I’m told it’s an old school bell. At Princess Margaret Hospital they ring it when someone finishes chemo, at the end of their final treatment.
Last Wednesday was meant to be my friend Kathy’s final treatment, but her white blood cell count wasn’t high enough, so her oncologist suggested waiting another week.
There’s no bell at the Odette Centre at Sunnybrook, where I've been treated, so we rang a bell together this week, to mark our mutual endings. At least for now.
There used to be a bell at Sunnybrook, but it broke. It was smashed, the nurse told me.
“Why didn’t they buy another one? Cheap, at the dollar store, or something?”
She didn’t laugh.
I didn’t hear the word smashed for what it really meant, until she added her opinion: “There are a lot of people who will never get to ring a bell.”
Maybe it wasn’t her opinion. Maybe she used to love the bell, until someone convinced her otherwise.
She may as well have punched me. Shame. Guilt. Sadness. Worry. I have repeated her words in my mind a number of times since last Tuesday. I cry each time. No, the bell won’t ring for everyone.
The nurse didn’t tell me what happened to it. Maybe it just fell to the floor one day and smashed to pieces. But it’s a bell, not a crystal champagne glass. There’s effort required in smashing a bell.
It doesn’t matter what happened to the bell anyway, I now have a story. Someone took what strength they had and hurled that fucking bell to the floor. If it can’t ring for everyone, why should it ring at all? Why should people be forced to listen over and over to someone else’s moment of triumph? Someone else’s moment of hope?
The older woman across from me on my last chemo day has Mantle Cell Lymphoma. It’s very aggressive. It has made its way into her lungs. On top of chemotherapy, she has to have her lungs drained regularly of fluid with a large needle. She lives in a building where three other tenants have cancer, one a young man who is struggling less successfully than she is, with the same kind of Lymphoma. I don’t ask if it’s some type of assisted living, although I hope so. The alternative is too random and frightening.
She tells me she watches a lot of TV. Lately, with all the tragic stories - the missing plane, the South Korean ferry on which 300 high school students died- she feels lucky.
“My cancer,” she says. “It’s nothing by comparison.”
The tale of the smashed bell left me ambivalent about being someone for whom the bell tolls. The nurse is right: it won’t ring for everyone. But lots of things in life don’t ring for everyone. Shouldn’t we still be happy, that they ring at all, if not for us then for someone else? Perhaps the problem is that we don’t ring enough, period.
Turns out the bell at Princess Margaret is called the Bravery Bell. It’s not called the I Just Finished Chemo bell. So arguably, it should be ringing every fucking second, of every day. Of course that would be annoying for those of us sitting in the chemo chairs. But still.
There is hope. Always and everywhere.