I can see glimpses of her. The door swings inward and I catch a sliver: wan, supine, dull. The door swings outward: spent, medicated, tiny. She has been ‘cancered’ recently, as she likes to call it. The tumor in her right breast grew to the size of a large red grape before she realized it was there. A surgical excavation revealed an ugly purple mass of angrily growing cells, burgeoning quietly under the delicate mix of light brown of breast and the darker, puckered texture of areola. A survey undertaken in the region reveals smaller bulbs of carcinoma dotting the landscape.
The surgery is complete. The cancer, however, has not been arrested. It has “meh-tah-stuh-sized” her oncologist tells us purposefully. My mother, father and I nod vacantly as he fumbles with the plastic model of a breast on his table. Many words flow from his mouth as his hands point to places on his own body: armpit, upper arm, chest, neck. I throw up all over his table, my sick dripping viscously from the edge of the impressive desk’s polished wood.
Two months later, I am pushing the swinging door open. A low groan erupts from its hinges as it pendulums back in to place. My sister looks at my feet, covered in those ridiculous mock socks the hospital makes us wear in the oncology ward, and raises an eyebrow in greeting. The metallic sting of the disinfected floor tickles my nostrils. The cannula in her forearm makes me nauseous and so I don’t look at it. I drag the half-breed armchair on its spindly legs to the other side of her bed, her sickly body protecting me from the sight of the intravenous mechanism.
“Don’t want to see this?” she asks, lifting her hooked-up arm.
Her lips are chapped and her smile is fake. A pinprick of blood escapes a crack in her lower lip. She licks it and looks away from me.
We are four years apart. She is older, milder, nicer. She is small, light-boned and diplomatic. She has a fiancé, a dog, and a house with a deck overlooking a yard. She teaches kindergarten and children love her. They clamber over her in the playground: she, a small, wiry tree, and they, her seeds bursting to flower.
After her diagnosis, my parents round-up family and friends. A hushed silence follows my father’s somber news, his quavering voice accentuating the gravity of the situation. Then the room is rife with “oh nos” and “not Naina!” and “Why her? Why god why?” Lemonade appears from somewhere, as do tissues, magically materializing in hands dabbing at eyes and tenting nostrils dripping with sadness. My shoulders are squeezed and my back is patted, threatening to loosen up the vomit that has found permanent residence in my esophagus since that day at the doctor’s.
Promises are made recklessly. Assurances of “always being there” and “praying hard” and “wishing strength” knock against the plaster of the walls. The “not Nainas” underscore these assertions periodically, till my sister’s aura fills the room to the brim, her presence permeating our bodies surreptitiously.
My sister flirts effortlessly with the interns. “Can’t get enough of them can you?” she asks one of them as he examines her. The back of his neck flushes but his eyes beam happily. She refers to her breasts although she has only one now, the second a phantom. Surgery number two has claimed the perfection of symmetry that once emblazoned her chest. Her hospital gown slumps awkwardly around her ribcage, pushed upward by the rise of her left and sloping messily into the space left vacant by her extricated right.
She is still beautiful, though. The cancer, chemo and radiation have placed a third of her body mass on the white sheet of her hospital bed, and whisked away the other two to devour amongst themselves. The chemo has grabbed fistfuls of her thick brown curls and she has offered the smattering of left over strands to a hungry electric shaver. All three have robbed her skin of its natural hue, leaving behind a color that is indescribable except as an absence: a murky shade of want. But, she is still beautiful.
It is two a.m. and my hand is tired from holding on to Rohan’s. We are quiet, not speaking, sitting on his balcony watching planes making final descents before landing out of sight. The tiny white buds of raat ki rani send their aroma our way in delicate wafts. We are both light headed from smoking too much pot after much too long.
Naina has asked Rohan to move on. He is devastated. Their engagement preceded her diagnosis by five weeks. That was two years ago. Two surgeries, eight rounds of chemo and six cycles of radiation equaled just under a year in remission. Now, the cancer is back, this time creeping around in the endometrial lining of her uterus. Separation from Rohan is not an act of defeat. The severance of her right breast is not Amazonian enough for Naina; she is ripping her heart out instead. I lean over to Rohan and kiss him, deep and full. Tears melt between our cheeks. His. Mine.
Naina has lost her first tooth today. Her tongue wanders into the hollow between her upper right canine and second pre-molar. My mother asks her not to do that.
“There aren’t any others waiting up there, Ma” Naina responds.
She is right. This isn’t a second coming.
For her thirty-seventh birthday my father buys Naina a wig. It is a pixie cut made of someone else’s dark brown hair. I am nervous as she opens the package, wondering how she will react. She has used the words ‘agency,’ ‘self-actualization,’ ‘choice’ and ‘will’ many times in the last few months. She has been home for two weeks now. She has come home to die.
She lifts the wig out of its wrapping and looks at my father. Then she smiles and puts it on, adjusting the hidden strap at the nape of her neck so it sits right. Her fingers work slowly at the mechanism, and her arms, raised up above her shoulders, wide as my wrists at their thickest, look like they might break with the effort.
We are at the hospital again. It is past three in the afternoon and Naina lies unconscious and depleted in an Intensive Care bed much too big for her. They are hooking machines up to her as we watch with dried out eyes. “What’s the point?” I think and color immediately, the redness spreading across my chest and neck. But I think it again, and again, and again.
When she wakes up, my sister looks angry. No, she looks murderous. She stares at the three of us, she glares at our health, our thick limbs and full cheeks. She looks at her mother, her father and her sister with rage.
Her gaze has softened by the time I leave in the evening.
“See you tomorrow” she says as I’m walking out. I look at her and I know she is lying.
In all of this I have met a man, a kind man who is considerate and quiet. I didn’t want him to meet what was left of Naina, and he understood. He is my other life, a resonance of what was, the not-cancer, the not-sadness, the not-nausea. We meet infrequently and there is a sweetness in the staccato rhythm of our association. When we do meet, we take walks, we hold hands, we drink coffee. We are mundane together. Today, his hand reaches inside my shirt as we kiss, and as his palm gently covers the ascent of my right breast, I cry, quietly, surely, openly.
© Ayesha Sindhu 2014