Three of us sat in the windowless room, clad in thin hospital robes, waiting for our turn to be radiated. Young One was a beauty, her face aglow with vibrancy and perfection, her bald head somehow accentuating the symmetry of her facial features and the flawlessness of her skin. She took my breath away.
Other Lady was older and had a full head of hair since her treatment didn’t require chemo. Her face sagged, and I thought she probably appeared tired even after she had a good night’s rest.
After we looked at each other awkwardly for a while, pulling our gowns close and fidgeting with the ties, we started to talk.
Young One was nearly done, only a few more rounds of radiation to go. Black stubble was already visible on top of her head, and she seemed ready to resume life, to be done with this nonsense. She smiled easily, and the two of us laughed at the weird twists our cancer journeys had shown us.
Other Lady was a different story.
You know how Pig Pen of the Charlie Brown series emanates a cloud of filth everywhere he goes? This lady had a cloud, too, but hers was pure energy. I could feel it before she even said hello, and I’ve thought about it from time to time since meeting her, even though our encounter was brief and was fully two years ago. Her aura was so palpable that it lingers in my head and still sparks my curiosity.
In radiation, every patient has to assume a unique position and stay still so the machine can target the exact spots it needs to zap.
Because of the location of her tumor, Other Lady’s radiation treatment required her to lay awkwardly. She told me she was claustrophobic and could scarcely stand the very idea of the process, and I could feel her tension filling up the room.
As we talked, a nurse came and took Young One into treatment, leaving me alone with Other.
In a soft voice, she listed her fears — that she was going to choke, that she wouldn’t be able to call out for help. Half-way through her most recent session, they had to stop because she panicked so much.
Stopping the process meant that the session didn’t count; she’d have to tack on an extra to the end of her schedule. My own treatment plan called for six weeks of daily radiation, the final leg of active cancer treatment. In anticipation of its end, I circled the date on my calendar and decorated its little box. I was counting down the days, and I couldn’t imagine the heartbreak of adding a single extra day.
For me, having to lie still, even in the most uncomfortable position, seemed a small price to pay to rid my body of cancer, to get my life back. So, when this lady started talking about how unbearably difficult the process was for her, I listened with curiosity. I wondered what made her mindset so different from mine, why I approached my challenge with determination and optimism and she met hers with negativity and defeat.
It’s true that the process isn’t easy. For me, radiation was far from home, and I had to leave my husband and child so I could stay near the hospital. The separation was painful.
The radiation chamber itself is surreal, a cement room in the bowels of the hospital with other-worldly machines. Sometimes, tears trickled down my face, filled up my ears, the wetness growing cold and then hardening into salty tracks. You’re not allowed to move, so I had to let the tears fall where they would. During those moments, I visualized God and asked for peace with whatever was to come.
I asked for peace, and I got it.
But here in the waiting room was a woman who was in genuine pain. Panicky. Consumed with fear.
Cancer puts people in our paths that we otherwise wouldn’t meet, sometimes just forgotten chance encounters and sometimes people with lasting impact.
For some reason, that moment in the waiting room is crystalized in my memory. I wished I could have stolen some beauty from Young One, and I wish I could have given optimism to the Other, that I could have helped her swap out her cloud of sadness and angst with one of light and love.
But, in spite of our connection and the profundity of moments we share along the way, ultimately our journeys are separate — as unique as the people who populate them.
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