It is Thursday and I'm visiting my very first oncology clinic, armed only with remembered passages from Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward.
The first thing I see as I enter the room is a nurses' station upon which, in addition to the requisite bureaucratic clutter, are vases of flowers, jars of candies, and small racks of folders where a cancer patient might seek . . . what? Pastoral solace? Generic medical advice? Mortuary recommendations? Lottery cards?
There are brightly decorated posters on the walls offering annoyingly inspirational words, mostly in cloying verse. Arrayed in an arc in front of the nurse's station are seven comfortable-looking brown vinyl recliners, and, yes, there is a TV suspended from the ceiling, at the moment not even pretending to entertain. Instead of small tables for snacks and drinks, there are I.V. stands and small cabinets of, I suppose, medical supplies. What else? Bottles of therapeutic gin?
There are four patients today, all men, middle-aged to elderly, linked umbilically to clear bags from which the latest lab recipes flow into them. Two of the men appear to be asleep. If so, their facial expressions suggest that their dreams are not pleasant. The other two have a thousand-meter stare, and seem more alone than if their chairs rested in the central Sahara. They don't seem inclined to make eye contact, nor do they object to, or even seem aware of, my scrutiny. I can tell almost nothing about them from their clothing. They're all dressed in clean shirts and trousers. There are neither patches nor alligators on any of the shirts, no clue as to social status, occupation, or recreational proclivity. I guess I won't try to get a poker game going.
At the side of the room are four curtained-off areas, each with its sturdy mechanical bed with taut, clean-smelling sheets. The curtains and walls are soothing pastels. An attractive, comfortably upholstered nurse of about forty-five years, with red-blonde hair, who reminds me a little of a former wife, directs me into one of these alcoves and subjects me to a fairly lengthy interview. It takes almost ten minutes to make her laugh. She has a nice laugh and, given a reason to use it, she is not inhibited by her environment from doing so. I need to make her laugh. The recollection of her pleasant laugh will be important to me in a little while when she is forcing a tube through my penis through which she will fill my bladder with tuberculosis bacilli while I distract myself with thoughts of how I can use this experience to conversational advantage. In the very unlikely event that I am ever asked, at a cocktail party, say, if I've had tuberculosis, I can amaze my listeners with a throw-away, "Oh, only nine times." This repartee will quickly be one-upped by someone's surgery story.
I'm vaguely annoyed at my wimpy immune system for needing to be goaded thus into battle. A hockey dad whose son won't fight might feel something like this.
The ordeal of the catheter over, I am left alone with my thoughts for the next two hours. I am depressed.
Through the curtain, I listen to a nurse attempting to distract one of the men in the recliners with conversation about house plants, which seems to have worked for her with this patient in the past. Not today, though. His labored responses soon diminish to silence. I am really depressed now.
It's Thursday again, one week later. I arrive at the door of the oncology clinic, having failed to accept any of the excuses I'd thought of not to be here. Something seems different, though, as I walk down the tiled hallway. I can hear what sounds remarkably like music and laughter. Maybe I've got the date wrong and I'm about to interrupt a staff party, the nurses leering at young pre-meds whose drinks they are spiking with lab alcohol. I enter a clinic that little resembles the somber atmosphere of the previous week. The place is full. Every recliner is occupied, as well as a couple of chairs. There is a woman in a robe and slippers who is pushing a wheeled I.V. stand around the room. She has no hair and might weigh thirty-five kilos, but her faded blue eyes are merry and she has a smile full of delight. She is strikingly beautiful and I have an urge to sit down with her and listen to anything she wants to tell me. The other patients are four men and five women. It takes me a moment to ascertain that the other men, women, and children are not patients, but family members. As I watch the children lark around, I eventually understand that the family members belong to only two of the patients. No one is left out, however, and the conversations are lively, overriding the TV show with its false joviality. One would not easily guess that this was a cancer clinic, and that some of these partygoers might be measuring their lives in weeks.
Later, I lie behind my curtain, eavesdropping on first one conversation, then another. They are invariably about hopeful things, plans being made, commitments confidently undertaken. I lie there thinking about the remarkable difference between one visit and another, made possible by the sheltering wings of family. I won't be able to see my own family until tomorrow. For about six hours after each treatment, I am a sort of Typhoid Mary, capable of transmitting a dread disease. I nod off thinking about my family and how thankful I am to have them.
My last thought before sleep takes me is that today is a better Thursday. It is not a day for depression.
William Dexter Wade is a Senior Scholar in linguistics at the University of Manitoba. After 34 years as an academic, Dr. Wade now publishes fiction, poetry, and memoirs, much of which is inspired by his wonderfully supportive family.