Because radiation is a therapy that happens every day for weeks, you start to see some of the same people in the waiting room as your schedules overlap. I kept to myself but I certainly did notice a few faces that became a little more familiar, particularly those who would be leaving just as I was arriving, or those who were always called in just before me. We were all so different, but in this intersection, we shared one terrible commonality.
Whenever I exited the radiation treatment area, I would open the same door that the therapists opened to call the next patient. This inevitably caused all the patients in the waiting room to look up at me, anticipating their therapist might be calling them in next.
There were a mix of reasons why I tried not to look at many people in the waiting area as I left each day. A sense of obligation to respect their privacy even in that shared space. My own strange shame, or wish for some daily denial, that someone as relatively young and healthy-appearing as me could also get cancer. The sheer sadness of seeing the general array of people, and the particular frailty of some, afflicted by the same and also uniquely personalized disease.
On my second-to-last day of radiation, as I walked through the waiting room to find the staircase out, I couldn’t help but glance at a woman facing me in a wheelchair, with a knit cap covering her head, which made me wonder if she had recently been through chemotherapy. She looked to be in her late 60s but because she was mostly covered by her mask and the cap, it was hard to tell. Her husband sat next to her, preoccupied with something on his phone. But while I couldn’t see much of her face, what I did see clearly were her eyes. They followed me, and they were glaring. I shivered and dropped my gaze, and exited.
I had left quietly, and couldn’t understand why I felt despised. Why did I feel a need to apologize to her for just being there? I certainly wasn’t there by my own choice either.
The next day, my last day of radiation, I rang the bell loud and clear three times to mark the end of my journey there, and out of sight but possibly not out of earshot from the waiting room, I cheered a gentle “Wooooo!” with the clinic nurse who videotaped the moment for me. I had the sweet encounter with the Latino gentleman from my last post, and my heart was swelling with unavoidable gratitude.
For the final time, I exited into the waiting room, already subdued out of reverence for the stories I was not fully privy to in that space. Again I noticed the woman in the wheelchair with her husband, in the same spot as the day before. This time, she was looking down at something, and it was her husband’s eyes who followed me. Startlingly, his eyes also glared. I felt a familiar shiver, dropped my eyes, and exited the building, my heart a confused mix of gratitude, sorrow, relief and bewilderment.
The temptation at this point in the story is to express indignance towards the couple. Weren’t we all in the same boat? Why rain on my parade?
But here’s the thing that I’ve only just begun to learn with a cancer diagnosis. Not just that there are so many different types of and experiences with cancer, but that it throws you and changes you in ways you simply can’t fully predict. It interrupts everything about your life and doesn’t care what it’s asked of you. Sometimes you rise to the challenge and sometimes you’re sunk and sometimes the best you can do is physically show up, and others have no right to ask any more of you than to show up because some days you can barely offer even that.
If I fail to learn these things as a fellow sufferer and also as a nurse, I will never really know what it is to love others as much as, if not more than, I love myself.
My last day of radiation was a really big day for me, but it wasn’t just my day. Just because I got to ring the bell doesn’t mean the spotlight was on me. There were some still feeling so cold in the dark, and they were still hurting to find their light. Some might not get to ring their bell, or move past it the way I move past mine towards further goals.
So…no indigance. They cannot bear any more indignance upon their lives. I wish for grace for this couple, for their eyes to be met with mercy and grace.