‘Can you walk up to the grocer?”, my friend asked me some time back. “I am fine”, I smiled as I tried to sound polite, “I can do this.” But, I have to admit, I was in fact, angry. My friend was concerned. So, my natural reaction should have been of gratitude. But, my heart said otherwise. I have noticed that it happens a lot these days — be it the time when mum asks me to take a break or when my larger WhatsApp group of friends advises me on what to eat or do. My heart huffs and puffs while I struggle to put on a charming face.
It was not always like this. Ever since cancer has punctuated my life, every one around me has become a health expert. Being a health expert, I have realised, is fairly simple — you pass on forwarded WhatsApp messages — no matter how crazy the idea is and follow it up with a phone call to verify if such a routine is being followed. This, has put an unusual strain on my manners and my politeness is giving way — slowly. As I deal with such conflicting emotions, I am reminded of a curious little incident that happened nearly two decades ago, in Central France.
It was the time when we lived in Clermont Ferrand. I boarded a local bus one cold December morning. As luck would have it, I found a seat near the window. A couple of minutes into my bus ride, I noticed an elderly lady in a bright red coat. She had a hunched back and held a stick for support. She struggled to steady herself as the doors closed behind her and the bus began to move. Without a second thought, I got up to offer her my place.
But what happened after that has baffled me for years. She spoke loudly to me — in French. Although, I didn’t get what she said, I knew that she had just refused my offer. Clearly embarrassed and confused, I sat back in my place. But with most people staring at me, I decided to get off the bus at the very next stop — leaving behind the elderly lady and my embarrassment. Over the years, whenever I have narrated this incident to my friends, I have always justified my action and have concluded that sometimes, it is best not to help.
As I reflect on that incident, I accept that my life today is different. Living with the knowledge of a certain ‘risk factor’ offers a whole new perspective. As new learnings fill up my heart, I see the little bus incident in new light.
My thoughts have gone back to that woman and I can now see myself in her. While I have no doubt in my mind that I should not have continued to sit and enjoy my window seat, I also know that the elderly lady was not wrong either. Yes, when others offer their help, it reminds us that we are different.
She did not want to be defined by her condition, just like I tell everyone that, I am a lot more than a person who fought off this disease. And, now, after all these years, I have finally come to realise that it is not about the people who want to help. It is about the people who want to accept help.
With all my introspection now done, I am finally at peace. My conscience doesn’t hurt so much when anger swells up in my heart, when I get a piece of advice and my longing for normality and the hustle-bustle of life speeds up. That’s probably what the elderly lady told me in so many words — to be treated alike. And, to understand such a simple aspect of life, I don’t have to know French to appreciate that.