Unapologetic Me

Unapologetic Me

Chapter One: The Bucket Wish List

Janine’s Christmas would have been much better if the world had been the same. The celebrations would have started a month ago. People would be merry cheerfully wishing strangers. Shopping malls, markets would have been flooded with decorative items. But this year was different. Loneliness now engulfs the world. People are scared to look into the eyes of each other. It is so hard to spread holiday cheers this way. Janine loved exchanging presents. This year Christmas tree will be empty with no gifts. 

Maybe I can ask Santa for the curbside delivery at least. She thought to herself.

I cannot let him inside the house; it is COVID time. She smiled joyously as a ray of hope filtered through the mist. Nothing was going to deter her festive spirit. So, what if she was in her forties? Life begins to metamorphosis as the egg cycle bids adieu. And you have yet another 20 Christmas to celebrate till you bid a farewell to the world. Every year was precious after chemotherapy. Every cell longed for the celebration.

Ahh! so painful it was! The visits to doctors, chemo sessions – and my body slowly giving up. But now, I only want to live life to the fullest. The sparkle in her eyes was evident. Common Janine, a pandemic may take everything but not the right to be happy. With much enthusiasm, she started her preparations for the festival. 

I will redo my home this time. I will get the crockery replaced. Hmm, I need more twinkle lights with brightness. After all, I am living this life all over again. I want to be that beacon of hope who can inspire everyone with joyful cheers. I will double my enthusiasm. If I can beat the nasty cancer cells, I can defeat the demons of disparage inside me. My children! Oh, the love of my life; I will see them again.

Cancer had taught Janine a lot of things. It turned the indifferent woman into someone who started valuing every moment of life. It made the atheist in her theist. She now thanked God for every minute she got to live on this earth. She changed her all work and no play attitude. The hobbies she had put off for later years were now at the forefront, getting fulfilled. Most of all, she had now learned to differentiate the genuine well-wishers from the opportunists. And cherish her relationships with those who were still with her.

But of all the tasks she had to do, the first was to prepare a list. Segregate and sort. Remove all the work she was doing just for earning money. The time she spent only on the routine which was not giving pleasure, she had to chuck out all that work. Now, she will only do what she thinks right from the heart.

THE BUCKET WISH LIST very ambitiously she had prepared it. If one item ticked off, a heap of guilt got added to her conscience. 

The constant gnawing of what if’s had burrowed her soul. Family, children, and career needed her more than personal dreams, choices, and fitness. Yes, her fitness was now more important than anything else. Enough of worrying about omelets for Tony and pancakes for Garcia, a bowl of oats porridge had to be first for her.

Chapter Two: Loneliness

While she was lost, in the thoughts of decorations, Christmas presents, and her wish list that she had designed for herself, her mobile buzzed. It showed a video call flashing with a picture of her two sweethearts. Tony and Garcia were twins and were in their final year of college and lived about four hours away. She swept her finger magically on the phone and could see Tony.

“Hey, mom, we wanted to inform you that we may not be able to come home for Christmas as everybody has warned us against it since it will be very critical for your health”, declared Tony. 

Janine’s heart sank hearing this.

While she was aware that her children were staying away for her own good, it nevertheless brought about that feeling of overwhelming loneliness all over again.

First, her husband had left her for another woman. She thanked her illness for showing her his true self – a man who only cared for his own happiness.

So gullible and trusting she had been that she could not sniff that affair right under her nose.

Then one fateful day, some routine tests revealed results that would change her life forever.

One look at those papers and the spineless fellow had immediately declared that he wanted a divorce because he was moving in with Marie.

The cancer had made her now cautious. The poking of needles was far better than the pain of betrayal. Everyone had now learned to be on their own. She also deserved to be doing the cha-cha on her two firm feet. Not that she had served all the ties with Herald, but she had reduced the botheration. She was not guilty. He is.

“I can understand, darlings. You both take care of yourself. And me. I’m fine cool as a cucumber.” Forcing a smile, she tried to put up a brave face in front of the kids.

“Mama, we can still meet virtually. Let us do zoom call every day.” Tony tried to cheer her as he saw a wrinkle of depression on the dimple of her smile. 

Children these days knew more than adults of her age. She was technologically handicapped. But Tony made sure she learns some basics. 

“I know you are trying to zoom the video screen”, he laughed as he knew his Mama’s idiosyncrasies.

They continued to cheer her up with anecdotes and instances from their life. Not, realizing that a good two hours had passed in the virtual interaction. Janine excused herself for a quick rejuvenating nap that turned into a deep slumber. Later, when she woke up abruptly, the entire house was engulfed in the dark. 

Darkness and she were enemies. She rushed to switch on the lights – the new fairy lights she had put up on the fence outside. As she went about completing her delayed chores hurriedly, there was a tinge of disappointment that lingered after the kids had announced their inability to come home.

One by one, are they all going to leave me?

Chapter Three: The attic

The fear of the dark was now less visible than the fear of being alone. The house could stay like that -scattered. But she had to pick up her dying passions. Passions! That reminded her of the old diary muddled somewhere in the attic. She rushed to the confines of dust-laden memories as if there was some sort of urgency.

Finally, she found the old crumpled diary lying unattended. For her, it was a treasure. She stared blankly at her diary for a long time as if figuring out whether to open it or not. Inside it were the words scribbled that described her, her life, her desires, her personality. Those were the days. Janine sighed. Finally, she flipped it open.

On the first page, she saw what appeared like a title page of a book written calligraphically. A tear trickled through her eye. Was this really me at one point in time? She paused to think. Where did that phase disappear? When did things change so much? She grabbed the delicate bunch of old withered paper and decided to uncover her lost self over a cup of green tea.

Each sip brought back deep, unearthed memories. Some bitter, some sweet, but all were strong. So strong that they had been a strength all this while. The Parker ink had faded at few places. But the words were still visible behind the veils of the yellow paper. She ran her palm smoothly on the ragged paper. 

Janine, see the real you – since the beginning. 

Her younger self was talking to her. It beckoned, making her go to the first page.

She had chronicled her life right from her school days. Every word brought back those memories. She could visualize herself there – as a topper in studies, winner in sports competitions, class president.

But what she cherished most were the memories of writing little stories and poems for the kid magazine and her delight at finding them in print. She had always loved the feel of the pen moving on the paper, creating stories. Once she held that pen, she could pour out her feelings and emotions on the paper – as if her hand was guided by some magic force, to write it all.

It is time to make a fresh start. Janine thought. But what should I write? She grinned and scrawled with long slant curves on her dairy Unapologetic Me.

At times she tried to scribble but, words refuse to pour on paper.

Her friends would say, “Forget it, Janine writing is not your forte.”

“Writing small stories does not make you a writer. Janine, you should concentrate on scoring well in exams and getting a job,” that nosey neighbor had said. 

“Janine, I spoke in my office about your internship”, informed her dad literally without even asking her desires. 

“We just got married. Why waste your time in something so trivial”, commented her husband

There were so many negatives. Am I capable of this written adventure? Not a single living soul had encouraged her to take the dive. Was it even worth the effort?

Chapter Four: The blue, pink, red, green

“There are no perfect pictures without negatives”, she had read it somewhere. It was time to take the plunge.

“The best time to begin is now,” Janine to herself.

First of all, she needs a sufficient number of pens and a notebook. Stationary shopping would always lift her spirits. She wore her huge jacket, pulled up the headpiece over her few strands of hair, and set out, her heart thumping with excitement.

Oops! She forgot her piece of survival – The Mask! Back she rushed to fetch it like hounds were following her. As if the ghosts of the corona were hovering over her. You are a cancer survivor. And you are in the co-morbidity zone. She remembered her oncologist admonishing her.

Now, all geared up with the mask as the armor against the possible harm to her physical state, she stepped out. After months of being driven around in ambulances, she could not figure out if she remembers how to drive her car. Once again reminding herself of the festive cheer, she clicked the ignition and waited for the engine to rev up. As she turned onto the freeway, nostalgia crept in. Remembering the good old days of cycling down to her favorite stationery store had been the highlight of celebrations for her. Her friends had always called her a geek but she cared damn.

Blue, pink, red, green. The colored pens always excited her. Life is a myriad of colors is what she always believed. Along with the colorful pens, she needed notebooks. The joy of physical writing was a ripple that would cause waves of excitement in her.

She was back home with her prized treasure. Red, blue, black, green all glittering and happily waiting on her writing desk. Living in Manhattan had its benefits. Everything was just stone away. Janine sat engrossed in the thought of the bygone days looking at the – pens, the crisp white paper.

Her parents were the pillars of strength, the foundation for her values – now in another world.

Her blonde curls- once the envy of all the kids in school – the chemo has taken most of them away.

Her trophies, her achievements – which were no use in the face of a debilitating illness

Her numerous friends in her heydays – now no one to dispel her loneliness.

Janine suddenly wondered why every positive thought was ending in an anti-climax. What had happened to her?

Maybe the pen and paper were her only soulmates. They would never disappoint her come what may. Where should I begin? She pondered over the thought. Her children are her achievements. Penning their arrivals might help.

The mere thought of her kids bought a smile on her face. But the morning video call reminded her that they were not coming home for Christmas. She shuddered at the thought. She wore a grim expression and looked out of the window. The neighbor’s family had a full house with kids playing with snow. She heard a beep on her phone. It was a news notification about how a critical care doctor had been working continuously for three hundred days and still had no plans to go home for Christmas. It was an inspiring story. And she thought why not write something from her own life when she was critically ill, the Cancer warriors needed hope.

Chapter Five: The Beginning

But where and how should she begin?

Whether to write a fictional story of courage and hope or narrate true experiences?

How can I control my negative thoughts that pop up despite everything?

After all these years, can I still write?

Will I be able to finish?

Myriad thoughts played around in her head, till she finally decided to start writing anyway – the words would follow.

Chapter One- The Reports, she scribbled. “Janine, the lump is a malignant tumor. We need to do a mastectomy before it metastasizes.” Could this doctor talk some coherent words? My expressions as always spoke for me. “Oh dear, don’t worry it’s a small surgery to remove that cancerous lump,” something logical was announced.

The days that followed in the hospital, my kids were always by my side. While Garcia was the optimistic daughter, Tony had inherited his father’s pessimistic genes. From day one, I wanted to turn him into a kind, considerate human being but God knows where I went wrong. But there is one thing that will always give me relief. Tony will always be the caring, protective brother to Garcia even when I am gone”

And she paused at this time to retrospect that she had decided not to write even a single negative thing. She started crossing the last phrase with her fragile hands.

“Tony will always be the caring, protective brother to Garcia, in all her ups and downs.” She gleefully corrected herself. 

“Though physically born similar, they are total opposites. One very emotional while the other very practical. One the soft gooey chocolate, the other its crust.” These lines gave her immense satisfaction and relief to know what gems she possessed.

Ah! a tired sigh escapes her pale face as she fidgets in the well-cushioned study chair. I feel exhausted already and all I have is a half scribbled one page in front of me. There was a hint of disappointment and skepticism in her thoughts. Despite her promise to move on the positive lane, Janine felt her health might play spoilsport. She decided to get herself a hot cup of cocoa before returning to the desk to relive the days gone by. As she stirred the cocoa, the bright blue mug with the line- You are an inspiration took her back to her last birthday. The mug was a gift from Garcia. She had hugged her tight and whispered, “Mom, I want you to have this as your attitude towards life.”

Oh! What a day it was? she reminisced. The twins and their friends had given a surprise. She was both mentally and physically exhausted from the treatments that she decided not to celebrate. There was no more vigor in her to celebrate life. It was Garcia’s plan. Tony had thought of many excuses to cancel this. He was more concerned about what their friends would think of their mother. But the group comprising of today’s youth showed their sensible, compassionate side.

Chapter Six: Perseverance

Janine was bought out of her reverie when the doorbell rang. “What took you so long? Are you alright?” Hugging Janine, Alice – her neighbor and her best friend stood smiling at the doorstep. “Aunt Janine, I smell Cocoa.” Said Ronald Alice’s techno-geek son as he sniffed the air and made his way inside the house.

Ronald was one couch potato wanting to eat this and that. His globular belly always supported a screen of some sort on which he typed frivolously. All human emotions depicted on his face matching some virtual character, popping out from his tablet screen. Though he was a few days younger than her doubles Ronald talked and addressed in an elderly manner – a child prodigy, she always thought. Machines had sucked out tenderness from these blooming buds. “Yes darling, would you like to have some?” Janine replied. 

“I don’t mind.” He smiled sheepishly. “Ignore him, dear,” said Alice. “You look lost in thought, what is troubling you. ” Alice asked. “Grace called said they will not be able to make it for Christmas, so I thought this year it is going to be best friends celebrating. What do you think?” Janine replied.

“For sure dear, by the way, what were you doing?” Alice asked as she saw pens and paper on the table. “Umm….just trying to pour my heart on paper”, Janine shrugged. “Girl you know that you can’t hide anything from me. Tell me,” Alice was coaxing her. “Well, I am trying to write.” Before Janine was able to finish, Ronald binged in, “But aunt Janine why are you writing in an obsolete way.”

And then Ronald put himself in charge. Janine fetched the laptop that she had abandoned a long time ago. With a lot of enthusiasm, Ronald set off to download a few software to expedite the writing process. Alice went to the kitchen to fix supper. 

“Aunt Janine, don’t worry it is not something that you cannot deal with,” he said reassuringly. “It is simple than that nasty tumor of yours.”

“And what about Viruses?” Janine asked.

She had heard about them and immediately imagined a deadly infection. 

“Oh! Those are at my fingertips,” he exclaimed by mischievously rolling his spectacled eyes. 

Downloading an anti-virus pack, he explained to her the nuances of its functioning. Both were immersed in the viral technology, one in the awe of it while the other accepting it. The lines were running parallel, soon to intersect at a point.

“Here you go”, beamed Ronald. 

“Your new pen and paper”, he said pointing towards the keyboard and screen. 

“So, do you want to give it a try?” he asked enthusiastically.

With much apprehensions, Janine tried to press the keys using a touchpad. “Oh, dear! It’ll take an eternity to find keys on this board. Why the heck the keys aren’t arranged in a sorted way,” said irritated Janine.

Ronald laughed aloud and immediately downloaded a typing tutorial for her and explained it to Janine in detail. 

“Don’t you worry Aunty, some practice, and you will be sorted.” 

She tried a few exercises that boosted her confidence.

“See, I told ya!” shrugged Ronald carelessly as he picked up a chocolate bar from the kitchen counter. 

“Now come on sweety, supper is waiting and you have a hoard of medicines to take later,” said Alice as they settled around the table to a steaming chicken pie and roast potatoes. Alice caught Janine’s smile and said, “You must have been a heartbreaking beauty in your youth.”

Chapter Seven: Sleepless nights

Janine smiled. The cruel chemotherapy side effects were now visible on her skin, hair, face. It took a lot of courage to accept it. And her meditation group came to her rescue. ‘Beauty lies in the beholder’s eyes.’ They rightly said.

That night she closed her eyes to imagine her healthy self. The hair was coming back in bunches. The loose baggy skin was tightening. The reddish scars on her breast were turning pink and invisible. The valley of creases on her forehead formed due to constant worry was bridging up. A serene smile appeared on her face.

Monday morning was always busy for her. Yoga followed by meditation with her gang. Lately, the Yoga center was becoming her favorite place. The place itself had a calm and serene feeling which transmitted to each of them. And yes, just like her, they all were a bunch of warriors. And she was looking forward to her tomorrow’s class for a special reason.

The next morning, her kids’ video called her. Instead of the dining table with her bowl of cereal, she was at the study table. “Good morning mom, what are you doing here? Are you feeling alright? Did you skip your breakfast? And why aren’t you looking at us?” came the questions.

Finally, she looked up from her desk and smiled at them reassuringly. 

“I’m in the pink of my health, my munchkins. You need not panic on my physique and certainly no need to worry about my psyche,” Janine said.

She saw the worry crease on Garcia’s forehead and burst into laughter. 

“Darlings, I’m going nuts with my old love-My writing.” 

She wanted to keep it a suspense for a long time but spilling the writing beans was her form of sharing with her children. With bated breath, she awaited their approval.

“Mom you decided to write. Awesome! Go for it, Mommy.” Garcia was jumping with excitement. 

“Mom, please don’t stress yourself. I’m sure your doctor will not approve of it.” Tony announced disapprovingly.

This time she had decided whatever the kids say, she was going to go with the flow. The flow of words, the flow of thoughts, the flow of desires will ultimately join the sea of satisfaction. 

Tony continued, “Mama, I just don’t want you to wander off your bed too much. Writing is stressing your brains and back. I will allow none.” The panic was evident in Tony’s tone. But she knew this time he had to tune himself to her needs than she bending it to his.

After saying their goodbyes and exchanging flying kisses, they all disconnected the phone call. “Hey bro, why do you look so stressed? Mom will be fine. She is our Mom, our Wonder-woman”, assured Garcia.” 

“But writing is a demanding task. And I am concerned for her health. How far will her frail hands, her weak eyes, and her fragile body support her?”

The siblings continued their offline sharing. “We need to be her support, her strength. All her life she collected firewood to keep the family stove burning. Today she has this burning desire to write. We can’t let it go to ashes!” Few minutes of difference had given birth to a different yet optimistic individual.

Chapter Eight: The fighters

Janine’s phone buzzed. It was her friend from the Yoga class whom she was supposed to pick up. 

“How come Ms. Punctual is late today?” a message came with a thinking emoji. She looked at the watch. Yes, she was late today. Hurriedly saying goodbye to her new friend, the black screen, and reached out for her car keys.

On the way, she bought some pansies to show her gratitude towards the class as a whole. Mindfulness was something she was going to practice from now on. The way she selects words the same way she will do with her thoughts. Very clear and very positive but obvious. 

“Guys, sorry, I’m late.” She barged into the group about to begin meditation.

The group comprised men and women in an age ranging from the twenties to the sixties. To some, this diversity seemed similar to the cacophony however, it was an amalgamation of fighters and survivors. Eager to talk about their small victories, they looked forward to these meetings. “C’mon angel, it’s never late in here,” announced one. Another male voice retorted, “Hope you did not get confused with your meds.” Janine let out hushed laughter as she placed the pansies in the crystal vase on the multimedia speakers.

“Hey, you look so excited today? Looks like you’re bursting to say something,” called out a female voice.

Janine blurted out, “Yes, I’ve resumed writing – again – after decades!!”

A loud cheer went up in the hall. Janine felt pleased with herself. So, she had made a good beginning, after all.

On rare occasions, during meditation, she could see the pristine, divine light. Today she was lucky again. Back home post a quick salmon salad bite, she again settled at tapping her potentials through typing. 

“Yoga an eastern form of healing art…., ” she began describing her refuge, her comfort pillow. 

“Every asana has a meaning like every action in life has a purpose,” philosophy was her favorite subject in college and now it was a way of her life. 

“The deeper you learn, the higher you move from the mundane gripping of physical life.”

As the time ticked by, so did the tapping of her keys. When she saw the word count as Ronald had taught her, it had already crossed the thousand words mark. She was overjoyed to see this. Day one she made so much progress. And she decided to call it a day as her fingers and back had started complaining. That night was the bright night- after many nights she slept with a smile and an enthusiasm to share her achievement with her kids and friends.

Next morning, 

“Mom, I’m so glad you are writing.” Garcia had been messaging her throughout the day.

 “You are so good at storytelling- write short stories” 

“No, I think you should write poems” 

Janine smirked each time when the phone beeped flashing Garcia’s name on it. “Nope, nothing of these.” She wrote at last with a wink smiley face.

Chapter Nine: Men are like landscapes

The thought process was clear. Her goal looked even crystal clear. The last month of the year had just started. She was determined to tell the world her story the same pious day the Holy Lord had come into existence. She drew inspiration from around her. After all, she was writing her autobiography. She could not help but visit some pages from her past. To set an example for the many women who feel life is finished after kids or after a separation.

Most of the women think it’s the end. But Janine’s life had restarted at 40. She had quit her job, was single again, kicked the tumor, posed boldly her bald look, joined yoga, learned to do tap-tap on her laptop, took a solo holiday, and was now resolute to pursue her passion – her book. Her autobiography. Because it’s easy to give up. But to keep going takes a lot of courage.

“I looked blankly at my stark-naked reflection. Maybe the reflection would throw some light on why he left me.” First, she tried to dwell on a forcibly closed chapter that kept poking its ugly head in the time of crisis. Today she was going to chop it off, once for all. 

“Maybe the Caesarean marks repulsed him or the hanging bulge propelled him towards her. Her full bosoms and supple skin must have made him slide over her,” she wrote ruthlessly.

“One stormy night while I sat unaware that a storm was about to engulf my life, his phone came. He said he will be late as he was stuck in an office meeting. I didn’t believe him a bit. Something was going off the radar between us. I could sense it but was too naive to see it. My once athletic body had also started giving me wrong signals”.

A muscle in her neck twitched. Today her body was giving her those red signals yet like a bad habit stuck to your confines, she continued to ignore it. 

“I slept that night not waiting for him as usual. I slept so long that on waking it, seemed another lifetime. He had packed his things to go. And I was strewn all over. I slept so long that now not a wink closes, fearing the rest might take over the rest of my life.”

It was not easy initially. Sometimes being married becomes an emotional dependence as you lose the courage to imagine yourself alone. She was also caught, with a similar dilemma, unaware, confused, and clueless. “Am I without a husband,” she remembered having made this statement often to herself. For a complete full month, she hadn’t ventured out. Somewhere she kept feeling a prick of guilt but was she responsible for his moving out.

Yes, maybe because she had badly neglected herself. Grooming was at the mercy of time and no more a regular affair. If she dreaded to see her image in the mirror, how would his eyes reflect the truth?

“Men are like landscapes, my love, one needs to draw the house and the river to keep things moving. The moment you stop the strokes, someone else will show its colors and you are left barren.” 

She decided to pen the exact words of her dead grandmother.

Chapter Ten: The draft

Words were becoming sentences. And sentences then became pages. Janine poured her heart into them. The compressed emotions of years and years were now finding their way. The word count was beaming at her. And she felt proud of herself.

 If I continue at this pace, soon, I will be ready with my first draft by Christmas, she thought aloud.

The writing was becoming addictive. Janine was at most times pushing herself beyond her ability. Somehow the drain of emotions was leaving her in a therapeutic state. And it felt that the writing was effortless and beyond her control. That night she was so engrossed outing herself into the memoir that it was Garcia’s call at 11 pm that brought her back to the real world.

 “Mom! What are you doing awake at this hour? You should be in bed at this hour,” Garcia was whispering hard. Janine was blank because she didn’t have an answer.

“Oh, Lord! Sorry, dear, I didn’t see the clock ticking. Just a few pages before I will call it a day.” Janine assured her. “Mommy, I know you are excited about your book, and believe me, I’m so happy for you. But you are ignoring your health. Tony would be so upset if I tell him,” said anxious Garcia.

“No! Garcia, please don’t mention it to Tony. He will get unnecessarily perturbed. He thinks I am jeopardizing my health through the writing,” she sighed. And the relief in her voice was caught by Garcia. 

“Ok. I won’t. Now get to bed before Tony’s prying ears catch us amid this conversation.”

Janine and Garcia finally decided to call it a day.

As Janine lay in her bed, she felt a slight headache coming on. 

Must be the long hours of staring at the screen, she thought dismissively and switched off the lights, making a mental note to ask Ronald the next day about some anti-glare screen he had mentioned. 

Janine woke up the next morning with a throbbing headache and the sound of her phone ringing away. The sunlight entering the bedroom through the window told her that she had overslept.

Chapter Eleven: The Re-entry

Fifteen missed calls!

“Hello, Alice,” whispered Janine. 

“Where are you? I have been standing outside your door for ages. Are you alright?” Alice spoke non-stop not allowing Janine to utter a word.

“I’m fine. Just a mild headache. Sorry, I will get the door,” said Janine and stood up from the bed only to collapse again.

Feebly she called Alice and asked her to open the door with the extra keys she had. 

“OMG!! You are hot,” Alice shrieked in panic as soon as she was beside Janine.

“I wish Mister had said this to me a few years back,” drowsiness yet funny, she replied. 

“Stop the nonsense, Janine”

“Come and sit here. Let me call a doctor,” Alice was concerned. 

“It is just minor fatigue. I will rest and be alright,” Janine comforted her.

But Alice was not taking any chances. She knew where Janine’s medical records were kept. Without wasting a second she rushed to the cabinet and hunted down the physician’s number. 

“Doctor, I’m calling on behalf of your patient Janine. She is running a fever and is fainting. You need to rush along,” Alice ranted non-stop in an attempt to save time. Nodding vigorously, acknowledging the doctor’s instructions, she put the phone away, got close to Janine to make the hospital trip.

“Janine! Janine! what’s wrong with you,” Alice froze with fear as she saw Janine lose consciousness. “Wake up dear. An ambulance is on its way,” Alice was panic. She was received when she heard an ambulance siren. Janine was ushered to the emergency room in the hospital. Alice was waiting eagerly for the doctor to come out of the room and talk about her beloved friend.

Meanwhile, Ronald dialed Tony and Garcia informing them about Janine. Tony decided to make the trip and assured Garcia to keep her informed. The doctors were flowing in and out of Janine’s room. And each time they did, Alice bugged them to tell her what was going on. 

“She will be fine. It appears like the tumor is making a re-entry. Don’t worry, let us wait for the test results to confirm it,” the doctor replied with a straight face.

It was the first snow of the year. Janine slowly opened her eyes. She could see the snow falling and wanted to go out and feel it just like a kid. The nurse came in at the moment to check on her vitals. 

“Where is,” she stammered. “Your friend and your son have been waiting outside,” came the reply.

She let out a sigh. “I’ll let them know that you are awake but only for a few minutes as you should rest,” saying the nurse stepped out. The tumor was back now, and she could sense it. 

However, it wasn’t the tumor that was bothering her. It was – her book.

She knew what would come next – the chemo, the medicines, the pain, the side effects.

But what about her book? 

Janine braced herself mentally for the challenges to follow. Determined, she will write the book, no matter what. Sadly, she could not shake off that inner feeling of uncertainty.

The doctor entered with a grim look once again. “Doctor, I know what is coming my way. Can I please meet my friend and son first? They have been here long.” Janine sounded blunt. The doctor understood it all. He had been her physician during the entire journey so far.

“Sure” he replied and closed the door behind him. Alice, Tom, and Ronald now surrounded her.

“You are one silly girl,” Alice said hiding her worried look. “Mom, how are you feeling,” Tom managed to mumble words. “All of you, I’m fine, and please stop pitying alright,” Janine said with a confident smile.

Tony was now worried and somehow irked. Janine sensed it from his demeanor. “Tony, my dear, I understand your concern. Believe me, when I say, I will fight back this time too.” Tony stood still, his expressionless soft complexion turning pale and the dark with his furrowed brows. Janine walked up to him and curled him in her warm motherly hug as an assurance of everything she just said.

She could feel her shirt wet up from the shoulders. The doctor came and announced that Janine would be discharged and asked Tony to complete the discharge formalities. After finishing up the paperwork, he called his sister and started yelling like an insane person. “I told you so many times not to promote her writing. But you paid no heed.” Garcia tried to calm him down and interrupted him saying, “Tony, stop speaking and just listen to your mind. You know that all this has nothing to do with her writing. And you are just making things more difficult for all of us.”

Chapter Twelve: Christmas present

Tony was irritated. But couldn’t agree more with Garcia. Janine was anxious to go home. She had too much on her mind. Christmas was a week away and her first draft wasn’t done. She was aware Tony seemed sick worried. And she had to mellow him down.

Her mind was flooding with thoughts and emotions that she was eager to pen down. But the issue even more worrisome. With the tumor coming back how, was she going to type? Her spirits were high but her stamina was on the other side of the scale. She thought of Ronald. He was the one who had first introduced her to the world of keys. He was just a call away and came up with a brilliant solution that was the need of the hour. Speech to text conversion was her next big hope to accomplish her wish for Christmas.

The ride home was silent and stressed, reminded her of the naughty cornerback in her childhood. Tony drove with Ronald sitting in the co-driver seat while Alice and herself were in the backseat. Janine looked over at Alice who sensed her state of mind. “How about some cinnamon scones and coffee for tea people,” Alice beamed. Pin drop silence followed. Janine took the lead and answered. “Sure Alice, I have been craving those buttery, lip-smacking cones you make.”

“Me too, Mom, it’s been a long time,” piped up Ronald.

“Ronald, the day before yesterday is not a long time ago,” chided Alice.

All of them laughed – they all were aware of Ronald’s food cravings only too well.

The mood had lightened up for the rest of the journey home.

All of them were dreaming about the treat in store for them, when suddenly, Alice said, “You know the sweet irony, Janine? Garcia and Tony were to stay away for Christmas due to the pandemic, but your health has brought Tony here and maybe also Garcia.”

“No aunt Alice, Garcia won’t be able to make it for Christmas this year for sure. I know her very well. She has the same dedication as Mom. She committed to a promotion project for our college admin office when we decided not to come home for Christmas.” Janine felt nervous about Garcia not coming for Christmas. What if it was her last Christmas?

After all the Bonhomie was over, Janine crept to her laptop like a spooky shadow and began hitting the keys. 

“Darkness engulfs my life yet again. This story is not just mine but could be yours too. Who at some time were or trapped in their confines. Revive the battery of hope. It is like a generator. When life offers no light, you need to show the way. Then destiny does the fateful act. Stand for what you believe in before it is too late.” 

She typed till late her farewell days were nearing.

Janine now had chalked out an agenda – for herself and her book. She knew she might not have much time. Maybe not see the next Christmas light. The next morning, she woke up with more enthusiasm than ever. It’s only two more days for Christmas Eve and a lot of stuff to do. 

“Tony dear, what do we make for breakfast?” She said beaming. 

“Mom you should be in bed,” he said with an astonished look.

“Dear I’m absolutely fine. And please stop ‘you should do this and you should not do that’ stuff. I am sick of it. There is a lot to do. And I cannot lie on the bed and watch my dream getting shattered,” Janine was almost angry. 

“God knows where that idea of writing a book came from. All I need you to be alright.” Tony said with pleading eyes.

“If you want me to be alright, stop nagging like your father,” Jesus, what made her say that. 

Both went calm for a minute. She then grabbed his arm and pulled him close. It was quite sometime when she had held her baby so close. Grown-up babies hate physically cajoled like this; she remembered his previous retaliations. But today, he just allowed the warmth.

“I didn’t intend to come between you and your dream ma. But yes, I am scared. Sometimes we need to think practically, keeping our emotions aside.” Tony said in one tone. “You are important and we almost lost you once and I just don’t want to take the risk again. I want you to be hale and hearty,” said Tony with a worried look.

Chapter Thirteen: Nothing’s permanent

“Nothing’s permanent my love nor me nor you. The sooner you accept this it will be better. I considered my marriage to be eternal. But today my soulmate- though living does not qualify to be my husband. Yet, I am grateful he gave me two strong pillars to lean on for life. Live in the moment, Tony,” she spoke. But who was she counselling-Tony or herself, the doubt lingered.

The words Janine spoke made sense to Tony. But it difficult to accept. “Alright, Mom, I won’t hold you back from your writing.” Saying he excused himself and went out. Janine now made a trip to the storeroom and brought out a small writing desk. She placed it on the bed, propped her back with stuffed cushions and she set off to her task. Hours passed. And pages were typed with the help of a speech App. The day ended with Janine falling asleep over the computer.  

Christmas eve found a tired and much weaker Janine still trying to keep up with her writing, amid all the pain, her chemo, and the daze induced by her strong medicines. While Tony, with the help of Alice, ran the house. Sometimes, she would doze off while dictating, mid-sentence. At other times, she would just stare at the screen, too exhausted to speak. 

It was evening. And Tony was admiring the Christmas tree. He had decorated just the way Janine would have done it. A sudden noise from Janine’s bedroom made him race towards her.

Yes, it was the moment they all feared. Though mentally toughened by now, Tony was still unprepared emotionally. But who is prepared for that moment? With a thumping heart, he barged into the room. The room was empty. He rushed to the washroom, no one there. His breathing got heavier as he called frantically, “Mom…Mom” a few seconds of silence, and then Janine stepped out of her closet holding a massive pile of books, “Silly me, just toppled over the boxes”, she said a little embarrassed. 

“Mom, what’s wrong with you? You could have asked me if you needed anything. And tomorrow is Christmas, please get over this book thing.”

“Tony, I still have a few more hours before Christmas.

My Christmas would have been much better if I complete the first draft[ of my book. 

And I am not going to give up till the last minute”.

Garcia called to wish everyone. It made the atmosphere in the house lighten up. She missed her mother and brother and the celebration they were having amidst the tensions. Alice Ronald and Tony were planning a small feast to surprise Janine. 

Chapter Fourteen: Dying wish

Christmas would come bringing hope and merry to the world. But the Lord had other plans that he conveyed through the tests reports that came later that morning.

There was a nip in the air or their interiors felt stone-cold no one was sure of it. None in the decorated room could react. The tumor had metastasized. The gloom was spreading, so was the scorpion. Tony rushed to his phone with the reports, “Doctor uncle, how much time does Mum have, at least a few months.”

He wanted Janine’s to complete her last dying wish. 

“Maybe a few days” came the stoic answer.

Tony’s heart sank. He didn’t have the courage to face Garcia nor his mother. He tried messaging his sister. He typed, then deleted, then retyped each word still no words seem to be right. How does anyone tell his sister that their mother is counting days, maybe hours?

Tony stared at the phone. How do I tell Mom that the book you are so desperate to write might not see the light of the day? Garcia, why are you here? Everything is falling apart, he thought. Tears were now welling. And he stood there desperate and helpless.

Christmas morning and the doorbell rang. Tony was hoping it was his sister, his much-needed support. Instead, it was Ronald. He looked hopeful to help Janine accomplish her dream that now seemed only more distant than reality.

“Merry Christmas Tony, where is aunt Janine? I have a Christmas surprise for her. You know one of my good friends works for a publishing house. And she is willing to extend all possible help to aunt Janine,” said Janine.

“That’s wonderful. Thank you for going out of the way for this,” replied Tony trying to sound enthusiastic but unfortunately had other things going on in his mind and didn’t look very pleased.

 “Come, let’s tell Aunt about this. She will be thrilled,” saying this Ronald made his way inside. 

Tony had made his mind that he needs to break the news to Garcia as gently as possible.

That Christmas Janine got the best surprise of her life. Her other piece of life out of the two, her daughter Garcia was there despite the circumstances. She would not have asked more but her pale face with dried lips missing the shade of her favorite lipstick told another story.

Her Christmas could still have been much better but she was in no mood to do things in a rush. She was writing something that others could take inspiration from it. She wanted to keep the optimism to complete her story even though things looked otherwise

“Garcia dear what a lovely surprise!” Janine exclaimed. “Oh, Mom I had to come.” Hugging her mother, she managed to mumble a few words despite the sorrow now lingering in her mind. No one dared to reveal the fateful report news to Janine. Yet, she had already sensed that something is, coming on her path and was now preparing herself for it.

“Garcia, my love, I’m so thrilled to have you with me,” whispered Janine, in a weak voice. Garcia was shocked to see her mother’s frail, reduced form.

The three of them had a quiet dinner at Janine’s bedside, each lost in their thoughts until Janine broke the silence.

“Children, promise me you’ll get my book published, in case anything happens to.. to..,” she doubled over and collapsed over her dinner plate.

While a panicked Tony dialed the ambulance, Garcia took her mother in her arms and checked her pulse, only to find none. She grew cold as the grim reality of the situation darkened the world around her.

“Nothing should happen to mom now. God, please! She has already borne more than her share of griefs,” Garcia was crying uncontrollably. 

“Don’t you hear it’s an emergency? Why the heck ambulance not reached yet?” Tony was shouting over the phone. “Brother, it’s of no use. Mom isn’t even moving”.

EPILOGUE

One year later on Christmas

“Garcia, hurry up girl, we will be late for the book launch,” Tony commented. 

“Brother, it’s my mom’s book launch so, all the eyes will be on me, I need to look good.” Garcia retorted. 

Finally, their mom’s dream was going to be a reality. Both children were happy with the thought. Garcia, Tony, Alice, and Ronald were thrilled to see the gathering at the launch party. 

“Now, let me present you behind the book, Unapologetic Me,” said the presenter. And everyone turned round to see the same old yet strong though physically weak but firmly determined Janine walking proudly towards the aisle.

Amidst her slow walk, she held her head high. She looked stunning in her favorite shade of red lipstick. The same shade she was once shamed by her better half who turned their lovely relation bitter. Her friends from her Yoga class, her admirers she had garnered over the time filled the hall with cheers. The team of doctors that once dictated that she had a short life to live stood there in astonishment. She thanked her friend Alice and her wonder boy Ronald without whose help, she would not have seen this day. She requested her two pillars of support, her kids, to accompany her at the podium.

With tears of joy trickling, Garcia linked their arm with her brother to join her mother on the stage.

“People say, it is difficult to understand kids nowadays – generation gap you see, but I think it’s us who fail to appreciate their concern for their parents and take it the wrong way. My Garcia was thrilled when I said I wanted to write, but Tony rejected it. I knew it was my health he was concerned more.” 

Janine was now pouring her heart mesmerizing, the crowd who gave thunderous applause. 

“When my doctor called to give me the fatal news that I have been diagnosed with Breast Cancer, I thought he has mixed up my reports with someone else. I nearly yelled at him for this blunder.” 

Janine giggled as she spoke to the crowd. “You never believe such things would happen to you,” she continued her speech.

“At this stage in life, I had hit rock bottom. When you are diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening illness and left alone to deal with it along with two children to tend to, you only realize that the only way you can go is to keep going.

It wasn’t easy, but when I see my two angels looking up at me for inspiration, I get the strength to do it – one step at a time.

Every day is beautiful. And I’ve learned to look at things as blessings that I once took for granted. The shoes I put on my feet, the hot water when I take a bath – every single aspect of my life is a blessing.

God tests you in many ways. And my perseverance was tested by a second diagnosis, which shattered my hopes of finishing this book last Christmas and giving me only days to live. My Christmas would have been much better with the first draft of my book was done. The night before Christmas, I nearly left this world,” she paused, watching her audience gasp.

“Yes, it’s true.” She took a sip of water before continuing. “It took me a year again to finish the book. Most of you look at me in disbelief, but the yearning to fight back was so strong that I didn’t give up. As human beings, our mettle is tested only in tough times. I went through the test twice, but not alone. I think my children took the test too. I’m glad we emerged winners, thanks to the blessings from heaven above that helped us keep the grit.

This book ‘Unapologetic Me’ is not just my story, it’s your story too. If you were once the little girl who wanted to reach for the stars, do read it. It also tells the tale of someone who was betrayed in a relation but braved it because of her two wonderful creations. A family is not always connected by blood but by like-minded people who support each other unconditionally. 

Even if you are diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, do not give up easily. And most importantly, never stop dreaming and learning.

The best thing to do is to take one day at a time. Be positive, pick your head up when you are down and remember what may seem like the most devastating news in your life, it can always open doors to a whole new world of possibilities.” concluded Janine as the crowd gave thunderous applause.
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Contributed by: Sonali Prasad, Sakshi Bhatnagar, Amruta Wadekar, Saravjot Hansrao, Aparna Salvi Nagda, Amisha Shah, Sharda Mishra, Archie Iyer, Revathi Srinivasan

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