This morning after some quick laser beam shots on the ol' boob, I headed over to the Dana-Farber affiliate down the road for a shot in my ass, something I get once a month.
I’d forgotten my phone. I had absolutely nothing to do in the one-hour window between my two appointments except hope they took me early and in the meantime read pamphlets and St. Jude’s prayer cards. I tried not to stare at the women and men around me - sitting quietly in their wheelchairs, or sitting patiently with their hands on their laps.
The deathly quiet was disrupted by a blustering woman, thin, in her late 40’s or so, who breezed into the waiting room clutching a purse and a phone and a water bottle. She set it all down in a chair near me and sat in a heap. Then with a wan smile she started talking, not to anyone in particular, and said, “My husband just broke his hip. He just broke his hip!”
I looked up, and so did the older woman across from me.
"And I’m here,” she continued. "I guess my chemo today doesn’t seem all that bad, compared to that.” She looked at me, and then at the older woman across from me.
The older woman, heavyset, with white hair and blue/gray eyes, wearing a hospital ID wristband just like mine, and just like the thin woman’s, said, “I’m sorry.”
Words wouldn’t come for me, so I nodded and smiled.
The thin woman continued to titter. “They’ll put a rod in his hip. I feel so bad. The poor guy. He fell. He's so clumsy. He’s in the hospital now, up on the North Shore." She looked around. "And I’m here.”
“That’s too bad,” the older woman said, shaking her head sympathetically. Her face was so kind. “But he’ll be fine. Don’t you worry.”
The thin woman stared down at her phone. She kept poking at the home button, looking up in disbelief, and then back down again. “I should text my neighbors. God,” she choked out a small laugh, “They won’t be able to look at either us, after this!" She then said, "I suppose it’ll be good. I’ve been lonely with the chemo. We’ll be laid up together.”
“That might be nice," the older woman said.
I nodded again, dumbly.
The thin woman pointed to her head. “They told me I had 4 months. Told me the melanoma was gonna kill me. Stage IV. Left the stuff in the breast alone. Turned out it didn’t kill me, and now the breast stuff--” she made a motion across her chest, “--went everywhere. I’ve made it 3 years, though. The poor guy. We just celebrated my birthday. And cuz we found out it was gone from my lungs.” She kept grimacing, then half laughing, like she was in shock. Just looking at her you'd almost think she was cheery - though I know that’s not the right word.
A few more moments passed and then she crossed herself. “Unbelievable.” She looked at me, “Right?”
I nodded hard and choked out, “It is." I kept staring at the St. Jude prayer card I'd taken and felt like such a phony. I'm not religious.
She was looking down again, at her phone, poking, swiping. “He was already making up for me not working. Now this. I don’t know what we’re gonna do.”
She was about to say something else but her name was called right then and she gathered up her water bottle and her phone and her purse and said, “Can’t do anything but pray, right?”
I nodded again, the older woman wished her well. Then, a few seconds later, the older woman was called in and I was left alone in the waiting room. I sat for another 45 minutes, rattled. It’s not that I was surprised that such harrowing, compounding issues can addle people like this. Maybe it's because I wasn't surprised at all.
All day I’ve been unable to get this woman out of my head. One word keeps coming to mind and that is “trauma." It’s traumatic not only because of what you experience individually, talking to your doctors, getting shots in the ass, explaining your bowel movements, keeling over in the shower as you sob - but because you’ve entered a world where suddenly you’re privy to the traumas of others. Complete strangers. And yet these strangers are your peers and you can no longer watch them with a safe sense of detachment.
You overhear an old man matter-of-factly rattling off his side effects as he gets his vitals done in the little station next to you. You wonder if this man, stooped over but friendly with the nurses, just happens to be alone today or if he’s alone all the time. You wonder if he tells his caretakers about the pain in his legs? Or does he spare them the details? You hope he has a family.
How many waiting rooms have I sat in? How many conversations have I overheard? How many bald heads and worried sons and doting spouses have I seen these last 8 months? Countless. Last year I remember recounting to a friend that I’d spent Christmas eve with my mother in the “cancer ward of Cape Cod hospital.” I said it with added emphasis, with added drama. I said it in a way like, look at me, life is so sad. Because I wanted to have some sort of effect. I wanted sympathy. God. If I were to have known that would be me in those chairs? Me getting shots in the ass, commiserating with shocked, grief-stricken women, me curled up in a ball puking into a plastic bag - I would have shut my fucking mouth. When it’s not you, you don’t get it. You don’t. And the drama of it all is palatable as long as it’s not you.
This was a weird day to write about, I admit, but I feel the need to describe the world you live in for a while when you’re going though this. Intimate, and shared.
Have empathy for others. Save the drama. And I sound trite but appreciate your healthy days. Appreciate them.