As I was riding tricycle on my way home one Saturday afternoon, I noticed Kuya Driver kept turning his head to look at me. I thought it was just nothing out of his curiosity- like how other people used to stare at me primarily of my odd looks.
I was wearing my favorite gray beanie and a blue mask- my “trade mark” ever since my diagnosis. While filling in a gasoline station, it was clear he couldn’t contain it and finally asked: “Saynuson ka?” (Do you have sinusitis?)
I got caught from zoning out while staring at the highway looking at other vehicles passing by.
“Di man Kuya…” (No, I don’t Kuya…)I answered as I tried to prepare myself for what was to come.
“Mag-mask lage ka?” (So why do you wear mask?) He asked as he restarted the motor.
“Ah… Nag-chemo man gud ko Kuya…” (Ah… that’s because I’m having chemo Kuya…)
My blood count, especially my white blood cells are low after chemo sessions so basically I don’t have the proper immune system that other normal people have. I need to wear mask to avoid infections when I’m outside, particularly in the streets.
“Ha?” (What?) asked Kuya… I figured maybe the word ‘chemo’ didn’t ring a bell for him. So I tried my best to modify it.
“Nagpatambal ko Kuya…” (I’m having treatment Kuya…)
“Unsa man diay imung sakit?” (What’s your illness by the way?) He asked.
Uhmmm.. What was I supposed to say? It has been hard to talk cancer even to my friends, let alone to a random tricycle driver. Because I mentioned the word ‘tambal’ or ‘treatment’, the question about my real condition should be mandatory. Ever since all these began, I didn’t have any plans of sugar coating my situation to people, but I am aware that I do not need to explain myself every single time. I believe I don’t have enough energy to do just that. But mind you, I remained honest all throughout this scene.
“Wala naman koy sakit pero na diagnose kog leukemia last year…” (I don’t have any illness now, but I was diagnosed with leukemia last year…) I told him, not really sure if he understands any of it.
I was expecting he would be shocked with the mention of the word ‘leukemia’. Like how most people have reacted. But to my surprise he wasn’t… or not yet. I was starting to feel glad that I wouldn’t have any difficulty cruising through this conversation. Yes! Instead, he then proceeded with his story which gave his first question a sense. I was even eager to hear from him.
“Ako kay saynuson man gud ko…” (Well, I have sinusitis…)
“Dapat mag-mask pud ka…” (You should also wear mask…) I tried to give an interesting response.
“Ah! Kapoy! Sa gasolina ko nadaot…” (Ah! That’s tiresome! I got bad because of the gasoline…)
“Ah…” was the only response I could give.
I thought this chit-chat would end serenely but just as we were crossing the bridge entering the barangay where I live, I believe something in his head ringed. He quickly turned his head to look at me, again. This time in alarm, or rather, late alarm – with wider eyes.
“LUKIMYA?! Kuyaw mana nga sakit! Makamatay mana!” (LEUKEMIA?! That’s a dangerous disease! That’s even deadly!)
He said in all horror as I try to brace myself for his next inquiries. Now I wonder how conversations about a cancer diagnosis not turn out to be awkward.
“Oo…” (Yes…) I can’t think of any interesting response.
“Gi-unsa man nimu?! Nagpatambal ka?” (How did you do it?! Did you get treated?)
“Oo, nagpatambal…” (Yes, I got treated…) He must have forgotten what I told him earlier about me going through treatment.
“Dako kag gasto?!” (Did you spend a lot?!)
“Oo dako pud…” (Yeah, quiet a lot…) I answered as a matter-of-factly.
I understand why he had to ask this. Cancer and money are always, always linked with each other simply because people automatically know that cancer treatments are expensive. Then, we fell silent for a few seconds as we continue on our unusual journey towards my destination. I was his only passenger. For a moment, I was worried I might have made cancer sound easy for him. Why, I should have expected his next question…
“Nag-ampo pud ka?” (Did you pray?)
He now sounded calmer. As if he just entered the phase of acceptance of what I just told him. Very fast, I must say. It took me longer before I was able to accept I am a cancer patient. Good job, Kuya.
“Oo, siyempre nag-ampo…” (Yes, of course I prayed…)
I guess cancer and prayer are connected in so many ways too, like cancer and money. Probably because a diagnosis of cancer or any life threatening illness compels people to pray or, at least, talk about prayer. For Kuya Driver, the words “cancer” or “leukemia” sounded like a foreigner and a death sentence all in one. I can’t blame him. I realized that conversations like this – about cancer or any life threatening illness – is always followed up by conversations/ inquiries about money and prayer. I was glad to have finally arrived at my destination. Aware that the short ride home became unusually long, I handed him my ten- peso fair.
“Oh diay sukli oh…” (Here’s your change…) He said with a hint of concern. I don’t usually wait for my 1-peso change, but this time I accepted it and thanked him in return. I gave him a slight smile beneath my mask.
As I was walking towards our front gate, I giggled a bit. I thought Kuya Driver’s reaction, or late reaction, was hilarious. The look in his face- on how the realization came upon him – was somehow funny. Then I stopped… because a diagnosis with cancer or any life threatening illness is never fun or funny at all. I know that more than anyone else. If this small talk happened last year, I surely wouldn’t be able to laugh over this. I would have been emotional along with Kuya Driver’s horror. I might have even shed hidden tears in his tricycle.