Johnny was a family friend who lived on a farm in Whonnock long ago, when the rural area was far from North Vancouver, accessible by narrow country roads. On Sunday, my dad’s day off, he often helped Johnny with concrete work and cutting down trees and planting new ones. There was always lots of laughter and many jokes between my dad and Johnny.
In the late afternoon Phyllis would call us for Sunday dinner served on china plates with blue patterns of willow trees. I had never seen plates like that before. At home our plates were plain-coloured melmac with a 1960s trim of orange and brown around the rim.
When we last saw Johnny he was in a four-bed ward of Vancouver General Hospital. I was too young to understand the significance of the last visit. I don’t even remember seeing Johnny but I remember my mother’s face when we left the darkness of the ward. Her face was drawn and she was upset. From his gaunt, skeletal face, she knew he was dying and no one had told her so.
This is cancer’s last hurrah. No fundraising. No celebratory head shaving.
I’ve seen real cancer now.
A few months ago the four of us — ovarian cancer buddies — laughed over lunch. Some of it ghoulish humour. We are all facing death — some of us sooner than the rest but none of us really knows when. My friend K has been expecting to die for years or so the doctors have said. But she is still active and lively and eager to try another clinical trial if it fits.
We do not look afraid at least not while we’re having lunch. My other friend, S, has just spent a month in hospital. At first we thought there was hope for recovery. But she’s had “the talk” we all fear. It’s when the oncologist says she is sorry but there is nothing more she can do. So S is home to enjoy her grandchildren and say goodbye to her family and friends.
M was admitted to hospital this week. And we don’t know how long or whether it’s for good. We will wait and see.
Only K and I can go for lunch now but she doesn’t eat much any more.
My view of cancer is clouded by my own relative good health. “You look good,” people say. And now I know what they mean because I have seen what cancer looks like when it takes a hold of you and says no more Walks of Hope and no more Cancer Dances. Now it’s Snow White’s pale complexion, unbearable fatigue, veins shrunk and lost within a flabby arm. Frustration at the loss of movement and self control. Fear of infection taking over.
The faint scent of urine leaks from the bathroom door left ajar by the last patient eager to empty his bladder after the CT scan. They leave the CT room wearing the short blue patient gown, strings tied haphazardly in front or back or on the side. Skinny legs and shoes below. Minutes later they emerge, dressed in jeans and a leather jacket — no more the patient, now the man. Or at least a patient disguised.
On the cancer hospital floor the patients are easy to spot even if they’re wearing sweat pants and t-shirts. They’re linked to the chemo pumps by thin plastic tubes and the needle in their arm. One man is doing laps around the floor.
Here cancer isn’t pink or teal ribbons. Or smiling faces like the bald runner on the poster for Back on Track Fitness. Here the bald heads are pale and sad, holding cardboard dishes on their laps in case vomiting resumes. Pain is a constant companion. With drugs to beat back the hurt. And drugs to stop the nausea. And drugs to keep the bowels moving. And drugs to sleep.
And we wonder, how long are we here for? And will we see our home again? And is this the end? And if it is the end, how much more must we endure?