For the longest time, it was my conviction that superheroes are a concoction of rhetoric comic book artists and tight, flamboyant costumes [Hi Superman ☺] who are bestowed with extraordinary powers that ultimately/indirectly have something to do with saving the world. To visually attest their prowess, these superheroes would make appearances on the big screen, much to the alacrity of the fan base and bank accounts of the chiseled thespians who’d morph into the caped crusaders.
Little did I know that I’d chance upon a superhero at my locality. No, I don’t live in Wakanda and middle class has circumscribed me from ever meeting Tony Stark. In all seriousness, this superhero defied all her villains and emerged victorious. But she was a doorbell away and binged on Netflix. In fact, the closest thing that’s heroic about would have to be her name, Alejandra, Spanish for ‘savior’. You see, Alejandra was diagnosed with breast cancer a week shy of her 39th birthday. A lump had emerged on her left breast, inches from where her heart is placed. She’d often tell me that the proximity of this lump from her heart simply shows that our strengths can be unraveled if we are near our greatest weakness.
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A divorcee, Alejandra would spend her days as though she borrowed them from a dozen children. You’d find her impatiently tapping her feet in the queue of the roller coaster at Adventureland, escaping her boring job as a Supply Chain manager at a renowned firm. If not there, she’d be baking with her stepdaughter, Xboxing with her teenage son or returning with wrinkles after hours of swimming at our community pool. Her late night adventures at the city clubs were much to the annoyance of the senior aunties, who’d proliferate bestial remarks that range from revealing attire, besmirching the family name, aspiring sex worker, shirking her motherly duties and the most recent, excessive carousing.
But she wouldn’t bat an eye and mind you, this was Alejandra prior to her diagnosis.
I vividly remember the day her results arrived. When I should’ve been engrossed in algebra, the thin walls of our adjacent apartments lured me to the cantankerous conversation between Alejandra and her ex-husband. There were murmurs, followed by chortles, berating, screams and captious nitpicking. The brawl ended with a loud smash of what sounded like glass. My inner pedantic said the victim was the expensive china vase the duo splurged on their honeymoon in Greece, that caught my attention during my last visit to her home.
The next day, I found Alejandra’s mammography report amongst the rubbish when I came to discard ours at the disposal.
In the coming months, Alejandra put her Carte Blanche persona on full display. It was important to her now, more than ever to live every day as if it were her last. The neighborhood was booming with iridescent noises as Alejandra immersed herself into a myriad of talents. Monday was Learn Hebrew day, Tuesday was dedicated to Tango, Wednesdays were for electric guitar practice, Thursdays for cooking Italian and Fridays for crochet and cleaning the kitchen after cooking Italian. Saturdays were silent (we came to know later that on Saturdays she learns the sign language.)
Though Alejandra was a powerhouse, Alejandra’s body begged for a time-out and it was showing. She was pale, quickly lethargic and suffered tremendous pain, courtesy of her uncooperative body. Then came the retirement of her luscious brunette locks, dropping initially in strands and later in bunches. The thin walls lured me once more, only to hear her sobbing in the shower as she bid adieu to her hair and later unclogging it from her pipes.
Her body was changing and so was she.
The chemotherapy sessions extracted the last ounce of her energy. The cancer spread to her body quicker than any rumor about her. Her cadaverous frame was welcomed with gawks and false commiseration. But, whenever we met, I’m always drawn by her aura; her glistening eyes that sparkled with her now clean shaved head to compliment her bright personality.
You could never tell she was waging a secret war with her physical and mental demons; such was the power of her ambience.
And this ambience would be her artillery for her next battle as the year of the pandemic dawned upon us.
COVID-19 in a way, was a mental genocide for people like Alejandra. The closure of parks, beaches, clubs or anything Alejandrian meant confinement in a place she’d last want to be in: her home. Though her ex was sympathetic towards her receding health, the thin walls informed me that trivial issues such as coffee powder, alarm clock theft and dirty laundry would be the crux of heated arguments that would span for a minimum of two weeks. The sympathy grew on him and he left her with their son to cater the needs of his new family. Surely, if anything were to happen to Alejandra, no one would hesitate to blame him and the very thought of his esteemed social stature plummeting would make him shudder.
With that alleviation, Alejandra turned to raising her son to compensate for the years of neglect and take on the tedious task of the dual role of mother and father. I’d wake up every morning to spot the avuncular Alejandra and the lad panting under their masks after a rigorous workout from my balcony. He was all she could call her family; her rock; her escape; her only reason she’d keep going.
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The odds were stubbornly not in her favor.
On a July afternoon, the phone erupted with messages from the Resident’s Association. On her way from the supermarket, Alejandra collapsed before the steps of her building lobby. If the influx of the messages weren’t hard enough to fathom, the ear splitting sirens of the arriving ambulance exacerbated the atmosphere. I scurried to the scene where about 50 passers-by watched as the first responders tried to revive her. After many attempts a pulse was finally generated and the crowd dispersed as the ambulance left.
Positive. She tested positive for COVID-19. The rarity of contracting two life-threatening diseases in a single lifetime. The very first of its kind in the hospital. Chances of survival were anything but possible. I could only imagine Alejandra’s suffocation in an atmosphere that’s as desultory as the ICU ward.
The mother and I garnered money in case of any financial constraints. The expensive treatment gobbled Alejandra’s alimony. Every Friday the mother would anonymously deposit the amount hoping it would provide meagre relief. We’d be updated on her health by her son, who’d bring up the anonymous donor now and then, sometimes moving him to tears.
All hell broke loose on a Wednesday, a total of 38 voicemails from the son. Keywords range from: life support, critical, hospital, now.
We raced to the hospital and found the son and the ex husband conversing with the doctor, their faces accepting defeat. The cancer proliferated to prominent organs, the COVID virus contaminated her immunity, blocking all chances of survival. Life support would be ejected in the afternoon if there was no improvement. The ex husband and the dejected son invited us in the waiting room for a silent prayer.
We left for home at 6 in the morning, leaving the duo to hope for the best. We didn’t hear from them in the next two weeks. It was difficult to adjust to this new phase, where I wasn’t awakened by a electric guitar chord, Just Dance music or chortles in the morning by my wacky neighbor. Her silence was eternal peace to the neighbors, but a jab in the heart for someone who found happiness in hers. Someone like me.
To my surprise, I found the thin walls speaking once more on a Thursday night. New neighbors? The murmurs were oddly recognizable, I stepped out to see a familiar pair of worn out shoes placed outside the front door of our former neighbours.
Could it be?
There she was. Beaming at her boy and embracing him as he broke down. Alejandra, wearing a smile underneath her mask, turning red. A plastic tube was beneath her nose, spotted me observing her from the distance. A superwoman before my moist eyes, defeating both cancer and COVID. I went in and joined their embrace. Gasping for air I went in and bear hugged Alejandra, her smile still magnetic, her heart still beating, her courage unshaken and her resilience inspirational.
The thin walls have never fell silent ever since.
Teresa Kuruvila is a high school student based in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. When she isn’t thinking of a clever pun , mastering the air guitar or complaining about bad Wi-Fi, you’d find her in pursuit of literature, history, digital marketing, human rights, music and their intersections. She currently works for small.little.things , a youth run, SDG centric start up that aims to create and distribute resources on education and well being for children in fragmented communities.
Featured image source: Shreya Tingal/Feminism In India