On December 31st, 1999, I remember visiting my dad in the military hospital after a basic yearly physical check-up that had gotten him admitted on account of being diagnosed with diabetes. It wasn't just regular diabetes because he was immediately rendered insulin dependent and from that day on, my dad has been injecting insulin into his tummy twice a day.
So when the whole world ushered in the new millennium, when everyone paraded the streets wearing their Y2K glasses, my mum and I spent a very lonely evening at home.
In May of that year, we made our annual summer trip to Kerala and if everything had gone according to plan, we would have returned by July, right in time for me to enter fourth grade. But we only returned in September if I remember correctly. Or maybe it was even later than that. My eight-year-old self was more pre-occupied with other tectonic shifts in her life so I wasn't too conscious of the passage of time.
You see, months before my dad got diagnosed with diabetes, he had been nursing an ulcer on one side of his tongue, an ulcer that never fully healed despite all the medication prescribed to him. Everyone assumed that the healing was delayed on account of one of his molars constantly rubbing against the wound, but the minute he got diagnosed with diabetes, the assumption shifted to that of his newfound condition coming in the way of the healing process.
When we reached Kerala, our family members who were seeing him after a year felt as though he had aged by many years. One thing led to another and a family friend who was a dentist suggested a biopsy. My father was soon diagnosed with stage 2 oral cancer. The doctors advised an immediate surgery followed by radiation therapy. On the side, they also advised him to get his will ready because stage 2 cancer seventeen years ago in India was no joke. Y2K was not turning out to be a great year, after all.
I was home with my cousins when the elders arrived after learning this horrific truth. I still remember my dad walking in, one arm draped around his sister and another around my mum. He was the only one smiling. Both the women had their faces burried into his chest.
We had lunch like a normal family because the elders refused to speak of this in the presence of the children. Post lunch, my dad went upstairs for a nap while my mother, grandmother, and aunts woefully discussed the situation. When I heard bits and pieces of their conversation surrounding the word "cancer" I asked them openly if dad had cancer. As is the norm in most Indian homes, my queries fell on deaf years because eight-year-old kids are generally invisible and their queries often go unanswered. Moreover, I guess they weren't sure how to bring me into the equation.
Getting no answer from the adults, I walked into the room where my dad was napping. Up until a certain age, I always loved snuggling up to him such that I was completely on top of him. As in, my entire body would fit on his belly with my head resting on his chest. This time, since he was lying on his belly, I climbed on his back and rested my head in the nape of his neck and asked, "Ache, do you have cancer?"
"Yes", he replied. There was no hesitation or remorse in his voice. He just wanted me to know the truth.
"Are you going to die?", I pressed on.
"Not while you're still a pipsqueak", he joked.
But I knew he was serious. I knew he meant what he said. I knew it was like a promise he'd made to me. Something told me that he'd made up his mind to stubbornly fight this battle till the end.
And that was all I needed to peacefully fall asleep on his back.
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