At the hospital

First thing this morning, I met my mum at the hospital for her monthly check-up. She went in early, and by the time I arrived, had already seen the doctor – but she had news.

For months we’ve been pressing for something more concrete from the doctors. It’s difficult, I know, to offer a prognosis with any precision. We just want to know something rather than be left with our own uninformed prognostications and fanciful notions. Let’s get a coffee, she said.

We’ve been discussing for weeks the questions we wanted to be asked of the doctor. This time we wanted to pin him down. In my absence, mum had asked him the pointed question: how long do I have? For once, it seems, he dropped the cheery bedside manner and spoke honestly. “Well,” he said, “if the chemo reduces the cancer and gets rid of your cough, then maybe 2 years. If it doesn’t, maybe 4-5 months.”

It was strange hearing this despite it being pretty much what I had thought. My sister, who lives in some denial, I think, had asked last week what I thought. I pondered it, searching to discover what I thought on the subject. “February,” I said, and it seemed a fair estimate.

Now the chemo may do its thing, but history tells us that it won’t be as simple as that even if it works. Each time mum goes to have her chemo, she is tested first to see if her body can take it. The chemo, unsurprisingly, knocks her around. Her platelets drastically reduce, her immune system sits on a knife-edge. Half the time, they have cancelled the treatment because her body is not up to it, and I can’t see that improving any. On top of that, the chemo makes her feel dreadful. She’s in a bad way right now. She has a terrible cough directly related to cancer. She is weak, tired, has hot flushes, heart palpitations. Much is cancer, but much is the treatment.

I don’t think I’m a pessimist by nature. I believe in things, in possibilities; in general, I have confidence that much can be overcome by will and commitment. Yet, I am not confident now. My mind defaults to the worst, not because I’m a pessimist, I think, but rather because I have watched mum decline and because I am doubtful that the chemo is feasible in the longer term. It may not be 4-5 months, but I don’t think it will be 2 years.

After our coffee, I went upstairs with mum to the chemotherapy area. Around the room, people, mostly old, lounged in comfortable looking chairs with IV’s looping into their arms. They looked relaxed, almost mellow. We were shown into an adjoining room. We sat and talked, waiting. Once more, I had that feeling of unreality: is this really happening? Once more, I couldn’t quite believe it. Is this really what it’s come to?

We were joined by an Italian family, parents and a daughter. The mother was small. When she sat, her feet didn’t touch the ground. They spoke little, humbled and made silent by the occasion. An elderly Chinese woman, neatly dressed and with rosy cheeks, came in and sat down. She smiled at us as if she were an old hand. It happens to everyone, I thought. Anyone. Morning tea was served by bustling women in hospital smocks: coffee, tea, or juice? We waited for someone to attend to mum. When they did, they spoke with the kindly voices people use with children.

I kissed mum goodbye: the chemo was going ahead. I walked by the shuffling sick people and out into the bright sunshine. I got in the car and drove away. The radio was on, and I listened while my mind went ahead of its own accord. Why is there cancer I wondered? What is the point of it? It seems a good question now, but it burst from me like a gasp, a reaction to what I had just witnessed, the emotional residue of the confusion I felt, with a little futile anger for good measure. Then my mind took over. There is no rhyme to it. No reason. It happens.

My mind went in those circles while I drove instinctively and without conscious thought until I was forced out of that again. “Come on, Volvo, you fuckin’ goose!” I exclaimed at one point at the car in front of me paused at the green arrow. As the Volvo turned, I felt the disconnect between what I was feeling inside, what was happening to mum just a few kilometres away, and the banal instinct that had me abuse the driver in front.

In the end, there’s little to say and not much really to think. It is, it happens, it progresses, one day, it will end. For me, it is oppressive, one more small stone after another added to the pile, slowly crushing me. That’s how I feel. How mum feels, I can only imagine.

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