Last Sunday, the 18th of August 2013 – at 8.35 am to be precise – I lost my father-in-law to carcinoma of the pancreas. He was 58.
58 is no age to die. It’s not even the legal age to retire from work, much less from life. It’s the age to saunter into the autumn of existence, where one walks with a hop and a hum, knowing that sweat and hard work are blurs in the rearview mirror and a life of rest, relaxation and richness waits. Much like a long-paying FD that finally matures, and tax free.
The irony is this: for a long while after he was diagnosed, my father-in-law, a natural skeptic of hospitals and medical witchery, felt he was doomed. We had heard the C word in February, and while the months rolled by, he was still counting his days. Then something happened. He gave in to hope. He began to believe. He gave the doctors the benefit of the doubt and himself a fighting chance. And he put on the boxing gloves.
Every three days, he would give a blood sample to see how his body was coping. He would also receive blood – platelet transfusions when his own levels dropped. Also Sodium, Potassium and Glucose refills every now and then. He sparred with Chemotherapy – over 12 cycles in the beginning, and walked away without losing his hair. Chemo was followed up with Immunotherapy, where the anti-cancer medics were chased with an 8-hour IV drip of drugs to cut off power to the malignant cells. He also ate a big fistful of pills everyday, swallowing them down gamely with the stoic smile of one who knows that sometimes you have to get dirty to win. His back ached so much that he couldn’t sleep and his stomach hurt so bad that he couldn’t be awake without pain. But he never cried. If anything, he was amazed at the thing eating up his insides. As he lost weight, he was surprised at his trousers falling rather than being worried at what it meant.
Not that he wasn’t a smart man. He was a Mechanical Engineer from IIT Madras, and he had said yes to me as a son-in-law. But he was a simple man. One who didn’t read more into things than was required. Yes, he spoke about making a will, but never made one. And when the reports (for a long while) showed that the cancer was spreading, he believed the doctor’s stubborn litany that the results were wrong. We thought the doctor was nuts – certainly he was eccentric enough – but he was the only one who spoke of a cure while everyone else we went to for a second (third/fourth/fifth) opinion believed otherwise. Truth be told – that doctor was the only one who believed even when we, the family, did not.
And he was almost right.
My father-in-law was next put on Radiotherapy, 10-minute sessions five days a week. Boosted with a Chemo dose every alternate Saturday. And the results were wonderful. His appetite was better, he gained a kilo and even resumed making his own early-morning coffee. The physical signs were for once, backed by science. The scan made happy reading – the secondary growth (in the lungs/liver) was dissolving and the primary (in the pancreas) was necrotic – dying or dead and incapable of evil.
It was a wow moment. It was epiphany and poetry and drunken-glee. Six months of dreading were finally getting over. I remember my father-in-law telling me that he was "completely cured", his voice carrying the conviction of the doctor's prognosis. This was around the 13th of the month. My wife and 11-month old son had spent some two weeks in Chennai, and I was getting off a crazy work month, and so we took off to Coorg for a 3-day road trip. We got back to Bangalore on the night of the 16th – tired, sapped and also fatigued – when my mom-in-law called at 11 p.m. My father-in-law had fallen on the floor thrice and had vomited blood once. He was conscious but they were taking him to the hospital.
We booked tickets on the first flight out and packed afresh. The night had become a nightmare.
The hospital was like it always had been, but not quite. My father-in-law had tubes sticking in his nose, drips attached to the back of his hands and electrodes zigging out of his chest. He was in coma and on the ventilator. He never gained consciousness.
The root problem was internal bleeding, a result of a skyfall in platelet levels. Platelets (good for you if you don’t know) keep the blood coagulated, and a drop in count means that your blood thins so much that you bleed. Or to be more graphically honest, your blood bleeds. A fall in platelets was an expected side effect of radiation, but the severity of internal bleeding wasn’t. It also led to such low BP that it wouldn’t show up on the machine. Which in turn meant that blood wasn’t being supplied to the brain, the kidney or other important parts of the body.
There was just enough juice in the BP to keep the heart functioning (though it had failed once the night before, and defibrillators and injections had just about gotten the beat back). And thus passed Saturday. In status quo that was bleak blank limbo, a tableaux of uncertainty. Little did we know that dawn would bring clarity of the worst kind.
My father-in-law’s heart rate fell once more on Sunday morning, and CPR again brought him back to life. From 112 bpm to 30 bpm and now back to 80. We were called in to say our goodbyes. But how does one say goodbye? This is not like putting the phone down or seeing a friend off at the lift. This is final. But this cannot be final.
Or so we believed. Even when the duty doctor said that if we were short of cash, we could stop the medicines. We believed because the man on the ICU bed did. We believed because here was a heart that was still beating and wanting to beat death.
In 15 more minutes, it would all be over.
My wife’s maternal uncle called us back from a walk to the coffee station, saying that the heart rate had fallen again. As we ran back, my wife asked me to go in, as she was scared. As I walked up to the bed, the heart monitor was a straight line. A dull, numbing flat. The duty doctor told me it was all over, and took an ECG to confirm.
Everyone cried, though some of us hid our tears well. The ride back home in the ambulance – with my wife, her sister, me and the man who used to be my father-in-law – was the worst I’ve ever taken so far.
The cremation was on expected cultural lines but was also a revelation. My father-in-law did not have a funeral but a 21-gun send off. The house was filled with people and the street wasn’t enough. Neighbours, relatives, friends and those with whom he had a fleeting acquaintance – like the ironing woman – were there in full strength. Most stayed for over 5 hours. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
The turnout was remarkable because my father-in-law has always been a low-profile man. A regular, ordinary man. A man with no bigger faults than an inability to suffer incompetence and bad driving. A man with no obvious talents, save perhaps a most special one.
He was a good man.
To quote Harvey Dent, he was a decent man in an indecent time. He cared. He would go out of his way to help others. He was childlike (for instance, before the disease, he couldn’t stay up after 9 p.m. no matter what). And he was cool.
Truth is, he didn’t lose to cancer. We all did. Dear second-father-of-mine, I know you’re in a nice place. How can you not be when we all saw you off with so much love? And I know you’re chuckling away as you watch your grandson – the twinkle of your eye – amaze you and us with his new tricks. He may not know it yet – but he’ll miss you just as much as you do. As much as we all do.
Peace, love, empathy