Finding Gratefulness in Oncology’s Outpatient Wing

There are four chairs, like four points on the compass, one in each corner of the room. An old man reclines in one, his thick glasses magnifying his closed eyes. I’ll be honest – he doesn’t look like he’s alive, but when his machine beeps, he stirs, and the nurse goes over and changes his bag.

In the chair in the opposite corner, a young man is told he can’t receive his treatment for one reason or another. He takes it in stride, runs his hands through his hair, and shrugs.

In the third chair, a middle-aged man falls asleep watching the news. He doesn’t have a port like most of the patients do: a long needle hangs awkwardly from his arm, a massive mosquito, not sucking blood but injecting poison. Some strange kind of poison that will hopefully save his life.

And in the chair beside me, my aunt. Her bald head somehow proud and distinguished. Her kind eyes flit from person to person, willing them not to give up. From a clear bag her own brand of medicine drips. In previous weeks it stood out, ruby red, and nurses injected it slowly through her port – they wore rubber gloves so as not to expose themselves to the chemo. But this week it’s a clear bag. It could be vodka. Or water.

* * * * *

It defies all odds, the quiet hope clinging to that room. It is like a soap bubble that just keeps rising. You wait and you wait and you wait for it to pop, but higher it goes.

* * * * *

We talk for hours. Hers is a unique regimen that takes half a day to leak into her body. We talk about life and cancer, friends and future plans. 4:30 comes quickly. Nearly finished, she has one last request, so I walk down to the guest shop and come back with Heath bars and Snickers, Rolos and Twix. She savors her Heath bar slowly. I devour my Snickers in an instant.

Then a young man enters the room. He looks lost, disoriented by grief, wavering like a wine glass that’s just had the table cloth yanked out from under it. He walks towards the nurse and she greets him warmly. In the quiet room I cannot help but hear snippets of their conversation.

How is she?

turn for the worse yesterday…

…she seemed fine during chemo!

…kidney failure…stroke…intensive care…

Tears leak slowly from the man’s eyes, a saline drip. Suddenly my aunt whispers tersely.

“This isn’t right. Put the chocolate away. Please. Here. Put it away.”

It didn’t feel right, our celebrating the end of another treatment with chocolate, at least not in the presence of such eroded hope. I pushed the candy bars into obscurity, then sat quietly, our own eyes stinging.

After he left, my aunt turned to me and said quietly.

“Every time I leave this place, it is with a grateful heart.”

* * * * *

And this is it, I suppose: the things most necessary for life, things like hope and courage and thankfulness, spring up from the most unlikely places. I leave the hospital with a certain appreciation for life, and it spreads from me to others, slightly diluted but moving outward nonetheless. Then I wonder, if I traced back all the thankfulness in the world to its original source, would I find that it comes from these places we label as dire? Could hardship and struggle and even death somehow be the catalyst for good? The launching place for healing and redemption, hope and gratefulness?

Do our responses to situations such as these determine how high the tide of hope will rise in the world?

16 Replies to “Finding Gratefulness in Oncology’s Outpatient Wing”

  1. Your aunt is lovely – and so is this amazing piece of writing, Shawn. Thank you for it. You write so evocatively of such mixed emotions. A kind of ‘not-rightness’ about eating your chocolate in the midst of a young man’s fear and grief followed by your wondering – is it here that gratefulness takes root? I think maybe the answer is yes…and no. Gratitude rises from all kinds of situations and experiences – if we’re open to it. But somehow, I don’t think that young man’s first response today was thanksgiving. No, I don’t. And I surely think we have to make room for the pain and the grief as well as the thanks. It is possible to experience all those emotions at one time – that’s one of the mysteries of life, in my book, finding that point of balance between the wonder and the sorrow. But your aunt’s and your gratitude comes on the heels of a successful treatment thus far, of surviving yet another insult, another injury in search of health and wholeness. It comes because she walked out of that place today, hopeful that the work she and the medical team are doing will bring the gift of healing. And it comes from the recognition that not everyone gets that particular gift – as you so poignantly learned today. This is rich, Shawn. Thought-provoking and rich. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for such a thoughtful response, Diana. You know, I wrote this late last night, and in the light of morning I realize that gratitude can spring up from all kinds of places! I guess I was just so surprised to see it there.

      And you’re also right that room must be left for pain and grief and anger and un-thanks. Perhaps for quite some time.

      Thank you for continuing to stir my mind.

  2. Thank you, Shawn, for your beautiful post. For taking the time to sit with me, yesterday. And the chocolates, of course! Not everyone is able to join me on this journey I’m on, it’s simply too hard for some. I so glad you can. Hugs and lots love to you!

  3. I sat with my friend in a room very much like the one you described. I remember the moment witnessing the conversation between she and several other patients and feeling like I was in the presence of something holy. At one point each lifted her wig, revealing to the others what cancer had taken. And when they laughed together, it didn’t seem inappropriate.

    “Could hardship and struggle and even death somehow be the catalyst for good?” Yes. That, I think is what we affirm when we consider the cross.

    Thank you for honoring your brave aunt, and the others in the room with her, by telling their stories here.

  4. Beautiful, Shawn! Thank you so much for sharing. Your aunt is also beautiful and full of life. She inspires me and so do you!

  5. I am grateful to have read this beautiful post this morning. Thank you for sharing.

  6. My husband has cancer so we make fortnightly trips to the oncology outpatient centre for his chemotherapy. I also meet the nicest people there. They inspire me because they are really choosing the life they want. They make me question am I living the life I want?
    Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  7. Your writing has the ability to touch my heart without anything else needed but the picture of your aunt shows such joy! I have tears…..sad ones for that anonymous young man and thankful ones for a reminder that we can find joy and peace even in the midst of such struggles.

  8. Well written, Shaun, I’m praying for your aunt Linda. Your feelings of celebrating with chocolate in a setting of sadness for others reminded me of emotions I felt last week when we attended the viewing of my husband, Jacob’s cousin’s son, (Sam King Jr.). When asked by so many, “How are you doing?”, it took effort to reply, “Very well”. Though I’m blessed with good health, seeing a fellow traveler that evening who had also fought brain cancer and seemed so needed on this earth to help his precious bride raise their 6 young children, brought thoughts of what is victory and what is very well.

  9. I don’t have a clue of an answer for your last question. But I do know that, yes, hope can be found in the dire. It can spread through the dire. I know this from listening to accounts from my sister who is battling against colon cancer. I know this from watching staff watching our family take care of/ love on Mom in the hospital, rehab hospital, and nursing home as she recovers from her stroke. We don’t think anything of it. It’s just what we do. This is our Mom, we take care of her the best we can. We don’t think about it until a staff member tells us. Then we are humbled and keep doing our “job.” Hope. The word has a sense of uplifting to it. You have to blow air out to say it, like you are blowing up a balloon.

  10. Yes. For you and for your aunt and for the young man and his loved one, the answer to your questions is yes. Hope is found in the most unlikely places – even in hospital oncology wings. Even in hospice rooms at 7 a.m., like the snowy January morning when my mom died. There is a time for tears and a time for chocolate, and sometimes you find them both in the same moment and both can bring gratitude for life, even when you see it slipping away from you.

    Thank you for writing this, and for sharing it.

  11. Beautifully written, Shawn. I worked in pediatric oncology/hematology for a year. I know that quiet hope and the desperate breaking so well. I can also say an emphatic yes in response to your last question. There were families that exuded peace and joy no matter the circumstances and families that sucked the life out of everyone interacting with them and this had ramifications inside clinic and out. After my time working for hospice, I truly believe we never know how we will respond to difficult situations until we’re in the middle of them. But we can cultivate a life of gratitude and pray it carries us through whatever trials come our way.

  12. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in oncology centers. They are the most hopeful places in the world–I’m not exaggerating. Especially the nurses. No matter what happens, no matter who dies, they come back each and every day and do their jobs with compassion and efficiency. It’s overwhelming.

  13. This is heartwrenching and hopeful in the same moment – how deftly your aunt has captured how it is, facing grief and death…and glorious life. How incredibly you’ve captured it here, for all of us.

    Thank you.

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