by Tim Kabara
When you spend as much time as Tyler Farqhar does in cancer hospital waiting rooms, you must develop strategies to pass the time.
People-watching, a usual fallback, becomes a real minefield, and should be avoided. Outside of the occasional “Yeah, me, too” look, it is best to mind one’s business.
Tyler Farqhar was a reader, and, as such, he was rarely without a book at this late stage in his game. Earlier on, he had assumed that waiting room magazines would suffice, but time and experience had taught him otherwise.
Apparently, various cancer publication distributors enjoyed carpet-bombing these waiting rooms with their publications. This would seem logical, target audience hit, but Tyler had found that the last thing that he wanted to read about in the cancer ward was cancer.
Instead, he combed through the stacks, searching for rare items and unique finds. Tyler was never content to settle for People or Us. In those early days, he remained vigilant for bigger game. For him, a year-old issue of The New Yorker or The Saturday Evening Post was worth the search, something to behold. Upon finding such a rare bird, he would pore over it, becoming engrossed in the NYC social calendar of a year ago or the folk remedies so earnestly offered by the magazine founded by Benjamin Franklin. When his number was up and it was time to go, he would stash the treasure at the bottom of a particularly musty pile of Hope or Cure for continued perusal over the long term.
But reading was a dangerous game. He must not become too absorbed. He must listen for when his number was up. In fact, he often wished they used a number system, like at the deli counter, as instead he had to listen for his name. His name was his number, and that name was often muddled, muffled, ripped to pieces by the attending nurse. How hard could it be to say “Farqhar”? It was a solid, sound name, to be sure, distinct and American, somewhat familiar. Add a “u” and the name “Farquhar” was even commonplace! But, somehow, the nurses would scramble it, or, even worse, call him by his first name in that awful and distinctive style of the region, rendering him “Mister Tyler.”
He found himself coming forward for all sorts of names that weren’t his own, the full articulation of the name lost under the rumble of the central air conditioner. Roused from his reading, he would hurry to the front.
“No. Parker. Mister Parker?”
“Oh … sorry.”
The nurse would call out the name over his shoulder, louder, and Tyler would turn around and return to his seat and his reading, absorbed but not tuned out, slightly envious of Mr. Parker in that this process of waiting had come to an end for him on that day.
There was, of course, the fact that you weren’t waiting to do something enjoyable, so Tyler’s envy had its limits.
Sometimes Tyler wished that his discovery story wasn’t so mired in cliché’, able to be summed up so quickly with a few simple sentences.
“I found a lump.”
“I went to the doctor.”
“The tests came back positive.”
“Thank goodness we caught it early.”
There were others in the waiting room that could clearly top his tale in one way or another. The man without a face, if he could talk, clearly had a topper! Probably never chewed tobacco, probably never smoked. Cancer and irony were often good friends, he had found.
In any case, the cancer ward waiting room was a place where people had a lot of story to tell. Tyler would sit and eavesdrop on others engaging in their litany of horrors.
And, certainly, the horrors did loom about the place, despite every effort to keep them at bay. Aesthetically, things were kept bright, warm, relaxed. In the newly remodeled chemo ward, there were points at which you may have felt you were in any doctor’s waiting room, anywhere. Not in the place where you were going to potentially die, or fight death, where you get into this whole business of how something has gone wrong with you on a cellular level.
But it may be wise to move on. The specter of death grimly hanging about is only one aspect of these centers. He can be spotted, stuck like everyone else, clutching a copy of People or Us, waiting to be called.
“Reaper? Grim Reaper? Did you call me?”
“No. Peeper. Mister Peeper?”
“Oh … sorry.”
Tyler was most at home in this typical waiting room situation, whether chemotherapy or radiation, because the level of formality was enough to allow him to be alone if he chose to be. He could watch CNN or read or just sit there and it’s fine. You either have cancer or know someone who does! Remember, your name is your number. Have a seat.
These days, late in the game, Tyler dreaded the second/inner radiation waiting room. This one was a real problem. It was true he didn’t have it as bad as others in many respects. He didn’t have to sit there half naked, as the part of his body that needed to be irradiated was his chest. After a quick changing room visit, he was wearing his awkward gown, poorly laced and ill-fitting, but it wasn’t the worst indignity he’d faced in this process. He did feel sorry for the no-pants no-underwear gentlemen wearing their hospital gowns, shifting uncomfortable next to huffy private nurses minding their wheelchaired charges. The nurses' steadfast examination of their long and brightly painted fingernails was a master's class in irritated indifference.
The nakedness led to additional and detailed conversation, the toppers brought out for all to hear. No health insurance, second recurrence, three hour commute each way for treatment, always wore sunblock, tremendous odds faced. Tyler would smile and nod, stay neutral, the tales being told far from his situation. He was the clear loser in this round of “America’s Next Top Tale of Woe and Despair,” and he found the competition fairly agonizing.
On top of this, there was the logistics of radiation. In chemo, Tyler Farquar took every advantage he could. He would sign up for the “early bird” special, cruising in before normal patient hours, first in line for bloodwork, often sitting in the semi-private suite playing with the television controls while other patients were fighting traffic. He lived so close to the hospital, he would plan to walk down, but never quite made it.
But Tyler was now in radiation. It was quick, every single day of the work week, and he could go in and do his job before having it done. There was no ‘early bird’ special. Tyler was often sitting in traffic gnarled by the eternal construction of downtown, waiting for an opportunity to turn left in a city choked to death.
The weather that fall was very wet and gloomy, seeping into your bones. It was the usual abrupt transition out of a fairly average summer. He could remember the sun stinging him when he would emerge from the chemo ward, the clock ticking on when the symptoms would start. It was like being a tanker truck full of hazardous chemicals, the ozone-choked noon air reacting with his skin being the first sign that he was full to the brim once again.
But Tyler was now in radiation. His sequence was chemo then radiation, right? His odds were very good, in fact, better than the man without a face, better than that poor gray cadaverous man being tended to by a doting mother, better than most. Right? Right?
But Tyler was now in radiation. Tyler was having trouble concentrating today. For him, the chemicals caused “chemo brain”, meaning memory lapses, sudden rages. He would scream curse words at the top of his lungs over minor trifles, very out of character for him. He had been given “the card,” so to speak, over having this disease, and he would flash it from time to time, if need be.
“Excuse me, sir?’’
“Oh… I just dropped my car keys.”
“Well, could you watch your language?”
“Sorry… I have cancer.”
But Tyler was now in radiation He noticed that things were slipping today. Reality was melting a bit, perhaps, like in his reckless misspent youth. Okay, no problem… this is just like when his heart beats really rapidly for no reason, waking him from one of the many naps he took these days. Just ride it out.
Any minute he would be called back to the back room, to the inner waiting room, to the men shifting uncomfortably and the nurses filing their nails. Any minute now.
He just had to sit here, maybe try to concentrate on the magazine. Why was he reading a magazine? He had shifted to books, hadn’t he? He was trying to read his prized New Yorker, the one with the orange and black cover, black cat, Halloween, week of a year ago. He just had to keep it together.
But Tyler was now in radiation. The words he was reading were going through his mind but they weren’t processing correctly, weren’t meaning anything.
BLAH BLAH THE TALK OF THE TOWN BLAH BLAH
ETC ETC ON OCTOBER 27th, SPACE ROCK PIONEERS GURU GURU RETURN
SOPHISTICATED PLEASURE, RADICAL COMFORT YADA YADA
This wasn’t working. His pulse quickened. He began to sweat. Remember that one morning his sweat smelled like mustard, the chemo chemicals seeping out of every pore? Which waiting room was this, anyway?
Okay, okay, clearly, this is downstairs, so he is in radiation, outer waiting room. All radiation suites in all hospitals are in the basement. His name would be called by the friendly nurse, he would go in the back, take off his shirt, wait some more, get strapped down, get asked his birth date repeatedly.
No, something was wrong. The mounting dread overwhelmed him. How many radiation dates had he had? How many were left to go? He knew it ended around Thanksgiving. He knew about the Sunday radiation special so that the correct number of treatments could be given in a holiday week.
Wait. Was he supposed to eat a lot right now or be careful about foods? “White is all right” was the advice during chemo. Radiation was “eat high-calorie food all the time.” His stomach curdled as he smelled that artificial cherry smell, like the anti-nausea meds. Was someone wearing that lip balm that smelled just like it? His first chemo night was especially horrible, before they got those meds right. He clutched a transistor radio in the dark, listening to public radio while the waves hit, one after the other. Nothing to throw up, nothing left to give, but still his stomach convulsed.
“Farqhar? Mister Farqhar?”
He dropped the magazine and headed to the front. The room was spinning a bit, but this happened now and again these days. Just make it to the double doors. Just make it to the double doors and you’re there. You’re home.
Everything is going to be fine. Keep it together.
The room was going double, triple now. This is like that vertigo he had on the 4th of July. That time, he just kept walking and walking and the room stopped spinning. Just make it to the front desk. But Tyler can’t feel the floor beneath his feet! He willed his way forward, step by step. His legs were heavy and numb, but his number was up and it was time to go.
The nurse, looking fresh and cool and sweet, stepped away from the double doors to meet him. The nurse stood waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she was! Tyler sprung forward with extended arms. As he was about to clasp her he felt a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazed all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon!
After recovering from this momentary lapse, which registered a bit on his face, Tyler composed himself and met the nurse properly, pulling back from his attempt at clasping her arm. He proceeded into the inner chambers, leaving the waiting world behind.