I wrote this awhile ago and sent it to the Boston Globe Magazine's Coupling column for consideration. They didn't want it -- too bad for them.
My husband and I are always late to his weekly appointment at the Tucker Gosnell Center for Gastrointestinal Cancers at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Today is no different. Like all Mondays, I wake the kids, harangue them through bowls of Cheerios and into clothes (no jeans, only “soft pants” for my four-year-old), and make lunches (peanut butter again). I walk my third grader to school, and then, at the last possible minute, I wake up my husband, Mat. We load ourselves in the car, drop off the preschooler, and wind through the rush-hour traffic to MGH.
To save time, I drop off Mat in front of the Yawkey Center of MGH and then park the car in the underground garage. When I arrive on the seventh floor of Yawkey, Mat is already checked in, wristbanded, and waiting for a blood draw.
I join him and look around. The people in the waiting room today are a bit younger than usual. There’s a couple I would guess are in their 30s, professional, the woman with a Louis Vuitton handbag. They both look like they’ll go to work later. They don’t talk to each other. The man flips through a Time magazine. They could be waiting to see the dentist.
There’s a couple with someone I assume is their 30-something daughter, a couple in their 50s reading paperbacks, and the couple across from me is in their 60s, wearing jeans and white tube socks. The couple nearest me is friendly looking, the man with a handlebar mustache and the woman with bleached hair. They’re looking around at other people, interested, with open expressions. They could be waiting for a table at a restaurant.
The woman in another couple, late 50s or early 60s, is resting her head on the man’s arm. They are the only people here who are visibly burdened by the possibility of loss. A Hispanic woman in her 60s is with someone who looks like he may be her son. There are two women chatting about vacation plans. One of them, a woman in her 60s, looks spirited – she’s wearing a colorful blouse and scarf and lots of jewelry. She’s not going to let this defeat her.
In the entire waiting room there is only one person here alone.
Like nearly everyone else, I am here in a couple. My husband, in his 30s, is the cancer patient. He’s in jeans and a basketball jersey with Larry Bird’s name on it – a gift from one of the volunteers in the infusion unit.
Mat is not going to work after his appointment today. After nearly four years of regular visits to this cancer center, five different chemotherapy regimens and two surgeries, he is on disability leave from work. I’m the partner, also in my 30s, and like nearly everyone else, I could be waiting to go to the dentist.
Except a partner is not required for a visit to the dentist.
Cancer, on the other hand, requires companionship.
This is a place full of emotional roller coasters: “I’m sorry, you have cancer.” Or, “The chemo is not working. The cancer is growing. We need to find something else.” Or, worst of all, “I’m sorry, there’s nothing else we can do.”
Not everyone here will have a bad day today. Some people, more self-actualized than I am, have accepted this experience and are at peace with it. Others will have a really good day: “I think it’s working.” Or, even better: “There’s no sign of cancer anywhere.” They’ll go home and celebrate, and then come back three or six months from now and hope to hear the same thing again.
I’ve heard nearly all varieties of this speech. My life is a snow globe, picked up and shaken every few months. When the water has finally stopped swirling around me, and the snow has settled on the ground again, it’s time for another good shaking.
Today’s conversation will not be momentous: “Your blood counts look good. You can head up to the infusion unit.” This is our new normal, at least for a few months.
I sometimes wonder who will come to the hospital with me if I ever get cancer. I’ll want to be here as part of a couple.