By Gagandeep Ghuman
Published: Feb. 11, 2012
Baljit Thandi points to the picture on the wall.
A fuzzy-haired young man and a teenage girl who clings to him, her face aglow with love.
“Yup, that’s us,” Baljit said, looking at Nikki.
The picture was taken ten years ago, but it seems like a chasm of a lifetime separates the man who points at it.
Where his fuzzy hair tickled her face, there is now a scar left by sewn-up skin.
Only this one is visible.
A lot has changed since Baljit Thandi was diagnosed with brain cancer.
He can no longer take Nikki on long, impulsive drives on Highway 99.
It’s been a while since someone has seen them out on romantic walks, hands intertwined.
He can’t do the simple things he once did for her. Like making breakfast for her on the sly while she slept, then waking her up with a kiss.
“Oh, man, I miss doing that,” Baljit says, longingly.
But even in this inexorable churn of events, there is something no malignant tumour has managed to infect.
Their love for each other.
Valentine’s Day might be a day to reaffirm love, to say the vows again.
For Baljit and particularly Nikki Thandi, it’s just another day to acts those vows.
For Nikki Thandi, it’s to be with him, in sickness and health, in joy and sorrow, in triumph and failure.
Ever since life spun out of her hands, she has ceased to be just his girl friend.
She is his friend, beloved, his wife, and now, mother.
She is his refuge from the world.
She is the reason I’m alive, Baljit says.
“There are days when you shut your mind, and you wonder what is the point of living,” Baljit says.
“And then, I think of Nikki.”
When Baljit Met Nikki
Baljit first met Nikki at a party thrown by Nikki’s friend, Leah Toews, in 2000.
Nikki, then 16, recalled how he sat alone in a corner, his head buried in a game of kinetic.
“We started bugging him for sitting alone. Then, we stole his keys and coat so he couldn’t leave,” she said.
She had liked him, and the sentiment was reciprocated a few days later, when he called, nervous but excited, wondering if she would go out with him.
It’s been 12 years since that day, and they have been together.
No one had imagined the teenage fling would evolve into a deep love, and in the last five years, selfless companionship.
And neither did Nikki know her love would be tested, first by people, then by life.
Baljit’s mother rejected Nikki first for her skin colour, but finally relented when she saw the two were inseparable.
“She realised I wasn’t just a stupid white girl. She realised I was good for him,” Nikki said.
But disapproval from her future mother-in-law would fade in comparison to what happened in Dec. 2005, five years into their relationship.
Baljit Thandi woke up in a fit, his body convulsing. Three days later, they removed a cancerous tumour the size of a tennis ball from his brain.
Still, he bounced back after a few months of rest. He was quick-tempered but with medication and loving care from Nikki, he seemed determined to lead a normal life again.
After a long rest, he even found a more stable job with Pepe and Gringos last year.
A month later, he had his second seizure. The cancer was back, this time with renewed vengeance.
Since then, he has been bed-ridden. The strapping young man in the pictures has gained weight. He spends his time thinking about what the future will bring for him– and for Nikki.
“Before it was day by day, now we have to plan things for the future,” he says.
Like a decree, a jar full of medicine sits before him.
He has friends and family that come over to help, but they have their own lives to attend to, jobs to do, and children to raise.
There is only Nikki left, his crutch, his refuge.
By now she knows all the medical jargon there is to know about brain tumours.
Beset with medical problems of her own, Nikki quit her job to be with Baljit, to do little things he can’t do anymore: She puts on the socks for him, she cooks his favourite food, bathes him.
Her migraines that long drives took away have returned. The money has run out.
Sometimes they wake up, and just talk to each other all day long.
On other days, she navigates a complex web of bureaucracy for EI and other benefits.
“I’m really confused by the whole system,” she says, tears running down her face.
Twice, they have faced eviction from their trailer home, and twice they were saved by the generosity of Terry Heinz.
Amidst all this chaos, they decided to marry last year.
“I knew she wasn’t going anywhere, but I didn’t want to lose her,” Baljit said of the decision to marry.
As for Nikki, she wanted to take a detour from what life had become, to ‘take a break from the crap.’
“And I wanted to be a bride,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes. There are days when Baljit feels he has unfairly trapped Nikki with him.
From meeting so many people at the bank where she worked to looking at me, he said solemnly.
She looked at him, and shook her head, as if it’s something that had been debated and settled upon.
Baljit is not the only who thinks she is being held back.
“You can leave him if you want to.”
It’s a suggestion she has heard before.
It came once from a counsellor at the cancer agency. In a private moment with Nikki, the counsellor had suggested that Nikki could move on, have another life.
I want another life, Nikki said.
“But I want it with this guy,” she said, pointing to Baljit.