Photo courtesy of Peggy Thomas
It begins here, a squeezing in my solar plexus. A sensation rises inside, pops my eardrums and shifts my scalp. I inhale as if for the first time. Then let it go like a silent prayer that rises skyward. It’s the physical reaction that seems to accompany gratitude. I’ve felt it many times: when my kids are all home; when the sun lights up the autumn maple next door. But more so in the last eight months, since my husband was diagnosed with a rare lymphoma.
During Fran’s first round of chemo, when reality was raw, and my security shattered, I walked the hospital halls pretending to study the artwork. Giant koi swam past the thoracic clinic. Sunflowers brightened ambulatory surgery. But it’s the somber Birchfield paintings on the first floor that I was drawn to. His mud-green, grey and brown matched my insides. I could walk into those brushstrokes and disappear.
I’ve been here long enough now to know there are 68 steps between floors, the cool Dyson hand dryers are in the third floor bathrooms, and that free tea and coffee are available in the hospitality room. I should tell those waiting in line at Dunkin’ Donuts, but I don’t. I don’t sign the hospitality guest book, either. I’m a ghost floating through the corridors. I don’t want to make an impact here; don’t want to call Roswell Park Cancer Institute home, although it’s the only place I feel safe.
Upstairs, nurses push computer carts and patients maneuver chemo poles and count laps. Walking among them reminds me how useless I am. I have no purpose other than waiting. Waiting for Fran to need something, waiting for the next bit of information to trickle in from the doctors, waiting for side effects to kick in, waiting for the kids to come home. Waiting.
Waiting is a heavy coat.
I head to the solarium that faces south over Lake Erie and the Lackawanna windmills. The clothes dryer is spinning, but otherwise the room is empty. I curl up on the sofa. How often I’ve envied Fran’s plastic mattress and stiff sheets. I hug myself and try not to cry. It’s tricky to relax just enough to fall asleep without allowing a breach in the armor. I need to keep fear in its cage.
The door opens. Someone checks the dryer. Without my glasses, all I see is a fuzzy form in blue. The beads in the woman’s corn rows click as she folds her clothes. She’s obviously a veteran of this cancer caregiving thing.
There probably was once a time when she didn’t know about the free coffee, or didn’t need to wash a towel and underwear, or keep a toothbrush in her purse.
I’d only started my residency. Will I have to do laundry someday, or put my name on cafeteria leftovers in the mini fridge? Will I have memorized every brush stroke in “Ice Skating in Niagara Square?” Pressure builds. Like a ship beached on a sand bar, my hull cracks. A tear escapes. I hug tighter. Don’t cry in front of a stranger.
The woman gathers her laundry as quietly as she folded it and leaves. I weep into my sleeve.
The door opens again. I stop breathing. I hope it’s not a whole family. I just want to be alone. If I pretend to sleep maybe they’ll go away. I need sleep.
Something warm lands on my feet, my hip, my shoulder. The weight of the heated blanket melts my muscles. My steeled interior collapses. Such a gift. My ears pop, and my scalp shifts. I breathe volumes. The chemo will work. Fran will be well.
Click, clack. A blur of blue slips out the door. Lifting her up in prayer, I exhale.
–Peggy Thomas became a caregiver to her husband, Fran, after he was diagnosed with triple-hit large B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma. A year later, after chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, he is doing well and is back at work. Thomas is a writer of fiction and non-fiction for children and a frequent speaker at schools and libraries.