The story of J

This is the story of J, who was only a year older than me. She had one eye that she couldn’t open, and legs that she could barely move. Cancer had made her numb from the waist down too. Chemotherapy made her bald, and radiotherapy made her memory poor. She gave frequent smiles, but she also let off frequent sighs. With her poor memory, often she asked for “everything” to be explained to her again. Then she would break down and cry when she was told that she was in hospital, that her breast cancer had spread.

She had a 4 year old son, who had been under the care of her ex-partner. Her little boy became the focus of her thoughts, and she kept telling us everyday that she wanted to spend as much time as possible with him. “I don’t want him to forget me,” she told us, “I want to make many good memories with him, take many nice photos, so that he can remember me. I don’t want him to forget me.

But they had not visited her very often when she had been in hospital. Her ex-partner’s car had been deregistered, so they had to take public transport to visit, which was difficult. She felt lonely in the single room in the hospital, isolated because she had antibiotic-resistance bugs. As much as she missed her little boy, she didn’t have a photo of him to keep by her side. She didn’t even have a camera that works. She lost the charger a long time ago. The house that she wanted to return to wasn’t hers too. It was a crisis centre run by the Salvation Army for the homeless. Sometimes my heart would break with hers, and I would ponder how it came to this stage for her.

One day finally her ex-partner and their little boy came to visit. I knelt to say hi to their son. He was running around and trying to climb up the hospital bed. I shook his hand and he said to me, “I wum getting my ears fixed!!” while pointing at his ears. She explained that he was getting grommets inserted soon.

Together with her ex-partner, she asked if she could go home on the weekend. “Hospital is prison,” she said, and I understood well. But as much as I wanted to, the physiotherapy team had declared her unsafe, when she could barely transfer from chair to bed with her weak and numb legs. The hospital couldn’t lend them a wheelchair, and they couldn’t rent one because they had no car.

I felt so sorry when I said I couldn’t authorise her weekend leave. Once again, she felt the whole world was against her. Her heart turned bitter by a little more.

Later he wheeled her downstairs to the hospital lobby. He said she was going to have a smoke, but silently they caught a taxi headed home. And so together, in these last periods of her life, they made a little adventure and escaped hospital.

* * * *

Some of the ward staff were appalled. Some knew better though. A lot of us felt for them. I called them up, and the nurses later did as well. We would just check if things were alright, and gently encouraged her to return to be cared for in hospital.

But she didn’t return that night. Nor did she the morning after. Near midnight the next day, her partner brought her in — drowsy and barely rousable. The weekend doctors worked extra hard to look for reversible causes. But they could find none. We put it down to disease progression; it was ruthless.

Just a mere weekend had passed, and I was standing at the end of her bed, and she was comatose. My consultant stood beside me as I updated her softly on what had happened. There, I remembered the things she had told me: she said she wanted to go home and tidy up and decorate her room. She wanted to put a wig on to cover her bald head, so that she would look more normal. Then she would make many good memories together with her son. But I doubt if she did much of she wanted to. And who knew if she would ever wake up again, or how long more she had.

“It’s probably for the better that she is unconscious and comfortable now,” my consultant said.

I shrugged. “Maybe it was a good thing she managed to escape hospital after all,” I said as we left.

* * * *

She faded more and more on the bed each day I saw her. She had not woken up, and had not eaten or drank, for three days now. Her cheeks started to cave in and her skin became grey. But still watching her actively dying was very painful.

Then slowly her levels of consciousness picked up a little. One morning I went in, and whispered her name. She partially opened her good eye, and saw me. I said hi, and she beamed a familiar smile. That was the first time I had seen her respond since she was brought back to hospital. But she closed her tired eyes again, and went back to sleep. “Have a good rest,” I said.

The next morning she was awake, and she surprised everyone. She was thirsty and hungry, and the amazing oncology nurses hurried to meet her demands. They brought her Coke and milkshakes. She said, “now bring me a pizza” and they chuckled. They could manage at most to make a toast for her that morning.

But if you listened a little more, you would pick up she was confused. She didn’t know where she was. She had absolutely no recollection of the past few days. She didn’t realise too she was actually already paraplegic. Sometimes in between her somewhat manic conversations, there were perhaps periods of lucidity when she would let off the familiar sigh, “Everything is so daunting.”

And then she would look into your eyes, and ask in frightening clarity, “Am I dying?”

“Not right now, dear.”

“I am going to live forever,” she replied in defiance.

And if you listened a little more still, you would pick up she was having visual and auditory hallucinations.

“I think these moments of consciousness will be short-lived,” the palliative care doctor said to me as she rang me up.

Indeed she would decline into a comatose state again soon, and she would then probably really never wake up again.

* * * *

This is the story of J, a young girl who wished for so many things. She wanted to change herself and be a good mum. She wanted to look normal and take good photos with her son. She wanted to win the fight against her cancer even though she was clearly terminal. In the midst too there were glimpses of fear, helplessness, and desperation that I see in her. But I wanted to write these down, as I try to figure out why my heart goes out to her. How much can we relate with her, even though our circumstances may be vastly different?

5 responses to this post

  1. Anonymous
    // reply // #

    Wow bro, this is a very touching story. How invulnerable humans are to cancer, or anything that limits you from achieving something in life. Who do we have but God? A message we need to grasp by just simply listening to the Gospel.

    • OD
      // reply // #


    • // reply // #

      Hi OD, thanks for the comment. Did you perhaps mean vulnerable instead of invulnerable? I agree that without God, when we find ourselves fearful and helpless, life is sad, but the gospel gives us hope.

      • OD
        // reply // #

        hahaha yes vulnerable, thanks. It’s very interesting. People fall apart when they are struck with the knowledge that they ‘are’ (for certain) going to die soon; they get depressed, they lose the motivation to live on, etc. However, no matter how aware we are that we will always be subject to the possibility of death by accident (eg. a car accident), yet we strive on and pursue glory and not feel depressed by this; I wonder, if it is because we forget that we are subject to this fact.

        • OD
          // // #

          maybe it is because when we are different to other people in a negative way, we feel left out and depressed. Eg. it’s not a norm for people to get cancer, and cancer usually means you can’t achieve much in your life anymore / and that whatever hope you have is never gonna be realized. If everyone is born with a time bomb, maybe one won’t feel that bad when he or she develops cancer.

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