This story was written in the summer of 2013 as an entry for the annual Deccan Herald Short Story Competition.
As she nuzzled against me, I felt the warmth of her little body, the slow breathing
synchronising with mine. Her almond eyes tightly shut, her somnolent mind led
for a walk amongst the stars.
I remember the very first time I held Maya to my bosom. My blood was still
throbbing following the eight hours of intense labour. I was drained, parched and
broken. Yet true to her name, those little fingers, as I entwined mine with hers,
wielded a magic wand. No sooner than did I peer into those brown eyes, that I
was healed. My baby.
The tiny steps she took, were momentous milestones in our lives. Her tiny feet
traced a path the lit its way into our hearts. First a coo then a call, our little girl
was growing up fast.
It came as a bolt from the blue. One day my little girl was jumping and playing
about, walking into walls, losing her balance on the bicycle even as her father
held her, and the next day she was tripping down the deep caverns of sickness.
It was a Saturday afternoon that we’d taken her out for an ice- cream. She’d lost
her incisor, and after a bout of sobbing, a few negotiations with the tooth fairy,
we’d all stepped out. The first sign was when she declined the ice-cream. Never
one to say no to anything sweet, my little one ,a trait that she’d inherited from her
mother, I put it down to her childish whims. Her headache having been attributed
to playing all day long in the sun, I put the tin of ice cream in the freezer.
The Sunday morning, I’d woken Maya up, only to find her listless and lethargic.
It took her father and me a whole lot of coaxing to get her through her breakfast.
But even her favourite story, and Polka her stuffed pig couldn’t afford much
success as the day progressed. Finally, she surrendered to sleep in my lap, early
that evening. As I put her to bed, I noticed she was running a fever.
Adversity brings forth a startlingly different response from each person. When
we are stirred to our depths, shaken, jolted, what simmers forth is the myriad of
emotions that exemplify life.
A diagnosis of leukemia, is still, very much an ominous announcement. And
when it strikes as close as your very own four year old, a bitter chill scorches
through your insides, one that words hath failed to describe.
X-rays and scans, tubes after tubes of blood being sent back and forth, and stark
white envelopes holding within, your fate. As you wait anxiously in the doctors
office, and he looks poignantly albeit with a scientific detachment, to pronounce
the verdict... the claws of fear, the mind numbing chill.
Yet barely a moment later, I was lucid. My analytically trained brain, having
devoured the facts was running its mental checklist. On the other hand my
husband had succumbed to the one human flaw, emotion. Overwhelmed, his
strong paternal façade had caved, and sobbing uncontrollably he clutched our
sick yet confused daughter.
To explain to a four year old child how an illness, and in particular cancer works
is a challenge. One that takes not only the explanatory power of a doctor, but
also the reassuring capacity of a parent. Yet no amount of scientific knowledge
on my part could satiate her.
I held her, I hugged and kissed her, and I whispered a silent prayer in her ear.
In my own search for an answer I had transcended the realms of science, the
boundaries had seamlessly blended with those of spirituality, a quest for an
answer in the beyond. A vague journey had begun.
What followed was months of multiply tiny battles. Battles against malignant
cells which had invaded my baby, battles to keep my retching, toxic toddler
going, battles I faced against and with my husband, as we watched our only child
on the brink of complete destruction. A battle which you fight both within and
outwardly, much like the chemotherapeutic drugs, which destroys from within to
fight outwardly –the malignancy. Ultimately, in this lethal tug-o-war, where there
is a blind distinction between the elements that make you and break you, its
anybody’s guess and blind faith that you need to tell you which side it is, that’s
going to make it.
And much like all great battles, I fought this too is no less an arena. A Paediatric
Cancer Chemotherapy Unit is the Azkaban of our real world. As you watch sick
children being wheeled around, tubes running in and out of their tiny bodies,
anxious parents sallowed by fear and sadness, subconsciously you sink.
Yet at the same time, you stand together united by the same harsh fate.
If it is empathy that I felt on one hand, on the other my whole being resonated
with one question, “ Why me?”
It’s a question each one of us will ask at some or the other point in life. And that
day was my turn. I fought with the universe for answers, I cussed and cursed,
I swore, then again I swore off yet many other things, I threw wagers, forged
negotiations, pleaded, fell to my knees, implored, prostrated my self, give me my
little one back.
Nevertheless she fought with childish fervour. That gave me hope.
She made friends with the nurses and doctors, the other kids, she made her
father and me read out endless stories, narrated them over to all and sundry.
She tried to learn the name of her medicines even, and being unable to grasp
those sharp names, she made up sweet kiddish monikers for these lethal toxins.
Each chemo cycle was like the long up hill, the week in between an insufficient
breather. We had our little triumphs and tribulations with each fresh blood count.
The three of us striving to protect our cocoon in the face of an opponent that had
But with each passing day, we passed from the bleak to the bleaker.
One such night, in the dark as I held her hand, and watched her shift around
in an uncomfortable sleep, groping for me in the darkness, she took my hand
and asked, “ Mamma, am I going to become a star?” ... her childish reference to
Alas soon after one balmy afternoon, even as I watched my husband tell her and
Polka a story, I felt her squeeze my hand, just as she fell beyond the veil into an
The first few days after a devastating loss, the mind develops an unknown
strength. So it was with me. Even as I whispered a teary adieu, I had enough
lucidity to carry out the nitty gritties of the after procedures.
But as time goes on, you let your guard down, the memories the storm had
brushed aside in a heap begin to unfurl. Every pin that held your tattered
existence together gives way, you fall by the wayside, in a futile heap.
The cold bleak winter of my life followed. I lived amidst the gaunt shadows,
withdrawn, the blinds down on all windows. I shrunk into my own den, shunning
the world, refusing to be touched by the warmth of the rays.
I was alone. Endless conversations followed in the darkness, with darkness.
It was an unlit meandering path I chose to take , and I walked alone.
Because its only in the immediate aftermath are there people to help you. But as
times moves on, its up to you to pick up the pieces, its up to you to heal.
As the months went by, my husband resumed work, he had begun to heal. I
grappled in the darkness.
I shunned all help; my journey had to be alone.
The voice grew louder,
The darkness deeper.
Echo after echo resonated my pain.
The caverns are haunted,
Not very much unlike how I’m taunted.
My despair is resounding.
My insides are gnawed at by a hollow something.
I see no respite,
I see no light.
Eighteen months that had gone by had taken with it a life time.
Nobody could replace my Maya, my baby girl.
Then one fine day, coaxed out of my den, I stepped into the sunshine.
My hapless husband wearily eyed me for signs of healing. I was unmoved by the
exuberance of the tiny humans around me. My armour of despair, still intact.
Then, “Are you my mummy?”, the shrill voice of a little girl spoke.
As she entwined her fingers with mine, the icicles began to thaw.
Little Leia was snugly asleep. Polka the pig was her favourite toy. And her
favourite bed time story was that of her Big Sister who walked amongst the stars.
I would heal.