I am sitting in an overstuffed recliner on the oncology floor next to my husband. My feet are up and I’ve been working on my ipad for the last half hour. The dosing station of about a dozen small rooms, comprised merely of retractable curtains as walls, is relatively quiet today. I look to my husband and find him sleeping, surely enjoying this mid-afternoon quiet; the guided imagery session we received earlier seems to have worked for him. I return to my work but then, on my periphery, I see a flustered motion. I shift my gaze and see a man rush past our door but then turns as he realizes this was his intended stop. He enters the room, gives me a cursory glance, then continues searching. He spots his target and takes long strides to the corner of the room. His shirt is wrinkled and he holds his rain-soaked jacket wadded up in his left hand. I notice his wedding band. He grabs a small stool, cozies up to the voice on the other side of a drawn curtain. I hear the quick exchange of a kiss. My heart skips a beat. He is me.
I lean back in my chair and think back to an hour ago; I am washing my hands in the bathroom down the hall. Lost in mechanics, I am gazing at my soapy hands as I rub them together, left over right, right over left, lacing fingers together, running them underwater, saving some bubbles and then beginning again. Rinse. I hear a dragging, shuffling sound outside the door as I shut off the water, paper towel between my hand and the metal faucet as I’ve been instructed by the hand-washing posters found in every hospital bathroom. I hear a rattling sound, then another shuffle, drag. Rattle, shuffle, drag. Rattle, shuffle, drag.
Lost in my imagination, trying to conjure up a sight to match the sound, I am flustered in spite of knowing the bathroom was their final destination. I open the door and catch my breath.
She is small and porcelain white, almost translucent. Her young eyes smile at me and she speaks: thank you, she says with an accent–Scottish? British? Did I imagine it?– as turn off the light and begin to exit the bathroom. A bright pink bandana covers a shiny scalp underneath. She is clutching her IV pole in one hand–rattle–and receiving what I assume to be chemo through a port in her chest. She looks to be only a few years older than me.
Standing in the doorway to the bathroom I feel an overwhelming urge tell her how sorry I am, how I can understand a tiny amount of her pain; I want to hug her, to help her. I want to tell her how guilty I feel that she holds an IV pole while I hold the door. But I don’t. Instead, I reach across her and turn on the bathroom light. A quick smile at each other, as if I have done a great deed, and I leave.
My husband stirs and I am brought back to the present. I can hear the man speaking to his wife behind the curtain. Soft voices, then laughter. Her IV starts beeping and the nurse rises from her post to check the problem. “Air bubble,” she informs as I hear the snap of the tube back into place and the “beep” of the machine as it begins to administer the drug. The nurse has begun to make small talk and I, with no other distractions, listen.
“Where’s your baby girl today?” she asks, and I hold my breath. A baby girl who needs her mommy, a mommy that needs her baby girl.
“She’s at daycare, they’re open until 6 so she’s okay,” the mother replies, relaxed. Now they are back to soft voices and little laughter and I recognize this: it’s a “date.” My husband and I often laugh about the irony of our “dates” being spent on the oncology floor at Georgetown. But with our two little ones waiting at home, we take what we can get. We have created a small and simple routine but one that serves its purpose: we are here for immunotherapy but happen to get some respite from the overwhelming life of parents of young children. And I realize now that, though we are by far the youngest people on the floor, we are not the only ones trying to turn the paradigm on its head.
I think back to our “date” today: we arrive at the hospital and valet the car, then head to oncology to get his blood work done. It’s a quick procedure and I catch up on my magazine reading; I sit down next to him and try to bury myself in an article but I find myself surveying the other patients: across from us, an old woman wrapped up in a mystery novel while she reclines in the chair, wearing a turtleneck and sweater and winter coat; I remember being told that chemo makes you cold. To her left there is an older gentleman, wearing a baseball hat and reading the newspaper. He gets up to use the bathroom and grunts at us, and I’m unable to discern if he’s trying to be friendly or warning us not to engage. My husband squints his eyes shut and clenches his teeth; he still doesn’t like needles. The nurse is done quickly and we grab our coats and he jokes with his nurses on the way out the door, laughing and smiling as if they were his audience, his adoring fans. And I think they actually are.
We laugh over our teas outside the Starbucks in the student center as we wait for his infusion cocktail to be ordered at the pharmacy; we are recalling a fit of hysteria we had just minutes ago in the exam room. Even as we sip our tea, we can’t keep from laughing as we joke now about the morning I found him standing at the stove, pouring his tea, looking up at me with his entire face–even his ears–swollen and red, looking like the caricature on the cover of MAD magazine. The recounting of this story now reduces us to tears again–not funny 4 weeks ago, but hysterical today. We laugh again as we imagine what the doctor, two nurses, medical student, research coordinator and oncology fellow all thought when they walked into the exam room and found us laughing so hard we were crying.
On a proper date, we are seated outside a restaurant on a cool Saturday evening on Memorial Day weekend. Sitting along the sidewalk watching fellow patrons and seeing the bustle of the Saturday night crowd makes us feel a bit more metropolitan, a bit closer to our city living in Buenos Aires where we felt at the center of it all. Over a cocktail and a beer, we reflect on the last year of our lives.
“I can’t believe this is our life,” I say as I twirl the straw in my glass, mixing the basil with the cucumber in my martini, “and yet, I can’t believe this is our life.” A mama bird pecks near our feet trying to quiet the chirping baby by her side. I toss her a few crumbs.
He understands immediately what I mean. “I feel really lucky, you know?” he squints as his eyes mist over. “I make pancakes for the boys on a Wednesday just because I can. To be able to spend this much time with them….it’s a gift.” He takes a sip of his beer and then clears his throat, adjusting in his chair. “It’s a gift.”
Cancer. A gift.
My eye is caught by an older couple that walks out of the restaurant and onto the sidewalk. They are arm in arm, and he leads her gently and politely down the steps as they embark on their journey. Dressed to the nines, they have a rhythm that exudes years of love, companionship, care. With his free hand, he gives me a nod and tips his hat, then returns his focus to the love of his life.
The sun is setting and the breeze picks up, making our date colder than it should’ve been. We watch the setting sun a few moments longer, then scrape our chairs against the sidewalk and stand, ready to leave. My husband grabs my hand and leads me around the table and into the street as we move toward the parking garage in the fading spring light. The cold wind whips through the cement structure, a frigid reminder of our summer drought.
We’ve spent the last year chasing summers just out of reach, moving to Buenos Aires at the start of winter and moving to DC just as spring had sprung south of the equator. In one year with two moves and three winters, I am starting to feel brittle. Another gust and we pull our jackets tighter around us and huddle together for warmth and I ask “Will it ever be summer?”
The day is hot and muggy and the cold hospital air is a relief. Now in the maintenance phase, my husband’s treatments are spaced out, allowing us to wander away from this disease on a much longer leash before being reined back in. Today’s visit is just a checkup, no infusion, and we are both lighter.
Our new home occupies a large place in our hospital date conversation, but I’m grateful for a refreshing subject. He is seated next to me with book in hand but doesn’t read it. He’s enjoying his free coffee from the Kuerig machine for cancer patients and the ability to speak to each other without little hands and voices filling spaces between us. One of the perks of a date in the oncology wing.
A man walks into the waiting area, his youth making him an anomaly. He is dressed for work and carries a briefcase and his intense face relaxes into a smile as he spots his parents, sitting together and obviously waiting for him, to my left. His voice booms as he describes his battle for a parking space, which, as he explains, is why is late. He pulls out an enormous stack of papers from his briefcase–research–and begins to talk about what he’s found online, what they need to ask the doctors. I hear him mention “melanoma,” “Ipilimumab,” and “late-stage.” My heart aches. I realize quickly he’s talking about his father, the very old man who doesn’t speak, seated between his wife and son. I surmise his diagnosis is new. I want to comfort them, to hug them, but I do neither. I am lost in thoughts about what I might say to them when the nurse calls my husband. I realize I’ve forgotten why we’ve come.
“Finally!” he whispers under his breath, a commentary on the hour-long wait we’ve had. Hour-long but full of conversation and free coffee and laughter. An extra hour of together.
“Ready?” he asks me as he gathers his book and stretches out his hand.
“Ready,” I say as I reach for his hand and look at the family next to me. I offer them a smile as I pass but they are too distracted to notice me.
And I know just how they feel.
Originally published July 16, 2013