I had felt it for a while now. This lump on the left side of my abdomen. Most likely, benign. Hopefully benign. When I had read about it all as a medical student, I had only a technical understanding of it. But when it appeared in flesh and blood, it was an altogether different perception.
It was a strange feeling to even feel it- a lump that was very much my own body, and yet not normal. Within that lump were my own cells. Very much alive. Breathing, eating, growing. That lump belonged to me. It was my own life that throbbed in it. And yet, it had to be removed. I would obsessively run my hands over it, and feel uncomfortable. I didn’t want it, but it was there. An unwelcome companion. Sometimes, I would feel it and wonder what made it grow. Some day, something happened that made those cells change character and grow. Grow prolifically without direction or purpose. I would let the question hang in the air. Only those cells knew the answer. If only they could speak!
Illness is always like that. It catches you off-guard. It is always that unwelcome companion that throws your life off balance. To be a doctor is a beautiful thing. It empowers you. But to be a patient is perhaps the worst nightmare. And doctors are more alien to this nightmare and least equipped to confront its horrors for they are often spared much of the routine confrontation with illness, hospitals, tests and medicines that other people are accustomed to. Doctors always sit on the opposite side of illness and are seldom aware of what it means to sit on the side of the illness.
It was a different world I saw from the perspective of a patient. I felt the agony of waiting. The agony and discomfort of tests. I felt the paranoia as I tried to read into the frown of the surgeon as he carefully assessed the lump. I felt the paranoia as I tried to read into the grimaces of the radiologists who appeared confused as they tried to interpret the scan. I realized how intimidating gadgets were in the setting of illness. I hated the MRI machine that looked like a grim robot scanning me with no compassion at all. Somehow, seconds feel like hours in a hospital.
To the doctor, illness is a mere conundrum of symptoms and signs that needs to be addressed; it is merely a technical issue that needs to be resolved. But for the patient, it is an overpowering phenomenon that has changed the very course of his life. It weighs him down physically, emotionally, psychologically.
I underwent a psychological metamorphosis as the reality of my predicament sunk in. I felt guilty in a strange way. I suddenly felt an aversion for all extravagance; particularly food. I could no longer bear to eat anything in excess; I lost the desire to eat for pleasure.
While I was still working and continuing the normal routine of my life, there was an illusion of normalcy. But it wasn’t this illusion I wanted. The first instinct I felt was to cut off from people- especially people I knew. I felt the need to withdraw into myself- to tap into the strength that I could find there. I needed it now, plenty of it. I only interacted with my family and with a very close circle of friends I needed to fall back on.
I also craved for the peace that nature instilled in me. I felt this deep longing for places that offered solitude- old orchards and groves that housed mango trees, jackfruit trees and cashew trees and where there was no sound, except for the rustling of leaves and the cooing of birds. I loved treading on the dried leaves that carpeted the earth in these orchards. Somehow, the dried leaves were like the chapters of my life that had long withered away and fallen off the tree of my life. It was in these places that I could feel my deepest self- the philosophical self that provided me strength and raised my awareness to something beyond the body and the material self.
I also craved for the company of animals and birds. These mute creatures offer me much comfort though their silent stories. I watched the pigeon that had lost half its leg to some injury and now limped about quietly to pick at the grains that we put out.
The other day, I discovered an old Sarpakkavu. It was very much like the Sarpakkavu I had visited in the premises of many old ancestral homes when I was a child. Very much evoking the feeling described in this article:
In that corner stood a cluster of trees, old, crowded, hissing and rustling. Thick foliage, made up of interwoven creepers , over grown climbers clambering up huge trees and the self sufficient eco system, demarcated this place. Under the canopy hidden by the foliage stood the deities of nagadevatha.
I walked into the grove that it lead to. I wondered if there were snakes beneath the dried leaves. But somehow, I no longer fear snakes. I love them. I think peaceful coexistence puts all species at rest; they drop their defenses. There is an irrational belief within me that nature will never harm me. There is no logic to this, but it is a feeling that I have learned to trust, largely on account of the experiences life has treated me to. I feel one with all creatures. I felt a desire to go and see the snakes at the snake park. Hold them once more.
I walked right up to the edge of the grove, fringed by trees. Here, through a clearing, I could see that the grove was placed high up on a hill and looked onto plains below. A beautiful river flowed through the plains while fields stretched out on one side of the river. It was a glimpse of the Kerala I had seen as a child. The picture I had preserved of this land and that I still hold on to. I held my breath. There was a gentle breeze, and time suddenly seemed to have stopped. When I finally drove back home, the misery in my heart had been sealed with the infinite beauty nature had treated me to.
I learned yet another thing about myself in the course of these few days. I rely on fantasy to find the courage to go through suffering. Around the pockets of pain, my mind weaves infinite fantasies and shields me from the intensity of pain. At all the times that there is pain in my life, my mind switches on the fantasy mode. I dream a lot at such times. I create fantasies involving the people whose presence comforts me. I create fantasies from nature. I create fantasies with regard to what I shall do after the pain is through. I drown the unpleasantness of pain in this ocean of fantasy.
In the evening, as I sat down to savour dusk, I caught sight of the young mangoes on the mango tree. The tree seemed to hold up its mangoes to me as if saying, “By the time you get back from the surgery, these will be ripe enough for you to eat!” I thought of the recliner and rocking chair that I have taken a liking to, and dreamt of the days following the surgery when I would sit out in the garden and write to my heart’s fill. It would be a relief to have my companion out…to no longer feel that lump. But my unwelcome companion has certainly taught me the value of life- of the infinite joys of these simple little things that collectively make up life!