The company I keep

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.”

Comments

In 2010 my wife Jodi had open heart surgery and a valve replaced,bad enough but in 2011 she was diagnosed with Stage 2 Breast Cancer.I can't tell you how much I cried when she wasn't looking.Jodi fought and won a most courageous battle against a terrible enemy.I would encourage CALL women to get regular mammo's because no matter who you are,somebody is going to miss you. Please get scanned,I beg you as a husband ,father and friend....Big love and save the tata's....

You captured so well much of the feelings and images shared by those going through similar trials and tribulations.

That moment when you are no longer controlling the direction of life, and you know it. To struggle to keep hold of 'normal', to not be paraded and marched from tests to surgery to treatment to tests to more body-wrecking treatments because that's not life. It's not YOUR life. You move forward as without will.

A desire to not rely on drugs and doctors and nurses - as wonderful as they all are - because they represent a loss. Lost freedom, lost time, lost youth, lost dignity ... lost blissful ignorance.

Patiently waiting to be poked and prodded, have blood drawn and noxious chemicals injected so they can pulse throughout tender veins and arteries and organs of your incredibly mortal body. Smiling, answering questions and more questions and filling out forms and taking pills and drinking miasmic liquids and reading directions and signing documents allowing someone to slice open your body to cut away bits of you that have been with you since before birth. You contain the horror at holding your hair in your hands.

Never crying or bemoaning or speaking of death ... out loud. Trying to figure out how to get back to where you were before the x-ray that hinted at something 'not to be worried about' but set you off on a journey across waters the most seasoned and hardened pirate would fear and shun but a voyage you are powerless to not undertake.

Choices that aren't; decisions of which there are none, bumped through a maze others are in but whom are strangely separate even though they can be seen and heard. Taking note of everything, keeping records, questions listed … always sensing there will never be an end to the abnormality … always trying to keep from asking, ‘why me?’ You know there is no ‘why’; things just are. Like family and friends not knowing what to say or where to look or how to react to the person you’ve become and they no longer recognize. That’s just the way things have become. A train off its tracks.

You are not longer truly human but a process, someone else's job, a list of medications and procedures and planned avenues for different scenarios , watching and waiting for the ultimate reactions of your body to the onslaught you fervently wish to call to a halt but you are no longer in control, really, so you don’t make that call. You are asked, presented with options, but there is only one path because you no longer have the luxury of time in which to study, debate and ferret out alternatives.

You do not want to be doing this, you dare not to stop. Driving hours over days and weeks and months; weather changes from spring to summer to fall and snow comes, matching outside the coldness you feel inside as the automaton you are now beginning to feel like and the nurses know your name and your kids’ names, but they don’t know you.

That you write and play the flute in the orchestra for a local theater and ride a motorcycle, usually too fast through the curves, and want to skydive and hold your grandchildren close enough to hear their hearts beat and race cars and paint beautiful scenes of nature and learn to speak Gaelic and travel and you were nearly in the Olympics for your shooting skills and you went back to college earning a degree after a heartbreaking divorce and you know you will die never knowing what it is like to be deeply loved and cherished by one who wants to grow old with you. That you want to fall into someone’s enveloping arms and hear them keen over the thought of losing you and dampen your hair with their tears so you can feel you are wanted, to know in some small universe your life holds meaning.

But the doctors and nurses and technicians don’t know you, or the person in line behind you or in the chemo chair next to you. It’s unavoidable. You are reduced to nothing but a walking and talking treatment.

A patient.

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