At the end of every month, my husband and I visit a record store to pick up a vinyl based off a theme that he’s decided for that month. The point of it is simple – to listen to music that we otherwise would not gravitate towards to, and to better understand the record scene in Singapore. It is a simple activity, but one that represents our relationship well – finding joy even when it seems impossible to do so.
During each chemo cycle, I look forward to this day the most because we make an outing of it. I decide what clothes I’m going to wear, we pick the record store first, then a place to eat nearby (one of the few meals that I eat out during my chemo cycles). It is a taste of normalcy, a peek into the life that we want to keep building for ourselves despite the tragedy, despite the pain. It is a testament to finding joy in art, which remains a constant life source for the both of us, albeit in different ways.
I am currently listening to a record that we picked up two months ago. It’s a collection of tunes by Habibi Funk, of the eponymous reissue record label. This particular song is synth heavy instrumental disco from Algeria and just typing it out fills me with joy, as my feet tap to the music and my body unwillingly moves to the beat. Milo sits beside me, staring at my curiously as I shimmy and wiggle in my seat. His tail begins to wag to my movements.
You see, music lets me exercise this muscle of grabbing joy. I am greedy, I stuff it deep into my mouth, cheeks bulging, eyes shining.
In my greed, I am my most alive.
Each time I see myself in the mirror, I cringe. Is it the lack of hair, I wonder, or the fact that my left breast is deeply swollen from the accelerated radiation treatment that I have been on.
I peer closely at the mirror and stare at the little strands of hair that are sprouting up, like saplings, and pray that they will grow faster. Even a little fuzz is better than this shiny baldness, I say to my reflection.
Sometimes, I feel the phantom brush of my hair on my shoulders and for a second, I forget. My hand moves up involuntarily to brush my hair behind my ears and I freeze, pretending as if I am about to do something else, so that no one catches me in my moment of vulnerability. When my fingers return to my thighs, they tremble.
In the elevator of my apartment complex, little children come into the lift. They stare at my head, and for a second, I am tempted to bare my teeth and snarl, to scare the bejeezus out of them. Instead, I take a deep breath and smile, and remind myself that monsters are made of deeds, not looks.
Sometimes, I am surprised by the nonchalance I face when I walk around without my headscarf. I maintain eye contact with strangers and their faces break into soft smiles, their eyes don’t drift and something in me, the part that has been othered all its life, takes a deep breath. I appreciate the normalcy of my mundane interactions and remind myself to be with gentle with others in the way I have wished that people would be gentle with me.
If nothing else, my baldness has been an exercise in grace, towards myself, towards the world at large.
I am exchanging messages on Instagram with one of my internet friends, someone who has also gone through and survived breast cancer.
I have become bold in my demands for attention, I reach out to strangers with my story in the hopes that something resonates, hoping to build a connection.
And connections have been built, over shared experiences, feelings, struggles.
I am writing about how I struggle with food most days, and how so much of my post-cancer life is about making an infinite number of choices about what’s best, without quite knowing what that means and how it looks like. I am feeling my way around like a blind person, I write, using my instinct to guide me on what works best for my body.
It doesn’t get any easier, they write back. Because you will be assaulted with everybody else’s opinions and worries about what your life should look like, how you should better take care of yourself, how drinking soursop or not going to a particular place will save you from whatever ill-fate that awaits.
It doesn’t get easier, they say. But you just get better at trusting yourself.
I smile to myself, double tapping on the message to heart it, recognising that there is something symbolic there. My hand moves up to my own heart and I double tap it lightly. I tell myself, I’ve got you. I look upwards towards the sky and smile again.
I have noticed this too, this influx of noise as I try to re-enter the world of normalcy.
The constant worrying, the constant questions. The questions people have for me, the subtexts of “how can I make sure this does not happen to me”. The low-grade fear and anxiety that exists like white noise beneath all our interactions.
I am sensitive to this, it makes me angry. Maybe it is because I am a woman, and fear is fed to us in the breast milk we drink, fear around how we should protect ourselves, fear around how we should behave appropriately, or else what would *they* say? Fear, fear, fear.
It makes me livid. I am tired of living within the lines of someone else’s fear.
I tell my husband one day, in the middle of a violent coughing fit, that I will not live a half-life driven by fear. Isn’t it better then, I ask once I’ve caught my breath, to die instead?
He stares at me silently, shocked. But he understands too. He does not respond and I am grateful. I do not need to be made to feel better. I just need a place for my anger to be released.
And so I do just that.
It is the middle of my third cycle of chemo, and I am at a concert of one of my favourite musicians. I am afraid, because I have not been out for long stretches of time, and I do not know how my body will fare.
My agreement with my husband is simple – I will give myself a chance to enjoy this moment, but if my body is not able to deal with stresses of *being at a concert*, then we will head home.
We arm ourselves with four bottles of water, I am double-masked, and we plunge into the crowd.
There are thousands of people and while I am hot and slightly mortified (I am traipsing around with my giant turban atop my head), I am ridiculously excited.
The lights dim. The music begins. And I am lit alive from within. I am singing, dancing, screaming at the top of my lungs. Constantly, I reach up to make sure my turban does not go flying off my head because I am gyrating, I am jumping up and down, I am having fun!
My husband is beside me, watching me with a faintly amused expression on his face. When I remove my masks to gulp water, I can see his concern in his furrowed brows. I tell him I am okay, and drink some more water.
I am ecstatic. I am alive.
Four hours later, the concert ends, and we escape the crowd. We live close to the concert venue, so we walk back home. For once, the night is cool, it has just rained, and the breeze against my flushed skin is a welcome reprieve.
I am beaming from ear to ear. I did it, I tell him. I made it through the night.
He nods, says, I haven’t seen you this happy in a long time.
I smile back in response, the blood in my veins thrumming.
Music, music, music.
Today, I find a reason to be alive.
Over the years, Arathi Devandran has written for e-zines and publications on a range of issues, serving as a youth columnist, general observer of the human condition, and dissector of the specific experiences of being a South Asian woman in a patriarchal and parochial world. More recently, she has become interested in exploring themes of inter-generational familial relations and navigating the complexities of self-growth through personal essays and autofiction. Arathi is currently working on her full-length manuscript. Her work can be found here.
Disclaimer: All opinions and views here are my own.
Leave a Reply