It’s in our blood: Thoughts on watching 50/50, and being by a friend's side through cancer

Rahul Desai
·6-min read

The Viewfinder is a fortnightly column by writer and critic Rahul Desai, that looks at films through a personal lens.

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One morning last November, the pandemic became the least of my fears. One of my oldest friends informed me that he had been diagnosed with leukemia. I'm resisting reductive labels like 'best friend' and 'closest friend' here. For raging introverts like me, every friend is a best friend and closest friend at different points in time. This includes dogs and imaginary crocodiles.

'Old friend' is self-descriptive. We've known each other for 17 of our 34 years €" half our lives €" which means we met at the cusp of adulthood. We may not have grown up together, but despite spending the last decade continents apart, we have grown together. We have travelled together. We have shared a dizzying amount of drinks and memories together. We have also, by some strange quirk of fate, subconsciously defied the cultural linearity of living €" as the last bachelors standing in a long-standing college gang. Solitude is our default state of mind. The running joke is that we make the rest of the boys uncomfortable by being comfortable with silence. Little do they know that being alone together is perhaps the pinnacle of human companionship. In short, we've been two heterosexual men in a middle-aged marriage. And I thought 'bromance' was a scam invented by the movies.

So naturally, when I heard the word 'leukemia', my first impulse was a socially challenged one. I cracked a sorry joke. He responded with a sorrier one. Male bonds are rarely built on the excavation of emotion. We had only ever heard the word spoken by self-serious doctors in fake lab coats on screen. But apparently, blood cancer was real. Later that night, I wept into a pillow because I felt like I was supposed to. I posted an old photo of our travels with a sentimental caption. Pinning words on a public forum as an indirect symbol of solidarity seemed like a smarter option than writing a heartfelt text message. (In hindsight, it wasn't.) To be fair, crises rarely arrive with a handbook.

Everyone teaches us how to live; nobody teaches us how not to die.

My second impulse was even more inexplicable. I rewatched the film 50/50, hoping to find answers in how Seth Rogen's peripheral character Kyle deals with his childhood buddy Adam's (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) cancer. The title was a sign: a statistically accurate ode to the lifespan of our friendship. As it turns out, Kyle himself is revealed to be looking for answers in a book called Facing Cancer. Inspired by the intellectually diminished friend's strategy, I decided to treat our friendship normally. The texts stayed curious but casual. If I behaved as though nothing was wrong, maybe nothing would be wrong. For some reason, I then decided that playing it cool could be better accomplished in person. I concluded that sitting with each other for hours in a hospital room without exchanging a word would be the gold-standard of unflappable normalcy. Never mind that flying to another country to reach him was in itself an act of gross abnormal-cy. It is by design a gesture that distinguishes the affected from the afflicted.

The truth is the more we try to resist our primal instincts €" by 'acting' normal €" the less normal we really are. Panicking, fussing, praying and smothering are normal. Fretting families are normal. Nervous breakdowns are normal. Playing it cool is not. Bromance in the time of cancer is not. The moment where an angsty Adam discovers the book in Kyle's bathroom is moving because it's the moment a patient sees the friend who resuscitates the human in him. It's the moment the protagonist looks past his own mortality to recognise how his people have rewired their own souls to preserve his world. I wanted to be that friend.

But once I reached him, all those cinematic aspirations vanished. My nerves were frayed. I just wanted to squeeze his hands, give him an awkward guy-hug and deliver a corny pep talk. I wanted to cry and laugh at the same time. I wanted to admit that I was petrified. That the numbers were mortifying. That it kept me awake at night. That he had made me a better person. That I couldn't remember a time before him. I wanted to say everything about nothing.

Humans are inherently selfish beings; we fear the grief of losing others more than the tragedy of losing ourselves.

Before I knew it, my 10 days were up. I snapped out of the trance only at the airport. I noticed the masks. I remembered the virus. As I scrolled through my photo album on an international flight €" suspended between the vagaries of time €" I began to spot a pattern. My body language was fragile; even my smile looked pensive. But his face was consistently composed. His eyes saw something I didn't. Suddenly, it was clear as daylight. And humbling as night.

Some of us spend so long figuring out how to be the rescuer that, along the way, we become the ones who need to be rescued. I suspect my old friend noticed my trepidation. And so, despite being the one cared for, he quietly morphed into a caregiver. He let me stay in his empty apartment. He let me eat his food. He lent me his transport card. He made space. He let me watch his optimism, resilience and infectious strength. By integrating me into his process of healing, he managed to do the healing. The halo on his head had lulled me back into the groove. We went for walks. We saw sunsets. We reminisced. We watched sitcom reruns in a silence punctuated by nostalgic chuckles. We watched football. We ate dinner with his family. We joked about his new look resembling his old look. We joked that this spirit of sobriety was seldom our spirit of choice. We discussed his city. We marvelled at the hospital staff. We even did a Zoom call with the gang. It felt like the latest of our global adventures, compressed to fit the sensory dimensions of hospitals and homes.

As a result, I left twice the human I arrived as. My shakiness in the initial photos had dissolved into serenity. I may have reached in pieces, but I left in peace. I left knowing I'd see him again. All because he found in himself the magnanimity to be both Adam and Kyle at once. Most of all, he didn't 'pretend' to be unruffled €" normal €" for my sake. He didn't need to. He doesn't resist his primal instincts because resisting is his primal instinct. He might be the one being treated, but it's his people who feel cured.

On one of our walks across the haematology wing, he revealed that he thought of his illness as "more of a sabbatical than a setback". The self-belief in his words was no performance. It suggested that cancer, by nature, lacks the fullness of a film. It is in fact the intermission of other films €" of family dramas, workspace comedies, psychological thrillers...and silent bromances. After all, old friends come of age when oldness befriends age.

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