Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Leukemia 101

Even at that young an age, I could tell there was something different about Christopher – the way his friendly eyes bugled out a little and made him seem almost goldfishesque, how his hairline started near the middle of his skull, how his skin was the colour milk. He seemed so easily breakable. Every other week or so, he’d disappear from school, and when his mother would bring him back, he’d be looking either sicker or skinnier, usually both.

In my case, like with most things, school was yet another failure at adjustment. Education, a uniform, waking up in the morning, the presence of female creatures and how Day 1 started with Dad running away as I wailed to be set free, all added up to a place I hated.

Christopher was the first friend I made. There was no formal introduction. He was sitting next to the bookshelf alone, drawing. All I did was to go and sit down next to him. Thus was forged the arcane bond between 4 year olds, which operates above things like introductions. The company balmed some of my misery and I hope eased some of his lonliness. We’d spend hours gradually filling up drawing sheets with armies of faceless stick-men waging wars, all drawn in lead pencil. No red meaning no blood, no one died. When the bell rang, our soldiers all packed up and went home; to come back tomorrow to leap out of shoebox-shaped aeroplanes and fire rat-dropping shaped bullets at each other.

Eventually, as we got to know each other better our parents began letting us visit some afternoons. Christopher’s house was breathtakingly beautiful, going there was an excursion. Built by the East India Company when the whole island of Penang was leased to them in the 1800s, it was a sprawling stilt-striding tropical vision in wood. The company his father worked for had provided it. To add to the allure, Christopher had a Labrador they’d named Ruth. Supposedly a pet, surreptitiously an alarm to let his parents know that he had collapsed on the ground once again.

I was lucky enough to never see him blackout, or as I later learned from medical textbooks, to see him squirm with fevers, fail to urinate or develop fungal infections on the roof of his mouth.

Most of these visits kicked off with the two of us being made to finish our homework by the host’s parents. Once that was out of the way, we launched into another session of artwork in unsullied lead, ignoring the crayons and colouring pencils that would have been laid out for us. After a bloodless blitzkrieg, we’d be served up a snack. At my house, the menu was mostly chocolate milk and some crunchy peanut-butter sandwiches. Christopher’s mother liked to bake. She’d often make cupcakes, and serve them with Kool-Aid relatives sent back from England.

By now, the afternoon’s heat would have simmered down some, and we would be allowed to take things outside into the large garden. The Labrador had to tag along, and Chris’ mother usually sat in the porch watching us. Somedays, we played penalty-shootout football, Christopher a shape-shifting embodiment of one of the scores of English footballers whose names he rattled off and became. Me week-in-and-week-out being the only footballer I knew: Diego Maradonna. Other days we just cavaliered about hunting for caterpillars, centipedes and their ilk to bring back to class in glass jars as trophies. Ironically, Christopher’s favorite game was one he probably would never have been able to play – he was happiest watching the three-second flight of a rugby ball from my hands to his.

An hour of running about posing as footballers in Malaysia’s sauna-humidity left us both completely drenched in sweat. We’d then be made to bathe and get ready for the guest’s departure. Awaiting our parents, we’d plonk down in front of the television and be handed more glasses of milk over which to watch the evening cartoon shows (standard 1980s fare like Transformers, GI Joe and Merry Melodies).

Over time, my company had made Chris a pretty decent Amitabh Bacchan fan. When over at my place, he’d often pester my mother to put on a subtitled VHS of something like Zanjeer or Deewar, films showcasing Amitabh at his youngest, angriest and most invincible. He liked the fight scenes the best, pumping his fists and clapping fervidly as Bacchan single-handedly creamed a dozen ruffians to the backdrop of ill-timed BHISHUPs. His mother though, saw to it that these screenings were stopped. Apparently she heard him delivering a melodramatic challenge to a fight with some neighborhood kid. The challenge’s wordings involved among other things, doubts regarding this boy’s credentials as a breast-fed baby. Not something you’d pick up off Bugs Bunny.

Christopher and I hung around together most of the time in school. We shared lunch and pretended to be superheroes during recess, but did little else. His mother had told me not to make him run about too much. Though I knew there was something wrong with him, it was always something vague, ill-defined and therefore avoidable.

I once asked him about his hair, and why he was going so skinny.

He said what he’d been told. That “some people just have less hair and are skinnier”. In a way it was right.

That his problem was something concrete became clear when he got hit by this kid in our class called Damien. It probably wasn’t over much. Besides being physically big for his age, Damien was also a way bigger bastard than the average 4 year old. He often picked fights for the simple worldly joy he found in hitting people. He punched Chris in the nose by the monkeybars. Chris fell unconscious and his nose bled like a faucet. By the time a teacher got there, he was near lying in a puddle of his own blood.

It was a week till he came back to school again, a bruise the size of a man’s palm imprinted around his nose.

These were the 1980s, days before Pinkel’s ‘total therapy’ could boast of leukemia survival rates of near 80%.

We were all there a decade too early.

Chris’s stays at school became shorter, fewer and further between, as did my visits to his house. Till one day his mother told my parents that Chris needed all the rest he could get, and that any more trips would have to wait.

He then sort of faded away. One day there was a funeral. My parents thought it best not to take me along.

When you’re four, you really don’t know how to miss someone. You eventually learn.

5 comments:

DOOMED DOCTOR said...

I lost a close friend of mine when i was in 1st year of college and he stayed thr at home,I was hurt only a lil bit.Then talked to his parents on gtalk one day and was hit much harder.
"give me an inch and i will move ur world" Archemedes must have said that about sorrow i think

Ashutosh Ratnam said...

I believe he said give me a lever and a place to lean it upon, and i shall move the world. But yes, it sort of applies perfectly to genuiene sorrow. The thing about Christopher was that at the time, his presence was just take for a granted. I couldn't really fathom his not being there, and somewhat naturally, the cluelessness of how to react to it was telling.....

biba said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ahona. said...

I was in 5th standard when i lost my friend to leukemia
Didn't even know what it meant back then. Had a vague idea though.I was made to believe that it was an impossible health condition. I always had immense faith in my prayers and could never believe the fact that she was no more. Her absence still haunts my mind.

Very well written. Especially the last two lines. Intense and Though-Provoking.

Ahona. said...

*thought