CC Issue 25 / Reflections

The Year My Grandfather Got Cancer

I’ve never been to a funeral.  Attending one seems to me a kind of rite of passage, whereby a person pushes off from a harbor of sorts and into deeper waters.  This is perhaps because I associate funerals with adulthood, adulthood being the porter which brings death closer.  It’s not that death hasn’t touched people around me, it’s that they’ve never been close enough to warrant participation in a funeral.  As I grew older, however, I knew that at some point this would change.

In June of 2005, my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer.  I had just graduated from college and one of my immediate thoughts upon hearing the news was that I would soon be attending a funeral.  Though I expected the very words “cancer” and “six months to live” to send me reeling into an emotional haze, in actuality the diagnosis elicited a very minimal response.  My relative absence of feeling troubled me – after all, my grandfather and I were close, at least in an Indian grandparent-grandchild schema – so why wasn’t I connecting with the reality to which all the words pointed?  On top of the cancer, the fact that I thought I should be feeling certain things and didn’t only made matters worse.  Ultimately, there was a secret fear that as we all stood solemnly and watched my grandfather’s body lower into the ground, I would realize I had no real business being there.

It wasn’t long before I was at my grandparent’s home in New Delhi.  I had been told that he could hardly walk or speak anymore.  Cancer had brought his activity and animated personality to an abrupt halt (I can hear his high-pitched laugh and see his accompanying twinkling eyes as I write this).  He would always look so thrilled and speak so warmly whenever I used to arrive, and I looked forward to having him put his hands on my cheeks and then kiss me on either side.  This time, when I walked into his bedroom, he was lying in bed.  He neither stood to greet me nor said a word.  I leaned over his body to give him a hug; I received his hands and kisses.  When I stood up, his eyes were twinkling with tears.

Over the next few days, I saw how a home changes when cancer takes up residency.  My grandfather needed help eating and going to the bathroom.  He slept a lot and seemed like a shell, emptied of its former vitality.  Our family gathered every evening to sing hymns and pray in his bedroom.  I used my cousin’s rickety old Givson (sic!) guitar and my fingers hurt as they slid over the rusty, worn strings.  But I tried to give it my best because you never knew if…  On occasion, I would glance at my grandfather mid-song.  He was silent and virtually motionless, except for one hand which would pat the bedsheets in rhythm.  I looked forward to that.

The hopes of the entire family were hinging on chemotherapy and God.  With time, I began to grow disheartened with the latter because of praying so tirelessly and seeing such little change.  God, if he really wanted to, could touch my grandfather’s body in a moment, so one day I aired my grievances.  “I’m not praying for him anymore because, honestly, although I believe you can do something I don’t think you will,” I told God.  I proceeded to tell God that I wanted to see my grandfather get up out of bed and walk again.  And that was the last time I prayed for him.

It was time to leave Delhi and I was worried about how to say goodbye.  What if…  I rolled my suitcase into the hall outside of his room and went in to say goodbye.  I had decided to say something to him that we had never said to each other.  I leaned over his body, hugged him, and felt the prickly bristles of his unshaven face against my cheek.  After his hands came up and just before he was about to kiss me on the left, I whispered into his ear “I love you.”  I half expected him to say it back to me, before I remembered the cancer and its hush.  When I stood up, those same kind, watery eyes were looking at me.  Closeness.  Moments later I was in a vehicle on the way to the airport, wondering if that was the last time…

Over the next months, my grandfather’s condition miraculously began improving.  Before long, he could talk and walk again.  Life pulsed once more through his eighty-something body.  It has now been over seven years since he was first given six months to live.  I have since resumed praying for him.  We’ve shared some wonderful moments, one of which was a conversation where we talked about the Christian hope of the resurrection of the dead and how, practically, that would happen if he was cremated.  I told him that if God could really raise the dead, that it would probably make no difference if we ended up in ash or bone.

Amongst a diversity of things my grandfather was a cartoonist, doctor, and painter.  On one visit, I asked if I could have one of his paintings.  I rifled through a stack of them in the guest room upstairs and finally picked a pastoral image of a smiling woman gently pulling a cord attached to a cow.  There’s a lovely tree shading some men in the background and I like the contrast between the oranges and yellows of the people’s clothing and the greens and browns of the surrounding environment.  I wanted my grandfather to sign it for me and so I gave him a pen and a few moments to write something on the back of the painting.

I no longer think about the prospect of attending his funeral.  I can’t say what I will feel at such an occasion, but the question of which emotions ought to be appropriate doesn’t bother me as much.  There’s a cord between us like the one in the painting he gave me.  I’m happy to have seen my grandfather walk and talk again, as recently as this past January when I was in Delhi.  His funeral will certainly be a rite of passage for me.  More importantly, I know now it will also be one for my grandfather, as he pushes off from this harbor into waters that I cannot quite fathom.  He wrote it best on the back of the oranges, yellows, greens, and browns.

“Dear Suhail,  Nothing like looking ahead to green pastures.  Grandpa”

New Delhi, 2010.

One thought on “The Year My Grandfather Got Cancer

  1. Pingback: Best of 2012 « Checkerboard Collective

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