all of the selves we Have ever been
I arrive for my appointment to get measured and marked for the start of 16 sessions of radiation therapy. The busy scheduler apologizes for the crazy schedule as she tries to find a consistent time of day for my appointments, appointments that will span four weeks from start to finish if all goes well.
“Do you have far to travel,” she asks me.
I am aware that people drive hours each way every day to get their treatments in this world class treatment facility. “I live three miles from here; schedule me at your convenience and the convenience of those who have to travel.”
In the treatment changing room, I don a lavender gown and take a seat in the waiting area where I sit with other women in matching lavender gowns. We each wait for our name to be called. Some days, things go smoothly. Other days, things happen like the air conditioner breaking down in a treatment room. The schedule backs up. The staff is so apologetic, kind, and hardworking that no one would consider complaining.
Some of the women wait in silence. Others stare into their phones or up at the television screen, a few feel compelled to share their stories; they are containers about to burst. Their trauma needs to be revisited. The re-telling helps to break through the shock and disbelief, and it helps to make it manageable. The only similarity among us is the matching gowns. Each cancer story is different. Each story re-defines bravery: the misdiagnoses, the years of treatment and recovery, crossing the finish line at the ten year mark only to have the cancer return in the bones seven weeks later, women holding down demanding jobs, mothers trying not to frighten their children, expectant women trying to keep their hopes up as they navigate breast cancer and pregnancy at the same time.
I sit across from a young woman. I see her bald head and tired eyes, and my heart fills with grief for her. I think of my own daughter about the same age. And I think this woman is someone else’s daughter. And I think that she is too young for this. I want to open some tap in my own body and fill a cup with the good health I have enjoyed. I want to give it to her and say, “Drink.”
The women come and go from the waiting room. In quick exchanges they share their fears of losing jobs, and not just their livelihoods, but their precious health insurance. They continue to mask up while the rest of the world breathes freely. COVID will never be over for them.
There is a loneliness in the experience of illness that cannot be understood except by a fellow traveler. It does not matter how many people love you. It does not matter how much support you have. There are stops on the road where others can wait, but they cannot go into the dark and frightening spaces they don’t know exist. They can only carry the load and stay with the pain for so long.
Family and friends remain optimistic. Often they don’t want to hear about that which is hard. Treatment professionals are quick to diagnose “depression,” when, in fact, it is coping. Others cannot stay awake to the pain and fear for as long as the patient must. And, to be fair, they cannot. That is what makes these moments in the waiting room so precious. Perhaps someone receives a gift on the day the air conditioner breaks down.
And yet, with all of this said, it is a cheerful group of women with more to share than their woes. There are grandchildren and great-grandchildren, travel and restaurants, birthdays and anniversaries. We all come here for the hope--the hope offered by treatment, and the hope in each story. In this place we can relax with the truth without judgment or self-consciousness. In this group I am grateful for the health I have, for my strength, for the optimistic outlook for my own disease, and for the people and resources in this remarkable treatment center.
I reflect on the beams of light that will penetrate each of us who come to this waiting room. I think of the human genius that harnessed the power of the sun to cure cancer. And I think of The One who said, “Let there be light,” and made order out of the chaos. It is the same One who made man, and seeing that man was lonely, He made the rest of us.
We are the cure. We were made for each other. If only we could remember this in both sickness and in health, that would be paradise.