Wondering what the title means? In my mother tongue Kannada, Ajji means grandmother. About a month ago, my grandmother passed away due to cancer.
Cancer. There was a time when I would flinch hearing this word.Not anymore. My grandmother’s suffering due to this disease has heightened my threshold to be surprised or frightened. As I write this, I am struggling to find the words to describe what it can do to a person. To put it briefly, cancer kills. It kills every single thing. Don’t be mistaken, for I’m not just referring to a person suffering from this malady, but also to everyone and everything even remotely acquainted with the person in question. It kills spirits, hopes, dreams, well being, will power, happiness, cells of a body… everything.
My grandmother was diagnosed with fourth stage sigmoid colon and rectal cancer about two years ago. The events leading up to this plot twist are something of a regretful nature. Prior to this diagnosis, she had been experiencing stomach pain and loss of appetite for quite some time. She consulted various doctors, but they all assured her she was completely fine and gave her medicines for bacterial infection. She took them, but to no effect. The pain didn’t subside. After about six months of hopping along to about four to five clinics, we took her to a proper hospital for a body scan. Even the doctors of the hospital convinced her there was absolutely nothing wrong with her, but one of the doctors did recommend a scan. She went for the scan, and when the results came, it was the last thing any of us had imagined. Cancer. Fourth stage.
The funny thing is, my grandmother was one of the most active people the world had seen. She ate healthy, lived healthy. Our entire neighbourhood was familiar with the sight of her zipping along the streets, us struggling to match her quick strides as she went hither thither. She exuded positivity and was the support system of our entire family. It was mind boggling to think this sort of affliction would ever fall upon her.
I can vividly recall the day we were hit by this bombshell. We were devastated. Cancer is that kind of thing you read about and then just be glad that no one you know is affected by it. Kind of like how you read about terrorist attacks. You can only know what it is when it hits you. We were ignorant about the whole disease and the future was a dark abyss. Guess who lifted our spirits. My grandmother. What we should have been doing for her, she was doing it for us. I remember the day I saw her after she came back from the hospital after the scan and the reports had come out. I was lying on her lap, crying my heart out, as she gently stroked my head, saying nothing. Finally, after I somewhat regained my composure, the only thing she told me was that I had to study well and stay focussed, not crib and worry about her. I resolved to do just that. When we had to be cheering her spirits, she was seeing to it that we weren’t down in the dumps.
After we accepted the situation that we were in, the obvious course of action was chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery being ruled out. Everyone had qualms about this, since it was like entering a dark room and not having any light and also finding the exits sealed. After much deliberation and second opinions, the course of treatment was decided. Chemotherapy, coupled with Ayurvedic medicine to reduce the ill effects of chemotherapy and anti-cancer medicine. My grandmother was ready for anything, brave in the face of this horrible saga that was about to unfold. Thus began her treatment. She went through sixteeen cycles of chemotherapy. Sixteen. If you think cancer is horrible, I will have to write another post about the horrors of chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is like a killer hired to kill cancer, who is another killer. I do not know how else to describe it. Even chemotherapy basically kills everything in your body, and one can only hope even the cancer inside is being killed. Throughout the course of this treatment, my grandmother suffered greatly. Chemotherapy did things to her body that are indescribable. Since the affected areas were parts of her digestive system, she had to use the bathroom about ten times a day. You read that right- ten times a day. If that wasn’t tiring enough, she also had frequent stomach pains. Her body was failing her, but her mind wasn’t. She took all the medicines, ate all the diet food, drank all the hundred fruit and vegetable juices, all with the thought that she would get through unscathed.
This continued till sixteen cycles of chemotherapy. The doctor recommended another scan. The improvement was negligible. It was shocking to think that all those strong medicines had done sparing damage to the cancer. Chemotherapy did not seem to be the course to continue. My uncle, after much dilemma, took the bold step of stopping the chemotherapy and starting another course of native Indian medicine, called the Siddha medicine. This is a system of medicine quite similar to Ayurveda, but it involves treating a patient by massaging and balancing the energies inside the body. We began this treatment. The practitioner would massage all the parts of her body to balance the energies and cure her of this disease. The massage would cause pain, because it was an intense massage. But she went through it all bravely, confident that this would completely restore her to normal state of health. They also prescribed medicines, similar to Ayurvedic medicine. She took all of them, uncomplainingly, no matter how bad the taste.
After about a month of this treatment, things began to take a turn for the worse. She grew weak by the day, her strength failing consistently. In about a week, she was bed ridden. No amount of glucose or drips infused strength into her. We had hired a nurse to take care of her, who was an angel in disguise for all of us, for she did her job with the utmost dedication, not once expressing disgust. She managed to keep the atmosphere cheerful. In another week, my grandmother stoppped speaking. She would just blankly stare into our eyes in a way that it pierced our hearts, listening intently to whatever little we had to say to her. She would manage to say a faint’Hmm’ in agreement. In about another week, she stopped opening her mouth, so feeding her was out of question. We had to put a pipe through her nose in order to feed her. In about another week, she breathed her last. I was in college at the time. When my class teacher came in the middle of the class and told me my father had come to pick me up, I knew what had happened.
What is heart wrenching is that she always believed she would beat cancer and emerge victorious, leading a happy life. Not once did she lose heart, not once did she think of giving up. Moreover, she was a highly independent woman, and hated it when others did her work for her. She rued, not because of her pain or suffering, but because she had to depend on others because of this disease. Even amidst her pain during this unfortunate series of events, she taught me tailoring, before she was bed ridden. I would coax her to take rest and not strain herself, but she would not hear anything of that sort. She conducted classes for me and even for a few others in our neighbourhood.
Now, as I wear the pretty frocks and dresses she stitched for me, my heart sinks, and I cannot help but shed a tear. She loved me more than I can describe and was always there for me. It breaks my heart to think that I have done nothing for her in return for all that she has done for me through the years. She was the life of our entire family, more courageous than everyone, the strongest person I’ve known. I didn’t lose my grandmother, I lost one of my mothers. I know that she wouldn’t want me to lose interest in my chores, crying and mourning for her. I also know she will be looking at me from up there, and I will have her by my side in every stride I take. I hope she is in a better place, free from all the shackles of the mortal world, finally experiencing all the calm and happiness that she deserved.
Cancer has taken away from me someone that I loved the most. It did kill my spirit and happiness. But is has also killed a part of me that was weak and afraid. It has made me stronger, in an indirect sort of way. ‘Progresssive deterioration’, ‘slow death’ were only phrases I had read. But thanks to this chain of events, I know what they really mean. Every night, as I sleep, I sincerely hope with all my heart that no one in this entire universe has to go experience the kind of suffering cancer brings in its wake.
I have never spoken about this depressing episode to anyone, save a few of my close friends. I realised that the only way to move on was to accept the situation and write about it. It is the least I can do for my grandmother, who would always wish for me to be bold, no matter what. Rest in peace, ajji. We all love you.