It’s Passover and after four glasses of wine I was determined to write an uplifting post, but I recently discovered something I had written many years ago during a dark period of my life. It’s not uplifting but I thought it worth sharing in the spirit of thankfulness.
“Thank God I don’t have to pay for parking every day”, I tell myself as I pull into the garage on Pine Street for the fifth time that week. I leave the key in the ignition, lower the driver’s window and say “40 minutes” to the attendant. He doesn’t hear me because he knows me. I’m one of those regular hospital patients who return every day for the duration of their treatment. I wonder if he ever asks himself what dread disease I have. I stroll out into the clear San Francisco sunshine and without stopping take out my cell phone and turn it off. Nobody tells me to do this but the incongruity of a cell phone ringing in the waiting room of the radiation oncology department, is so striking that I have no doubt this is the right thing to do.
I turn into the hospital and go directly to the men’s room to wash my hands. Hospitals affect me that way. I enter the elevator going down to the basement with a middle-aged couple. Neither of them has the look of a cancer patient. They exit the elevator and turn left towards the Spinal Injury Department. I turn right towards Radiation Oncology. ‘Radiation’, ‘oncology’, the words themselves carry enough weight to cause a spinal injury. I go through an unmarked door with the confidence of an insider. Once through I open the door of the patient waiting room, and notice that there are a number of new faces. I move confidently, indicating silently to the newcomers that I know the ropes, take a hospital smock from the neat pile and choose a changing room. I strip from the waist up, slip on the smock and curse for the umpteenth time as I struggle to tie a bow over my left shoulder with the minuscule ties.
Back in the waiting room I pour myself a small plastic cup of water. Dry mouth, an unpleasant side-effect of the radiation, means that a bottle or a glass of water, are my constant companions. I search for Zoetrope on the magazine rack and wait for my name to be called. The waiting room has all the features that the manual on decorating waiting rooms for cancer patients says it should have, a large aquarium with gulping fish, a leafy plant hiding a discreet CD player from which emanates syrupy vocal numbers, a notice board on which are pinned a variety of flyers for self-help and support groups, a surprisingly well-stocked magazine rack and a water cooler. The room itself is painted in a pale pink color that the manual probably says is ‘relaxing’ and ‘easy on the eyes’.
Except for the music nobody speaks. Facing me is a petite and elderly Asian woman who sits erect and still as a statue until the door opens and a technician enters to call someone’s name. Whatever name is called the Asian woman is half out of her seat before the technician waves her back with his hand. “Not yet Mrs. Wu”, he says. She sits back on her chair and resumes her statuesque pose. On my left is another patient, this time an elderly man whose head is permanently lowered on to his chest as if he fell asleep while sitting. His well-heeled wife sits next to him and stares vacantly at the wall opposite her. In the corner, next to the plant, is a wiry black man in his 40’s with a permanent grin. I have seen him before. When he walks he does so with a rolling gait, half turning from side to side with his arms bent in front of him as if he is walking in rhythm with some secret music that only he can hear.
The door opens. “Mr. Greenhill”, calls the technician. I put down Zoetrope and walk through the door with her.
“Some people are always grumbling because roses have thorns; I am thankful that thorns have roses.” Alphonse Karr