Jacko, cancer and a miracle

Jan 08, 2019, 07:00 IST | C Y Gopinath

The doctor had said the cancer would kill him in days. Yet there he was, swigging beer with me 24 years later

Jacko, cancer and a miracle
Twenty-four years earlier, the doctor had declared that the cancer had metastatised all over his body. And yet there he was on April 5, 2017, over two decades later, swigging beer. Pic for representation

C Y GopinathI don't believe in miracles. I believe things can and should be explained, in a reasonable, preferably logical way, with evidence and examples. Having a bit of science is good. Saying it was magic is not good. Evoking divine intervention is definitely not good, specially when the existence of the divine itself is unproven. Even if one day it rained fish or avocados from the sky, I doubt my approach would change.

But it's the start of a new year, one we all hope will be an improvement on the last one, and I think it may be all right just this once to swallow at least one impossible story.

The only word that comes close to explaining what happened to Gerald Anthony Fernandez, who would have turned 70 years in March this year, is miracle. Twenty-four years earlier, Dr Tapan Saikia, haematologist at the Tata Memorial Centre, had declared that the cancer in Jacko, as his friends called him, had metastatised all over his body. No doctor or medicine would help. It only remained to wait for the end and hope it would be quick. By then he had lost weight drastically, his appetite had all but disappeared and he was skeletal.

And yet there he was on April 15, 2017, over two decades later, the same Jacko, looking rogueish in jeans and a casual white shirt with rolled up sleeves, in a chair facing me. He popped open a beer and took a swig. He looked like a buccaneer. He looked happy as hell. He looked immortal. He definitely did not have any cancer.

Like all sailors, Jacko lived big, laughed loud, travelled wide and loved his tipple. No less a bon vivant was his feisty wife Valerie, whose job as air hostess with Air India took her globetrotting as much as Jacko. Two days before a holiday to Kovalam to celebrate their wedding anniversary, Val reminded Jacko about a routine medical check-up he'd been postponing for a while. Jacko, a man who looked good, felt better and hated medical tests, went to the doctor grumbling under protest.

A few tests in, the doctor looked grim. "I can't let you go on your holiday," he said. "Something's very wrong. We need more tests and have no time to lose." The tests showed that the sailor was well into Stage 4B of non-Hodgkins cancer of the lymph glands. Over the next five months, every possible treatment was tried, including experimental drugs. Jacko was admitted to the Tata Memorial Centre, where he began declining rapidly.

One day, Dr Saikia pronounced further treatment of no use. Valerie booked a room for Jacko at Bandra's Shanti Avedna Sadan Cancer Hospice for those terminally ill with cancer. His window had a fine view of the sea but Jacko hated it. He wanted to die at home, and so Valerie, pragmatic but deeply compassionate, took him there.

By then, Jacko's tissues were raw and on fire. Even ordinary food singed his tongue. Everything had to be bland, blended to a fine liquid and cooled before being fed into him through a tube so that nothing touched his tongue. His lymphocyte count was 37, nowhere near the 4,000 it should have been.

Valerie passed the word around the community asking well-wishers to pray for him in his final days. Small groups would come to offer benedictions and hope. She remembers in particular a man and his son-in-law who were at his bedside for a few hours, praying for him.

She does not know if they had anything to do with what transpired next, or whether it was some God, Jacko's immune system resurgent, some experimental drugs he'd taken or just a downright miracle, but one day the following week, Jacko asked to eat fiery Goan sorpotel. It was made. And he ate it.

Jacko began asking for more impossible food. He gained weight, regained colour. A month later, Dr Saikia could not explain what he was seeing - Jacko's cancer was in spontaneous remission. In a few months, there was no trace of it in his blood.

I asked Jacko if he felt blessed. If he had reawakened to how precious life was, now that he had been given a second shot. Whether he felt Jesus had touched him. "I've never been much of a church person," he said. "I still don't go to church. Nothing changed for me. The cancer came, the cancer left, I got my life back - and I enjoy it as much as I always have." And then he popped open another can of beer.

The cancer revisited Jacko in August last year. He died a month later, but even this time, it was not the cancer that took him. Jacko died peacefully of a heart attack.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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