A Bright Sadness
When I’m not on call at the big hospital, I work at the Cancer Center, which is an outpatient facility where patients receive chemotherapy and radiation. When I first arrived, my boss told me to make rounds in the infusion room and the lobby.
I walk into the infusion room, a large open area with chest-high walls dividing each patient’s cubicle. Each person waits in a chair while the medicine drips through IVs with the slow, pained rhythm of a leaky faucet. The nurses use double gloves when hooking up their bags of chemo. The medicines are so poisonous that there is a whole protocol—several layers of nesting plastic buckets—for the event that the chemicals leak.
Some of the patients fiddle with crosswords or knitting. Others bring a friend or relative and huddle around their little TVs. Others just watch the room, their eyes always one step behind the nurses who flit from patient to patient.
I survey the room for the most approachable patient and introduce myself to a middle-aged woman in a cardigan. I ask her how things are going.
“Doing fine,” she says, lifting her eyebrows and holding a tense smile.
“I just wanted to see if there’s any way I can support you while you’re here.” I realize I am wringing my hands and try to force them down to my sides.
The nurse gently asks me to step aside while she sanitizes the nook of her elbow and searches for a vein.
I can feel the patient willing herself to look at me and not her smartphone, still held out in her hand. “Nope, got lots of help,” she says.
Next I speak to an old man with two hearing aids and a raspy, strained voice. I lean in to hear him and then straighten up to project my voice so he can hear me.
“I said, IS THERE ANYTHING I CAN DO FOR YOU?” The patient and his wife in the next cubicle turn and stare.
I briefly consider sitting down in the tiny “guest seat” in his cubicle, something like a motorcycle sidecar, but consider it too forward. After a few minutes of yogi-like contortions, a nurse pushes a stool beside me.
“Sit down,” she says. “You’re making my back hurt.”
I tell myself that this job would be better for an extrovert, for an older person, for someone who looks more maternal, for anyone who’s not me.
My boss, seeing me struggle, encourages me to start a group or class for the patients. The cancer center already offers Tai Chi, a healing arts table, yoga, photography, myriad support groups, and free massages.
“I’m sure you have something you could teach, one of your interests.”
I page through the empty rolodex that is my list of skills and talents.
“I guess I could do a book group?”
We settle on Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark. During the first group, I read long chunks of text aloud to stave off awkward silences. I try to articulate for the patients exactly what Taylor is saying. They are polite but quiet.
That night I call my fiancé and tell him I can’t do it. “What gave me the audacity to think I could teach these people how to live their lives? I am 30 years younger than they are and I’ve never had cancer.”
He tells me that good teachers ask the right questions. They help the student discover the answers for themselves.
When I read Eva’s terrific article on Teaching as Hospitality, it hits a nerve. Something about the way we’re expected to help the student (or cancer patient) transform, but end up in a kind of nervous, self-sabotaging performance that is much more about us than the people we are trying to help.
At the next book group I try to think about approaching each patient as the bearer of a great gift, as someone who can teach me. I give the participants space to open up. I learn to let my questions hang in the air, instead of answering them myself out of fear.
Most of them don’t even speak about their cancer as their major source of darkness. They talk about the people who abandoned them during their treatment, friends and family they expected to reach out, but who disappeared. They talk about the help that came from unexpected places. One man says that a 16-year-old kid in his neighborhood, whom he’d never met, dragged his trashcan back to his house after garbage pick-up every week. One person says knowing he will die is a gift. Everyone dies eventually, he says, but most people aren’t given a heads-up a year or two in advance. Because he knows, he can savor the last months of his life and nurse a “bright sadness.”
Now when I walk into the infusion room, I try to remember someone that I care about and miss. I pretend that I am going into the infusion room to meet that person—the giggly girlfriends from college, the muddle-breed dog I grew up with, my own granddad who died of cancer years ago—and I kindle that longing and affection into cider-colored warmth that carries me into this sterile room.
Each patient must be somebody’s loved one, I think. I try to approach them like they’re my loved one, like they’re bringing me a gift, like we’ve been apart for a long time and I can’t wait to hear what they’ll say.
Last week I approached a patient who’s blown me off every time I try to talk to her.
Before I can re-introduce myself she says, “I’ve seen you around a lot.” She considers me. “I’m almost to the end of my treatment, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ve learned.”
“Yeah?” I lean against the counter, feel my shoulders relax. “What have you learned?”
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