Every six months for the past nine years I have had an appointment at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. I always go on Tuesdays and I always schedule the first appointment of the day. By the time I arrive for my 8:30 visit the garage is nearly full, the building is in motion, filled with people walking the halls in various stages of cancer. It is easy to distinguish the newly diagnosed from the “veterans”, the terrified from the stoical, the agitated from the resigned, the physically weak from the physically strong. It is nothing if not humbling.
I often say that I got off easy. Yes, I had bi-lateral mastectomies, but was, by some miracle, spared the intensely emotional (not to mention physical) tribulations of chemotherapy. I have even managed to feel guilty about this, having watched my father, father-in-law and more friends than I care to recall get their asses kicked by the poison that was trying to save them. Our stories are different but all too familiar.
I am acutely cognizant of these feelings each and every time I enter the building for my appointment. My scars, at this point, are largely just physical, yet as I step into the elevator for my ride to the 9th floor (female cancers) I straddle that fine line between making compassionate eye contact, engaging in gentle banter and trying not to look too long or too hard at the struggles which lay in front of me.
Yesterday, for the first time, I watched a woman and her husband/boyfriend/partner have as raw a moment as I’ve seen and today, better than twenty four hours later, I still cannot erase it from my mind. They entered the bright, sunny and beautifully appointed waiting room, he pushing her in a wheelchair. It was hard not to notice her massive mane of blonde hair pulled back into a curly ponytail which covered her entire back. Unlike the other women who were (it seems comfortably) donning colorful hats, scarves and some proudly displaying the fuzzy new hair that was growing back, she was not wearing an “I am having chemo” badge. Her hair stood in stark contrast to the shiny heads around us. She did, however, have her plaid shirt open just enough to show what looked to be a newly implanted port for the cocktail which was soon going to course through her veins, doing every in its power to kill the cancer.
I looked up from “People” as I sensed someone nearing me and became keenly aware of the fact that she was avoiding any and all eye contact. She moved gingerly, with the help of the man, to a sofa by the window and pulled her legs up under her, Indian style. And then she started to weep. Heaving, shaking, nauseating weeping. Her head fell into her lap, her vast ponytail following, as she convulsed and attempted to rid her body of every emotion that was pounding around inside of her, dying to get out. Her partner? Absolutely powerless, frozen by his own fear and, it was clear, incapable of even moving his body. It was truly heartbreaking. They both so desperately needed comfort and neither was able to provide it to the other.
I put down the magazine, suddenly horrified at the inanity of it and grappled with what to do. My initial instinct was to move closer to her and silently offer a hug. But that felt presumptuous and, furthermore, assumed (perhaps incorrectly) that she would be okay with a total stranger touching the body which has already betrayed her. I considered picking up (again, silently) one of the many strategically (although, in this case, not appropriately) placed tissue boxes and placing it nearer to her. Or to him, so he could help her, if even in a minor way. That, it seemed, would only put her in a position that she felt a need to engage or thank me. I even toyed with getting up and moving to another area of the waiting room to grant her some privacy but I did not want her to think she was doing something deemed offensive, by me, the bitch who (G-d willing) has this cancer stuff in her rearview mirror.
Within a few (very long) moments it was over. The couple sat in silence, exhausted and bereft of any emotion, strength or attitude. They stared in opposite directions from one another and remained that way until her name, Linda D., was called. As they gathered themselves and Linda rambled back into the wheelchair I again felt the urge to embrace her and remind her that “she can do this”, but I didn’t.
Now, hours, and better than a full day later…I wish I had.
It has been a long time since I have had a crying episode (long time readers will recall that I am not a crier, but when I do…oh, man) and I felt the exhaustion from Linda D’s. I have been thinking of her all day and wondering if today has been an easier day for either her or her partner. I have no idea what her story is, much the way many do not know mine or yours or anyone else’s. I do not know if her breakdown was the first or if it will be the last, although I suspect it was neither. I do know that the raw, painful emotion which was bursting out of her made me desperately want to tell her that it was all going to be okay, that she was going to be okay and that her partner’s silence spoke not of his lack of compassion, but of his own fears.
I don’t often talk about just how hard it can be to deal with the challenges and uncertainty of Jessie’s being transgender. Or living with the loss of my breasts. Or wondering where my story is going to take me, my children and my family. The pure release that Linda D enjoyed is something which I found both heartbreaking and liberating.
I felt like a voyeur during Linda D’s release and her partner’s paralysis. I want to commend her, though, for allowing herself to feel the fear and let it all out and him for sitting strongly beside her. I am thinking, no, hoping, that she felt better afterward and that today is a better day.