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Being in the survival mode

Image credit — Google Images

The sun was unusually warm for this time of the season, and Dad was resting on a small bed in the verandah waving off the flies. The flowers were finally blooming, and he was aiming at getting a few good photos of the new batch. Constant coughing distracted him as he tried to get a grip on his weakening body and stay alert enough to get few of those pictures. The sounds of Mum’s sewing machine and the vehicles outside, dominated much of this noon.

I walked up to Dad in a conscious jovial mood and asked, “Would you like some fruit punch? I’m thinking papaya and orange mix.” He looked up to me, with flaky eyes laced with dryness, held his hand to shadow his eyes from the sun and said, “ Bring whatever you like. I’ll eat anything.” Hoping to interest him further I said, “But you had papaya yesterday. We have a variety of fruits, you can pick a new flavour. I don’t think papaya goes well with apple.” He gave me a disinterested and tired look, of someone who has resigned to his life, and reiterated, “Jo laogi woh kha loonga. Kuch bhi de do.” (I’ll have whatever you bring. Give me anything).

As I thought about what he said, a sense of sadness washed over me. Was Dad really giving up? He was tired after this week’s chemo session, his body was getting frail, and now his mind was not interested in looking after his own body. This wasn’t him a few years ago. Dad has always enjoyed cooking and feeding. His interests in buying vegetables from the farmer’s market to picking the best meat, are legendary across the family. Engrossing himself in the kitchen, making the best mutton stew and serving everyone mouthfuls of it, is classic Dad.

At the same time, Dad has always had strong likes and dislikes when it came to his food. He’s never liked pumpkin or bottle gourd, and like a kid would stench his nose at the sight of it. Plus, the food had to smell great for him to taste it. He invented new cooking techniques to make sure that the fish never smelled weird after being cooked. And now, this is the same guy, who has no interest in what is being served to him.

He is not living. He is surviving.

He is surviving for his wife. For his children. For the tasks left undone. For the moments yet to come.

And as much as that is difficult to bear, he is striving to live in that survival mode. Each day, every day, he takes his meals without much complaint. That includes having broccoli soup and chicken liver broth, both of which do not taste good one bit. He’ll complain about the beetroot soup but still finish the entire bowl. He takes the medicines, he takes a shower, he keeps himself hydrated, he rests when he can, he watches television, he keeps himself abreast with news, he holds tough conversations, he takes walks.

He complains about this survival phase, but he keeps at it. The momentary pauses of him failing are followed by him finishing his meal and taking a nap. His anger and frustration at his helplessness are not permanent. He has devised ways to let go of the eventual reality. Sometimes, they appear as tears and few minutes of silently accepting the present life, or sometimes they lash out over small issues venting the resentment out.

As he builds his day around his illness with his survivor strength, so does his family. The meals are served warm. The evening tea has a generous layer of fresh cream on it. The discussions are casual. The arguments are minimal. Tensions rise but everyone finds a coping mechanism to let them go. We all have found our time outs, through lunch with friends, taking long calls with cousins, binge watching Stranger Things, writing on Medium, focusing on our respective professional spaces.

We are all surviving the cancer, and we are all fighting it at the same time.

As Dad finishes his fruit punch, gathers his belongings, walking back towards his room, I trace him to make sure he has something to keep him occupied, think less of how will he survive this disease. Switching the tv set to the ongoing test series of India versus South Africa, is the first step today.

Yes, he is surviving, I realise. But he is surviving for himself too.

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

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

Mariyam Raza Haider

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A journalist by training, Mariyam Haider is a writer and performance poet in Singapore.
She is the researcher of the book The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age written by James Crabtree.
Her writing has appeared in Hindustan Times, Livemint, Feminism In India, New Asian Writing and Kitaab.

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