By Radhika Tyagi
Indians don’t believe in confession. She has no idea I’m here. She’s Indian, you know. I mean, so am I, but I was born here. So culturally, we have some differences. Like the whole therapy thing. My mom doesn’t see the value in paying someone to talk to you about your problems. If I told her I was here, paying you to talk to me, she would ask me why I don’t talk to her or my friends.
And they don’t leave that mentality behind in the mother country when they emigrate. Like my cousin, she’s spent more of her life in Houston than in Jaipur. But my mom, brother, and I—we’re her favorites in the family—we’re the only ones who know she’s a divorcee. And it’s been eight years since the separation. Of course, her American friends know. They’re cool with—we’re cool with—divorces. But in India, the only thing worse than being over thirty and unmarried is being over thirty and divorced. At least that’s what my cousin tells me. Maybe things are improving.
In any case, this is probably a one-time thing. It’s nothing personal, of course. I think therapy’s great and all, it helps a lot of people, but I’m not one of those people who needs therapy. You won’t find any skeletons in my closet. My brother thinks I’m a masochist for studying physics, but he’s taking night classes for his second master’s, so pay no attention to him.
You know the one thing Indians can’t hide? Death. They don’t even try to—widows wear white saris the same way Hester Prynne wears a scarlet “A.” My brother says in the years our dad had the cancer, a day never went by that we didn’t have visitors. They’d wash dishes, cook dinner and chai, talk politics with my dad, drive my brother to school and sometimes babysit me. They’d recommend home remedies and Hindu pundits who could pray away the cancer, so every Saturday there was a different temple to visit, a different pundit to push our troubles onto. At the time, I couldn’t comprehend something as complex as cancer, so I just thought he was suffering from a prolonged fever. When he died, my mother didn’t wear white saris. Not that I remember any of this—I was three.
My brother remembers it all so clearly. It’s as if he has a highlight reel of our dad’s cancer that he watches every night before bed and takes an exam on every morning. He reads The Emperor of All Maladies once a month. I don’t even think he reads other books. My cousin—the divorcee—says my brother’s no cause for concern, that his coping hasn’t gotten in the way of his daily life.
I started believing her, but now my brother thinks he has cancer. He called last Tuesday, in the late afternoon, to tell me. His exact words were, “I have the same cancer as dad.” And then he upped and left Alexandria, showed up at my dinky student apartment four nights ago. I’m just relieved he had the decency to tell Megha—that’s his fiancé—of his whereabouts. Megha didn’t even ask him when he would come back. Not that I’m surprised—Megha’s read Maladies nearly as many times as my brother. She tells me, “By now, that book is a piece of Vikram, and I want to know Vikram completely.” I love her. I love her for loving him.
Their wedding is in a month’s time. Do you want to see the invitation? I picked out the design. You can keep it; I have plenty more at home. And if you find yourself in Virginia next month…Have you ever attended an Indian wedding? They’re a grand old time! The groom enters on a white horse, the bride on a palanquin, and after the ceremonies, it’s one big dance party. Megha’s been planning for a year now.
I don’t think it’s cancer, or the fear of cancer, or filial piety that brought my brother here. It’s just cold feet. He’s showing all the signs of being downright terrified of his marital future. He’s been dressing haphazardly—wrinkled shirts, unwashed pants, and mismatched socks galore—and moving around my apartment aimlessly. He’s usually so deliberate, but lately it’s as though he’s in a foreign body, always unsure of what to do with his arms and how to contort his face into an appropriate expression. He hasn’t changed his clothes since coming here—the only thing he brought with him is that book. When I asked him for papers from the doctor, he told me he didn’t have any, that the doctor felt a lump in his abdomen and that was it. I told him to show me, but he refused. “I know you. You’ll just stick your hands over your eyes and say la la la,” he said to me. “I want you to hear it from Jija.” Jija, by the way, means brother-in-law. And this particular Jija is my cousin’s ex-husband. He’s an oncologist. What was buzzing through my brother’s head when he made this request I can only imagine. I listen to my brother. I’ve listened to his monologues on Maladies since he read it for the first time his freshman year of college. I’ve listened to his tireless stories about our dad, our dad that I barely remember. But I don’t want to encourage his fantasies.
I wasn’t going to given in, but then Megha called. Poor girl, she thinks he’s dying. She couldn’t get a word in without a sniffle. So I took my brother to Jija. You’d think it was the doctor’s former status in our family that would have contributed the most discomfort to the situation, but Jija has a good relationship with us. Really it was the drive to the hospital. My brother said he felt antsy and unfocused, so he asked me to drive. I refused at first because, well, I don’t drive. Of course I have a car and a license and I drive myself around Houston, but when I’m with my brother, I’m a passenger. He’s older—it’s just the way it is. He drove me everywhere when I was a kid, even when he just had his permit. Our mother’s a crap driver. But then my brother said he had a beer only thirty minutes ago, so I gave in. I knew he was lying. I can’t even remember the last time he had a drink. We kept mum. The windows were rolled up and the radio kept off, so we were in near absolute silence. It was eerie, being able to see everything but hear nothing. We didn’t speak until we saw Jija, and even then we didn’t speak directly to each other.
My brother said he wanted me to be with him when he got checked the second time, but I wasn’t really there. I sat in the waiting room of the oncology wing while my brother followed Jija into his office. Isn’t it weird to think about doctors having offices, equipped with a desktop and photos of their family and all the bells and whistles? I always imagined the surgical room was the doctor’s office, their primary place of work. But Jija says there’s a bureaucratic side to his work, too.
Actually, that’s the side my cousin deals with—she owns a hospice. When Jija divorced my cousin, she was a homemaker with two kids. Her alimony checks from Jija were plenty, but she’s used to a certain lifestyle: live-in maids and European excursions and boarding school in New England for the kids. She had too much pride to ask for handouts, or even for a loan from her mom. She had a degree, in Computer Science, but hadn’t worked since becoming a mom. But within the year of her separation, she opened up a hospice. The work keeps her on her toes, but she bragged to me last tax season that her income surpassed Jija’s. Isn’t that amazing? A real American rags-to-riches story. Or I guess, a riches-to-more riches story. But her resilience—I could never do that.
When Jija called me into his office, I was reading one of those wedding magazines. I know, but there were all these great centerpiece ideas I know Megha would love. In the office, my brother and Jija were standing side-by-side, like you couldn’t tell who was the figure of authority and who was the client. It was very bizarre. Jija told me he found a mass on my brother’s abdomen and pointed to the area of his shirt underneath where the mass would be. Given our family history, he said, it was most likely renal cancer, but we needed a CT scan to be certain. After my brother scheduled an appointment for the CT scan, Jija walked us out. He kept his hand resting on my brother’s shoulder as we walked through the hospital. I kept behind.
My brother’s back there today, getting his CT scan. He asked me to go with him, but I don’t want to encourage his fantasies. We had a terrible row about it last night while my brother was cooking dinner. We reached a compromise when we were washing dishes—my brother would get his CT scan alone if I would go to therapy.
I wanted to ask Jija if it could have been a kidney stone, but it was such a swift affair at the hospital, and I felt on the fringes of the whole thing. It was like Jija assumed my position, and my brother hardly minded, as if they talked this whole thing out prior. I told my brother, on the ride home. I was driving; my brother didn’t have to ask me this time. He said to me, in this unnerving deadpan voice, “But Jija said it’s likely cancer.” He then pulled up photos of malignant kidney tumors on his phone, pulled his shirt off, and asked me to turn around when we reached a stop sign.
If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you probably wouldn’t see the mass. If you just glanced at my brother, you wouldn’t see the mass. It hung just where Jija pointed to it, in the space between his stomach and chest. It blended with his olive complexion so well I took a moment to notice it. Besides that, the photos looked so threatening, so gross. My brother’s mass is an oval-shaped blob the size of this portion of my thumb, from the tip to the knuckle. It’s harmless.
Radhika Tyagi is a recent graduate of the Jimenez-Porter Writers' House and studies English and neurobiology at the University of Maryland. She has a keen interest in medicine and writing, both creatively and critically.
"Patient" is Radhika's first published story.