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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont
Mom, family & Thai food
We sat at the restaurant, just us, the original four – Mom, Dad, my sister Preeti and me, this time no kids or spouses. My son was at his father’s house for dinner. My husband was wrapping up his workday. Preeti’s family was prepping for school the next day.
We gathered in a reenactment of many years ago, reminiscing about our old favorite Thai restaurant, the one with glass bottles on the ceiling. The place had amazing fried fish. It was the end of a strange chapter filled with worry and hope, illness and remission, love and dharma.
Now all that was left was leaving and goodbye.
Time for a chat?
About six months ago, I got a WhatsApp call from my mom in India. It was like our regular out-of-sync calls- her night, my morning. She had messaged me from Kochi with a simple “Time for a chat?” message.
When she moved back to India, I made a promise to myself that if I had even five minutes, and she asked to chat, I would call. I phoned her through WhatsApp while I filled the coffeemaker.
“Hi Mom! What are you doing?” I always asked that. She was always doing something interesting. Mom had moved back to India to do charity work at a multi-specialty hospital in Kerala. She had spent my childhood getting a Ph.D. and then an MD. As a child, in my mind, she was a legend. Sometimes she didn’t have time for me because she was studying. She was my larger-than-life hero, living her calling, no matter her circumstances.
Mom’s voice was different
“Um, hi mol, I wanted to tell you I have an appointment to check something out that I had mentioned before. Not sure if it is something, but I need to check it out.” Her voice was different. Vulnerable. Hesitant. I stopped fumbling with my coffeemaker and grew still.
“What’s wrong? What happened?” All I could do was focus on the spot on my counter. Dried coffee. My hand clenched the phone. I racked my brain. What had she mentioned before? What had I missed?
“So, uh, remember I told you about the pressure I had in my abdomen? I went to my OB/GYN. She did an ultrasound and found a mass in my ovaries. We don’t know anything else right now, but it doesn’t look good. It has the look of cancer. Our next steps will be more imaging, bloodwork, and a biopsy.”
She started the statement with worry but finished it with professional detachment. I could hear the physician in her voice. My body stiffened. This news was something. The mass was something. She was so far away from me. I was in Texas, and she was in India. My mind cleared and got organized immediately.
Does Preeti know?
“Does Preeti know?” My question was two-fold. My older sister and I had an unspoken pact that there was no family information we didn’t share – gossip, medical issues, family events. Also, I knew she would be even sharper than me in a potential emergency.
“I haven’t talked to her yet. I’ll message her and see when she is free.”
“I’ll call her, and we’ll call you together.”
“Mom, whatever this is we will figure it out.” Inside, a part of me knew this was serious, and another part knew that we needed more information.
Later, Preeti reminded me that mom was the healthiest of all the people we knew. I headed to a work conference.
The results were in
I was in my hotel lobby when Mom called. Her CA125 level was double what it should be, she said, a soft indicator of ovarian cancer. In two days, she would get imaging studies and go in for a biopsy.
It was the last day of my work conference. In the middle of a leadership meeting, my WhatsApp rang. I left the meeting and found a small conference room, hands shaking. The results were in.
“Ok, everyone on?” Mom asked. Her oldest sister joined Preeti and me on the call. Mom sounded weak and weary. “The results are that it is malignant, and my ovaries will need to come out. A full hysterectomy and abdominal surgery.”
A family in healthcare
Our family has two doctors, Mom and my aunt, and two healthcare administrators, Preeti and me. Together we would work this out.
“So how soon does it need to happen?” Preeti asked. We planned and discussed possibilities.
After the call, the adrenaline wore off. I was exhausted. Tears sat on the edges of my eyes. I still had a full day of work meetings ahead.
As I entered my conference room, the other leaders were amid an exercise, heads bowed. The room was silent. The lead facilitator, a partner, gave me a reproachful look for my tardiness. His unforgiving face made it clear I couldn’t stay. There was no softness here. I needed softness. I was going to cry if I stayed in this room.
A time built with straw
My head filled with loss, a knowing that my fantasies of the time I had with my Mom were built out of straw. I felt her mortality. I packed my stuff like a zombie. I needed to get home, but I didn’t know how I was going to get there. As I mumbled my reason for leaving, I started sobbing. The gulping sobbing that preludes a deluge.
Another partner followed me out, a woman. She held me as I wept. She said she was so sorry. She had heard about mom from the staff. Was there anyone to call she asked? Did I need anything? I don’t remember her name, but I remember her words.
“I’m going to say something a little strange. My mother had cancer too. We lost her to it. From here on out things will be different. You won’t notice they are different until you stop and look around. In many ways, they never go back. If you can, get a picture of your mom with you before she goes into treatment, while she looks like your image of her. You’ll be happy you did later.”
A sorority of loss
While her words made me feel worse they also welcomed me into a sorority. The same sorority my mother joined when she lost her own mother. A sorority whose initiation begins with understanding that the natural end of your relationship with a parent is loss.
In the days that followed, my sister and I boarded a plane to India. We returned to a land we had not been to in 14 years. A place where people looked like me and made the food I loved. Pictures from my religion filled the windy, busy roads. Krishna, Shiva, Lakshmi, and Durga surrounded me, even in the hospital where my mother recovered from her abdominal surgery.
My sister and I were a team that fretted and planned next steps. We are nothing alike, so we also annoyed each other. On the day we were to find out what stage my mom’s cancer was, we got into a fight that only sisters can. It started when Preeti gave me advice and ended with me yelling in her face, “Do you WANT to see me CRY?”
My mom’s apartment in India was nice but cramped for the two sets of sisters living there. My mom, her older sister, Preeti, and me. After I yelled and slammed a door, I vowed to stop speaking to my sister. I suspect she made the same vow.
On our way to the appointment, we sat in the taxi in silence. Mom’s results said she had epithelial ovarian cancer, high-grade serious Stage 3A (later reinterpreted in the U.S. as Stage 4A). All the anger fell away.
“This is worse than I thought,” Preeti whispered to me.
“We need a plan for chemotherapy,” I whispered back. She was on my team, and I was on hers. Together, we were Mom’s team.
A circle of support
That night we began telling the rest of the family. Preeti and I wanted her back in the U.S. so we could support her through chemotherapy. We called my Dad to share the news. He and Mom are divorced, but both want the best for each other.
“Ok, so how are you thinking about it?” my Dad asked. He was doing an amazing job of trusting us and supporting us.
“Well,” Preeti began, “we think Mom would do best in the U.S. In Texas, with us.”
“Tell Mom she’s staying with me. I live close to the medical center and have a flexible job so I can help take her to appointments and other things.” Dad said this so simply, with such dharmic generosity. Preeti and I looked at each other and exhaled, relieved. We would be a family again, a village to support Mom.
Cancer is tricky
Back in the U.S., just 7 days post-surgery, Mom saw an oncologist. Preeti gracefully called in favors and managed insurance questions. Six rounds of chemo and four months later, Mom is in remission. Ovarian cancer is tricky said the oncologist. She needs to monitor it. The internet said lots of scary things about it too.
What we do know was that mom is better now.
Tomorrow, she goes back to India. We support her decision. Cancer took its toll on us all. But today we gathered for a meal. Just the four of us.
Before Mom and Dad joined us at the restaurant, I had a moment with Preeti. We need to accept that we don’t know what the future holds I said. Mom has decided to manage her own care in India, even if her cancer reoccurs.
This December Preeti and I will take our sons to India. We want to show them India through Mom’s eyes.
As the crispy Thai fish arrived, I looked around the table. We all seem older. It shows on our faces. It occurred to me that this could be the last time this family configuration would be together. It might be the last time my dad and mom saw each other.
Forty-plus years of building and dissolving and rebuilding a life together and apart. This chapter could be the last for them. What did it all mean? Was our family simply a rangoli, waiting to be swept away like a sand painting? Are we that easily lost to time?
Living with a blessing
After dinner, we went back to Dad’s house. I helped mom with a last-minute computer problem. Preeti said goodbye. Dad reminded Mom she still needed to finish packing.
Then the living room was empty, except for Mom and me. I hugged her and asked for her blessing. We removed our shoes. I bowed down, reaching for her feet.
“You have all the blessings from me that a mother can give.” She touched my head. “May you have a happy life with so much love and peace.”
At that moment, I saw my grandmother. She lives in my mother’s humor and her quest for spirituality. She lives in the recipes she passed down. She lives in our stories and the stories I tell my son. She lives in my home, in a corner of a bookshelf in a picture frame, next to a scarf she loved to wear. She lives in my strong legs, solid body, and confident stride. She lives in my sister, my mom, and me.
She lives on.
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