I didn’t expect the heaviness — I mean, after all, it had been 18 years and wasn’t I beyond all of that? But it was there as I parked my car in the familiar garage, walked to the elevator, and entered the oncology waiting room.
The oncology waiting room — well, that’s a smorgasbord of stories in itself. It’s so quiet, with its muted colors and hushed talk.
Some of the stories are obvious, with the turbans and wigs and pallor as indicators. Others are not.
I once sat close to two women who were clearly mother and daughter. How nice, I thought, that the daughter in her 20s had accompanied her ailing, middleaged mother. Then a patient’s name was called and it was the daughter who stood up and walked to the laboratory; I realized the story was something very different from what I’d so confidently assumed.
I knew nothing. I knew nothing and years later, I still know nothing. There is only guesswork. Who will be lucky?
A woman and man barrel through the waiting room into the elevator area. She is small and fine-boned and wearing a turban. She raises her hand at the receptionist, announcing, “Next week’s my last treatment! We’re going to party!”
“We are going to party!” the receptionist calls out. The elevator doors open and the woman and man disappear.
Inside the waiting room, there are other presences, too, that aren’t shared by everyone. One I can sense is my friend Martha, who also came here for treatment.
Martha — oh, you should have known her! She was so alive, so defiant. Her hair fell out, she wore a wig; her hair grew back, she dyed it blond. Her hair always grew back, even after repeated chemo and the laser brain surgery and the awful clinical trial that made her so sick. She went to Mexico, she rode a motorcycle like a hotshot, she went to Hawaii, she got her daily fruit with rum and a gaudy paper umbrella.
Martha and so many others I’ve known — women who did everything they could to live, imbibed every poison, exhausted every traditional remedy till there weren’t any left, had more spirit and spark than anyone I’ve ever known — they are the reason I become furious at any cancer survivor who’s smug.
“I always spoke of my cancer in the past tense,” one self-satisfied woman announced at a support group in Dallas, espousing the little-known grammar-cures-cancer theory. I really didn’t lunge at her brandishing a dinner fork, as some of my friends claimed later, but it certainly occurred to me — and it wasn’t a half-bad idea.
You need so much when you’re diagnosed with cancer. You need good health insurance, supportive friends and family, good doctors, good nurses, and general good health apart from those vicious malignant cells. But, good lord, you also need to be lucky.
I had all the above and I’ve also been lucky — but so many of my friends have not. “I still think about Martha a lot,” my oncologist says when I mention her. “She was such an incredible woman.”
He’s been my oncologist since I moved to Austin in 1997. By now, we are old friends. We talk about our families, our work, politics, and travel. Since my health appears good — boringly good, which is the goal, right? — we don’t linger on it much.
“I have been so fortunate,” I tell him, thinking of the 18 bonus years I’ve had in this crazy, fractious, beautiful, and ugly world. My husband’s and my children have grown to adulthood, our daughter’s getting married, we’ve celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary, we’ve traveled, we’ve written books, we’ve seen a black man elected, then re-elected president. “Sometime, I feel like I won the lottery. I’m even working on a book about women and aging. Who would have thought?”
I leave his office and the heaviness is gone. Instead, I’m filled with an oddball, almost goofy happiness. Look at the sky, breathe the fresh air, throw my head back and spin a little. If I were religious, I’d say I feel holy. But I’m not, so I’d say I feel giddy.
I know these moods. They come, they go. But while it’s here, I have to cling to it and ride it for all it”s worth.
It’s the price of being lucky — to realize it, acknowledge it, feel it, and live as well and as generously as I can. I will never deserve what I’ve been given, and I’ll spend the rest of my life trying and failing to be worthy of it.
(Copyright 2013 by Ruth Pennebaker)