Serious as cancer

My parents didn’t arrive at Sunwun’s third birthday party until about half way through, despite the fact they were staying at ours. Or kind of staying at ours.

They’d arrived in Australia the morning before. I stood with Sunwun at Tullamarine Airport international arrivals, me feeling impatient, Sunwun holding a sign that said Grandma and Grandpa.

They were coming from Singapore, following a three-day stopover, following a flight from Dubai, following a flight from the UK, following a flight from Spain, where they live.

We stood behind the barrier for ages. And then, all of a sudden, they were there. I hadn’t seen them in the flesh since 2010, which means they hadn’t seen my wife, Sunwun or I in the flesh either; and they had never seen Suntoo in the flesh, because he was born right here in Australia.

Emotions were running high. And about to run higher.

I drove them down the CityLink Freeway, fighting the glare of the early-day sun, to our rental house in Brunswick. We had a quick cup of tea, and they had first contact with Suntoo; but naturally, after such a long journey, they needed to rest. They went into the living room, on to the sofa bed.

My mum had a swollen stomach, which she’d had for some time. So while they were both napping, my wife and I booked her an appointment at our GP out in Donvale, where we used to live. My wife drove my mum out the Eastern Freeway, and I stayed at home with my dad and the boys.

They returned in the evening to say no cause for the swelling had been found, but they’d been told to go to accident and emergency, out at Box Hill hospital. My mum didn’t want to go, because it was the night before Sunwun’s third birthday party – but, eventually, we went: I drove my parents out the Eastern Freeway, and my wife stayed at home with the boys.

We spent the rest of the evening in a booth at Box Hill hospital, which is really nowhere near our house. It was an emergency ward, and a Friday, and so nothing happened fast.

My parents persuaded me to go home some time after midnight, which I did, albeit reluctantly. Leaving your parents in a hospital booth in the middle of the night and – from their perspective – in the middle of nowhere, when they’ve just crossed the planet to see you … yeah, not good.

By the time they arrived the next day, half way through Sunwun’s party, our house was heaving with people. They looked grey-drained. We cut the cake. Sunwun blew out the candles. I got a pic of Sunwun with my parents looking grey-drained in the background. Hurray. A happy birthday.

It wasn’t until Sunwun and Suntoo were in bed that night that we got the news: my mum had been diagnosed with cancer.

It didn’t sink in. Not then. Not now.

She’d been told at Box Hill she could go home, that they could see nothing wrong with her, only to be told the exact opposite by an oncologist ten minutes later.

There have been better starts to holidays.

Three days later we were back at Box Hill, in a gyno-oncology waiting room, dreading what was about to be said. My parents were grey-drained and exhausted. I looked at my phone. We said nothing.

I watched an Asian man with bad English trying to communicate his needs to the receptionist. I watched the faces of other people sitting around. I wondered if they all had cancer.

We were called into a small office-cum-examination room. My mum, my dad, a Transylvanian oncologist and a student doctor sat on plastic chairs. I sat to the side of them on an examination bed, with a clear view of my parents.

Niceties were exchanged while the doctor got my mum’s file up on the computer. My parents’ faces were primed for the worst, their bodies prepared to absorb a knockout blow as best as they could.

The doctor said he wished he was Harry Potter, that he could vanish the illness with a wave of his wand.

My mum asked how long could she expect.

The doctor said it’s not like in the movies, and that no-one really knows.

My mum asked what would happen to her without treatment.

The doctor said not to go down that road.

My mum asked what would happen next.

The doctor said the next thing was a CAT scan .

My dad and I shook the doctor’s hand, and my mum said thank you, as we left.

I locked myself in a cubicle in the nearest bathroom and cried. A lot. I couldn’t stop. Then my dad knocked the door and said we had to go to to another part of the hospital for the CAT scan.

The next day, I drove my parents to a clinic in Bentleigh East, on the other side of Melbourne, and we sat twiddling thumbs in another waiting room. A specialist we’d met briefly the day before in Box Hill had agreed to see us there briefly, and without an appointment, if we were prepared to wait.

We waited. I looked at my phone. I read a booklet on living with cancer, another on chemotherapy, another on diet. I went to the toilet, came back, sat down, stood up, sat down, stood up.

A receptionist came over to say the specialist had been held up at her weekly “tumor meeting”, discussing cases, including my mum’s, and would be some time.

We drank hospital coffee on the terrace outside, and said very little. And then we came back.

Eventually the specialist called us in, sat us down. Another student doctor sat watching, taking notes. The specialist discussed the likely spread, the likely treatment, the likely timescale, the likely survival rate.

Treatment should start immediately but, of course, it wasn’t that easy: my parents don’t live in Australia, they live in the UK, or in Spain, or in … sorry, where would my mum like to start her treatment?

The specialist and student left the room so we could talk logistics. But we mostly just stared at each other.

If treated here, my mum would be in Australia until at least Christmas. That was fine with me: I wanted her to stay. For me, that was the best option. But then this. And then that. And then this again.

A day passed faxing things, phoning people.

The fluid build-up in my mum’s stomach was making it increasingly hard for her to breathe, and so we asked for some medical help. They’d be able to drain the fluid at Box Hill in a few days, they said, maybe sooner.

In the supermarket that same day, I got a call from a doctor to say a bed had become free.

I drove my parents out the Eastern Freeway to Box Hill, and my wife stayed at home with the boys. My mum sat on a bed behind a curtain and spoke with another friendly oncologist. Yes, she would be in overnight, maybe longer.

The first night, some litres were drained from her stomach, and some litres remained. She didn’t want to stay in another night because she wanted to come away with me, to see me ride my bike in an event I’d been training for for months. She knew I wouldn’t go, or would struggle to go, if she was stuck in hospital.

I drove out the Eastern Freeway with Sunwun to pick her up from hospital that same afternoon, to be there when she was released. Sunwun sat with my mum on her hospital bed while I took a couple of photos.

And then he got restless. I followed him through corridors as he pushed a wheeled walking frame, down in the lift, up in the lift.

At six the next morning, I was standing among hundreds of other people on bikes at the top of a mountain in the Victorian Alps, blowing a kiss and waving to my mum. She looked cold but happy.

I cried a bit during my descent of the mountain. I felt fitter than ever, and yet somehow my mum was so ill.

Nearly 12 hours later, when I crossed the finish line, she was there with my inlaws, my dad, my wife and the boys. But when I looked for her five minutes later she was gone. She’d returned to our apartment, I was told – it had taken all her strength to stand waiting for me in the cold.

At the apartment, she said she’d been vomiting, and apologised for ruining my big day.

Her health worsened in the following days. She couldn’t eat, and couldn’t hold down liquid; she had no energy.

Unhappily, she agreed to go back to Box Hill. She wanted to go to Aberdeen for her treatment, and knew it was going to be harder, if not impossible, the more time passed.

She lay in a bed in a booth in the emergency ward, and was told a blockage from the fluid drain might be causing the vomiting, and so that’s what they would test for.

Nothing was found, but would she stay in overnight for further tests? No, she wouldn’t.

Before coming to Australia, my mum said her main ambition was to take Sunwun and Suntoo to the local park, a mere block or two from our house, to push them on the swings, to have that memory.

We tried the next day, but half way to the park my mum apologised and said she couldn’t go on; she had to get back to the house, to lie down.

The airline representatives, when we phoned, said they wouldn’t take my mum in her current state without a doctors’ note – specifically their doctors note – and that it would take about 72 hours to arrange.

That was too long.

My wife and I got the boys out of the house the next morning. While we were walking to the play park my mum phoned to say she’d managed to get a flight with a different airline, and would be leaving in a few hours.

That evening, my mum and I sat together briefly in the living room, saying what we wanted to say, before Sunwun and Suntoo burst in on us, full of life.

My parents’ bags, still largely unpacked, were zipped up again. Branches on a tree outside our living room window thrashed wildly in a gathering storm.

Sunwun said “me lub you” under the veranda at the front of our house; Suntoo said nothing, and offered just a fleeting hug. Neither boy seemed shocked to see Grandma and Grandpa leaving so soon; neither seemed aware of the distance or drama.

I drove my parents out the CityLink Freeway in heavy rain, and my wife stayed at home with the boys. It was hard to see through the windscreen.

I helped carry my parents’ luggage into the airport, helped check the noticeboard for the right check-in desk and departure gates. I was still with them as they shuffled along, still part of things.

And then, after hugs and blown kisses, I wasn’t.


First published on Innocent in Australia, 2012.