Monday, July 14, 2014

What I Wish I Didn't Know About Cancer

Did you ever see something that you wish you hadn't? I don't mean like seeing your 70-something neighbor's underthings hanging on the line in her backyard, or the legion of flies that descends on a dead bird baking on a city sidewalk in the June sun. I mean something that is so momentous, maybe a bit disturbing, definitely thought-provoking, that it causes you to wonder why you were privy to the event in the first place -- so much so, that you wish you hadn't been.

A few weeks ago I had an appointment with an oncologist at a cancer treatment center. Walking in the door, I was met with one of those metal-framed signs with rolls of felt, where you jam the pegs on the back of white plastic letters in between the black folds. At diners, they usually function as a source of information for "Today's Specials," or tell you to "Please Wait to Be Seated." This one read, "Winners Enter Here," or some kind of motivational blather. The waiting room was bright, but modern, with Mainline and Shore Life magazines lying all about. They take your "mug shot" on your first visit; I assumed it was to post on some wall as a sign of success, "beating" this terrible disease. The nurse did everything but a pelvic exam and a credit check, then seated me in this comfortable little living room, decorated in French Provincial, a sanitest border, and decorative tissue boxes to match.  She gave me all the proper literature, which I promptly laid aside; "So much fuss for someone who doesn't have cancer," I thought. Despite my arrogance, I did have cancer; despite my arrogance, God blessed me with some very praiseworthy news -- no further treatment would be necessary.

As I walked to the receptionist's desk to make another appointment, my seamless getaway was impeded by an appreciably "present" man whose emotional and physical disposition consumed the entire front portion of the office. A small half-wall lay between us, and I stopped dead in my tracks to keep it there. The man walked with a cane, but even that did not lessen his obvious strength and stalwart comportment. He was, maybe, in his mid-fifties, of Middle Eastern descent, with a large build. His voice was not raised or agitated, but it too, seemed to fill this fairly spacious area. I'm certain, in his younger days he was a man who, even seated, towered over those who rode next to him on the subway; a man who expected -- and received -- consideration from employees and children under his charge; who commanded attention from complete strangers in a waiting room -- he still did! But now it seemed, for entirely different reasons. His wife was sick, and her cancer was spreading -- quickly, from what I could gather. His grief sucked all other emotion from the room, and cried out for reckoning.

What brings a man of such stature, of such ascendancy, to a place where short of weeping like a child, he is broken and capitulated before virtual strangers? What sort of insidiousness and desperation could so saturate and threaten the mountainous demeanor of a man like this, that he would seek comfort and answers from "plebeians," "mere hirelings?"

A month or so ago, as I looked over the shoulder of a doctor who was explaining to me the necessity of being immediately intubated, I saw the face of my husband. Ashen. Withered. Eyes like saucers. The face of one watching his life transform in an instant; his entire world emptying itself out like sand through fingers too numb to close. An aide touched his arm, offering him solace; he said he felt as if it was God Himself, leading him from a valley of despair toward a verdant lea of hope.

I saw it again in this man, wandering and waiting for God to "show up," and lead him to hope. As if talking about it would yield even the smallest solution. As if by struggling to understand it, he could somehow capture it, limit the carnage and decimation cancer can bring about. As if by rewinding through the last few days, or weeks could change the outcome of anything; could take him, like some cosmic flowchart, to a place quite different than where he was standing at that very moment.  As if, sooner or later, something that crossed his lips would be persuasive or embraceable in such a situation. His thoughts were rational; his vernacular, medical. He even spoke of hope and possibilities. But his emotions were flat and his spirit was empty. Terminal illness does that to people -- the people not commonly identified as "the victims," the people we know as "the surviving." Who, exactly, would opt for this kind of survival? I would guess, no one. Certainly not the man I saw before me. And my heart ached.

As he eventually noticed my presence and moved to the side to allow me a place before the window, I wanted to say, "No, please. You take all the time you need." I said, "Thank you."

As he talked and talked, and those behind the window spoke of prayer and happy thoughts, I wanted to ask, "What is your name? I'd like to pray for you." Instead, I said to the receptionist, "Anytime Monday is fine."

As I heard the grief of the present mingle with sweet memories of the past, I wanted to exchange places with him and his wife; I wanted my news to be maybe not quite so good, so theirs could be maybe not quite so bad. I quickly gathered my things and raced to my truck, wishing I'd never laid eyes on this man, and that stupid metal-framed board with its stupid motivational motto, and those dumb magazines -- as if someone with terminal cancer is waiting for her appointment and cheerily saying, "Honey, I feel like going to the wine festival this weekend." And I sobbed. Maybe torrents of tears would wash the vision away. They haven't.

I wish I had done more. I wish there was more I could do. I wish I could think of how blessed I am without thinking of how this couple is not. I wish I knew why I'd seen all that in the first place. (I mean, I pray for this couple regularly, but what's the point if I'll never know the end of their story? Or, maybe, one day I will.) But, most of all, I wish I didn't know this is not an isolated incident. I wish I didn't know that this goes on everyday, every minute of the day, all over the world. That people are dying, and people are watching them die. That the bodies of people wracked with pain, are outnumbered by the hearts of people torn to ribbons by it. I wish I didn't know that.

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