After my father was diagnosed with stage 2 oral cancer, I guess it only took about a week or two before he went through surgery which involved the cutting off of a portion of his tongue. Much the same way as the doctors prepared him mentally for all eventualities leading up to the need for a will, they also briefed him on the possibility of never being able to speak again. This was mostly because they weren't sure how much of his tongue would have to removed in the procedure, I believe.
Post surgery, while he was being wheeled to his room, he turned to my mum to ask purely through his gestures if he still had his tongue. She nodded. Yes, he might still be able to speak again. It would take time but it wasn't impossible. I, of course, wasn't aware of such eventualities but had I been told, I would have had no doubt in my mind that he'd be able to do it. I believed he could fly, for Christ's sake!
After a nominal period of rest, we returned to Delhi as he was referred to the RR Hospital (Army Research & Referral Hospital) there in order to undergo radiation therapy.
Ever the optimist and not one to be a victim, he went back to work within a few days. His plan was to drive to work in the mornings and to the hospital for his sessions in the afternoon which literally lasted just a few minutes. He thought he could work, drive, and sleep in his own bed as he went through this crucial stage of his recovery.
On the first day of his therapy, I returned from school to find my dad having lunch in his uniform. Seeing all the blue cross marks on his face and neck was deeply disturbing to me. These marks were made to determine the area in which the radiation was allowed to hit his body because not only did these radiations kill cancer cells, but they also killed the healthy cells in his body.
It was a matter of days before he decided that he couldn't drive to work or to the hospital for each session. He had to be hospitalized. The pain was starting to get unbearable and he was getting weaker by the day. I remember him describing the initial discomfort as a tiny pinprick of heat on both sides of his throat. This soon came to feel like two agarbathis on the sides of his throat. By the time the skin on his throat began to blacken and crumble, he felt as though there were two flaming logs constantly pressed against the area. That was also the time when he refused to speak to us a lot because he was aware that his breath smelled of burning flesh.
As an eight-year-old observing these changes, this is how it all made sense in my brain:
- Dad drove to work and returned with blue marks on his face and neck.
- Dad stopped going to work and spent a lot of time lying down.
- Dad got admitted to the hospital.
- We visited him daily at the hospital and when it was time for us to return home, he'd walk us to the base of the building, past the garden, all the way to the road that would take us back home so that he could wave goodbye.
- Dad stopped walking to the road. Instead, he'd stop at the base of the building.
- Dad stopped coming to the base of the building. Instead, he'd walk us to the lifts that took us down every day.
- Dad stopped walking us to the lifts. Instead, he'd hug us by the door to his room.
- Dad stopped getting out of bed. The nurses chastised me for climbing in bed to snuggle with him. He was in a lot of pain. I hadn't realised at the time because he was always smiling.
- Dad vomited while we visited him. He began vomiting all the time and I believe there were always traces of blood in his vomit.
- The doctors asked mum to buy him ice cream for his throat every day and stop taking his diabetes into consideration for some time.
- Mom stopped taking me to the hospital because he was much worse. I shouldn't have to see that. Something tells me that he asked her to stop bringing me although I couldn't be sure. I doubt if my parents even remember this sudden change in my daily routine.
And then, there's a gap in my memory. I don't remember what happened next.
When did we realise that he had fully recovered?
When did he start feeling better?
When did he start feeling strong enough to get up from bed?
When did he finally return home?
Did we do something special on that day?
Was it a big deal to all of us when he returned to work?
Was there a party we attended? I remember a promotion. Was that really after his treatment?
All that is blank for some reason. I was very perceptive up until he vomited in my presence. I guess I should have been allowed to see him even when his condition had deteriorated dramatically. I would have remembered everything chronologically. Or maybe I wouldn't have. Maybe it would have all been too painful.
Maybe it was. Maybe that's why I don't remember a thing after a certain point.
Seventeen years later, we celebrated his sixtieth birthday last month. That picture was taken then. We got lucky.