The way is dark,
The light is dim,
But now there's you, me, her, and him … .
— "Into the Woods," lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
The oncology nurses here always call you by your first name. You're often asked some version of, "How are you doing today?" and it never sounds phony.
And when you reply, "OK, sort of," "Lousy," "Horrible," "Sad" or "Depressed," you know they'll understand.
So will other patients who might overhear you, because everyone here knows about the love-hate relationship with chemotherapy drugs. Everyone here knows how one day, even one hour, can be different than the last one or the next one — better, sort of better, a lot better, worse, sort of worse or a lot worse. To be exact.
You're thankful that here you can put aside your fear of vulnerability, your fear of looking needy. Everyone knows why everyone is here. There's an unspoken esprit de corps among patients and for that you're thankful, too — for how their empathy makes this place less about fear and more about hope.
This communal infusion room is partitioned into three sections, with six chairs in each one, three and three facing each other. There are curtains for privacy and private rooms if you prefer. They're hardly ever used.
Thursday's regulars are a microcosm of our world. Ordinary people living quietly courageous lives one day at a time.
Take Henry, who gallantly says to himself (and who knows, meant for us to hear, too), "Ok, let's get this done."
Or take the straight-talking ladies in chairs three and four who update their conditions for each other not so modestly and quietly. Infusion room etiquette dictates that generally you don't ask too many questions about another's diagnosis. But you admire the ladies' outspoken chutzpah, even here — especially here.
Here, you're thankful to observe firsthand, in real-time, how life goes on.
Even if …
You admire the city street maintenance worker, who heads straight from his infusion to his work shift; the concert musician, who wears headphones and hums as she studies her sheet music, unaware we hear her sweet voice; the teacher who arrives each Thursday schlepping an oversized canvas haversack crammed with students' compositions. Throughout her all-day infusion she reads them and grades them.
Nearby, a husband and wife, bivouacked in their customary staked-out corner space, converse quietly. They always bring a small blue cooler, plus a bag holding books, magazines and the newspaper. Throughout the day, he readjusts the blanket on her legs and stocking feet. Later in the afternoon, you might see him kiss her cheek and hold her hand when she closes her eyes to try to nap.
The inmate in the orange jumpsuit and his escort, a county jail officer, always arrive right on time. They talk about sports, cars and food. The nurse chimes in as she prepares the inmate's chemo drugs. This time, when his treatment begins, the inmate's oncologist sits on a stool next to him. They have a quiet conversation that ends with a handshake and a pat on the inmate's shoulder.
Across the aisle, the perpetually sun-tanned gentleman in a crisp dress shirt and power tie focuses on his laptop and speaks nonstop into his iPhone. Yet he waves to almost every fellow patient who arrives or leaves. This operator knows how to work a room.
In spite of ...
When the tattooed young athlete saunters in, you know he'll choose a chair near the tiny, elderly woman covered neck to toe with heated blankets. Her eyes are magnetic and alert. He'll nod to her and she'll nod back. That's all. But you think, thank God for them both.
There's a first-timer today. She stares out a window that frames the snowy, gray sky and bare trees. Her frightened expression speaks volumes:
"How did I wind up here?"
"What's going to happen to me?"
I want to promise her that eventually her doctors will tell her she's cancer-free — as my doctors have told me. But of course, I can't assure her of that; time will tell. For now, Andrea, her nurse, guarantees one thing: "Beth, I'm going to take good care of you."
Beth smiles once and thanks her. When the fluids begin their drip, Andrea gets Beth a Styrofoam cup of hot something and some packaged cookies, pulls a chair close to her and they chat for several minutes like old friends.
By 5 p.m., it's nearly dark out. Most of Thursday's regulars have come and gone, some with their companions, some alone. The women from chairs three and four are packing up. One says to the other, "You do what you have to do — right, Honey?"
The other replies, "You take what comes. See you next time, dear. Happy Thanksgiving."
And you're grateful for people like these who show us that it's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.
Even when …
Dick Schwartz lives in Minneapolis.