Thursday, March 17, 2022

A Curmudgeon in the Waiting Room

 “What are you in for?” I asked, deciding to pull my mind from things and joke with the man next to me. But I realized almost instantly that I’d picked the wrong guy.

“What am ‘I’ in for?! Cancer!” He scoffed, looking around the waiting room. “I don’t expect someone like you to understand how bad life can be.”

“George!” The woman next to him tapped his leg. “She’s at the hospital too. We don’t know why she’s here.” She stared at him through thick, pink glasses, obviously hoping to calm him down.

“Why ARE you here?” He looked at me like he could spit venom. And—if he hadn’t been so mean—I would’ve spotted his shoulder-length hair and guessed he’d played sweet love songs in the ‘60s.

“Ummm…I actually have cancer too.” I swallowed. “Stage four melanoma.”

“Oh, that’s just skin cancer.”

I sighed because I hear that a lot. “Bob Marley died of melanoma. People die from this. Doctors say ‘I’ will die from this. But to die like Bob…well, I always did like his music….” The man blinked. “Anyway, doctors initially gave me two years to live. But now I might have more.”

His eyes got big, like a dog’s rubber toy when you squeeze it REALLY hard. “Well, yours must not be as bad as mine! Otherwise you wouldn’t be so happy.” He crossed his arms. Then, even though he seemed mad at me, he told me his whole story.

I listened to him talk for a while about how he never really lived because he can’t enjoy the fortune he worked so hard to save. I felt bad for him until he said something I dislike more than anything: “I have nothing to be grateful for, and I hate God for doing this to me.”

“But we all die…. At least I have a chance to tell everyone how much I love them. Everyone dies. Why be mad at God for something that’ll happen anyway?”

“This is worse than ANYTHING. I’m suffering!!!” he said, and unfortunately I could understand that last statement—especially from when I almost died of sepsis.

A woman seated across the waiting room piped in, out of no where, “They took a survey and most Americans said if they can’t die in their sleep, they’d like to die of cancer.”

The man and I broke out laughing. THAT was hysterical. “Those people have NO IDEA what cancer is like,” he said, and the woman turned red. 

In a strange way, I’d begun to like this curmudgeon.

“I think people just don’t understand,” I said to her soothingly, then turned back to the man. “There’s always something to be grateful for though. Always.”

“Well, if you’re so d*mn smart. You tell ME, what I should be happy about?!”

“Well…you…clearly haven’t lost your ability to really get passionate about something!”

The woman right next to him let out a laugh then immediately cleared her throat.

“Is that it?! Is that all you got?” he asked.

“And…you can still walk and talk…” Then the words just flew out. “And it’s a good thing you can talk because you-sure-like-to-hear-your-own-opinions.” 

His mouth literally fell open. “Well!”

Just then a nurse called him. “George? George, we’re ready for you.”

“Come on, Judy!” he practically spat. “Let’s get out of this waiting room!”

“I’m gonna wait out here,” she said, making him roll his eyes before he walked away.

“I am sooo sorry,” I mouthed to the woman.

“Are you kidding. He’s terrible!”

“Is he your husband?”

“Yes. And don’t let him get to you. He used to be fun and happy. He was a lot like you until he got cancer a couple of years ago. It’s just worn on him—and our whole family, really.”

“He seems pretty great actually. I just hope I didn’t offend him,” I said. “But give him some slack. Cancer is so much harder than people realize. With a terrible flu or cold you know it’ll end. It’s just hard being sick and thinking it might never, ever go away. Some days you almost feel trapped in your own body.”

She nodded. “I’m sorry you’re going though this too—you’re just so young. Be brave and don’t worry about what you said to George. I can tell he got a kick out of you even if he didn’t want to admit it.”

A nurse practitioner called me back after that. “I heard you met George,” she said after she’d closed the door.

“I did.”

“Well, a couple of nurses and I heard the conversation, and we’re just worried for you.”

Oh, no! I felt like I’d been called to the principal’s office. “Did I do something wrong?“ I asked.

“No-no-no. It’s just that you’re always so happy despite what you’re going through. It might surprise you, but not all cancer patients are like that because they’re dealing with so much pain and so many emotions. We’d hate for you to lose your,” she paused as if searching for the right word, “sparkle. George used to be so happy when he first started coming here. He was so much like you.”

I fumbled with my hands; I didn’t know what to say.

“You still have tumors all over your body. It must be pretty painful,” she probed.

“It really is, and sometimes that’s harder than I want to admit, but there’s still so much to be grateful for. When I die—and as I go out—I don’t want cancer to rob me of who I am.”

“Elisa, I know….” She sighed. “I’m not too worried at this exact second, but please tell us if you are feeling sad. We had a patient last week…they…” Tears filled her eyes.

“They what?”

“I’m sorry.” She wiped her tears. “It’s just that suicide rates for cancer patients are higher than people realize. Some patients just feel trapped in pain or they don’t see an end to their sickness other than death. I just…I really care about you—and all of our patients.”

So, I left the hospital after my appointment feeling like I carried the weight of the world. My conversation with George wasn’t sobering, but the talk with the nurse practitioner sure was. 

Having cancer has completely ignited my will to live and to enjoy whatever life brings. But I know it isn’t like that for everyone, and as I type this, that makes me so unbearably sad. I wish I could change people’s outlooks because losing sight of life—before death even comes!—is waaay worse than having cancer.

Even though I can only walk a quarter of a mile and I have to use the motorized scooter at the grocery store, at least I can still enjoy the beauty of our world, speed while shopping, AND see the people of Walmart (heck, I might even BE one at this point).

I’m still trying to process all of these deep topics: sickness, death, depression, and my obsession with Bob Marley…. But what I do know is that I’ll be praying for George for the rest of my life. He may be an old grump who thinks he’s “all washed up,” but with a short conversation he changed my life anyway. I’ll be thinking about this for a long time. I hope he’ll get his sparkle back, and I vow to never lose mine.

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