Sullen and slate-gray, the sky withheld its moisture as I drove into the hospital parking lot. The oncology clinic had moved to a new location so I looked down at my penciled directions, then up at the giant, art deco clock tower. "Turn left at the stop sign," I muttered, and did so. There was the circled drive and there was also the parking attendant. He looked scruffy, with graying hair and beard. I was curious what kind of person would take the job of valet for cancer patients. He held open the door of a white Toyota Camry as I pulled into the space behind it. His smile crooked and friendly, he waved me back to give him room to get out. After parking, I got out and handed him my keys. Up close, he seemed more competent, alert, and intelligent. As he drove away in my car, I entered the clinic.
Inside I waited behind a small group. A woman in her sixties was the obvious cancer patient, her tan and red knit skull cap the giveaway. As she turned sideways, I caught the slumping curve of her shoulders, bent forward as if with the downward pull of the cancer curse. I thought of how I must appear: my skull-hugging charcoal hair peeking out from under a coffee colored cap - my ticket of admission to this exclusive club. I instinctively straightened my spine.
Gathered around the patient were an older couple and a teenage girl who was drinking eggnog from a Starbucks cup. For a while, we crowded into the narrow hallway by the reception area. It was certainly a less welcoming entrance from the previous facility. I recognized some of the nurses, but since it had been three months since my last visit, they didn't show much recognition. I checked in, then went to the reception area to wait.
A stylish older woman was the volunteer for the day. Her gray hair was cut in a sleek bob and she sported a mustard colored, crenulated skirt, black turtleneck and belt with black leather high heeled boots. She chatted and offered drinks while I sat and pulled out my James McBride novel. With the conversation lively around me, I burrowed into the book, but kept my eyes and ears open. The novel pulled me into the world of an escaped slave in South Carolina, but tugging on my consciousness was the world of the oncology center, interesting and definitely more real to me than the fictionalized world. Why was I so intent on ignoring my surroundings? A book is often a safety valve for me. It is easier to ignore others intentionally with a book than to be ignored and have nothing to hide behind. While the fictional woman struggled through the swamps, real people were struggling with cancer within touching distance of me. I glanced up occasionally; enough to be aware that in one corner sat a woman of Indian descent, mahogany colored, with long black hair. Next to her was a lanky, gray bearded white man who leaned just slightly in her direction. I heard her say, "May I ask you how many treatments you've had?" after she heard another patient claim to be having her last treatment today.
My mind flitted back to my last treatment - I recalled the relief of that day that was tinged with dread of the nerve pain I knew would soon follow. Then I remembered my first treatment and the uncertainty I felt about it all. In that waiting room were samples from all stages of my experience. And here I was, coming back for my three month blood draw, feeling healthy and optimistic but hiding behind my book just the same. I zeroed in on the moans of a young boy as he lay in the swamp with a muskrat trap chomping into his foot. The volunteer was offering Rice Krispy treats, but not to me. I was avoiding eye contact. Eventually she got around to me, but I declined, looking down at my book as I did so.
Soon I was alone in the waiting room. I glanced at the clock and saw that I had been there for fifteen minutes. An older couple, sepia toned, shuffled down the hall and sat. The woman had removed the trap from the boy's foot but he was howling in pain so she rocked him in her arms. I heard the three-toned bell notes that precede hospital announcements and looked up. The older man was shoving a newspaper across the floor with his cane, awkwardly. The announcer gave a message about Veteran's Day and asked for a moment of silence. It was a short moment. Soon he was talking again. The old man was still scrubbing the floor with the morning news. Apparently he had spilled his coffee. The announcement cut out in the middle of a sentence and soon the three-toned bell returned. In honor of Veteran's Day, the voice read from "Flander's Field." The older couple paused in their quavering chatter to listen, as did I to this call from the grave to remember the fallen. I tried to empathize by imagining I had lost someone to war, but could not come close. That particular tragedy has not approached me. But the cold breath of loss has touched a friend whose twenty-four year old daughter was killed in an accident just one month ago. That is a black pit I can stand at the edge of and peer in, but only those who have fallen in can truly know its ebony, choking chill. I suppose in some ways, those of us who have stood at the brink, feeling the dirt crumbling beneath our feet as we struggle to stay topside, have our own exclusivity that others can only imagine, but never really know.
After informing the receptionist that I had been waiting twenty minutes, a nurse finally arrived for me and escorted me through a room full of infusion stations; each with curtains and some with visitors keeping the patients' company. The mixture of familiarity (I've "been there"), and newness (I haven't been in this center) wafted past me as I was led around the corner, away from the main room. A blue vinyl chair received me with a squeak and my feet were soon propped up. I put my book away and engaged with the nurse. She asked how I've been and I told her about my thighs not being as strong as they once were. Then, maybe because I'd been disengaged from so much of real life since I walked in, I peeled away another layer and told her about my upcoming weekend - two workdays for the fall theatre production at the high school where I teach. I filled her in on so much detail, she had to interrupt to say, "Here comes the spray," and "Okay on 1-2-3" and the needle went into my port. I winced slightly and continued filling her in. It didn't take long for the blood to be drawn and I was on my own to find my way back through the infusion center to the front door.
The sky remained ashen and the wooden bench I lowered myself to was cold as an ice block. The woman noticed a presence in the shadows and tensed. Mr. Valet took my keys and disappeared in the direction of the parking lot. The woman bounded away through the trees, falling exhausted beneath an oak. She dreamed as she slept and a realization came to her, "She had to keep running. Keep living. Until the land, or God, told her why." * I looked up to see my maroon Subaru Legacy approaching. It was like seeing myself from a distance, familiar and yet strange -- like this body I have taken for granted all these years. Like my body, it has scrapes and dents and is no longer new. But it is mine. I hugged the book to my chest, glanced at the sky as rain began to splat down and ran toward my car.
* Song Yet Sung, by James McBride
Carol teaches high school English and Drama at Mount Vernon Christian School in Mount Vernon, Washington. She has a BAE from Western Washington University and an MA in Theatre Education, also from Western. In February 2013, she will celebrate three years since her cancer surgery.