I’m in the hospital, hopefully for the last time for a long, long time. I think just about everyone who is close-in to this little 5 month drama is starting to think about more normal times and closure to this chapter of our world. I am, even though I still have a few hoops to jump through in September. I will miss being around cancer people in general – nurses, survivors, doctors, etc. Don’t get me wrong, when I done, adios, but until then I enjoy these people and appreciate the way they work, live, heal and help heal.
I’ve had so many good conversations with people who are overcoming cancer here at the hospital, in the infusion room and out in the world. When we survivors pass each other, our eyes speak with a soft but a determined look that says volumes: “you’re doing good, keep going, its worth the pain, I believe in you, I’m scared shitless too”. I try to give the look when I can; it’s harder to give than to receive.
As I started my last day in the infusion room two weeks ago, I passed a man who was probably my age, but for reasons having to do with my privilege and class upbringing, I was aware of the visible hardness of his life compared to mine, at least that was my assumption and judgment. He was a big man; I’m guessing 6’4” and probably weighed 280 lbs. or more. He smelled like cigarette smoke and had the hacking cough to go along with it. His thin beard looked more like a decision of convenience than style. He was wearing sweat pants that looked like his favorites for doing household chores. He was quietly talking to himself. I hadn’t seen him before and didn’t know anything about him, so I didn’t give him “the look” but hearing him talk to himself and caught my attention. I turned and we made eye contact.
He quickly seized the opportunity, hungry to connect: “Whatcha in for?”
I smiled. The “convict” question. More judgment on my part –I didn’t think he would understand sharing a laugh about his question and it’s metaphoric symbolism: cancer treatment to jail. There was an empty chair next to him, but I instinctively didn’t sit down, I was planning to keep our conversation short. This wasn’t like me. Remember? I’m the guy who likes cancer people. I wasn’t sure what he was really asking, so my response was canned, almost mechanical. “Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, my last of 6 chemo treatments” and he said “Me too. Same fucking disease, it’s a bad one, eh?” I was surprised – not by him, but by all the assumptions I had made in the last 4 seconds. As different as I thought we were, we were both here trying to live through the same disease, and just then none of my judgments seemed relevant, or accurate. I was privately ashamed and embarrassed.
I sat down and we spoke for a while. It turns out he was a veteran, and for reasons I didn’t uncover and can barely even comprehend, he was going through the treatment mostly on his own. “Yeah, I talk to myself to remember what’s happening, I have to remember what to ask and what they tell me. so I talk it.” For this next bit he leaned toward me and lower his voice. We were sharing our fist secret or confidential moment. “I know people think I’m off, hell I AM off, but screw ‘em if you know what I mean!” He chuckled.
Towards the end of our conversation, I discovered we had even more in common; he had survived cancer once before too – he said it was colon cancer.
What makes this exchange even remotely interesting is what I did with those 4 seconds. We rarely talk about class in America, or at least I almost never talk about it. Apparently, it shows-up in the unconscious decisions I made about where I look and with whom I sit. Those 4 seconds reminded me, my privileged (upper) middle class upbringing has helped me become a snob, or worse.
Zoom out some and what matters more about those 4 seconds is how they might be at play in all the violence we have seen and watched in the past 6 weeks. Orlando, Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, Dallas, Nice and then again, on Sunday in Baton Rouge when a young veteran stalked and killed three police officers, apparently in retribution for the other killings. Did you make a 4 second decision about any of what you saw about these events on the social media or read in the news? Did the police? Clearly the police responsible for killing the men they were questioning or arresting didn’t feel they had 4 seconds. If they had, they would have chosen to de-escalate things, right? We know very few of the facts in most of these tragedies yet, but how many of us feel like we don’t need to know more to have a judgment?
Zoom out some more. Are you noticing the angry, afraid and critical reaction some whites have about the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement? It makes some of us uncomfortable and afraid, as if it’s message is that black lives matter and our white, brown, Asian, LGTDQ or blue lives don’t. Are the people who are so triggered by BLM able to take 4 seconds to consider how that movement may have a point and that it can be both troubling to us and valid – even helpful – at the same time? Can I be uncomfortable with BLM and support it? Can I hate the systemic racism that exists in some law enforcement agencies and not generalize and judge all police – especially white police – as biased or racist? Check out what the police and some African American communities in Wichita have started.
Of course I can, or at least of course I can learn to. I need to. I need to learn to live with the shadow of cancer in my life and not succumb to fear of it. I can learn to see cancer as my not-very welcomed partner and part of me without becoming it. Of course I can.