Fragile Cancer Bones

Trigger warning: This piece could be triggering for cancer survivors, and for those who have lost loved ones to cancer.  

She coughed a black-coloured substance out with her last breath. I don’t know if it was her illness or the medications, or the remains of chemotherapy. Everything seemed the same at the time.

Everything seemed futile and dangerous.

I wasn’t there to witness my mausi’s last breath. I was tucked away at home to avoid recalling the flashbacks of her death for the rest of my life. But I saw the white tissue paper in the bin, marred with black liquid, three days later. Like black soot trying to escape through a chimney.

It stood out in the room, like someone looming in the background.

Only it wasn’t an entity.

It looked sour and painful and had been infested in her body. A body that looked like a skeleton. She had a pale skeletal face with a white tongue and yellow eyes at that time. Her skin lacked anything lively. Her belly and legs were swollen with cancerous liquid leaking through age old wounds.

It was four months ago when she had stopped us from taking photos of her. ‘You are beautiful, don’t hide you…’ – the sentence was on my mind while they were carrying her delicate body for cremation. My mom said she lies peacefully, that she is not writhing in pain.

Yet, I couldn’t imagine peace on her bony face with deep dark lines and yellow sickness shining through, and teeth laid on display as if chattering from the cold. Her hair had grown back after the chemo – some black, some grey, shaped in a pixie cut.

Only now she had huge tumour cells sprouting from her head.

I never saw them directly – whenever she used to say they hurt too much and tried switching to the other side to sleep. They were pinkish I think, like toenails, but not shiny ones. They looked dirty, big and endless. Plainly very painful.

So she slept on one side, careful not to burst her tumours. In a way, she was already preparing the position she would prefer on her death bed. Upturned, face forward and fragile.

Lying vulnerable before her death.

She would later melt, I thought. Melt with the heat and warmth she was chattering for. Oozing with a sickness her body could no longer carry, and for which she gave into the fire.

My mausi disappeared three days before she died. Her mind was so foggy and muddled, she couldn’t keep her eyes open for long. Even in the warmth of the winter sun, she looked pale and fragile. I guess light can’t help one when they are really dying. It only highlights what is present, making it more visible.

It was surreal, watching her mix one thing with another. Diluting language with barely-there syllables. I thought then that cancerous liquid had finally reached her brain from her liver. It had finally kicked her consciousness to the side and taken residence in her safe home – her thoughts, which had always kept her going.

Also read: Bereaved By Death, How Can We Move On?

She had suffered from cancer throughout her life, but it was in those moments I remembered that her illness was really not something she could smile away and forget about – not this time.

It covered all of her. And it was herself she forgot – who she was and what she became.

People pitied her, of course, but they could only watch. Quite like her, quite like us, we were all speechless. And praying. And ready to let her go.

Like many others, my mausi disappeared before actually dying. Maybe she got stuck on some deadly glue that cancer ejected and stayed there. Restrained and all alone going into a coma. Still, I thought, at least she was on her bed where I had the nicest naps of my life. At least she was surrounded by cushions and soft sheets. Only I don’t know if she was actually able to sense that comfort. Whatever little comfort her final sleep offered her…

The only help I could offer while seeing her lose herself minute-by-minute was playing two songs she loved – ‘Lag Ja Gale’ and ‘Aaoge Jab Tum’ – both of which haunt me. Besides the final hug and my inability to witness her last minute, I couldn’t really do anything but stay back and lie in bed while she took her last sleep.

In that moment, I was partially conscious like her. I was trying to mirror what she was going through – the inability to open your eyes when all you want to do is see and stay alive for a little longer. But mostly I slept because I was drained – feeling as if a shred of my soul was departing then and there. I must have sensed it I think, her last breath – our souls resting one last time in the same dimension.

I don’t know how deadly diseases work or how it feels to look at everything the last time. What it is like to chew on bitter medicines to save the body from killing itself. What it is like to become a living breathing survivor just by not getting attacked by minuscule beings who can figuratively put a question mark on one’s life.

All I know is that sometimes it’s only in dying that we can fully save us. My mausi could only get her own self back when she left her skin that was holding her from becoming whole again. All I learnt is that when one has to cross this sphere, sometimes a short poem is enough to say what they need when you yourself can’t.

Divisha Chaudhry is currently pursuing English (research) from Shiv Nadar University. She likes writing about funicornland {the not so unusual world} and wonders how she can generate more hope. You can find her on Instagram @hallowedoaths

Featured image credit: Jp Valery/Unsplash