Warm tears made their way silently down my flushed cheeks, as I looked at the dusk outside my bedroom window. As the dying sun painted the western sky with orange-grey hues, I was gripped with a sadness that permeated my whole being. My husband had just told me that the surgeon who had performed lumpectomy on my chest had said the tumour did not look good to him, and that it was definitely cancerous.
Just a couple of weeks ago, we had celebrated the Valima of my younger sister. I had secretly been pleased by the fact that the clothes from my trousseau were actually hanging quite loose on my figure, even after twelve years of marriage and a twin pregnancy. Little did I know that this was, in fact, a premonition of a deadly disease that had invaded my body.
I felt in perfect form with so much to do with one-and-a-half year old twin girls and three sprightly sons. I was always on my feet, attending to my flock with an undying devotion and determination. The moment I mentioned feeling a tiny lump, my husband, a surgeon himself, insisted that I have it examined. I had a strong family history of breast cancer, having lost a paternal as well as a maternal aunt to the ravages of the ailment, so he thought this should be dealt with without further delay.
My father, also a doctor, wanted the best surgeon to see me, as he had only recently watched his younger sister lose the battle to this aggressive warrior. When he set up an appointment with a male surgeon, I was filled with dread. I just could not bring myself to accept the idea of me, who shielded my femininity from non-Mahrams, to go through the shame of having to expose myself. After much gentle persuasion from my husband, I was able to see the elderly surgeon, who immediately put me at ease with his professional efficiency and kind demeanour.
So here I was, a few days after the operation, sitting in our car in the hospital’s parking area, looking at the world that had changed drastically in a few minutes. Everything seemed to have taken on a surreal quality. I knew, of course, that everybody had to die, but I had not anticipated that time to come this soon. What now? Is my time up already? I tried to remember what it was that I was supposed to have done in this life. And what was it that I had to pass on to my children?
I badly needed to hold on to something. “Tell me one supplication,” I asked my sister over the phone. She recommended the Dua of Prophet Yunus (as). Yes! I mouthed the words out loud: “La ilaha illa Anta [none has the right to be worshipped but You (O Allah)], Glorified (and Exalted) are You [above all that (evil) they associate with You]. Truly, I have been of the wrong-doers.” (Al-Anbiya 21:87)
As we walked down the super clean corridor of Shaukat Khanum hospital, I looked at my husband and said I was sorry that he had to go through the pain and trouble of all this. I thought my condition would add to his already stressed life as a busy neurosurgeon. The time and money that would go into this long ordeal really made me feel guilty that I had brought this on him. He was surprised that I should say this and lovingly reassured me that we were in this together and he would fight this foreign invader with me all the way, Insha’Allah.
Back home, my mother knew nothing of this. She was planning a dinner for my newly-wed sister, when I remarked that this was not an occasion for festivity. “I have cancer, you know,” I blurted out tactlessly, entirely insensitive to the fact that my firstborn aged eleven was in the room. To this day, I remember his reaction. It was as if somebody had punched him in the stomach. The colour drained from his face, as he hurriedly left the room, stumbling on his way out.
After giving birth, never does a woman look at a suffering child except that it tears her apart. She knows that to see your offspring slowly slipping away is unquestionably a parent’s worst nightmare. So I recognized the heart-wrenching love that a mother feels for her child writ large on the face of the woman seated across from me. She was trying her utmost to pacify and soothe the small girl in her lap, who was writhing in raw pain. Tears welled up in my eyes, as the toddler continued to cry. At that moment, I was so thankful that it was I who had contracted cancer and not one of my children.
In the hospital, a pretty teenage girl chirped happily with her brother. There was no indication that she was in any way troubled or weighed down by anything. This was astonishing, because when I happened to glance down, she had only one leg. The other had been amputated, I presumed, as the malignancy gnawed and lashed with a vengeance, wreaking havoc in her body. Allahu Akbar! I appreciated the blessings I enjoyed every moment of my life. I wanted to drop down on my face there and then in adoration of my Benefactor.
Bald children and young adults lined up on the chemotherapy beds made my heart go out to them. Their lives had suddenly stopped and had started to revolve around just one reality: that of the vicious nature of their illness. The world outside the hospital went on as usual, but for these patients, it seemed as if they were floating in space, watching this whole drama of life. For me, the lens through which I saw the world had certainly been vivified. Now I saw with crystal clarity the purpose of creation.
A few days after my diagnosis, I walked to a corner shop with my seven-year-old son to buy biscuits for my twins. The pure pleasure that I felt from this simplest of exercise cannot be put into words. Holding my son’s hand and feeling the cool breeze on my face exhilarated me in a delightful manner. It felt good to be living and glorifying my Creator. Later at home, I relished every moment with my loved ones, savouring each precious second.
Nothing rectifies the soul more speedily than the prospect of your own mortality. Once you realize you are not here forever, it gives a sense of urgency to your life as never before. I had fallen in love with the Revelation some years ago, but lately I had not been getting any time to spend with it. But now, as I waited for appointments or tests, I found solace in the Divine Scripture. I was surprised to see musical programmes on television sets in the hospital lounge. Why would anyone want to listen to music, I thought, when his or her life was hanging in the balance and his or her soul is yearning for its Master?
This beautiful Ayah of Surah Naml: “Is not He (better than your gods) Who responds to the distressed one, when he calls Him, and Who removes the evil…?” (An-Naml 27:62) had me mesmerized. It kept reverberating in my heart and mind all the time as I lay on the cold operating table. Just minutes before, I had held the hand of my husband and had asked him if he was happy with me, because if I were not to survive this major surgery, I wanted to make sure he was pleased with me as a wife. I related to him the Hadeeth whereby the Prophet (sa) guaranteed Paradise for a woman who died while her husband was uncomplaining of her. As they wheeled my trolley away, he jokingly remarked that he was sure I would be back to vex him.
Every small gesture of kindness registers in your brain when you lie frail and vulnerable in a starched gown with strangers steering you towards the operation theatre. I recall with vivid lucidity my sister-in-law saying in a protesting whisper, “O, please, let her keep on her veil”, because she knew how much my Purdah meant to me. How nice and caring! Those words really warmed my heart.
The day I came home after the mastectomy, I inspected the bandages on my body. So ruthlessly mutilating had been the surgeon’s knife, it almost felt like my gender had changed. Sorrowfully, I mused about the new me but not for long, as I had plenty to take care of at home. I had a month to recuperate before chemotherapy. My doctor had advised me not to carry any weight, so it was really heart-wrenching to see my twins cry but to not be able to comfort them by lifting them in my arms or cradling them to sleep.
I let the sweet, melodious Ayahs of the Quran surge through my body during chemo. The captivating recitation seemed to speak directly to my heart. On occasions, my eyes would shed a lone tear simply because the words were so very sublime, just out of this world. How could one not be affected by this? Trust mankind to leave the heavenly for the mundane, the beautiful for the ugly, and the breath-taking for the mere plain.
There was a three-week break between each dose of chemo, which they called the Red Devil at the hospital due to its brutal strength. Two weeks were spent in fighting back nausea and fatigue, but the last week was always superbly normal, which made me very appreciative of the immense blessing of health and vigour, which most people do not use wisely. One thing is for certain: the threshold of pain in humans is pretty low. A simple surgical procedure can send searing pain ripping through the body. At such instances, I pleaded to be saved from chastisement in the grave and penalty in the Hereafter.
After the second round of chemotherapy, while I was brushing my hair, a big tuft of it came in my hand. Oh! I was filled with apprehension, and my heart felt heavy. I watched forlornly the silky brown long tresses just falling apart from their roots. Never again, I thought, would I take the favours and bounties of Allah (swt) for granted. I began to wear a scarf at home and was so self-conscious that I would not allow even my husband to look at my hairless head. But one day I took off my protective covering, completely forgetting the presence of my four-year-old in the room. He was so utterly taken aback that he gasped with eyes wide open: “You are Nangi (naked)”.” I think maybe he meant to say Ganji (bald), but in his shock, the word got twisted around.
The glitter of the stars, the scuttle of the night creatures, the occasional hoot of an owl and the bright spectacular halo around the full moon add to the sheer beauty and spell of the night. These are the signs the Quran talks about, I whispered, breaking the pre-dawn silence. I had come full circle. The mercy and grace of the Magnificent Lord of heavens and earth had given me a new lease on life, Alhumdulillah.
Tribulations come, I realized, to pull the carpet from under your feet, to make you stop dead in your tracks, and to compel you to turn to your Creator in submission and humility. I had made a vow on the hospital bed that if Allah the Almighty (swt) would grant me another chance, I would dedicate my life, Insha’Allah, to learning His Deen and teaching it to my progeny. It has been my dream and invocation ever since.