Lessons Cancer taught me

Every mom I know has moments of self-doubt, times where we felt unappreciated, un-cherished and taken for granted. Many a times I have wished my family would understand what it felt like if I just stopped doing all the stuff I always did for them. I had the grand misconception that everything would come to a standstill and the Earth would probably stop revolving. But when my illness abruptly made me stop, miracles happened.

Well for one my family got how much and what I did and that part was very gratifying but another thing happened next; self-realization and boy was that an eye opener. It made me proud and humiliated at the same time. I had done stuff my way for a long time and I was (i admit grudgingly) doing a lot of it wrong. I had in my mind decided my way was right all the time, instead of pausing to think if that was necessarily the right course of action. I walked around thinking “I am a big saint and martyr combined and you people have no idea how much I sacrifice/care/do for you”. I had become the unelected dictator who was not treating my husband of twelve years like the partner he was and seeing that my kids could do more for themselves unassisted. Maybe a part of me judged my self-worth based on the dependency everyone had on me.

If there is anything my illness taught me it made me acutely aware of what my marriage was made of. You know what they say about when going gets tough… With me completely in a daze with my diagnosis and chemotherapy everything fell on him. He had no warming up period, no two-weeks notice, he just had to roll with the punches. Life has a way of derailing you mostly when you think everything is going great. I learned our marriage could survive a derailment however catastrophic it may be. In some ways the illness brought back a much needed balance. I won’t sugarcoat it. The first few weeks after I was diagnosed were dreadful for both of us. We both struggled to accept the news. We both reacted poles apart but I know now that while his initial reaction may not be what I want or expect, that I can count on him to come through for me and our kids for when it matters the most. That both us will do whatever needs to be done , sometimes with a frown but usually with just a slight grimace. And that’s OK, because this is real life and unlike Facebook posts most times real life is not picture perfect.

Often when a bunch of us friends get together the topic often leads to the lamenting of how after many years of marriage the romance has faded. The stolen glances, flowers and chocolates have become the exceptions to the norm. Reserved for holidays and mother’s days. How our husbands would rather watch football than spend time with us. Me being sick made me realize that while my husband may not remember dates and get gifts which I end up exchanging, when it came to taking care of me he did remember every tablet, every injection I needed. He stayed besides me every chemo session pseudo-working on his laptop balanced on his knees in the small chair he got in the treatment center. While he may not be my ideal romantic with long walk on the beach when it came to the awful nights where I stayed up sick he was there trying to make me comfortable. While there is a lot of compassion and empathy for the cancer patient, what people often tend to forget how much their significant other has to suffer. The upheaval in their lives. The sorrow of seeing a loved one suffer while being faced with an uncertain future. I realized my husband was the perfect partner to me now that I gave him that freedom and did not try to be a saint.

My parents came over to help me with the kids. Since my husband worked away from home an adult was sorely needed. But what surprised me was how much my kids were capable of doing on their own. It totally altered how I viewed them from behind my rosy eyed glasses of motherhood. Out of necessity or design, my kids realized that there was a lot they could do for themselves. It’s ironic because while I wanted to bring up independent kids; it was I who was mollycoddling them to being dependent on me. I learned to be patient and see that how when they go to do things for themselves it was actually a good thing in the long run.

Life threatening illness are a good filter to knowing who your true friends are. There were people I could have bet upon would be there for me when I needed them. And they were not. So I had a choice: I could change my expectations of them to better reflect the reality of our relationship or I could move forward without them. Either way, I was better off. But surprisingly for every person who disappointed me, another surprised me by providing support in an unexpected way. I just needed to be open to the thought that everyone handles crises differently.

The best thing though was I learned to take it slow. Normal life moves at a very fast pace. Work both personal and professional never seems to cease. School, after school activities, birthday parties every weekend. Everyone running from one destination to another sometimes with errands, sometimes for fun. For a little while last summer, my world got very concise, calm and snail-paced. I always complained about how things would be better if I had a moment to sit down and do nothing… but I have to confess, I thought I would love it but I hated it. I was bored. I felt claustrophobic and isolated. I hated being alone with my own thoughts. But it was good for me. I realized this constant pace of life is what living is all about. The constant chatter of kids, the small and sometimes large arguments with my hubby, the being pulled in many directions at once are all a part of the fabric of life, what makes it worth living.

I spent a lot of time wondering “why me” and frankly, feeling really sorry for myself. I guess it’s a phase everyone goes through. At that moment in time, it all seemed so unfair. Like the universe was out to get me. I feel shameful now, not for the self pity but because it took me a little while to figure out that it wasn’t just happening to me. Because it was happening to everyone I hold dear. My husband had to carry all the weight that my sick body could not. My kids had to adapt to a mother who could not do as much as she did earlier. My parents had to leave their world to adjust in mine. But we did adapt. And we are still a WE and that is something no one should take for granted. I had got my life back. And I appreciated it as I never had before. And there is one more lesson I learned; Albeit briefly I knew what it meant to be really sick. To be disabled and tired. I know now what it means to be entirely dependent on those around me. To really, really need help. And I will never look at the world the same way again.

Its a new year and in 14 days will be the anniversary of the day I was diagnosed, they day it felt the world fell apart but before that in 9 days I will be celebrating completing thirteen years of marriage and eighteen years of togetherness with my husband and that to me means more that anything life can throw at me. It was a bad year but we all survived, our marriage survived and our spirit prevailed.


When keeping quiet is no longer an option

It has been a decade since I left India. While USA is home now there is still an unbreakable bond to the homeland. I still like to read the online edition of The Hitavada (the longest running local newspaper of my small town) every morning. I still read Indian news on NDTV and still stay up nights praying for a win for the Indian cricket team. It still annoys me when I come across clueless people for whom India is a land of cows and snake charmers and poverty. But the last month has gradually made me realize that I rather have them believe this distorted reality than what the headlines are in my homeland. With horror and incredulity I read about what seems like an epidemic of depravity in my country. Where assault and rape seems to have become as common as songs in a Hindi movie.

The protests while good intentioned are short lived. People gather, raise slogans and then go back to their day jobs. Who can blame them? Everyone has to work for a living. This shortlived indignation is what the police and politicians count on. And when I say politicians I do not mean that one party is any better than the other or if one party had been in power incidences such as these would stop.

I do not think the solution lies in punishing the culprits, it lies in the crime not happening at all. We come from a very sexually repressed culture. Everyone tries to pretend sex does not exist. Parents fast forward adult content so they do not have to watch with the kids or worse still people watch the content to such an extent they get desensitized to it. They think its ok to ogle at an actress onscreen while she dances to highly suggestive song lyrics.

Bollywood actors tweet how aghast they are about all this but then Kareena dresses in the skimpiest of dresses and proclaims “main hoon tandoori gatkale alcohol se” loosely translated as I am piece of grilled meat to be enjoyed with alcohol. Was any of this relevant to the movie or even the situation? Absolutely not? It was only in the movie to tillitate the viewers. People are quick to respond that movies are not that big an influence nor do movie stars have that much impression and that public is educated enough. The issue is that they are not, the first five rows of the theater is not educated enough to differentiate between reality and cinema. They still throw money at the screen when the hero kills twenty people with his six bullet pistol or when the heroine dances provocatively. And are the educated people really immune? Why else would Coke and Pepsi pay crores to get top actors for their ads and then pay additional crores to get those ads telecast.Why would there be a “this actress” sari or a “that actor” cap or sunglass? People of influence should make it their job to not to be a part of a culture which promotes women as sexual objects instead of human beings.

After the celebrities come another breed of idiots. People in position of influence through religion or politics. They are so busy grabbing their 15 minutes of fame that they say the wierdest of things. I shudder to think that this is what they actually believe. That women are themselves responsible for assaults and rapes and by being subservient this can be prevented. If that were true the uneducated girls in villages or the six year old girl should have been spared.

We as females are expected to know all the rules for not getting raped. Where to walk, who to walk with, what to wear, how to speak, how much to drink, when to leave or better where not to go. We are to not go out with males we are not related to by birth or marriage, behave dormantly, avoid parties, never let our drink out of our sight. We walk to our cars or take public transport with a friend, lock our doors as soon as we get in. We carry pepper spray, cell phones, keys. We take self-defense classes and stay vigilant. Always alert. Is this the legacy we are passing on to the next generation of females, vigilance in the face of a constant threat of body harm being a fact of life as a woman?

Instead why not pass the legacy of respect to males? The legacy of respect to others, of attention to feelings and of decency at all times even if someone is not watching. Why should we as mothers not instill in our sons empathy towards others and ask them to put themselves in that person’s place and and consider how they would feel if their feelings were hurt by the actions of others and why they shouldn’t do hurtful things.

Lets teach them from birth to listen to others and not to push a question when the answer is no. Tell them to stop touching someone the second they say stop. We teach them not to touch fire lest they get burnt in the same vein if I tell all this to my sons today it becomes part of their understanding of the world. If they already know that no means no and stop means stop right now, they will take that knowledge into their interactions with every girl they will meet in the future.

It does not have to be preachy, my four year old has a “hands off” rule at school which basically means you do not touch another kid. I know a lot of adults who would benefit from the rule. Lets open lines of conversations with each other. Instead of protests lets be communicative. Is it wise to drink so much you can’t take care of yourself? Should you attend a party without a friend to look out for you? Is it ok to manipulate someone who doesn’t know better? Are you allowed to touch someone who can’t say yes or no? Should you stand by and do nothing if someone else is doing these things? Or is there action you can take to make it stop? I want my children to know that they have power. They can protect themselves from threats within and without. Moreover, they can protect others. Helping people in distress is a simple action which should come from the heart.

I would rather have the nations headline be that the cricket team lost dismally or that another bandh is coming than go to sleep with the image of a girl brutalized for hours and dying. Something needs to give, something has to change or our coming generations will blame us for not passing the right lessons to them. We owe atleast that much to them.