I was in my mid-teens, running on hormones, sarcasm and teenage angst. There were regular showdowns at home, and the sound of my door being banged shut resonated as often as the doorbell.
My mother was a worry-wart. If ever news of a fire or an explosion reached her, which, sadly, was not very rare, my outings to crowded places like a cinema hall – the only release those pre-cafe days – would stop. There would be an immediate clamp-down on my very scatty social life, and it wasn’t fun.
One evening my mother and I had a particularly harsh fight. A friend’s older sister was having a huge party for her birthday at a nightclub, and I had been invited. We were breathless with excitement, never having been inside one before. I had borrowed someone’s dress since I didn’t posses any nightclub-worthy clothes, and tentatively broached the subject with my mother. I knew permission would not be easily granted, but was unprepared for this sudden and immediate denial, this blank refusal to discuss it further.
I threw a fit. My brother had just returned from a nightclub the previous weekend smelling of cigarette smoke. “The fumes hang in the air,” my brother had informed us, swearing that he hadn’t touched a cigarette. I was eager to test this theory, but my mother was not about to give me that chance. Anger spilled out of me, and as I started to rant about how unfair it was that my parents gave into sexist societal pressures, my mother raised a hand.
“I have cancer.”
Instantly, without even fully processing what she had just said, I burst into tears.
My mother had developed a lump in her breast, which had been discovered to be malignant. She underwent a mastectomy. The good news is, she recovered, remarkably well.
Nevertheless, back then, none of us knew how things would turn out, and the fear was crushing. But my mother was a fighter. She fought her cancer with a good diet, exercise, positive thinking, and wheatgrass, which grew in abundance in pots all over the house, the juice of which which my brother and I were also, under protest, forced to swallow.
Life bounced back to normal soon enough, but I found I couldn’t talk about my mother’s cancer, not even with my best friend. I tried to broach the subject with her many times, but at every attempt I felt my throat tighten, my head pound with the pressure of containing my tears. I gave up. Days, packed with studies, exams, family vacations, and a lot of laughter, slipped by. I tried to be a better daughter, to reduce her stress levels which I was convinced had contributed to her cancer.
The disease was soon relegated to the background. Before long, except for the ever-green wheatgrass pots, there were no visible reminders of the scars it had left behind.
One day I stumbled upon across an article on breast cancer which detailed the prognosis and percentage of women who survive post five years. I started calculating how many years had passed. It had been more than five.
“What does this mean,” I had asked my mother, wondering if she had reached the end of her rope. My mother explained how if it hasn’t returned in so many years, chances were she was cancer-free.
“If it doesn’t return in ten years, consider me completely cured!”
It didn’t return in ten years, it didn’t return in fifteen. The wheatgrass pots vanished.
A little over twenty years later, she was diagnosed with another lump in her breast, which also turned out to be malignant. She had been going for regular check-ups, and thankfully, caught it early. It hadn’t spread. Out came the wheatgrass pots.
It has been close to seven years since she had her second mastectomy, and her blood-work has been perfect.
Over the years, countless people have called on my mother for support. She has given many hope, courage and strength. Today she is over seventy. She grows stronger and more beautiful, inside and out, everyday.
“What is your secret?” People often ask.
“Positive thinking,” she says. “A daily walk and…” she pauses (for effect or emphasis, I’ll never know), “wheatgrass.”
This article was published by Open Page, The Hindu on Dec 9, 2017.