December 10th, 2018
Last night, sleep didn’t come to me as easily as usual. At 11:25 pm, I was still awake, lying in bed in a room illuminated only by the glow of a white winter night sky. In my previous life, this would have triggered anxious thoughts about how I was going to get through the next day of work on so little sleep, but now, it’s just what it is. There are no real consequences to such things because my days are more about not getting sick, not getting tired, and laying low, than about anything outward-looking.
So I lay there in the incomplete darkness and turned my gaze toward the window through the white phantom curtains. I took in the December evening, the quiet of the house and the square space of my room—ceiling, shadow furniture and the folds of the blankets keeping me warm. And I asked myself a question that must come to every chemo patient eventually: What is my purpose?
When, last July, I figured out that I wouldn’t be able to work, or do much else once treatment started, I felt an enormous relief. I felt lightened. It felt like I had been busy running toward the next class, the next meal, the next appointment or chore for so long, I didn’t want to run anymore. I may have been running away from a lot of things too.
So much of our lives is propelled by plans, fears, desires, ambitions, routines, hopes, commitments, dreams, obligations, pressures and momentum. But what happens when the road ahead requires passive compliance?
My life has the strangest shape. It has so few of the usual pieces that I’m stumped by it. I watch people come and go, and know that I’m outside their worlds. Every now and then, when conditions are just right, I can join them, and for a while, I feel part of the stream of life. But I’m still just a visitor these days.
Winter isn’t helping. It arrived mid-November with snow that stayed, and biting cold. It has pretty much immobilized me. Chemo and cold are incompatible. My body’s responses to the frigid temperature are odd and painful. Chemo has transformed winter into an alien thing which keeps me housebound much more than is good for me. And it’s only just beginning.
Lying in my bed last night, I found myself thinking about the other world, the one at the CHUM, where I experience short, intense bursts of purposeful, alternate life. There was nothing difficult about my treatment last Wednesday, but the day was long, as always, and my eyes wandered.
The cancer treatment centre of the CHUM is on the 15th floor: the top floor. Isn’t that wonderful? We step into the elevator and rise and rise above it all, and wait like (bald) eagles in our eyries. It’s a separate world made up of multiple large areas subdivided into “rooms”, or cubicles, where chemo is administered to hundreds of patients every week. Perhaps the most important difference between the CHUM and most of Montreal’s other hospitals is its brand-newness. Most cubicles, just like the waiting areas everywhere, have a floor to ceiling window-wall which offers not only a view of the eastern part of downtown Montreal, but also allows natural light to stream in, and patients and their families to look out and beyond the multiple wall plugs and pumps and infusion tubing.
Still, most of the large, comfy chairs in these areas have their backs to the window, which means that during the five to six hours that I’m there, there’s always the possibility of eye contact with other patients.
I’m surprised by everyone’s discretion. Some of us smile easily at each other, but conversations between patients are rare. Most of us are accompanied by family or friends for at least part of our stay. I’ve had seven treatments so far, and have never engaged in any kind of meaningful chat with a fellow chemo patient, once inside. Why is that? Well, in part, at least, it’s about the space available to us: we’re all settled in areas with walls and curtains that allow for a high degree of privacy, so interacting is a choice.
But those partitions also delimit the borders of our pain. No matter the brave or resigned face patients and their loved ones put on, from my chair, I observe so much more. Even though the discomfort of chemotherapy is easily bearable while in those chairs, you can sense pain everywhere.
For some, it’s the effect of repeated, long term assaults on their body and spirit. There’s an older man I’ve seen at blood tests and in treatment who suffers from thyroid cancer. I know this because I overheard him one Monday morning (pre-chemo tests day). His face is razor thin and his body is brittle. He has no more fat to sacrifice: cancer and treatment have devoured it all. He’s all angles and jutting bones, and his expression is mostly sour, impatient, and defiant. I wonder how much of him hurts with every movement of his body. His wife is always there with him, and I feel for her because hers is a thankless task. Then, last Wednesday, he and I found ourselves waiting to be called in for our treatment. And I looked at him, smiled, and said Bonjour! And he looked back and smiled Bonjour!
Well what do you know! This man, with his robotic voice, —which I imagine he owes to hours of radiation treatment— he’s just struggling to find a way around his pain.
I was in cubicle 17 last time. To my left, occupying the corner space and hidden by a curtain, was 16, and then, moving along the left wall, were 15 and so on. Of 16, my closest neighbour, I could see little other than the nurses coming and going, and hear voices, until an attractive man, perhaps in his early to mid-fifties walked out, heading, no doubt, to get some coffee. He wore a suit jacket, not some comfortable sweater, and was perfectly groomed despite the venue. I‘m sure he smelled good too. What I could sense from him was the temporariness of his stay here—he was here to accompany the person I could only imagine in the armchair next door. His eyes didn’t search the room. He seemed to be trying to maintain a kind of social neutrality as he moved about, free of the I.V. pole and bags that patients are tethered to. Free of cancer.
The hours passed. The I.V. bags containing all of our poisons were changed at the required intervals by hyper-competent nurses. And then a new face emerged from behind the curtain of cubicle 16. This fellow was perhaps in his late thirties, early forties. Tall and casually well-dressed in fitted black, from shirt to shoes. He was so different from his companion. He looked around as he came and went. He had an easy smile that drew me to his kind face. He could have been walking in an office building, except…for his I.V. pole with all the tubing attached to him, his shaved head and the bright red scar that began at his right ear and ran all the way up the side and top of his skull, past the mid-point. And the falter in his walk.
Brain cancer. You think that immediately. Then your mind runs through all kinds of terrifying scenarios. To words like glioblastoma. You imagine the surgery that he’s been through. You imagine what the first inklings of his illness might have been. You imagine seizures. You imagine the terror he must have felt when he was diagnosed. The bomb that went off in his life. The seismic ripples. The fear. And how far he’s come in a short time. And now, chemo.
Behind the curtain of room 16 there’s his story, most of which you can only guess at. But you wish him well. You send him every positive thought and feeling you can muster in such a place. You try to hold hope for him in your heart. You marvel at his beatific face, which is hiding so much pain.
In cubicle 15, right next to him, there was a couple. They arrived together dressed similarly in relaxed clothes: jeans, sweater, no fuss. He got comfortable and she sat very close by on the plain stackable chair provided. They seemed close in age: perhaps their early forties. They looked like the parents of a few kids—I guessed maybe between the ages of 9 and 13…something like that.
They spoke to each other in near whispers, their expressions tense and urgent. The nurse came and got things rolling. And I found myself staring at them. I couldn’t help myself. Their S.O.S. signals were impossible to ignore. Once his drip started, she moved closer to him, and rubbed his hand gently, and for a very long time. Back and forth, back and forth. Sometimes they spoke quietly, but mostly, she sat vigil in silence. Later, I noticed that he had raised one of his legs to rest on her knees. And again, without smiling, without really looking at him, she continued her soothing, stroking motion.
There was love there, but they were at odds. Everything about them was tension-filled and anxious. More whisperings and agitation, followed by a period of coldness. Then her hand would reach out again and stroke his…The silent inhalations and exhalations of a terrible shared suffering.
At mid-day, a plump woman dressed in civilian clothes arrived at their cubicle, and the wife left. The visitor moved close to him, sat, and a conversation began. I know she must have been a staff psychologist by the way she spoke with him—discretely, calmly—but also because she stayed with him at least a full hour. During their exchanges (which I monitored discretely—it’s so hard to look away from another’s suffering), I saw him move from tense withdrawal, to resistance, to openness and then, to tears. I couldn’t help but witness those: it was the only moment in the whole day when his voice—now raw and vulnerable—was audible to me.
And then the session was over, and his wife returned, and within minutes, she was whispering urgently to him, her face filled with anguish and tears. Her side of the story, I thought. Her reality. He didn’t reach out to her. I imagine that he was still held in the state of being he’d reached with the psychologist, feeling, perhaps (I really hope so) calmer, more centred, less afraid—and so unable or not ready to open himself to her again.
They fell back into their pattern. He, quiet and withdrawn; she with her soothing hand extended, as she focused on the book she was reading. And the love and pain radiated from Cubicle 15.
* * * * *
“No anguish I have had to bear on your account has been too heavy a price to pay for the new life into which I have entered in loving you.”
― George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss
“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.”- Khalil Gibrand from The Prophet
Frees us of all the weight and pain of life:
That word is love.”