For this entry, I am going to veer off from my usual sort of topic. I imagine many of you have either had the misfortune to have a life-threatening disease, or have stood by a loved one as they dealt with one. Since dealing with a serious disease is, unfortunately, more common the older one gets, I thought my readers could relate to my personal experience as I describe it in the below piece. I sincerely hope you will share your stories–how you felt, coping mechanisms–in the Comments section below. As always, thank you for reading.
I see the same people every day. We smile at one another, exchange looks, but rarely does a word pass between us. As fellow members of a club to which none of us wanted to belong, we share a common experience for weeks on end and then will go our separate ways, not even knowing each other’s names, never seeing one another again, having no idea who recovers and who does not.
A mother and son sit diagonally across from one another. He looks to be around 18 years old and wears a brace to support his neck, possibly weak from a tumor pressing on his spine. I have a son about the same age. He holds a small, worn book in one hand and rocks back and forth, deep in concentration as he recites t’hillim (psalms). His mother clutches a similar book in her hand but barely glances at it, spending most of her time speaking on her cell phone in rapid fire Yiddish.
I spot a man who I remember seeing in the waiting room on the day of my first doctor’s visit. Just a few weeks ago he appeared healthy and fit. I remember wondering whether or not he was a patient. Now he is gaunt and weak; he shuffles as he walks. I reach for my husband’s hand and squeeze it, trying to focus my attention elsewhere. I notice one glove sitting on the receptionist’s desk, waiting for whoever left it behind to come back and claim it.
People hammer away at laptops or hold books, some reading, some just staring at the same page without ever turning it. People slump in their seats, balling up their coats to make a headrest, trying to get comfortable in the rigid chairs. Every time we go to the hospital I bring a bag packed with books, puzzles, magazines, my iPad. Distractions so I won’t notice the long wait, won’t ruminate on the reason I am here. But I rarely take anything out of the bag. Too many choices. Do I want to play Sudoku or check my e-mail? Should I read a book or the newspaper? It’s too hard to make a decision, even about something so inconsequential. My husband goes to the beverage station where the hospital provides free drinks. He comes back with two cups of bitter, lukewarm coffee.
The great Jewish scholar Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that humans, “may shape and change the things in space as we please. Time, however, is beyond our reach, beyond our power…no one possesses time…time transcends man.” I would add that time not only transcends man but that it also possesses us. Certainly, that is true here in the hospital waiting room where we are all in limbo. You’re waiting for someone to see you or something to happen and you have no idea when the waiting will be over. Should I start this chapter or is the doctor about to call me in? If I leave to use the bathroom will I miss my turn in the blood lab?
A thought experiment created by a physicist in the 1930s is known as Schrodinger’s Cat. It posits the paradox that if a cat is in a box, before the box is opened it’s as if the cat is simultaneously dead and alive. In a few weeks I will sit in the doctor’s office, waiting for her to tell me the results of my post-treatment scan. Has the cancer come back? If so, is it localized or has it spread, that ugly word “metastasized”? Until I hear the verdict, there will be that sweet, blissful kernel of time where no matter what the reality is I can hold onto the possibility that I am a NERD—no evidence of remaining disease. I can almost convince myself that reality might change as long as the words remain unsaid. This is pure self-deception. Once you look inside the box, once the doctor sits on the stool in front of you with your chart on her lap, the illusion that there were options evaporates.
Yet even good news comes with a “caveat emptor” attached. Cancer may yet launch another stealthy insinuation into my body at any time in the future. For the rest of my life I will need periodic tests and follow-ups and scans, and I must resign myself to the fact that uncertainty will now be my permanent companion.
I think back to that unclaimed glove. It’s hard to not notice that you only have one glove. Maybe its owner can’t bear to return to the hospital. It’s worth it to buy a new pair of gloves to not have to go back where you will be reminded there is always the chance for that other shoe to drop. There is no choice other than to accept the waiting.