Series 7: Dada Baba and me Part 2 ‘Life’s gift of giving... and taking’
Thanks to Dada Baba, I had a bit of a charmed life. I had experienced enough in life to know what was true for other people but was still inexperienced to know what was true for me. Nothing too traumatic had happened to me. That is until one day I realised that the story of my life had been the calm before the storm all along.
For the first time in over two decades, I wasn’t woken up by the cheerful voice of Dada Baba. Instead, I was woken up by his painful groans, coming from his room which was right across the corridor some 20-feet from my room. I woke up, still unsure as to what he was going through and why he was making those pain-filled grunts, and cautiously approached his room. Without knocking, I stepped in and saw Dada Baba restlessly moving in his bed, his legs moving vigorously under the quilt, similar to how a child rubs its feet on the ground while crying. His face was red, and I could see his glistening gums and limited teeth from far away, as he opened his mouth to make painful grunts.
I wasn’t sure how to talk to him, as I moved forward and touched his head. It was burning ferociously with the pain and severity of fever. I asked him how he was feeling, but he was in too much pain to even respond to my simple question, and instead just managed to let out a painful groan. Worryingly, I ran to the phone, and called Salima, my best friend from college. She was my senior, a member of the student council, and I had become friends with her after she frequently disciplined me during morning assemblies. Her father, Dr Siraj, was a famous doctor in the city. He asked me to check Dada Baba’s vital signs and get back to him, but when I spoke of my inability to understand the details, he asked me to repeatedly put a cold, wet cloth on his head until he and Salima came to our place. I did as I was told. It was an unbelievably painful sight to see the only pillar of my life writhing around in pain, and I could do nothing but put a wet cloth on his head to relieve him of his pain.
After what seemed like ages, the doorbell rang. I ran to the door, and saw Salima and her father carrying a big, white metal box, which I presumed had his medical equipment. They rushed to Dada Baba’s room and Dr Siraj immediately checked him. All this time, I continued putting a cold and wet cloth on his head. He checked his fever, with the thermometer held in his hand, and I immediately saw his eyes widen. I am still unsure whether that was because of amazement or apprehension. He immediately closed the box and asked me to show him where the phone was. I pointed towards the phone in the corner of Dada Baba’s room. He dashed towards it and hurriedly dialled a number. It was for the ambulance.
I remember he clearly told me to put all of Dada Baba’s medicines in a bag, keep a pair of clean clothes, and get ready to take him to the hospital. I had no idea what was going on and I had no way of finding out what was happening. He instructed Salima to help me with the packing, and we hurriedly packed the necessary things. A little while later, the deafening sound of an ambulance siren reverberated in the street outside. I went and opened the door, and two men dressed in white clothes came inside with a metal stretcher. They too rushed to Dada Baba’s room, where they quickly but expertly put him on the cold, metal surface and strapped him safely in place. Dada Baba let out another painful grunt.
As soon as they put Dada Baba in the ambulance, Dr Siraj instructed the men to do something. They nodded, closed the doors of the ambulance, started the engine, and started speeding away. He asked me to come sit in his car, and the two vehicles started their journey to the hospital, one behind the other. I still remember being in my night suit. Had Dada Baba seen me leave the house like this, he would have playfully slapped me and brought me to my senses.
The events that followed are a bit of a haze. They took Dada Baba straight to the ER, where they ran a series of tests, poking him with syringes, taking his blood samples, and doing all sorts of things that I had neither seen nor experienced. Dr Siraj told the doctors of his condition, and left for his own clinic. Salima stayed with me. On his way out, Dr Siraj told me that the independent committee of the Pakistan Bar Council would bear the medical expenses, so I should not be worried about anything. I did not seem to understand what he was saying, but I nodded and he left.
Dada Baba was still in a lot of pain, and I did not know why. After a wait of about 10 hours, they shifted him to a room. Several teams of doctors began taking turns coming in and seeing Dada Baba. Machines, drips, and pipes were connected to Dada Baba. Every group had one or two doctors who would give me sympathetic stares, pat me on the back, and silently leave without informing me what exactly was happening. Two days passed in this mayhem. Perhaps three, perhaps four. I’m not too sure. Dada Baba was lightly sedated and put to sleep so he could rest and not feel the immense pain he was obviously in. I wish I was given a dose of the same sedation too. Maybe then the pain would have gotten a little better.
A few days later, a senior doctor came in. I was alone in the room, resting my head on Dada Baba’s heavily bandaged, swollen right hand. He came in and bluntly broke the most devastating news that I had ever gotten.
“Your Dada Baba has cancer, young man.”
I looked at him with a disgruntled face. Words, emotions, everything failed me at that time.
“Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Blood cancer. Probably fourth stage, but we’re not too sure about that. It’s time to start praying, young man!”
“You’re not sure? Pray? What are you even saying, doctor?” I said, as my voice trembled and a tear escaped my eye.
“Yes, pray. Your Dada Baba needs them now more than he’s ever needed them. We’re looking for the right treatment for him, but your Dada Baba needs you to pray in the meantime. ”
He walked up to me, patted my back, and quietly left. At that moment in time, I was unsure how to react. I looked at Dada Baba, then at his swollen hand, then again at his face, his mouth forcefully opened with a pipe that provided him oxygen, then at the floor.
Should I cry? Am I even allowed to do that? Is that even possible?
I was left with nothing but unanswered questions. What is cancer? Why does Dada Baba need my prayers? What is it that the doctors are unsure of? Aren’t they supposed to know what to do? What’s the treatment for this blood cancer? How can doctors be so heartless? Why Dada Baba? Why does this man, who spent his entire life sacrificing his happiness for the people around him, have to suffer like this? Why does he have to have swollen hands and pipes shoved down his throat? Will he survive? If he doesn’t, what would happen of me? If he doesn’t, how will I apologise for all the times I’ve misbehaved with him? Why him? Why not me?
His treatment started soon after, but looking at the doctor’s reactions, I knew Dada Baba was a terminal patient, and did not have a lot of time left with me. When he was diagnosed, I was rapidly faced with countless decisions, large and small, that impacted his health, his longevity, his comfort, his independence, and his quality of life, if he had any. The decisions came like tidal waves, at high velocity, and seemed to require reflex responses. What became immediately apparent is that between all the issues and all the possible responses, were infinite variations of decision paths and as many opinions on which ones I could take.
I’d like to think that I took all the right decisions, but knew fully well that the next decision could be the wrong one. Chemotherapy, surgeries, numerous blood transfusions, and several complex procedures later, we were standing at the point where Dada Baba had gotten severely weak. His teeth had fallen, his hair gone, his ability to talk deteriorate. Over the course of his time in the hospital, I never really got the opportunity to talk to him. To have a heart-to-heart with him. Tell him about how proud I was to be called his son. Tell him how Salima was proud of me of being with him. Tell him how I had planned to tell Salima that I loved her. Tell him how much I loved him. Tell him how it is he who taught me what love actually is.
I had this wonderful man in my life, who gave me a great life, and it was so easy for me to be a believer. Then over the course of a single week, I learned that my only pillar of life had cancer, and is on the verge of dying. I remember I went to a park, and a rainstorm was coming in, and I just sat on a broken wooden bench and I wailed. For an hour, I screamed in the pouring rain. What did this man, who gave me life, do to deserve to have his life taken from him in such painful circumstances? There was a time when the doctors had tried everything. I lived with such pain. Dada Baba lived in such pain. It wasn’t rocket science, but every day could have been the day that I lost the person who gave me life. I tried to look up. I tried to have gratitude. I tried to keep my faith. I failed, but I tried.
I cried all week when he was diagnosed. But I made sure that I ducked into other rooms so nobody would see me. It was a little tougher being a man because I felt like I was supposed to be hard. I had no control over it. I just had to watch my Dada Baba suffer and there was nothing I could do about it.
One day, I sat right next to Dada Baba, holding his hand, and looking at him. His face looked weak, but his eyes glowed of pride. I regretted never being with him through his life. I did not even know what his favourite colour was, what his favourite food was, what his favourite movie was. All I had cared about was myself. I regretted every moment that I hadn’t spent with him. During all of this, Dada Baba slowly turned his head towards me, and weakly smiled. His gums glistened. Even in such tremendous pain, the man was being strong. Not for himself, for me. Like always, he gave me a reason to be proud of him.
“Beta,” he said, as I put my ear next to his mouth. “Be strong, beta. You’ve made me very proud.”
His voice broke as he coughed and let out a pain-filled groan.
“You have to be strong, beta. Be brave. Be happy.”
Tears began streaming down my face.
“You know who the person is in the movie that everyone loves?”
I looked at him intently, holding his hand in mine, kissing it softly.
“It’s the one who wins the fight. The one who protects the woman. The one who protects himself.”
I smiled painfully at the typical Dada Baba act of joyful defiance.
“Protect yourself, beta.” He coughed twice, exhaled slowly, and then settled down.
At that moment, my entire world stood still. The monitors beeped.
Dada Baba had left me. The man who had always protected me left the world and told me to protect myself. He left as silently as he had always lived. I sat there, clutching his hand. Cancer had won. Logic and sense had lost.
Painfully enough, the gift of life kept on giving. And taking. This was only the start of life’s gift of sorrow and grief to me. My life, it seemed, was destined to head into a downward spiral for years to come…
[To be continued…]