Living with a cancer afflicted parent — A Series — Part 20

Derive strength from your vulnerability. Be vulnerable around friends.

Sarah, my vulnerability and Plan B mate.

“Teetooo! Teetooo!”, calls out a heavy man as he walks towards our home’s entrance. Dad’s nick name is Titu (pronounced Teetoo), and the man calling him out this fervently was his college friend, Feroze, as he had just arrived home after a ten-hour long road journey. I had met Feroze Uncle only once before this, but had known him to be one of Dad’s closest friends who had maintained contact all these years.

As he met Dad, they both warmly hugged each other and smiled. Uncle seated himself comfortably in our living room and started chatting with Dad without discomfort. Last they met was two years ago, when Dad was in much better health and shape, now he was weak, unable to speak with tubes in his throat and nose. Usually, the first thing that people would enquire us would be why the tubes? Uncle, on the other hand, did nothing of that sort and merely started discussing the long journey and enquired about how the kids were doing. The illness talk came much later. I could see Dad being at ease around him, proof of it being him coughing and not rushing into his room to clear his throat, as he did among other guests to not make them feel uncomfortable at the sight of the tracheostomy tube.

That moment calmed me. Dad was okay in being his weakest self in front of a friend. He was ready to be vulnerable, because he trusted him. Of course he had changed into better clothes and tied a scarf around his neck, but the mere presence of a friend did not make him wince at his own condition, or prevent him from displaying it.

What did I learn from this experience between Dad and Uncle? That, you can be gullible and yet remain strong in the face of a dire circumstance. Crisis drains our capacity to stay cheerful and often circumvents our thoughts towards the end result, good or bad. But having people who cheer for you, and let you be your worst in front of them, actually ends up strengthening your capacity to deal with the situation. The proof of it was Dad’s WhatsApp message to Feroze Uncle once he left saying, “Thanks Feroze for coming over. It instilled in me more confidence and will to fight this disease.”

Just like Dad, I’ve had my circle of friends who’ve let me be myself in front of them, and who’ve accepted me for who I am. However, this ability to be myself came after a lot of thought and contemplation. Over the span of two years at my graduate school, I never told anybody (barring my two housemates), about Dad’s condition. There were days and nights when I would lock myself in my room, cry at my heart out at the helplessness of the situation, but appear next day in class in front of all other friends as the merriest of people.

Every time friends asked about my plans for holidays, I would always slice away saying, “I’m heading home. Want to spend time with siblings.” When in reality, I was actually going to be with Dad during his surgery, his chemotherapy. Every vacation was marked with a question mark as to what next? What line of treatment would the doctors propose. I was too afraid to open in front of friends and let them see the mess I was inside.

My grades sank, my participation in class faltered, I grew nervous while speaking to professors discussing my future plans, I hated myself for losing out on this great opportunity of being at one of the world’s finest public policy schools. I attempted to grab any opportunity that came my way, to make up for the loss.

And it felt worse, because no one knew and somewhere I was scared that people knowing would mean looks of sympathy plus uncertainty and distrust in my abilities to manage school. I was wrong.

And I realised that when one day I couldn’t take it all in and spoke my heart out to a very good friend at school, Sarah. She gave the warmest hug and deepest affection possible, while telling me that I was carrying too much weight in my head and heart. She understood me, she held me, she cried with me, and she saw me for who I really was in all these two years inside my closed room. Suddenly, my mind became clearer as I opened it up to Sarah. It made me see myself in a stronger light. My gullibility enabled me to see my strength.

The part of my life that I was so scared to share with even myself, became my window to see myself in broad daylight. It enabled me to stop counting my failures at school, but the wins at it. It helped me look past the problems and appreciate the solutions that came by. It led me to throw off the massive burden of incompetency that I was carrying in my mind. It enabled me to forgive myself and appreciate at the same time. I managed to tell myself, relax Mariyam, you’re doing the best you can.

And it was this opening that led me to share this struggle in coping with my Dad’s illness and simultaneously manage graduate studies, at our cohort’s annual Valedictory dinner, where Sarah and I were chosen as the co-valedictorians of our batch of 2017.

On the night of our last day as Master’s students, Sarah and I gave our speech highlighting the importance of plan As, their failures and the resurrections of plan Bs. That night, I let the room of 100 odd people know about my Dad, his illness, and its effects on me. The friendships I had nurtured for two years, now saw me, the real me. As frightened as I was, I was happy to let it go. To let my macabre of perfection fall.

And it did. Only so lovingly.

After the speech, I had my friends come to me, patting on my back in disbelief, in love, and above all in confidence. The confidence that they would be there whenever I needed them. That it was all okay.

Thank you to all those friends, who have stuck, by checking on me every now and then. Thank you Smriti, Nora, Surendra, Namrata, Eileen, Sarah, Dan, Caroline, Zach, Anh, Chandan, Vinay, for being there.

And this is what I’ve learnt so far, that when dealing with a crisis like this, having trustworthy people around you matters a lot. It matters because, you can ask for help, because you can cry without the fear of being labelled, and perhaps you can laugh more often. You can talk about the problem, even if that doesn’t result in any conclusion, it’s therapy and it’s needed.

Believe in the value of vulnerability and trust. And you’ll start believing in yourself. My Dad learnt this, and so have I.


Hi, I’m Mariyam, thank you for reading my post. This is part of my series on finding positivity and decoding the ‘be positive’ attitude as my father fights through aggressive oral cancer.

If you liked it, you can read other posts on http://mariyamrazahaider.com.

You can also follow me on twitter @MariyamRaza for more. Much love 🙂

Leave a Reply