Rain overnight has broken the awful heat in Boston, and I finally feel like I can breathe. I’ve just returned from my sixth treatment. “Six down, 24 to go!” as I might say, in the spunkiest voice I can muster, to family and friends who call from time to time asking how I’m holding up. Not that such cheery sentiments are feigned. But I definitely find myself affecting a tone more optimistic than seems natural when speaking to those closest to me. Ask any of my friends or colleagues about my prevailing outlook, and I imagine they’d all say the same thing: While not exactly obsessed with the negative, I am shot through with a certain … skepticism.
A few weeks before I came to Boston, while my beloved secretary Brenda was on vacation, a replacement from the secretarial pool—a “floater”—was assigned to me for a week. This woman I knew to be quite religious. When I told her about my tumor and impending radiation therapy, she responded that prayer is the answer, and she offered as evidence the story of how, the weekend before, she had been praying all day in church. As she was exiting the church parking lot, her car was hit by a tractor-trailer. By all rights, she said, she should have been killed. Only her faith and day of prayer had saved her, she said. Touched by her earnest faith, I nevertheless couldn’t help but think that if the same thing happened to me, I’d take it not as proof of God’s benevolence, but as a sign that He was really angry with me, and chose this dramatic moment to remind me just who’s in charge. Of course, this is what I’d believe if I believed in God, and the jury, as they say, is still out on that one.
My treatment today was earlier than usual, at 8:20. When Karen, one of my radiation therapists, called me Tuesday afternoon asking if I’d be willing to change my usual 12:40 appointment the next day, I readily agreed. I’ve been getting up early each morning—usually by six—and I told myself that I’d be able to get so much more done by getting the treatment out of the way early.
But there was another reason I jumped at the chance to come in early. Maybe, I thought, the radiation oncology waiting room would be less crowded than at midday, and I could avoid contact with the many, many patients whose gaze I find it difficult to return. During the middle of the day, the waiting room is a crowded place—so many people are being treated here that we are issued bar-coded swipe cards to check in each day. Pink-smocked volunteers offer us cold drinks; graham crackers and saltines are set out in little baskets. Some of the other patients look healthy, like me; others bear signs of their struggle. One day, a tall man waiting to be called for his treatment was reading a book with dog-eared pages called Reasonings From the Scriptures. The majority of the patients seem old.
Some of the others in the waiting room, the women mostly, trade observations with each other, compare their experiences. Most of the men, like me, sit silently. I can’t tell from looking at the others what problems bring them here, but I assume that the women wearing hospital robes, virtually the only patients not in street clothes, are being treated for breast cancer. I wonder which of the others will be cured by the radiation, and which are receiving it as a palliative treatment. Where do I fall in this Hierarchy of Sickness? That’s an easy one: I am lucky as hell. My tumor, while stubbornly resisting our efforts to evict it from my head, is like a Landlord’s Nightmare, the hold-over tenant who refuses to leave. A bad situation, sure, but one I can deal with. Unlike many of the others here, my tumor will not send any bad cells out through my body. Instead, it is content to hole up in a discrete corner of my cranium and bang on the pipes (my cranial nerves) from time to time. The only lasting damage so far has been to the hearing in my left ear. That nerve is dead, all hearing gone. But I feel sure that these treatments will work, that my tumor will finally take the hint and let me get on with my life.
It turns out that the waiting room is indeed less crowded in the morning. My treatment over, I make my way through the maze of corridors from the waiting room to the main lobby. Along the way, I pass a little hospital shop selling “Oncology Products.” I’m not sure, but I think this means wigs, bandanas, and the like. Thankfully, I have no need for such things.