By Shehtaz Huq
I do not panic when the doctor insists that I come on my own. 'It is better if you don't bring your mother along,' he tells me over the phone. I understand; my mother is getting on with her years, and the stressful waiting room atmosphere will do little to improve her mood.
I leave my mother reclining in bed, reading her dog-eared copy of an old Bengali novel. She looks frail and weak in her starched white sari. The skin droops where she has lost weight. Her eyes rest on me as I come in to say goodbye, and she asks me where I'm going. 'To the doctor,' I say. My mother sits up, worried, but I tell her it's nothing serious. 'Maybe it's just a matter of bills that need to be paid.' My mother nods and returns to her book.
It takes an hour to get to the doctor's chamber. I am serial no. 27, and although it is already eight o'clock in the evening the night is far from over. I sit in the waiting room and get up every half hour to refill my cup of coffee. The others in the waiting room eye me. 'Look at the crazy man,' I imagine they are whispering. 'Can't he just sit still for a moment?'
Then the attendant calls out my name, and I stride right into the oncologist's chamber.
'It is pancreatic cancer.' That is the first thing the doctor tells me. He sits behind his glass-topped desk, hands folded, glasses perched on the bridge of his nose. I stare at his many paperweights as he drones on. 'It is pancreatic cancer, and it is advanced.'
'How advanced?' I ask.
'We cannot operate. Your mother is getting on with her years, and would most probably not survive surgery. We can try chemotherapy, maybe put her on medication. It won't cure the cancer, but it will hopefully delay the process. And maybe even lessen the pain.'
'The pain?' I repeat blankly.
'Yes. Pancreatic cancer is quite painful. The pain starts from the upper abdomen and radiates towards the spine. I take it that your mother has recently started to crouch?'
'And does she complain of a lack of appetite?'
'There's a tumor, too?' the query sounds silly to me, absurd, but the doctor looks at me with sympathy reserved for people in mourning, and I know that this is not a nightmare.
'There is a tumor. It's at the head of the pancreas. That's what the abdominal CT scan tells her. Like I said, we cannot attempt to remove the tumor. The surgery would be too risky, especially for your mother. I would suggest that you try to convince her to take chemotherapy, but…' here the doctor is the one looking blankly at me. 'Complete remission is rare,' he says quietly. 'Very rare. And the prognosis is generally poor.'
'Is there…' my mouth goes very dry. I am parched from all the coffee I have consumed in the last two hours. 'Is there any way we would've known?'
'I'm afraid not. The symptoms don't manifest themselves until the cancer's advanced, and by that time it's usually far too late.' Like it is for your mother, I imagine he is thinking.
I stare down at my hands. I have my mother's hands.
'There's no particular reason why your mother has this cancer. She doesn't smoke, she stays off the red meat…perhaps her diabetes made her more vulnerable. It happens. Not very often, but it happens.' The doctor shifts in his seat. I suppose my silence is unsettling him. 'It is best, for both you and your mother, if she is given the chance to live the rest of her life the best she can.'
'The chemotherapy '
'Right.' I now stare down at the speckled linoleum floor. 'I would rather she not know. It would…it would make her miserable. And I don't want to see her miserable.'
The doctor nods. He pulls his prescription pad closer to him and scribbles down the names of some pills. 'Tell her that these are for her weight loss. Tell her these will get her appetite back.'
I take the prescription. I fold it up, neatly, and put it in my wallet. Then I shake hands with the doctor. He looks at me with all the sympathy he can muster. I estimate he is almost my mother's age. The same age, yet this man tells me that my mother is on the verge of death, and there my mother sits at home, reading her book, completely unaware that she is going to die soon.
The whole car ride back, I am numb. I do not cry. I do not stop by the pharmacy to pick up my mother's medication. I do not talk, I do not sniffle. I suppose I even stop breathing.
When I get home, I am unable to face my mother. I take the wallet and hide the prescription. I sit in the dark of my room and hold my head in my hands and wait for the tears that do not come. I sit there, unmindful of the time, until I hear the faint shuffling of my mother's slippers on the tiled floor. A light switch is flicked on. My mother, her sari only slightly wrinkled, comes and sits beside me. For one terrifying moment I am afraid that she knows. She knows that she is going to die, and it takes all my resolve not to break down in front of her.
But she does not know. She is only concerned for me. 'Is anything the matter, son?' she asks.
I look at her. I cannot imagine life without her. For a long while I hold her gaze. Then I crumple and lay my head on her chest and listen to her heartbeat.
'No,' I tell her, the tears blinding my eyes. 'No, mother. Nothing's the matter.'
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