It was either August or early September, 2007, during my initial cancer treatments that I met this fellow. We were fellow travelers, occupying adjacent seats in the chemo infusion room. I never learned his name.
I probably wasn’t feeling great. When my oncologist planned my treatments and turned me over to the nurse practitioner to teach me what to expect and how to handle what was coming, she looked at my chart, shook her head, and said, “We’re really going to be hitting you hard.” I didn’t know it at the time, but I was getting chemo twice as often as most people, along with simultaneous radiation treatments, five times a week. So I must have been a little queasy, a little weak, and kind of tired as I sat in the chemo room lounge chair, one arm held out almost straight on the arm rest so as not to interfere with the pumping of poisons into my vein and set off the alarm on the pump and the fussing of the nurse.
An older man sat to my right, neatly dressed, pleasant in his dealings with the nurses. We started talking, and, for some reason, we didn’t start the way most conversations here started: “What kind do you have?” (I guess it was like being in cancer prison: “What you in for?” –“Colon. How about you?” “Stage III esophageal. How much they give you?” –“Surgery and six chemo cycles. You?”)
So, we started chatting about something, and I told him that before I had started my treatments, I had taken my wife for a week in Paris, because I knew how hard this coming year was going to be on her. He told me that was nice, but he had never left the country after World War II; he had seen enough of the world then to last his lifetime. He had come home, married his sweetheart, and spent the rest of his life loving her. She had died two years earlier. He still hadn’t figured out what he was supposed to do now.
He seemed like a guy who hadn’t been talking much lately, so I told him a little about my life and marriage, and asked a couple of questions to start him talking. His whole life had been his wife and family; with his wife gone and his kids and grandkids at a distance, he didn’t seem to know what he was for.
It seemed to me that the chemo nurses were keenly aware that he was chatting happily about his life, and were happily giving us space.
When there was a pause in the talking, I said, “You know, not everybody gets what we’ve had – a whole life of loving someone and being loved back. How many people do you know who haven’t had that?” He agreed and smiled, settling comfortably on the infusion lounge. “Yes,” I said, without any irony, “we’re two lucky guys.” He agreed.