The waiting rooms are packed. So many people waiting for treatments. Waiting for blood work, to tell them they are healthy enough for more toxins. Waiting for news. Waiting to crumple to the floor in the presence of a stranger. Waiting to have that last optimistic fragment of "benign", shattered. Waiting to step away from everything familiar. Waiting. No reading. Just peeing for distraction.
I run into an acquaintance in the bathroom. Her partner has a brain tumour. I’d heard, but the force of it now hits. She asks about me without asking. She doesn’t have to. I’m in the bathroom at the Odette Cancer Centre. I tell her I’m waiting to hear about my Lymphoma. She says she’s sorry. She says it has been a shitty year. I say I’m sorry. We force smiles. There’s nothing good to say. Anything else is beside the point.
I return to my seat. It’s been an hour and a half. I’m tired of waiting, but I don’t want them to call my name, as though not calling it would make the cancer not so. Most people are with someone. I’m grateful I’m never alone here.
Some of these people have first names. The nurses greet them. They’ve been around for a while. The regulars. I never want to feel at home here, but I might.
I’ve barely dipped a toe in the pool, and already I am witness to so many slices of other people’s cancer.
After the news that my Lymphoma’s a lazy couch potato, I’m almost joyous as I stand looking down into an atrium, waiting to give up a few vials of blood. Two men are sitting beside me, speaking quietly.
The one holding the requisition form, the patient I guess, drops his paper. I bend to pick it up. He smiles. Ten seconds later he drops it again. We’re all clumsy and nervous. I pick it up again and yell at him “Are you done yet? If it goes over the balcony I’m not going down there to pick it up!” We both break into fits of laughter. He has a beautiful face. I don’t want him to leave. We are connected.
8:15 am in the CT lounge, stripped to vulnerable. This time I get to wear pants. I already had my abdomen scanned and I’d inadvertently worn my striped socks, happy socks, not realizing they made a statement. For the chest CT they need just the top off.
A family sits in the small room with me. Parents slumped beside each other. Son, two seats away from them in his open high top sneakers and hospital gown. Skinny hairless ankles. The scruff of what might be his first beard. He may not be out of his teens, but he’s meant to be on his own, maybe sleeping off a hangover. Not sitting almost naked in a cancer waiting room with his mom and dad. When he gets called, he hands them his hospital-issue plastic bag of clothes. “You can hold these,” he says. They are his only words.
When I get out of my CT, a fresh group of scannees is waiting. A man in his early 60’s, wearing dress shoes and black socks under his gown, nods.
“I was trying to read the technician’s face,” I say to my friend Heather, who has generously given her Monday morning to me. “She looked concerned, but all she said was ‘wait for the table to lower, don’t jump off.’”
The man nods again.
“But the last time a technician told me everything was just fine - that I had nothing to worry about - she was totally wrong.” Heather looks pained. What’s she supposed to say? The man laughs and shakes his head, then mouths agreement. He knows what I’m talking about. And here we are.
I think back to the Mt Sinai breast imaging clinic where I waited and waited and waited to be told I could leave after my mammogram two weeks ago. An older woman, blond, slim and fit, sat expressionless, staring forward, while I spewed fear - noise over which I exercised no control. She looked slightly irked. I wondered if the sound of my voice was grating on her composed dread.
When they called her name and told her she could leave, she got up gracefully and moved a few feet down the hall. Then she turned around and said to me “Don’t worry. You’re going to be fine.”