26th March 2017. One year since the diagnosis that has changed my family’s life forever. My younger sister Sonetta had been suffering random chest pains while eating / drinking for a few months. In January 2016, she vomited during a meal because her food wasn’t going down. From then, the chest pains increased till in March 2016, every meal was an ordeal. My mother, who had just returned to her home in Abu Dhabi after staying with me in Sydney to help with my newborn son, travelled to Chicago to help Sonet. She couldn’t have solids anymore; mom had to puree all her food and even consuming that was tremendously painful. A couple of endoscopies and other tests later, we had the result.
Stage 3 oesophageal cancer. A large tumour, almost completely blocking the food pipe. Our beloved Sonet, a model of healthy eating and habits, at age 27 had a type of cancer that the confounded doctors said typically happened to older people with a history of bad diet, heavy drinking and smoking. Words can’t describe the terror we felt at first. The Divine Mercy picture that hangs in all our homes steadied us when we wanted to collapse in fright. It reminded us we weren’t alone in this and helped us focus on what we needed to do.
“I’m going to beat this.” Sonet said when we Skyped that day, red-eyed but clear-headed. We echoed her sentiments, scared but determined. This would be a test of faith. What sort of Christians could we claim to be if we let fear paralyse us? Trusting in Him, we each chose to be strong for one another.
Stunned family and friends all asked the same question that lingered in us: how could this happen to Sonet? The only plausible cause the doctors had was emotional trauma. In retrospect, it made sense. Sonet has been a rock for many, but she herself seldom opens up about her true feelings. So, there was no singular traumatic event; this was the culmination of years of bottled-up sadness over how once-loving family members had now turned cruelly against us, and unexpressed grief over the untimely, miserable demise of Son 1.
For a while, it seemed as if my estranged maternal family were taking tentative steps towards reuniting. DIL 1 and Daughter 2 emailed and called often, sharing tips and advice. Even Son 2 sent a token email assuring us of his family’s prayers. As her only sibling living in the US, mom called him once. My father, who’d rushed to Chicago after the diagnosis, couldn’t stay indefinitely; he’d have to return to Abu Dhabi to resume work. Son 2 offered to come for some time. But DIL 2 butted in immediately to say that he would then not be able to visit my grandmother Mercy in Mumbai, as he’d earlier intended. Mom’s instant response: in that case, please go to Mumbai; we’ll manage alone.
Only our faith and each other’s support kept the ever-present fear under control and allowed us to function. My grandmother had never been the type to muster courage in crisis. And she couldn’t easily access any of her family; not knowing how to use a cell phone, she could only speak to us whenever we called. Without the strength of faith and family, we felt the knowledge of Sonet’s cancer would be unbearable for her. So even as we reached out to every single person we knew to request prayers for Sonet, this grandmother remained the only one who didn’t know.
Then, in the days leading up to Sonet commencing chemotherapy, we were unable to reach my grandmother on the phone. Daughter 2’s response to mom when asked if she’d spoken to Mercy recently was “forget about Mummy, just concentrate on Sonet.” It was an email from a Mr. G, one of Mercy’s neighbours and the secretary of their apartment complex’s residents’ association, that revealed that she had been admitted to the small hospital in their complex with pneumonia and a urine and blood infection.
Obviously, mom couldn’t go, and I had a six-year-old and a four-month-old I could neither leave behind, nor take with me. Fully aware of Mercy’s condition, and knowing the onus would fall on them, Son 2 and Daughter 2 had kept this from us. It felt like we were being ripped apart – Sonet on one side, Mercy on the other. Both battling for life.
By this point, Sonet was in constant physical agony and this news exacerbated it. Normal families with decent people would have rallied around both these patients and done the needful; but mom’s siblings were busy arguing amongst themselves about who should go to Mumbai and take charge of Mercy’s care.
My parents lambasted them for their callousness. After that, neither continued the pretence of caring about Sonet. It took the combined emails from my parents, myself, another relative and Mr. G to finally get Son 2 to go to Mumbai and admit my grandmother into a better-equipped hospital. Knowing she would be looked after, at least for the time being, allowed us to brace for the trials of chemo and its awful consequences with some peace of mind.
To be continued…