days later. I did not know how to prepare mom. It’s not easy to give up a part of your body, especially as a woman. The part that is associated with femininity, beauty, and above all, motherhood. I was afraid that the mastectomy would affect her mentally almost as much as it would physically, but again, we had no choice. As worried as I was about telling her about it, she was surprisingly calm. The news couldn’t shake her faith and patience. Seeing her bravery gave me courage as well. She looked at me, then at her chest, then again at me. It broke my heart a little.

Those twenty days passed sooner than usual. We realized ourselves sitting at the hospital, waiting for the OT to be prepared. The day of surgery was here. We drove early that day, accompanied by Mamu and my cousin. It was the onset of winter. The sky had lost its vibrance and turned grayish. Abu looked pale as well. Whatever was going on inside mom’s mind, she didn’t let it appear on her face. She looked like a warrior, all set to enter the field. We were all fighting a battle, trying to hold back our anxieties, but her was the toughest, and she was tougher than that.

She asked me if I had informed Samah that we had reached. I had forgotten to. It was hard to concentrate on any other thing at that time. She placed the call herself, but before it could connect, the nurse came out of the operation theatre to notify the doctor that it was ready. I got up from my chair in a panic, so did Abu and Mamu, but mom was still composed. She smoothly talked to Samah, disconnected the call, and before the nurse could bring the stretcher, she got up herself and passed me the phone. Her hand touched mine. I felt like holding it but couldn’t.

She then undraped her shawl and handed it to Abu. There was a bundle of hope wrapped up in that shawl. Love has weird ways of expressing itself, but it always finds a way to be felt amongst all the chaos, the absurdity, and the cruelty of life. She was looking at his face, but Abu’s eyes stayed pinned to the shawl. It seemed like he was avoiding eye contact on purpose. Perhaps he didn’t want mom to see the fear in his eyes. That would have weakened her, but weaknesses have to be turned into strengths when it’s for the sake of our loved ones. Mom turned around towards the theatre at the same time Abu took the shawl, both looking confident, as if they had made a pact to stay strong, in that very moment. Displaying the proof of her strength, mom walked to the theatre all by herself, this time too. The nurse and my cousin with the stretcher stood still watching her enter the theatre in calm.

It was a two-hour surgery, during which I checked my watch at least two hundred times. I glanced at Abu. He was sitting on my left looking at his watch constantly. I looked up at his face. He had fallen asleep, with his face resting on his right hand, his elbow on the hand rest, and his left arm holding on to mom’s shawl with the watch facing up.

After the mastectomy, we thought that the difficult time had passed. Her cancerous lesion was removed. She faced it fearlessly, but it didn’t end there. The mastectomy was followed by six months of therapy. Chemotherapy was the most difficult phase, as it was not focused. It affected her whole body in one way or another. Her skin started to feel too stretched. She would feel sick and nauseated after the therapies. She would feel tired all the time. In such a case, I took her home after the therapy, and she complained of a headache. Zahra pulled out her headscarf and started giving her a massage. I saw that her hair was all messed up. I asked Samah for the comb and started to brush her hair, gently so it wouldn’t hurt. The first stroke of the comb and a handful of hair fell off. I realized that the chemo drugs were doing it. I glanced at that bunch of hair, then at Samah. Her eyes were fixed on it too. They were flushed with tears.

Though she didn’t let the tears touch her cheeks, I could feel them in my heart. My heart became heavy, and so did my gut. I tried to take a deep breath, but the lump in my throat wouldn’t allow me. Zahra picked up all the strands at once and stuffed them in her pocket. Mom did not see any of it, but she noticed everything. With a soft rubber band, she tied her hair gently on her head.

She started avoiding using the comb. Even when she was losing her hair, she never lost her confidence. After six months of repeated tests, one of the tests finally declared that she was cancer-free. It took away too much, but it couldn’t take her faith away. Despite a lot of obstacles, she remained strong and conquered cancer.

The defeat of her cancer wasn’t just her victory, it was ours as well. However, the effect of therapy takes such a toll on you that you can’t just walk right back into the real world. The side-effects last longer. It takes time for everything to fall into place: the hair to grow back, the body to return to its familiar shape, and the other procedures. Then there are things that sometimes never fall into place. For example, talking about what it’s like to face the possibility of death and the fear of that past coming to haunt you; but my mom had a different perspective. She was proud of her fight, and she was grateful that she had recovered. Her brand-new normal was much more compassionate than the normal she knew before cancer.

Part II

A month passed by, the weather was pleasant. Mom and Zahra were out in the front yard as I was taking a nap in the living room. As soon as I ascended into a deep sleep, my phone rang. It woke me up, anxious. I looked at it. It was my Mamu. After I answered the call, I quickly ran upstairs, then realized halfway that I was going in the wrong direction. I turned back, grabbed the car keys, and hurried to the garage. Mom saw me going in a hurry. She ran after me. “What happened?” she asked, worried. “Nani has had an accident; I am going to the hospital,” I replied. She said that she wanted to come along. “You don’t have to worry, it was a minor accident,” I told her. But she insisted. I couldn’t spare time to help her calm down, so I took her along. When I said the accident was minor, and as soon as we reached the hospital, mom found out that I had lied to her. Nani was barely conscious by the time we arrived. They had given her the first aid treatment and were carrying her on a stretcher to the X-ray room. By that time, Khala had arrived too. Her lips had dried out. She was anxious. She almost fell while running towards us. She asked for Nani. We told her that she was inside, but she wanted to see her right away. We couldn’t handle her. We thought she was going to pass out. I ran to the water cooler to get her some water. It was outside the room; it took me a minute to return. As I reached back to the waiting room, I saw Khala resting on mom’s shoulder and had stopped crying. Khala was mom’s elder sister, but I could see at the moment that the roles were reversed. Mom had her hand placed under Khala’s cheek and her eyes stuck to the door of the X-ray room.

Mom had not only known moments like this but lived them. She knew how fragile life was, but she also knew that there was always a possibility of rising back from your lowest. She was mouthing some prayers, as an answer to which, the doctor came to inform us that Nani was back conscious, but she had multiple fractures in her right leg and a dislocated pelvic bone. Her whole leg had to be plastered.

Mom decided to take care of Nani. Hence we took her to our home. A long period of bed rest was recommended for her. Everybody in the house was still in a panic, trying to process what had happened. I saw my mom offering the prayer. She folded the rug gently, washed her face so that no one would notice she had wept, and got back to taking care of everybody. She refused to let go of her trust in the Almighty. She was certain that Nani would recover from this. In a few days, everyone headed home, mom took care of everything. It was pretty much expected of her. She nursed Nani through the recovery, took care of all her chores, and most importantly, gave her and Nanu the strength to face it. Mom was the reason that the healing of those fractured bones accelerated.

Meanwhile, Mom was feeling sick too, but she was neglecting herself and focusing on Nani. Zahra informed me about mom being unwell. I could notice it too. I asked her about it. She said it was probably a long-term effect of the therapy. She would feel frequent nausea and fatigue. She also complained of abdominal pain. I checked her abdomen with my hand; it was swollen. We consulted the doctor. He prescribed a pain reliever along with an ultrasound of the abdomen. It didn’t look right. We went forward with the CT scan the very next day. The most horrible nightmare came true! It had attacked her again. The cancer was metastatic. It was back and this time it was the liver.

With the report in my hand, I was stunned for a minute, then I lost my balance and grabbed onto the chair nearby. I sat down and looked at the scan again. Mom was waiting outside the room with Abu. I heard the door creaking. I quickly placed the report back in the envelope, gulped down the lump in my throat, and turned towards the door. It was Abu. Before he could say anything, I asked him to bring mom to the parking lot. We drove back home. Mom sat in the front with me.

There was silence in the car. She broke the silence by talking about Nani, asking me when her plaster was to be removed. She was worried about her mom and I was worried about mine.

As difficult as it was to see her reports, it was equally difficult to tell Abu about it. I was afraid this news would shatter his already broken heart, but somehow, I mustered the courage to tell him. He looked at me with such pain in his eyes that I had never seen before. Both of us sat there in silence, waiting for the other one to speak. Mom had just gathered herself; she had been disturbed by Nani’s accident, we had no idea what to do.

That night, I slept in the same room as mom and Abu. The flashbacks of her previous treatment kept me awake all night. However, I stayed still in my bed because I knew Abu was up as well and didn’t want him to know that I was too. It had been a full moon night. Mom was sleeping on the side of the window. The purple moonlight was falling on her face through the small gap between the curtains. She looked peaceful. Abu placed his hand on her hair. It woke her up. “Aren’t you asleep?” she whispered, and both Abu and I pretended that we were. She then turned to the other side and slept again. Her thin hair was moonlit and shining. I didn’t want to see that fall off again. I was heartbroken.

The hospital visits started again. Although we had not told Samah and Zahra about the cancer, mom was wise enough to understand what was happening. Despite that, she stood like a mountain and didn’t let us lose hope either.

On the day of her first therapy, while walking towards her bed, she slid her finger into my hand and said, “How fast have you matured?” and it was true. It felt like yesterday when I was holding onto the same finger learning to walk, and today, I had to walk her to the bed for therapy. There was still denial until I saw her lying on that bed with a cannula in her hand and a chemo drug seeping through it. It was not just the medicine running into her veins, it was acceptance too; but the acceptance of reality did not mean giving up hope. She was trying to look fine. I was sitting right beside her looking up at the dripping bottle when she told me, “This is not just medicine, this is hope.”

My mind began to imagine how this hope would mix with her blood, flow through her body, take a spin around her heart, and finally settle in her soul. It was hope that made her so noble.

Amongst all this suffering, she kept us all sane. Having once faced this, she was now certain about the uncertainty of life, but that didn’t weaken her; instead, it made her stronger, wiser, and more loving.

She would return home after each session and get right back to taking care of Nani, neglecting the side-effects that followed the therapy. Her love knew no boundaries.

This cancer was more brutal than the last one because of the organ it had grown in. Surgery wasn’t possible, which meant all our hopes had to be attached to the therapy, but the drugs were becoming less effective with each session. The lesion in her liver had shown no reduction since four sessions now. Cancer has learned to fight back against this drug. The doctor prescribed a new one. It had worse side-effects.

Time was passing like a lemniscate; arranging the medicine, performing the tests, infusing the chemo, bearing the side-effects, and going back to the tests. Just when mom was starting to feel a little better from all the side-effects after the therapy, it would already be time for the next one. It was a cyclic process with very little progress at the beginning and almost no progress now.

A year passed by like that. By this time, everyone in the family had become familiar with this routine, but yet whenever it was time for a USG or CT scan, our hopes would lessen. The lesion had started to grow and multiply. It wasn’t possible to reduce its size. The only thing that could be reduced was the rate at which it was growing. Mom’s veins had begun to shrink too. It was becoming increasingly difficult with each session to find a spot for taking blood samples before every therapy and for the therapy itself.

Another drug failed; another brick fell off the wall of our hopes. Her doctor switched to a more potent drug to which also she would soon become immune. The treatment was like clockwork; the phases were repeated, and honestly I didn’t want the process to end because I knew, by that point, how it was going to end. I was ready to go through this forever if that guaranteed the presence of my mom in my life.

Another year passed by. We had taken her to several well-known cancer institutes, and doctors, but that didn’t prove helpful; the lesion kept growing. It was non-curable. We were all heartbroken; all but mom, and having her courageous personality in our lives made us want to fight as hard as she was fighting. I was fully aware of the fact that there wasn’t much time left for cancer to spread around the entire liver, yet somehow, somewhere deep, a glimmer of hope remained rooted. I had seen her defeat cancer once and I was positive that she would do it again despite everything against it. When it comes to keeping your loved ones with you, you are ready to try anything, even believe in miracles. Perhaps we were all hoping for a miracle. It wasn’t possible to imagine mom losing this fight.

Months later, another drug had been switched, which was our last hope. Her veins had shrunk to such an extent that it would take hours to find a smooth spot and begin therapy. Through all those wrong pricks, mom would sit patiently, but each prick would feel like a bullet in my soul. My soul had been torn apart by it. Mom wouldn’t feel well health-wise, but she still managed to have conversations with me. We had grown much closer, not just me and mom, but all of our family. Difficult times do that to you. It made us realize that nothing really matters except the well-being of our loved ones.

It was getting worse every day. My hopes were dashed when the doctor told me the chemo wasn’t working anymore. All the drugs that could work have failed. For days, I wasn’t able to accept this. I didn’t dare break this news to Abu. Samah and Zahra knew little about her condition. I was trying as hard as possible to keep the family sane, and I was deriving all the energy to do it by looking at my mom. She was the pillar of my strength and the strength of the whole family. If our family was a tree, she was the trunk and her love-the roots.

I was waiting for a marvel when my phone rang. The doctor called me himself and asked me to meet him. He wanted to talk about the possibility of using another drug. The coaster of my hopes went uphill again. I grabbed the car keys at once and reached the hospital. After reaching there within half an hour, I realized he had called me two hours later. The waiting didn’t bother me, but I was restless and would have been even more at home. I started taking rounds of the different units of the hospital and somehow passed the two hours. There was one medicine, called TDM-I but the chance of it working was just 5%. My heart stopped beating again. The restlessness had been replaced by helplessness. 5% meant just 5%, and it wasn’t much. It was the lowest chance there could be, and the side-effects, on the other hand, were too adverse. Using this drug meant she would lose her hair again, amongst other things. Moreover, I couldn’t see her go through that struggle of pricks every 15 days. The nausea, the headaches, the fatigue, having watched her experience so much of it, I was skeptical about using this drug. This would fail in a few months as well, leaving no recourse. I was being selfish up till now, trying to keep her with us for as long as possible. However, now I want the quality of her life, not just the duration. I thought it was the right thing to do, but Abu didn’t think we should neglect the possibility of even a 5% chance of that drug working. It made me realize that Abu had his sights on a greater miracle than mine. “It will work,” he said to me, and despite knowing how slim the chance was of that happening, I wanted it to happen as badly as I could.

Mom had started to feel irritated and exhausted.

After just a few sessions of this new drug, she developed jaundice. The previous USG of her liver had indicated multiple lesions, the largest one of which measured 5.9×4.9 cm. Then there were smaller lesions. The cancerous cells had spread to almost the entire region of her liver. On top of that, a lesion was found in her uterus. We didn’t know if it was cancerous, but the cancer being metastatic, there was a huge possibility of it.

Jaundice had turned the colour of her skin to that of a sunflower. Therapy wasn’t possible until her bilirubin fell back to its usual level, so it began to get extended. The bilirubin level kept rising. I tried to Google it. “Is jaundice the last stage of liver metastasis?” This is what popped up in the suggestions. She wasn’t meant to survive. I couldn’t read beyond that sentence as darkness spread in front of my eyes and my legs became numb. I was unable to move or talk. It was impossible to face life without her, simply impossible. I don’t know what keys I pressed on my phone, but it took me to the gallery, and I spotted a picture of Mehab. I was wrong. It doesn’t matter whether death is sudden or not, how much time you have, you are never ready to lose your loved ones.

I talked to the doctor the very next day, arranged a meeting in the evening, and asked him straight forward, “Is it time?” I would have given anything to hear that it wasn’t, but it was. It was time to take her home. We took her to our hometown. It was going to be her last trip to her home. I had become numb to the pain and was trying to handle the situation. It reminded me of the day Mom told me how fast I had matured. I had to, in order to be able to handle the situation.

Her condition worsened within days, and her liver had become too weak to function. My heart broke into a thousand pieces when she was unable to recognize the daughter of a cousin of mine. It was happening. All the signs were indicating that it was time. Mom had stopped eating altogether. Samah was still in her hostel because of her exams. Mom would just keep asking for her. She was holding on, just to see her one last time. I called her home. I just wanted things to get easier for mom, but to my surprise, Samah’s presence made mom feel a little bit better. She even drank some juice and coconut water. We tried to put her to sleep, but at around 1 am, it began, the beginning of the end.

A week later, I found myself looking through mom’s file. I took out one of her reports and turned it around to the blank side. I then grabbed a pen nearby and started to write, or should I say, the story was writing itself. I had absolutely no control over the pen. It was flowing on the paper and it was written down:
I don’t know where to start from. I don’t even know why I am writing this. They think it’s too soon for me to feel anything. They think I am still processing the fact that my to-go person is gone forever, but I am stronger than that. I have the courage of my mom. She had me prepared for this.

Though I never dared to imagine this day, I had anticipated it all along. As the drugs stopped working, a doomed cloud started following me everywhere. As her lesions grew, so did that cloud, and so shrunk my courage to step out of the house. I was always afraid of returning home and finding her gone.

Despite knowing how the illness works, the young kid in me was unwilling to accept that this was all happening to the person I loved the most. But that person, even at that time, was my only source of hope. Despite her understanding of her condition, her faith didn’t waver.

From radiotherapy to chemotherapy, from immense pain to unbearable side-effects, she faced it all. I used to look at her and gain an ounce of strength every time she made it through those sessions. What should have broken me built me up, and it was all her. It was all a process of getting me ready for the day. The day of December 8, 2021, when after three long days of bouncing between dread and hope, at 4:40 pm, the cloud over me disappeared.

It ended—her suffering, my world, at that moment.

The small kid in me that kept resisting all the time eventually gave up. But at the same moment, a sensible man in me came alive. The man who witnessed all her sufferings but also all her strengths. The man who knew exactly what his mom would expect him to do at that time. The man who was not afraid to let go because he understood this was not the end. He knows he will see her again in a place where there is no cancer, no jaundice, and no separation from your loved ones.

I wouldn’t say she lost to cancer because she did not. The medicine failed her body, but her warrior spirit prevailed. She succeeded in strengthening her whole family, like the trunk of a banyan tree. She didn’t give up until her column roots were ready to take over the burden.

Now that I think of her, I can’t recall how my heart used to break every time she was pricked with the needle for the chemo. Instead, all I can recall is how she would smile despite what she was living through. She did it for us. She stayed strong through all the suffering, and now it’s our turn to stay stronger.

Sadaf Wani is an engineering graduate who developed the passion for writing during an unsettling phase of her life. She has authored the book titled ‘An Anxious Mind,’ in which she recollects her experiences as an exercise in emotional expression. She tweets @sadafwani

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