Today I went with my parents to Princess Margaret Hospital for my mother’s first chemotherapy treatment.
It was a lesson in so many things, not the least of which was patience. We arrived at 10:00 a.m. and waited in the chemo daycare lobby until my mom could be seen by the nurse in charge of the clinical trial she’s participating in, as well as by her oncologist. That took us to 12:00 noon. We shopped the "Look Good, Feel Better" boutique for headscarves, and then headed back to the chemo daycare: we had been told to be there by 12:30, and we were punctual. We waited again. This time we weren’t seen until 2:30, when my mom was finally able to begin her pre-medications. They didn’t start the actual chemotherapy until about 3:45, and my parents weren’t home again until 6:30. What a day.
While we were waiting in the chemo daycare lobby, my Dad asked me if I remembered the words of John Milton (I was an English major, so I actually do remember a lot of Milton’s words). "Which ones?" I asked him. His reply:
They also serve who only stand and wait.
An in fact, the quote was more than a little apropos. It’s the last line of Milton’s poem "On His Blindness", in which the poet reflects at first with frustration and then with acceptance on his blindness. In the end, he decides that he still has a place and a role to play in the world despite his disability.
And as I sat waiting for cancer treatment with my mom today, I had a chance to reflect on her illness and on my role as one of her caregivers. It’s been a tough go for me so far, living in Calgary – so far away from the family in Toronto. I’ve wanted to help every single time I spoke to my mom, my dad or my sisters. But I felt I couldn’t do anything tangible.
But today was different. Today was the first day I was able to actually be there for them in a satisfyingly real, physical way. And yet, what did I really do? In the end, I mostly sat and waited with them.
The chemo daycare waiting room was packed with cancer patients and their loved ones. One woman struck up a friendly conversation with us, and I was amazed at how open both she and my mom were about their cancer. They seemed to want to know all kinds of things: when were you diagnosed? what kind of cancer do you have? what other treatments have you done? is this your first experience with chemo?
I wasn’t an active participant in that conversation, but I could see that it was very helpful to them both, and I think I know why. It seems to me that it must be a bit like I said last week: if you haven’t been through something, you have no idea what it’s like. And how much more true must that be when it’s you actually going through the cancer treatment, and not your loved one? And so when you meet someone else who’s going through it as well, you want to talk to them, because somehow just the shared experience is comforting.
So in the chemo daycare, as a loved one, I was a bit of an outsider all over again. But you know, that’s okay too. Because I know that by being there – to get juice, warm blankets or a bite to eat – or even just to share the interminable waiting: by being there I was also serving.