Sun, 13 Jul 2003

My mother has cancer but it's the time of my life

Santi W.E. Soekanto, Contributor, Jakarta

Cancer. And laughter.

They are not as incompatible as some people might think, at least not in my mother's case. She is 66, had a lumpectomy in 2001 following the discovery of cancer in her left breast, and has recently been diagnosed as suffering from a secondary lung cancer.

To make matters worse, doctors recently discovered she was also suffering from a severe case of TB. She has lost so much weight and has pain almost every day, coughing incessantly.

But she cannot stop fighting, along with my 73-year-old father, who had also been coughing blood and was recently found to have TB too.

Their bone of contention? Who gets to die first. Both my father and mother used to write children's books; they are well read and articulate, and listening to them arguing should be included in the primer for Indonesian law schools.

"I don't want you to go before me, because then I would be left behind, and I would hate it," my mom started one day, as we were leaving the hospital following some checkups. "While you, Bapak (dad), would find it easier to live without me."

In his laid-back manner, my father answered, "Oh, I don't think so. I would rather go before you because for the past 47 years I have not been able to live without you."

"You know Bu (Mrs.) X, who died just one week after her husband, because she could not stand living on her own?" my mother said.

"I don't want to suffer like that even if only for one week."

Back and forth the sally went. Finally, I told them to stop fighting and just arrange to go at the same time.

"One funeral would be so much easier and cheaper to arrange than two funerals one week apart," I reminded them. They laughed and stopped bickering -- at least for then.

Once, at the height of the SARS scare in Jakarta, I took my mom to the hospital and found a waiting room full of people wearing protective masks. That did not stop them from staring suspiciously when she had long coughing fits, one after another.

I hated for her to be the object of people's stares, so I said loudly, "Don't worry it's not SARS, it's only cancer."

Everybody started laughing and the tension broke. One of the other patients became so interested in my mother's situation they ended up chatting for more than one hour, thus distracting her from her pain.

My mom has to take dozens of pills every day -- for her cancer, TB, heart, blood pressure and for thyroid problems. She is shortsighted, too. One day, she called to tell me that she had mistakenly taken the antidepressant pills of my schizophrenic brother.

"I am beginning to feel happy after taking those pills!" she almost screamed.

"No, you are not happy, you are euphoric, and I really should take you to the mental hospital," I said. "You are a mentally ill cancer patient now."

We broke out laughing, which stopped altogether when she started coughing again.

Death is never far from my mind and everyone else's. But we have decided to give our parents our damnedest efforts, and in order to be effective in our caring role, we have to do away with this "solemnity" surrounding the words "cancer" and "death."

We use those words liberally now -- when my mom dresses up for her hospital appointments, wearing her best clothes and jewelry, we would say, "People would think you are going for a stroll, ogling good-looking doctors, rather than having your cancer checked."

Last year, when thousands of Muslims in Depok, West Java, held a rally against pornography at the city hall, we persuaded both parents to take part. They did and are now proud to have been not only the eldest, but also the physically feeblest, participants in the demonstration.

We pray hard. We work hard. We laugh hard. Spare us cliches like the God-awful one that a doctor gave me recently -- after she collapsed and had to be taken to the emergency unit: "Her cancer is now at an advanced stage. Take her home and make her happy." As if that had not been our intention all along -- making her happy! Would I have been crying myself a river then if I had not loved her and wanted her to be happy?

For the time being, I really am having a ball talking back to her. I know this is not very fair, given her weakened state, but then, when else would I have the opportunity to return every piece of preaching that she gave me when I was a child?

Whenever she speaks about feeling old and down and useless because she is sick all the time, I tell her she is talking nonsense, that she is young compared to some really "old people" like Sophia Loren, whose cleavage still makes the headlines every now and then.

Or Joan Collins, who will turn 70 in another year but recently married theatrical company manager Percy Gibson, a slim, trim and handsome man, merely 32 years her junior. Collins said she met her Number Five husband when she was writing her latest novel, Star Quality.

"That's an inspiration for you, Mom, maybe you should start writing steamy novels rather than children's books," I tell her, and she convulsed in laughter.

Whenever she speaks about how embarrassed she is now that she is a burden to her children, I tell her that it is, of course, rubbish. She could have abandoned us when we were babies -- as some mothers do -- but she chose to fight poverty and raised all seven of us.

Whenever she feels the weight of the day, I tell her to wait until a new day dawns. That was what she used to tell me during my angst-filled teenage years.

Whenever she loses appetite and refuses to eat, I tell her, "Oh, no, you don't! You made me eat vegetables and things when I was a kid. It's now your turn to do what you preached!"

Whenever she feels so exhausted that she just wants to drop dead, I tell her, "Don't just ask for death. Ask for a gentle death and a good ending to your life, so whatever remaining time you have will be as valuable as ever."

I remember her cuddles and kisses when I was a child run down with typhoid fever, while telling me over and over, "Mother loves you." I remember the fairy-tales my father read to us while we kids bickered over who got to sit on his lap.

This is payback time. Now I tell them, "I love you," over and over.