It was the second-most worst day of my life. Apart from stepping on a dog’s faeces, and having a fight with Ellie, the closest thing I had to a family, about the dishes, I had been diagnosed with cancer. They called it Leukemia, the doctors, and said it was treatable. “We will have to start chemotherapy tomorrow itself, but nothing can be guaranteed.” they advised. Walking back home, I was thinking of the implications this “development” would have on Ellie.
Ellie was about 46 years old. She took me in when I was 19. Three years ago was the dreadful day, the worst day, my parents died in a car accident. My mother’s sister-like best friend, who was also a bachelorette and childless, made herself my guardian. We lived together like a mother and daughter. Nobody could have thought otherwise. I was grateful to her. The life I had was because of her. I owed her.
On hearing the doctors, at first I did panic for a while. But as it settled in, the news, I started to realise, it wasn’t all that bad. Not for me. What did I have to lose? I had lost the perfect life, I had lost the best parents in the world and I had lost my dreams to a life I owed to someone else. It’d be alright if this leukemia thing kills me. Even if I do survive, which the doctors said I had good chances at, it would be this same old life. How would Ellie cope? The expenses were huge. She loved me like her own daughter. How would she treat the pain?
I reached home. I sat Ellie down and told her what the doctors had said. I explained to her what sort of cancer leukemia was. I told her I would live, just to console her. But, surprisingly she did not show signs of any sort of emotional break-down. Instead she told me, I need not worry about finances for the treatment and should concentrate on doing everything I ever wanted to. She asked me to make a bucket list of the simplest of things and to achieve them, to let go of the pains of the past and do what makes me happy, because if I don’t survive, I will want to be at peace, with smiles. I told her I would think about it. But to say the least, that response caught me off-guard and I didn’t know what to think about. After that, the two of us, had a quiet dinner and went off to our rooms, not talking one word.
I spent the night awake. I am not an insomniac, but nobody can sleep the night of the day they come to know they could die in a couple of days. I was thinking how I could make the best use of the time I may have left to live. I sat upright, as the bucket list idea started making sense. I got hold of a pencil and notepad from my study table, and jotted down the first three things that came to my mind:
- To find beauty in the world
- To find a reason to live
- To fall in love
I looked down and thought to myself, “One hell of a bucket list!” and put the notepad in my bedside drawer. I lay down. I missed my parents. I wanted them to hold me at this exact moment. I felt so incomplete. I did not see the beauty in living, I had no reason to live on and I had never known what love felt like. The tears that followed were warm, comfortable enough to make me fall asleep.
Next morning, Ellie woke me up. She saw my eyes and figured, either that I hadn’t been sleeping or that I had cried a lot. I could make out from the way she looked at me. She told she was going to work extra-time and try to earn some extra cash which would help with the medical expenses and that’s why she will be home late, from then on. I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t even her actual daughter. I felt only guilt. But I had no time to confront her, I had to get ready and go for chemotherapy myself.
Once I reached the hospital, which was more like a cancer institution, they led me to a room where all the other patients were. There were four of us. One old lady, thin to the bones, a ten year old boy, cute and innocent kid wearing a blue t-shirt and a guy around my age, average in all physical aspects. As I sat next to this averagely handsome guy, his melancholy voice asked for my name. I told him. “Sarah! That is almost as nice as my own name, David!” he beamed. “Don’t feel awkward child, David has always been self-patronizing in a playful manner!” the old lady said cheerily. As if she sensed my awkwardness, she introduced herself immediately, “They call me Bertha, dear!” The only one I felt like talking to though, was the little child, maybe because that’s exactly how I felt at that moment, unprotected, vulnerable and confused with nobody to hold my hand. The child though was busy playing with his PSP. I was about to ask Bertha about the kid, when a nurse came in to take us for the therapy.
In the beginning I was afraid. I feared having to go through it alone. But I saw the number of chairs and realized the four of us would be together. The first ten minutes seemed to be longingly painstaking. David and Bertha were talking about movies and the boy never took his eyes off the PSP. I was just sitting there, wishing I had a novel along with me. Then Bertha asked me whether I was an Alfred Hitchcock fan. I told them I know nothing except that he was a director. From there started a small talk. They made me feel like I was already a part of the group. David had come with his sister, Bertha with her son, and I had come all alone. My home fell on the way to David’s place and he had already told me he would be dropping me off before the session ended.
I realised post the session that chemo dries you up badly. Chemotherapy drains everything out of you. That’s when the son and the sister accompanying my cancer fellows, made sense. We bid goodbye to Bertha and started walking towards David’s sister’s car. Rachel was the epitome of optimism, I’d say. Her car had a bouquet of flowers, which David then told me she brought him every therapy she came to pick him up. She was always cheery and positive. We talked a lot in the car. Mainly, it was my story. Dead parents, Ellie, lost all touch with my friends (if you can call them that.) and how I love my solitude in a gist. Somehow, I could talk to them. Somehow, I knew they were listening, and somehow, I was simply telling them my story and not grieving. I never realised when that 45 minute journey reached its destination. But when it did reach, I felt my old pains resurface. David told me I need not worry about travelling and that Rachel and he would pick me up and drop me off. I told them I could manage the first journey, but while returning home, it was insensible to negate the offer. So we decided on picking me up dropping me home after every therapy, because they insisted, followed by an adieu.
Noises from the kitchen woke me up. It was Ellie. She had just come home, and was probably making herself some dinner in the kitchen. I got up and went down to talk to her. She seemed exhausted. I helped her cook and talked to her about everything that happened today. I told her about David, his sister Rachel, Bertha and the quiet boy. Ellie was happy I had made friends. They weren’t friends exactly, just fellow patients. But she just smiled and started talking about work. We had a good little chat until she had dinner and then we were back to our rooms, where I immediately fell asleep.
This became our new routine. Over the next few days, I learned that the boy was an orphan from an orphanage and an NGO was paying for his treatments. His name was Sam. David and I had become pretty close and Bertha was her same old chirpy self.
David once told me he felt guilty of wasting time. He knew he only had a limited stint left. I told him what Elie had told me; The bucket list was a to-do list of the things you want to do before you die. He took to the idea like a charm and promised one for himself by that night. I would have asked him what was on his list, but was scared that it would lead to the contents of my list. He never asked and because of the fear, neither did I.
Then one day there was a difference. When we went to the waiting room, it was only the three of us, Bertha, David and I. The little not-so-talkative boy, Sam had not reached yet. We thought he must be running late, but when we realised therapy will almost start, we asked a nurse about Sam and her reply was, that the cancer had won, although the boy was a very strong fighter. We were left aghast. As frozen as we were, we were led to our chairs and all we could look at was the chair Sam used to play his PSP in. As it started settling in, the news, the empty chair started reflecting only what was in our hearts. Nobody uttered a single word during the therapy. Therapy was always physically draining, the heavy hearts only made it worse towards the end. Before leaving we found out that Sam’s funeral was next morning and decided to go.
In the car, David explained our horrendous discovery to Rachel. The ride that followed was mournful. Quiet. I came home, but I couldn’t eat, and I couldn’t sleep. My mind was filled with questions. Questions that would, if I asked, would re-open the scars of the past. I hadn’t even slept when Ellie came home. She was surprised to see me up. I narrated what had happened today and she sat there beside me. She reassured that it wouldn’t happen to me and told me she will always be there for me. She then asked me to close my eyes. Ellie held my hand and patted my forehead. Slowly the questions started fading. I was entering a comfortable place. I felt secure. I never knew when sleep clouded upon me.
By the time I woke up, Ellie was gone. Off to work as always. I checked my phone only to find 5 missed calls by David. I realized I was late. I called him up to tell him I was getting ready and rushed to the washroom.
Rachel and David were awfully quiet in the car and the thoughts of last night started coming back. I fought the urge to cry until I felt a tear trickling down my cheek. My efforts were in vain and the tears kept flowing. David held me. He hugged me tight and tried to console me. One thing I remember him saying amongst all the other things was that he couldn’t see me cry. To tell you the truth, that brought butterflies to my stomach for some apparent reason, and it helped me calm down. There was a lot of anger building up. I would’ve blasted if it wasn’t for David, I guess.
We met Bertha at the funeral. She knew that I had been crying the moment she saw me. I did not as much as even smile at her. She chose to ignore it for the moment. We proceeded to pay our respects to Sam and then came back at the end of the crowd. That is when she asked me what’s wrong. It was a confrontation to my questions, my pain. I was about to scream those questions when David squeezed my hand, and what was supposed to be a couple of loud, angry questions in a sarcastic tone, only came out as questions in a calm but squeaky voice. “Life is so unfair! Why do we have Cancer? Why did Sam have it? He was a child! Why did he die? Why did my parents die?” That’s where I abruptly stopped. I couldn’t say more. David just kept holding my hand. I looked at Bertha for a response. Anything would do. But what came was totally not what I expected. There was a smile on her lips. She was looking right into my eyes and smiling.
“Life is not unfair.” She said, in a calm, wise tone. “Life is in fact the fairest of everything out there. Life will give you only what you want it to, child. You will see only what you want to see, you will believe only what you want to believe. Everything is a reflection of you Sarah. Because you believe you are being treated unfairly, all you will see, no matter how hard you look for the opposite, you will only see unfairness. As far as Sam goes, you don’t have to feel bad for him. He was unfortunately an orphan raised in an orphanage amongst others. He did not talk or want to make friends, because of the fear of attachment. He was too attached to his parents to move on. That is why he was always playing games on that little gaming thing. If you ask me, he is probably more satisfied with not being here, than being here. Now he gets to rise to heaven, get a new life or meet his parents wherever he is, whatever you believe. I’ll give you my own example. When I die, I will leave in peace. This life has given me everything I could have possibly dreamt of. I have loved and lost. To move on from the death of my husband, that love was enough. I have raised my son to make him the beautiful person he is. I have worked, I have played and I have done some very bad things in my youth. I took risks, I failed and then I succeeded. You wouldn’t want to cry at my funeral. I have done everything I wanted to. There is nothing left for life to offer now. You should let me go with pride and honour. You should let me go, not with heavy hearts, but with happiness. Life is not unfair. It gives you exactly what you need, and what you want. You just need the eyes to recognize what you want. Look at it positively Sarah. Understand everything you have and you will realize it is exactly what you desired, what you needed.”
The world is a beautiful place, Bertha had said. I was quiet in the car. My mind was busy making sense of the words that had come out of Bertha’s lips. They confused me although they sounded sapient then. Wise should have been defined as anything and everything too smart for me to comprehend. However, coming back on track, David sensed the meditative state I was in and asked me what I was thinking. I told him, it did not make sense, what Bertha had preached. Why would someone need or want Cancer? Why would someone want to die? David interrupted then, “I don’t know about the second question but why you have cancer is so that you could meet me! It should be an honour!” David: An adult with a child’s heart. He always figured out how to make me laugh.
Lately, I had been thinking about him a lot as well. Spending time with him was the best part of the days I had been living. He used to make me feel happy, content, important and safe. I had never felt so many things from one person. Maybe Bertha and David were right. Maybe I needed Cancer because I had to meet David, because I needed to feel these emotions before I was dead. Was I falling for him? I have had crushes, I have had boyfriends too, but what I felt for David was incomparable. This was different. I did not want to think much. Heartbreak was the last thing I wanted then. “Sarah!” Rachel almost yelled. I realized we were outside Ellie’s house. David looked at me, eyes filled with concern. I got out, thanked them and started walking towards the door.
It was a Sunday, so Ellie was home. She asked me how the funeral went. I told her Bertha had said that Sam would’ve preferred dying to living in the pain. I told her how sometimes I felt like giving up and running off, just like Sam. Ellie was calm. She took me to her room. She showed me a photograph of a young man which she removed from her cupboard. He was decently handsome. Ellie told me he was the love of her life. “I loved him so much. He gave me the best memories. Then one day he just moved. His whole family had moved. They had moved to somewhere in England. There was no number, no address and we did not have internet then. I haven’t not married because I am hoping he will turn up on my doorstep someday, but because I could never love anyone like I loved him, and to me that would be infidelity. Your parents were always there. You were always there. You and I used to play together, and the joy in your eyes helped me forget him and move on. I have always thought of you as my own daughter Sarah, even when John and Emma were alive. You may think of this as my house and you may not think of me as your mother and you have all right to, but you are the one person I can totally surrender to, and if you go, I won’t only lose a daughter but also the one person who can bring back the smiles on my lips. I know this is all very difficult, but we will win this together. I will do everything I have to, to get you out of all this. You are the most important person in my life.” I didn’t know what to say. Tears welled up in my eyes. Ellie was already crying. We just sat there, on her bed and kept crying, hugging each other. It felt good once we finished.
I just lay down on my bed. What an intense day that had been. Who knew I would learn so much! If Ellie hadn’t been there I would’ve ended up in an orphanage, probably engrossed in my PSP, scared of attaching myself to people, end up exactly like Sam. It was Ellie who took me in. She did not have to, but she did. She paid for all my needs and desires. What was it that she hadn’t provided me with? She had given me everything a parent would, even more in fact. I couldn’t ever just leave her. Not only do I rely on her, but even she does, on me. I couldn’t sleep for a long time, mainly, because I was on the verge of having an epiphany. Think of it, Bertha had said. I may have lost my parents, but I ended up with Ellie who did no less than they would have to keep me happy, even more in so many ways. I may have leukemia, but if I didn’t would I have ever met handsome and smart David, or positive and wise Bertha? Even Sam for that matter had played such a crucial role in helping me understand what I do. He had truly lost everyone who had cared about him and there was no one to replace them. I lost too, but then I found too.
Suddenly, the list just came into my head. I hadn’t cared in the beginning, why would I have remembered fulfilling those tasks. I took the notepad out the bedside drawer and looked at it:
- To find beauty in the world
- To find a reason to live
- To fall in love
The world truly felt beautiful. Life was truly fair. I had written down exactly what I wanted, without realizing its importance, and some of it had already been delivered. Bertha’s explanation, if all was true, and it hadn’t proved otherwise, yet, was the most enlightening “speech” I had ever heard. My friends made me smile every day. Going for chemotherapy never really felt sad. It was in fact the most fun part of the day, if anything. I had started to live, not merely exist.
The reason to live was obviously Ellie. How could I have even thought of all the negative stuff with such a wonderful person to care for me? I couldn’t ever do that to me. Ellie was the most selfless person, I had ever known. Ellie tried so hard to do all the things Mom used to do for me. Why take the pains when she could have just avoided taking me in? It was because she truly cared, and I was just in the realization mood so much, one more to the list was, I loved her as much as anyone could! I took a pencil and ticked the first two options on the list. Just one point was left:
Next day, while picking me up, David had brought me flowers. When I asked him about the event that sparked the action, he said, he just wanted to make me smile, that there had been a lot of tears the day before and he hated them. I did truly smile. Then Rachel, David and I, like every day, started up chit-chat but, something was weird. I just couldn’t wait to tell him about everything that had transpired last night, that the bucket list was completing itself, that I love him. But before I could say a word, Rachel told David to speak out what he had apparently intended to. David seemed to not know where to begin. He took a long pause. Then, he asked me whether he had made a difference in my life. “David, I used to curse life, live in a darkness of sorts before you came and filled it with the light of smiles. My favourite part of everyday is meeting you, listening to your jokes and looking into those eyes, full of childish joy. Yet, when I cry, you hold me with arms of a man; you gently calm me down and you hate to see me cry. You are asking me whether you made a difference to me, you changed my whole life. You played a huge role in altering my perspectives to the optimist bend. I love you, and that’s way more than just making a difference.” David took out a piece of paper from his wallet. Opened it and handed it to me to read: To bring happiness to Sarah. I took out my list and gave it to him. He took out a pen from the back socket in the passenger seat. He ticked the un-ticked point and then he looked straight into my eyes, so deep, it felt as though my soul was bare. Then he came close. He whispered, “I love you too.” Then we kissed.
Today, two decades later, we have a daughter and a son: Emma and Alex, respectively. Bertha passed away a short time after her cancer cured. She still lives on in my heart, for the things her wisdom taught me. David misses her too. Ellie lives with us. I wouldn’t ever leave her alone when she needs me the most: old age. And, that’s my journey till now. I haven’t reached any destination yet, but from a pessimistic, lonely, rebel of sorts, to a beautiful almost-perfect, happy woman-in-love, is a journey with adventure, drama and learning, of epic proportions. Today, I still have a thirst for the wisdom that Bertha had exhibited, that one afternoon, which changed my life: You will see only what you want to see, you will believe only what you want to believe. Everything is a reflection of you.