Time moves so fast.
Time moves so slow.
We’re walking into the infusion center. It’s time for first chemo. The place is packed – every treatment couch filled but one. Quarters are cramped, and we have been advised that no more than one visitor per patient is allowed.
I can’t believe we’re here. Everything up until now has been a whirlwind of diagnosis and treatment options and funding struggles and meetings and orientations. I knew that this day was going to come but now that it is upon me I can’t imagine how it got here so quickly. I am grateful, of course: the sooner she starts the treatment the better her outcome and survival rates are. But rapid change always seems to take me by surprise and leaves me feeling lightly stunned. The cramped quarters, numerous machines that go whir and ping and beep, and the presence of a large number of strangers who all look ill add to the effect.
She is a rock, of course, at least outwardly. She sits down on the treatment couch as calmly and primly as if she were sitting down at a desk in grade school. She is forthright. She is determined. She appears unafraid, actually looking forward to the new and interesting experience. I imagine that inside she is like me – scared and a bit disoriented by the new setting and the strangers.
I wonder how I look to her.
She needs to be “hooked up” the nurse tells me, and there isn’t enough room in the little infusion cubicle for that to happen with me in there. So I am seated out in the hallway in front of another infusion cubicle while the blood pressure monitor is hooked up and the shunt is placed. I find myself looking at an elderly patient, also undergoing chemo, lying so still and quiet that at first I can detect no obvious sign of life. Bald, sickly, old, frail. I try to imagine the patient as young, hale and hearty, in the prime of life. I think to myself, “you never pictured yourself like this, now did you? Weak, failing, sick, and plugged into the machines that go beep and whir and ping. Even today you probably picture yourself as 18 or 25, and when you look in the mirror you wonder about that stranger staring back at you.” I find it very awkward to be sitting there, intruding by my presence into a stranger’s treatment and frailty, but there is nowhere I can go unless I want to leave the infusion ward. Even sitting where I am I am in the path of oncology nurses moving up and down the aisle. Luckily the patient is asleep, so I am spared having to make awkward conversation.
And then she is “hooked up”.
The nurse calls her “dear” and “deary”. For some unaccountable reason this makes me vaguely angry. “I’m her husband,” I think, “I get to call her dear. That’s my word to use. You don’t get to use it, and you particularly don’t get to use it unasked!” It’s silly, and I know it’s silly – the nurse is just trying to be pleasant and reassuring, and to treat her like a valued patient and not a cow getting a hormone injection on a feed lot. But it bugs me. It seems like unearned familiarity. It seems somehow dehumanizing to me, somehow like the word is being subtly altered in meaning when it spills from the nurse’s lips. Despite earnest conversation and kind manner (and I want to emphasize that the nurse is quite good at what she does and comes across as both competent and compassionate) I know that “dear” loses 99% of it’s meaning. The nurse uses it with all patients. It isn’t special, it isn’t intimate, and I resent it.
But of course, I resent a lot these days. I am a roiling ball of conflicting emotions. Bearing that in mind, along with the fact that we will be coming here for months, I sit on my resentment and don’t make waves.
Suddenly time isn’t running fast anymore. Suddenly everything slows down to the pace of a slow, steady drip and a machine that goes beep and ping and whir.
I brought food, and we eat it. I brought games and we play them. I brought things to read but we talk instead. Every once in awhile I post an update and we get well-wishes on the social media networks. I don’t have much room, and even the small space they have crammed a chair into blocks a cabinet of medical supplies, so every few minutes I have to scoot out of the way so one or another of the nurses can get bandages, IV parts, or other arcane medical equipment. I feel very much in the way, supernumerary. The chair is uncomfortable, and I joke that they are trying to drum up business for the hospital spinal medicine department. She laughs and I feel like I have won the lottery.
Eventually I have to get up and walk around to ease my back a bit, and I see the other patients and their visitors. Almost everyone has a single visitor sitting stalwart by their bed as I am sitting stalwart by her bed. Here are people (“a couple of dozen,” I think, “the cancer business is booming”) who are undergoing a miserable and uncomfortable treatment to prolong their lives. For most of them it can’t be the first treatment, and so they know what’s ahead as she does not yet – the nausea and the weakness and the fatigue are already old friends to them, as they will soon be old friends to us. The visitors all look like me – trying to remain upbeat, positive, and supportive, but with concern, worry, and fear clinging to them. They have their own little voices. They have their own screaming monkey brains. And they each recite the same little prayer, over and over again, whatever their faith or lack thereof:
“Please don’t die. Please don’t die. Please don’t die.”
Drip. Drip. Drip.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
It takes a hundred years, a thousand, for the IV bags to empty. The nurse comes by and offers her food and something to drink several times. That’s nice. Finally it is time to unhook. The last bag is empty and the countdown begins – three weeks until the next treatment. The nurse unhooks her while I listen to two others in the next cubicle working with a patient with veins so blown out that they are having trouble getting the shunt in. They try again and again and again. By my count the fifth time is the charm. The patient never says a word.
We walk out to the car. She says that other than a sore arm she feels fine. We both know that it won’t last, but neither one of us has any idea what that means.
But we will.