*Featured Image: From Downtown Monochromatic by Toby Oggenfuss Art In Motion
By Karen Zey
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
I insist on driving. Dennis hands me the keys, indulging my need for that modicum of control. It’s his nineteenth visit to Dr. L, part of the routine over the last four years that has kept my husband close to healthy—and alive. I steer white-knuckled through morning rush hour; he gazes out the window at traffic. “Thank God we don’t have to do this every day,” he says, meaning the commute downtown. I mumble agreement and fight the anxiety crawling up my throat.
Parking at the Royal Victoria Hospital goes smoothly this morning. I roll into a spot on Level One near the entrance. Walking away from the car, I repeat under my breath: “32-row-B, 32- row-B, 32-row-B.” The glass doors slide open, and Dennis and I stop for squirts of hand sanitizer, making sure to spread the slimy foam into the crevices between our fingers. We don’t want to add a superbug to our list of problems.
Bloodwork comes first. Dennis lines up, takes a number and the waiting begins. I join the rows of old and young bodies on linked chairs lining the wide hallway, one of 800+ people who pass through the cancer centre each day—800 patients and their companions. Some sit slumped with bone-deep fatigue; others pace with pent-up nerves. Dennis pulls the newspaper out of his bag, I open a paperback, both of us seeking distraction.
Dennis fills in the daily crossword with his usual neat block letters. I wish I could breathe calmness on hospital days like he does. But in this room, where illness is measured in stages, scenes of teary bedside farewells jump unbidden into my head. Dennis says worrying about what he can’t control wastes energy, and he’s trying to conserve his. I don’t want him bothered by my agitation, so I work at appearing calm— trying to still my twitchy feet and not fuss with the contents of my tote bag.
The receptionist in the blood-taking clinic calls out numbers like a deli counter clerk. Here and there a chin lifts, a head turns. When Dennis hears “47,” he makes his way to the back room, ready to surrender his arm to the technician’s stab. The blood flowing from his vein into the slim glass tube will transmute into numbers. Numbers that determine how the rest of the day will unfold. How the weeks and months ahead will unfold. If the hoped-for years will unfold.
In the waiting room, I imagine Dennis making small talk with the lab-coated worker as she smooths the label onto the vial. The needle pierces his flesh, and blood creeps up the side of the tube, his fate hanging suspended within those tiny glass walls.
We are fortunate, I keep telling myself. Dennis has chronic leukemia, a rare type called LGL. I barely remember the initial shock the first time the oncologist spoke to us and used the word “cancer.” Chronic, not acute, Dr. L explained. The possibility of living years with treatment.
I’ve become accustomed to the relief of good news every three months, the ebb and flow of angst that comes with discussing the state of my husband’s blood cells. I want this ritual to go on forever—the doctor’s reassuring words, my slow exhale, the slight giddiness of another partial win. Easing back into everyday life. Almost forgetting.
We walk through the crowd of weary faces to the next waiting area, where six doors lead to room after room of oncologists. All the chairs are filled by 11 in the morning. Dennis goes back to his newspaper, a long article about the latest political shenanigans in the States. I try to read my book, play on the iPad, do a crossword, but I can’t help watching the parade of frail humanity shuffling by. Or worse, being wheeled by. I can’t help wondering about their sad stories.
An old man with a wizened face and wispy grey hair sits nearby, his hand hovering near his throat. He fingers the navy neckerchief that fails to hide the red, raw skin of his neck and the indentation where surgeons have cut through to a tumour. The old man notices my glance. He hobbles over to chat, confesses he was a smoker. Throat cancer. Or did he say larynx?
I’m having trouble listening, but Dennis turns toward him and says: “That’s pretty tough. But you’re taking it one day at a time. That’s what you have to do. I hope you get good results today.” Dennis is so good with people.
We are fortunate, I keep telling myself. The home treatment of daily pills and twice weekly injections have kept Dennis’s cancer stable so far. “Just a wisp of chemo,” said Dr. L. But after four-and-a-half years, Dennis is coping with fatigue and shrinking muscles. I’m diligent about blueberries and broccoli and banning barbequed meats. And we avoid friends with colds or flu. But then along comes a poor old guy with his neck scarred by radiation, his limbs weakened by chemo—what Dr. L calls “the bazooka treatment”—and my throat tightens. The precipice in our life might be invisible for now, but it’s always there.
Across the room, a young couple walks towards the check-in desk. The man, darkly handsome, wears sporty white clothes and pristine runners. His wife has a stunning face, with photoshoot-ready eye make-up and ruby lips, framed by a headscarf. Religious covering or disguise for post-chemo baldness? She strides beside him, tall and elegant, her magenta chemise flowing over dressy jeans. They both look so young, so healthy and hopeful. Which one is the patient? Does he stand at the receptionist’s desk with that wide-legged jock stance out of habit? Or in defiance of a diagnosis, standing tall and battle-ready, a silent message to the world and himself? Some cancer support groups disapprove of “battle language.” But if it’s not a battle, then what kind of struggle is it?
We are fortunate, I keep telling myself. Dennis can still work and play—as long as he paces himself. Like other guys at 60 surely do. And both of us try not to dwell. Sure, we had to abandon travel plans. No one will insure him out of the country. But we’ve adapted. Learned to live in small increments of tame adventures close to home. This doesn’t bother me, but sometimes, in a quiet moment, Dennis talks about his sense of loss at no longer being able to explore the wider world.
Across the room, a young man with Down syndrome, with the tell-tale gauze in the crook of his arm, signs to his father, a fleeting smile coming and going on his round face. The dad keeps things cheerful, patting his son’s shoulder, keeping his fingers dancing in a light-hearted way. A life-long act of protection. The young man must be over 18, or he’d be at the Children’s Hospital. I doubt he understands how fear gets embedded in the very walls of this place. But his dad does. The young man ignores the rows of pale strangers, sighs and lays his head on his dad’s shoulder, pretending to sleep. His father raises his arm and ruffles his hair until the young man cracks a smile.
We are fortunate, I keep telling myself. Our son is grown, well launched. That part of family life lies behind us. Dennis and I are free from parenting, free from being responsible for another human being. But not free from wanting to see our son move through adult life. Happy, strong, building his own memories. Staying close to his old dad. I want Dennis to be an old dad, with old lady me by his side.
A young woman in a pink tank top, ponytail swinging from the back of a ball cap, uses a single crutch to navigate her way through the crowd. She can’t be more than 25. One leg of her stretchy capris hugs her shapely calf, the other hangs loose over the metal of an artificial limb. Bone cancer, I guess. She makes her way on one leg to an empty chair, where she’ll listen for a disembodied voice to call her into an examination room. Like Dennis, she’s waiting. Just waiting, her wounds visible. Will this be Dennis at some point, taking a turn for the worse, ailments no longer hidden from strangers?
We are fortunate, I keep telling myself. Dennis has an experienced doctor who presents at medical conferences all over the world—Australia just last year. And although Dr. L always runs late, he takes his time once we’re sitting in front of him.
They call my husband’s name over the loudspeaker. Dennis stuffs his half-completed crossword into his bag and I drain the last of my tepid tea. Together, we walk past the gatekeeper’s desk and enter exam room six. Dennis perches on the edge of the examination table and I settle on the hard plastic chair. We don’t talk much. That will come later on the way home, when we plan our next few months. For now we wait.
After ten minutes, maybe more, Dr. L comes in, shakes Dennis’s hand and asks: “How are you feeling?”
Dennis chuckles and says: “You’re the doctor. You tell me.” I’ve always loved this about my husband, how he lightens heavy moments with gentle wit.
Dr. L smiles. ”You’re the expert on how you feel. It’s part of what tells me if the treatment is working well or not.”
I interpret this little back and forth along with Dr. L’s smile as a good sign. He’s already read the blood results on his computer. He opens the file and scans the sheet. But I hold my breath until Dr. L rolls out the words we’ve been hoping for: “Your numbers are stable. You’re doing great. We’ll keep treatment the same and see you in three months.”
As he fills out the prescription forms, something inside me shifts back into place, a small flutter of something close to normalcy. That’s good enough for today. Good enough until the next appointment in three months. We can wait until then. We are fortunate, I keep telling myself. We get to wait.
Karen, what a wondetfully expressed essay about a very diificult personal subject. Your descriptions of what went on at the hospital provide the reader with such a real picture of that environment……both the physical aspect as well as emotionally. Congratulations on such a great personal description of what Denis, you and so many others are living!
Your clear descriptive voice and sense of place adds to the harsh reality of living with cancer. I enjoyed the way you gently included the others in the waiting room. This is a wonderful tribute to Dennis and many others. You have told the story with great skill and great love.