For several years, I have periodically visited a hospital clinic to see a specialist about my anemia. The clinic — Hematology/Oncology — mainly treats very sick people. As I have waited in the waiting room, mentally I have set myself apart. “That’s not me,” I have thought with willed conviction, seeing a person in a wheel chair across from me or hearing another person’s muffled crying in the alcove where they take our vital signs. (An essay I wrote on a moment in this waiting room, where I witnessed a doctor ask his patient to dance, is published here: link.)
I was there again in this clinic a few weeks ago, on a Wednesday after lunch. Typically, the mood is subdued. It’s a very serious place. This time, though, the emotional container seemed to have burst. As I stood at the check-in desk, a woman ran into the waiting room from the adjacent treatment area, sobbing and calling for a doctor by name. Couples came in holding hands tenderly. I saw a woman, about my age and very thin, shuffle in. As she leaned on the check-in desk to state her name, her white tshirt clung to her trunk and I could see that her abdomen was the site of large tumors. She and her husband sat near me. They murmured together, about the tumors. He was a very good helper: he listened, he placed his hand on her back for a little while and then removed it (so as not to tire her out being helped, I thought), and he did not take over.
I tried, as usual, to stay detached, to think of myself as not that sick and therefore not of them. But I couldn’t hold the pose. What was it about this day? The chemistry of it, perhaps. My thoughts went in a different direction than usual, more stark. I ruminated on sickness and health not as a binary but as a continuum. We are all on it, and our position on the continuum changes as we go through life. And maybe we can find ourselves occupying two points at a time on this continuum. For example, although I have diabetes as a diagnosis (and it is a disease), I take care of myself and identify myself as a healthy person.
Maybe it would be better to give in, I sometimes wonder. On this day, I did for some reason feel vulnerable as I sat in chairs, waiting. “We are all sick, or will be someday,” I mused. It turns out, although I could not have predicted it, that my body is not quite as I thought: link. I do belong, not to the cancer club, but to the human one.