Shanaya caressed her bald scalp for the millionth time. She missed her hazelnut lustrous hair. Chemotherapy had taken away her beauty. Or so she thought.
Shanaya’s world had come crashing down ten months back. She was sitting with Dr Singh when he had broken the news to her.
She was diagnosed with Stage III stomach cancer. She still had a seventy percent chance of survival though.
Such news is always earth-shattering. It was a bit more than that for Shanaya. She had no family history of cancer and her lifestyle had been fine too. She loved cooking and hardly turned to takeouts. She was an avid runner and her mornings were incomplete without an hour-long run.
But the biggest reason the news impacted her badly was her job. She worked with an NGO called Levitate that served cancer patients and ran programs for survivors.
In the seven years that she had been working with Levitate, she had seen all kinds of cancer patients. Or so she thought.
She had seen ailing patients getting impacted more mentally than physically. The disease held the power to extract all things positive from a person. Cancer thrived on emotions like hope, optimism and even a balanced state of mind.
Her best friend, Riya, who used to be full of life, had succumbed to the workings of the disease. She had embraced death even before the ailment sucked the life out of her.
When Shanaya was diagnosed, she had shut herself off from the world for three weeks straight. While staying alone had made it difficult for her to stay afloat, it had saved her the pity of the few family members and friends that she had.
However, her cutting off had caused much pain and worry to her mother. It was Dr Singh who had then contacted Shanaya, forcing her to start the treatment immediately.
Throughout, her thoughts ran back and forth around the question
She had been serving cancer patients ever since she graduated from college. She had the option of joining the biggest corporates in the world, but she didn’t. She didn’t want to run after money and fame like her batchmates. She wanted to make a difference.
Then why had the universe chosen her to go through the same ailment that she wanted to eliminate from people’s lives? The question had ruined her days and nights, but the answer eluded her.
Lost in thoughts, Shanaya didn’t realise until her phone started ringing the third time. It was her mother. She called her every day, just to ensure that her daughter hadn’t drowned in grief yet.
Shanaya never allowed her mother to come over to take care of her either. She wanted her privacy. Moreover, she could not bear seeing pity in people’s eyes. Being alone helped her stay active, which she desperately needed. It was her argument every time her family and friends picked up the topic of accommodating with her.
Shanaya had been keeping her calls as short as possible for the past ten months. She always lied to her mother about her well-being. Although her mother always saw through them, she never pointed out Shanaya’s fibbing. She just wanted to make sure her daughter was doing as okay as possible.
But today, she had another remark for her daughter, that she hoped would work on her.
“Good that you are doing fine, baby. You need diversions in your life. Exactly what you have been teaching cancer patients at Levitate.”
Shanaya welled up at the mention of her NGO. She never thought she will get to practice what she preached. It was more difficult than she had ever imagined. Feeling the impending silence, her mother continued,
“Shan, you taught those patients that there was more to life than just grief that cancer brought. Now, you can show them how. You can speak from your own experience. But to do that, you need to start doing it first. You need to let go of the pain.”
The thought was not new to Shanaya. She’d had it a couple of times and shoved it away. She only wanted her secluded nest, with grief as the constant companion. Although, she wasn’t sure if she had grown used to the pain and solitude, or had started liking it.
But, one fact remained, Shanaya had already claimed defeat to the struggle.
She quickly hung up. Just like the other times, she tried to push the thought away, but it didn’t leave her. Not this time.
Shanaya’s doctors were monitoring her progress minutely and were happy with it. Her body was responding better than any other patients with stomach cancer. Her first surgery was scheduled eight weeks later.
She went to the bathroom to wash her face. And to wash away the nagging idea.
She splashed water on her face and looked up in the mirror on the wall. Her wheat complexion had lost its glow. Her eyes drifted to the scalp that once held her thick, dark hair. It was a shade lighter than her face. Her eyes were sunken, with dark shadows underneath. Her once full lips had lost their pink.
But there was something that Shanaya didn’t quite recognise in her look.
Something that felt alien to her.
Her gaze shifted to her brown eyes. They weren’t as bright as they once used to be, but something shone in them.
She stood up straight and kept gawking at the figure in the mirror. Then it struck her.
There was a certain emotion in her eyes. Her brows furrowed and she squinted hard to figure it out.
And then, she knew. Her face went blank.
It was hope. Whatever was left of it.
She recalled the way she used the weapon of hope to save the members of Levitate from giving up. She used to tell them that cancer was afraid of hope. And hope was a decision.
It had been a while that she held the weapon herself.
Her eyes welled up at the recollection. The hope within her had almost given in to the grief too. Whatever was left of it, seemed ready to fight.
She collapsed to the ground and started sobbing. She kept gasping frequently to relieve herself of the pain, which seemed to flow from every pore of her shaking body. She had held onto it for ten long months.
She still wasn’t sure if she was ready to let go of it but felt it peeling out of her skin with every sob.
She cried until the sun went down. Solitude provided her with ample time and opportunity to vent it all out without being interrupted. Or allayed.
She kept lying on the bathroom floor until the dark started troubling her.
She collected herself up and held the wall for a moment. She still wasn’t used to the headrushes that came to her frequently. Slowly, she headed out of the bathroom.
She grimaced at the darkness around her. It was the same gloom that engulfed her home, her life and her being.
Giving in to a sudden urge, she started moving around the house turning on the lights everywhere.
Apparently, the hope within her was getting resurrected.
Another recollection occurred to her. She hadn’t baked in a while.
It had been her passion since childhood. It held the power to heal her of every sorrow. She hadn’t used that weapon either in months.
She headed to the kitchen and pulled out the baking equipment. She dusted it off. It still smelled of the last cake she had baked. It was for her mother’s birthday a year back. She had baked butterscotch cream, her mother’s favourite.
She decided to bake it again, but a question arose in her mind.
‘Whom will I bake for today?’
She parked the thought aside. Baking brought her peace and happiness, so she decided to go for it. She would decide the recipient later. She pulled out the baking ingredients. They had drifted to the back of the closet over the past ten months.
Now, her armoury was ready.
She was out of eggs so she called the grocery store near her place to order.
She set the oven to preheat and started whisking the mix. Her mind wandered to the last time she was making it. She had planned a surprise birthday fete for her mother and had invited all her friends too. That was the last time she had been to a celebration outside work.
At work, she regularly hosted small celebrations and baked for them. It was a trend that Shanaya had started at Levitate. It was her way of telling every cancer patient that everything will be alright. She used to bake their favourite flavours and put short messages on top.
‘The world is still beautiful. So are you!’
‘Congratulations! The battle is half won!’
‘Fight the devil within first.’
‘Let’s win this, together.’
She wondered which one would she need to cheer herself up.
The timer on the oven brought her back. Her cake batter was ready too. She put it inside the oven and started preparing the icing for the message.
That’s when nausea returned accompanied by dizziness.
She was suddenly moving too fast. She dragged herself to the bathroom and stood bent over the toilet seat, waiting to hurl. It was a false alarm, but enough to make her realise that she needed to take it slow.
She came out and sat down on the sofa. Within a few minutes, her body surrendered to fatigue. She was half asleep when a thought occurred to her,
‘Maybe I should call mom to help me out..’
That’s when her oven started ringing. She jerked her eyes open and shoved the thought away. She got up, slowly.
She pulled out the cake. It looked as perfect as the last time she had baked it. A random thought brought a smile to her lips, after long.
‘This will be a good surprise for the members of Levitate.’
She packed the cake and headed towards her phone. She had a task at hand which she could ignore no longer. She picked her phone and searched for Kiara, the Manager at Levitate. Sitting down, she dialled.
After five rings, and just before Shanaya was about to hang up, Kiara answered.
“Hello? Is that really you, Shanaya?”
Shanaya smiled listening to her close friend’s voice after months.
“Yes, Kiara, it’s me. How have you been?”
“Me? Lady, how have YOU been? Seems like we saw you in our previous lifetime! When my phone started ringing, displaying your name, I just froze….kept staring at it. I couldn’t believe it was you calling me….How’s your treatment going on?”
“I am doing just fine, thanks, Kiara. My treatment is going fine too.”
Shanaya knew she would have to bite the bullet soon, so she continued,
“Kiara….I…I know I didn’t take the diagnosis the way I should have...”
Kiara interrupted her “Don’t say anything, Shan. I know it must have been devastating for you. It always is. I am just glad that you called me. It is so great to hear your voice after ages! I hope we get to see you soon too!”
Shanaya pressed her lips together. She didn’t know how to convey her thoughts to Kiara. She had barely accepted them herself yet.
Meanwhile, Kiara continued “I understand how difficult it must have been to take the first step, Shan. I am so proud of you. I can see you are ready to come out of your shell. I hope you let me be a part of your journey ahead. It would be an honour and a desperate need as a friend. I don’t want to miss seeing you break through the barrier.”
Shanaya smiled. Kiara spoke like a true Levitarian. This was the language they had been taught at the organisation. This was the language used to forge a heart-to-heart bond with someone who had been suffering.
This was the language that inculcated hope.
Shanaya decided to share her plan.
“Kiara, I am planning to come down to Levitate tomorrow morning. I would like to meet some of the members. I….I have baked a cake today.”
Kiara was speechless, but Shanaya could feel her warmth grow over the phone. She could imagine her friend beaming ear-to-ear.
Finally, Kiara managed to break the silence.
“Shan, I have been waiting for this day for so long. WE have been pining to see you! I will let everyone know that you are coming tomorrow.”
“No, don’t. Let it be a surprise.” her own words surprised Shanaya. There was a long-forgotten excitement in her voice.
“Sure, Shan. I alone will suffer from a sleepless night. So…what’s the message you have put on the cake?”
“I…haven’t decided yet. I had no particular member in mind while baking it. How many cancer patients are there at Levitate today?”
“Three hundred and twenty. A six-year-old joined today. She is suffering from stomach cancer, the last stage. Doctors have given up already.”
Shanaya’s eyes welled up. She gasped for air. She had come to accept her condition after ten long months, even though there was still hope for her. Doctors were quite happy with her progress.
And there was this little girl who had no hope. She was suffering from such a horrible condition at an age when she should have been creating memories for the years to come. She will have to bid goodbye to life even before it started.
Shanaya stifled a sob, but Kiara understood her friend’s silence. She regretted telling her about the little girl.
Worried that Shanaya might cancel her plans to come, Kiara asked fearfully,
“Are you okay, Shanaya? You know cancer is a tough battle for everyone. It is more so for some. I hope learning about this little girl won’t deter you from coming tomorrow?”
Shanaya gathered herself and managed to speak with a lump in her throat.
“In fact, it makes me more determined to meet her. I will be there by eight in the morning.”
She hung up. Faces of hundreds of cancer patients shuffled in front of her eyes. She imagined how that six-year-old girl would look like. Cancer treatment sucked the life out of adults. Shanaya shuddered at the thought of what the therapy would have done to a small child.
She felt an ache, a new emotion, in the middle of her chest. She buried her face in her hands and cried, again.
Shanaya felt she had wasted months hibernating. She could have used her own experience, and her baking prowess, to bring a smile to fellow cancer patients.
She could have done something for that little girl. She needed to.
That was what Levitate was trying to achieve. Helping cancer patients rise above their suffering.
Suddenly, it struck her. She knew exactly what she needed to write on the cake. It would be for that girl.
The next day, Shanaya went to her office. It hadn’t changed in the past ten months but felt different. The last time she was here, it was as a staff member, a Levitarian.
Now, she was a fellow cancer patient, hoping to become a survivor someday.
Kiara almost jumped from her seat on seeing Shanaya. They hugged and cried for ten minutes until being torn apart by other staff members.
Everyone was ecstatic to see Shanaya after so long. She was happy to see that there was no pity in their eyes, contrary to the rest of the world.
She regretted not going there earlier.
Then she headed straight to the Members Area, looking for that six-year-old. One of the staff members pointed Shanaya in her direction.
Shanaya had to suppress her tears as she approached the wheel-chair bound child. The girl had beautiful brown skin, which was lighter on her scalp, just like Shanaya’s. Her small round eyes had darker circles underneath them. She looked weak, but her smile conveyed she was not defeated, yet.
The girl saw Shanaya come closer. She looked up and gave her a heart-warming grin, which conveyed they shared the same pain.
She asked Shanaya,
“Are you the reason why everyone is so happy here today?”
Shanaya fought back tears and lowered down on her heels.
“I am not sure. People are fighters here. They are always cheerful.”
“Not as much as today…I can see it in their eyes!”
“Hmmm…you are very perceptive for your age.”
“I had to learn it quickly since I don’t have much time left.”
Shanaya’s brows furrowed, but she managed to stop her tears from flowing freely. The girl looked deep into her eyes and smiled again.
“Don’t cry. I am the Smile Manager here. I cannot let anyone well up around me. You know all is not lost until there is hope, right?”
Shanaya giggled at the baby in front of her.
“What’s your name, Smile Manager?”
“I am Meera. What’s yours?”
“Nice to meet you, Meera. I am Shanaya.”
“Nice to meet you!”
“So Meera, before I left, and before you came here, we had a tradition of celebrating life often. Would you like to cut a cake?”
“Oh, sure! Which flavour is it?”
“I love butterscotch cream!” Meera gleamed with joy.
Shanaya stood up and grabbed the handles of Meera’s wheelchair. She felt relieved to have come out of her recluse after so long. The members needed her as much as she needed them.
As they approached the table where the cake was set, everyone surrounded them. All the members and the staff seemed happy.
The cake had just one candle.
Shanaya gestured at it asking Meera to blow the candle and make a wish. She had a feeling she had chosen the right message for the cake. It was
“Hope is a decision.”