He was visiting, I thought. As he hesitated a few feet inside the door, I looked around for the grandparents’ faces that would light up when they saw their grandson had come to join them. He looked about twenty, wearing jeans and a hoodie, with a shaved head, his face a little doughy as if he didn’t get outside enough. Then a nurse said, kindly, “You can have this chair in the corner.”
I had come with a friend to the infusion room at the cancer center. The boy had not shaved his head but lost all his hair to chemo. He looked doughy not because he didn’t exercise enough but because he was being fed chemicals that attack the body in the hope of killing the cancer first.
They May Keep You Overnight
The nurse helped him into the chair and then three of them took care of him. Usually only one nurse attends a patient. He sat next to us, about eight feet away, partly hidden behind a curtain pulled out a couple of feet from the wall.
One nurse went to the nurses’ station in the middle of the room to read his blood work. “Oh, that’s low,” she said to herself, and then called out a number. I think she said “platelets.”
She got up and walked over to him and said, “They may keep you overnight, till that goes up. I don’t know if they’re going to, but they might. I just want you to know.” From the way she said it, I think “might” meant “would,” and “overnight” meant “for a few days,” and I think the young man knew that.
Every time the nurses give someone a new medicine, one reads the label on the package while another checks it against the instructions on the computer. Their voices carry across the room. I knew from that the typical medicines and doses people were getting. The boy was getting more medicines at much higher doses than anyone else, while being by at least twenty years, maybe thirty, the youngest patient in the room.
The average age without him was probably sixty-five. Everyone else in the room had had years of life before they got sick.
Maternal, Not Cheerful
The nurses weren’t as cheerful as they had been with the other patients, including my friend. They were more maternal, solicitous, soothing. They asked many questions, trying to see how he was getting along at home. He apparently lived by himself. One asked him how he liked a particular food. I could hear the shrug in his voice as he said, “Comes back up.” He spoke as if being unable to eat were inevitable, as if the nurse knew the answer before he gave it.
He answered the nurses patiently, but with almost no emotion or affect. He never said more than eight or 10 words at a time. He must have worked hard to respond. He never sounded cross, exactly, but he did sound like someone who only wanted to be left alone.
Sad, I thought, that he could not sound polite, he could not sound grateful. He was too sick to sound anything but sick. Politeness is one of life’s deep pleasures and so is gratitude, and the cancer had stolen them. It’s a kind of dance, where for the things you’re given you give something back: your attention, your deference, your thanks.
It’s a dance we enjoy, that makes life brighter, to thank others for being kind to you. The poor young man couldn’t dance, I thought as I sat near him in the infusion room.
Maybe, now that I think of it more, his working so hard to respond even in the dull, listless, almost sullen way he did was politeness and gratitude, indeed heroic politeness and gratitude. Maybe the nurses, who’d all done this a long time, knew that. Maybe in that corner, they were dancing.
David Mills is the editor of Hour of Our Death. His last two articles are The Doctors Pronounce A Death Sentence and It Had Been a Good Day. Others can be found here. This is a slight revision of an article that appeared as one of his columns for Aleteia.