By Patricia Horvath
The sign on the door says: Children Under 18 Not Admitted to the Chemotherapy Suite Under Any Circumstances.
They call it a suite, this room at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital where chemotherapy is administered, as though its occupants were members of some elite group, which in a sense I suppose they are. For reasons that elude me, the chemotherapy suite is located on the same floor as maternity services, and the elevator is often crowded with an odd mix of cancer patients and pregnant women. The cancer patients are generally hairless, elderly, their skin ashy, their bones prominent. The pregnant women are all flesh and smiles.
On Jeff’s first day of chemo, three months earlier, a couple made out during the entire ride to the eleventh floor. Teenagers practically, they wore tight jeans, cropped vinyl jackets. Her back hard against the elevator rail, her distended belly pressed into her partner. They made little moaning noises as they kissed. I tried to give Jeff my “What the fuck is this?” look, but he was too preoccupied—or maybe too polite—to notice. The other passengers looked away. I watched them not watching and then I stared at the floor.
This morning there is a child on the elevator, a child holding her pregnant mother’s hand. The child is squalling, her little face red. “I hate this place!” With her other hand she wipes her runny nose. Her mother looks exhausted, blue crescents beneath her eyes, but her hair, her skin, are lustrous. Her good health takes up all of the space.
I envy this woman. Envy, that most useless of emotions. Gluttony yields the pleasures of the table, lust those of the bed. But envy is a not-so-funhouse mirror, setting the world askew. It magnifies the thing desired past all recognition while diminishing the sorry beholder.
I hate it when I feel this way, when I envy the lucky their luck. Certainly there are cases—people—far worse off than Jeff. And who’s to say this woman is, in fact, “lucky?” Her daughter has cried herself into a coughing fit. She stamps her feet. Her nose is streaming. Jeff zips his hoodie up close to his mouth. What unseen hospital forces, I wonder, are responsible for this juxtaposition of birth and death? Who came to this decision and how? I try to imagine the logic at work: Hmmmm . . . chemotherapy, childbirth, they belong together alphabetically . . . why not just put them on the same floor? Thinking like this, focusing on absurdities, helps distract me from the business ahead. But I’m also angry. It’s not uncommon for the pregnant women to be accompanied by young children, children with their children’s germs. The cancer patients have compromised immune systems. There is a reason for that sign on the chemo suite door. Before he even began treatment, Jeff had pneumonia, then shingles. For nearly a month he had to take an unpaid leave of absence from his job. We were relieved to have that option. Now, on treatment days, he needs to be monitored for fever. Rituximab, one of his three chemo drugs, can cause his temperature to rise. If it goes above 100.1 (not 101, we are repeatedly told) we are to phone his oncologist then go immediately to the emergency room.
Jeff is halfway through his treatment for chronic lymphocytic leukemia. In three months he’ll be finished and, if the chemo takes, he’ll have a remission of unspecified length. Five years, seven. We don’t know. All we do know is that the leukemia will return, because that is what chronic means. Before that there will be quarterly checkups, blood draws, MRIs, CT-Scans, another bone-marrow biopsy perhaps. He will never be done with the eleventh floor.
As for the woman, it’s clear what she can expect in three months.
In the chemo suite there’s a commotion. A television crew is filming a documentary about the hospital’s various patient therapies: the music and art and dogs. Because of this all of the therapists are here, all at once: the art lady with her cart full of beads and glitter and coffee table books; the musician with her xylophone and guitar, a make up artist with her creams and lipsticks and wigs, a massage therapist, and Charles, the chocolate Labrador, who always looks stoic as he allows himself to be petted. The musician sings “Guantanamero.” The art lady has a sign on her cart: “Make Your Own Mandala!” The make up artist applies rouge to a patient’s cheeks. Later there will be a raffle: first prize a five day Caribbean cruise, second and third prizes two days in Atlantic City. Jeff is too sick to travel and besides, he’s used up all of his time off. But the prize is good for a year, which may be the point. Because if one can imagine a year, one can image oneself out of this place. Maybe not back in Life as it Was—that road is closed—but at least somewhere else.
Jeff is shown to a recliner, his IV set up. He’s been assigned to Gina, my favorite nurse. I like her because she’s funny and wisecracking, like the female sidekicks in the old movies Jeff’s taken to watching. Eve Arden in Mildred Pierce. Thelma Ritter in Rear Window. Also, unlike the other nurses, she lets me buy her coffee, which makes me feel useful.
It’s a zoo in here today, she says, rolling her eyes.
Where’s Quincy? I ask.
Quincy, a black and tan Yorkie-poo, is the closest thing the chemo suite has to a celebrity. He has his own “bubblegum” card that depicts him gnawing, fetchingly, on a red rubber barbell. The back of the card says he is “a frequent flyer and enjoys going to LA where he gets to run in the grass and lay [sic] in the sun. But most of all Quincy loves it when people play with his mohawk and rub his belly.” Once, Quincy spent an entire afternoon sleeping in Jeff’s lap.
He’s back in LA, Gina says. These New York summers are too much for him.
When Jeff is settled, a man with a clipboard comes over to ask if we’d be willing to sign release forms and appear on camera. It’s a Thursday, 9:30 am, we’re in the chemotherapy suite; to say I do not look camera ready is an understatement. Both Jeff and I are wearing jeans, sneakers, hoodies. Jeff’s hoodie is from a Delacorte Theater production of Hamlet. It’s black with a white skull and in acid green the words “What A Piece of Work Is A Man.” My hoodie is purple and has moth holes. My hair is unwashed; I haven’t bothered with make up. Still, I figure, who’s really going to watch a documentary on A Day in The Chemo Suite? Since it’s for a good cause, we sign on.
As it turns out, my vanity is unfounded. Whenever we come here, Jeff and I spend our time reading and playing cards. Sometimes he naps while I grade papers. We don’t sing songs or make mandalas or get facials; we’re too boring to be on camera. But Jeff’s hand makes the cut. The cameraman zooms in on his IV, the bruises surrounding the needle. He pulls back to get a shot of the infusion bags for saline, Benadryl, Cytoxin. He maneuvers around IV stands, camera cables, tubes and wires, the art cart and wandering musician, goes for a shot of someone getting a massage. “Please, Mr. Postman,” the musician sings. Jeff’s timer starts to beep and Gina comes over to change his bag. Then, as if responding to some high-pitched signal that only she can hear, she pivots.
There in the doorway is a young family: mother, father, little boy sipping a Coke. Clearly they have entered through the wrong set of double doors. The woman looks about ready to give birth, right there with the cameras rolling. The man looks confused. The little boy’s eyes are wide with delight. Here he’d been expecting to squirm away his morning in some Ob-Gyn waiting room with its hard chairs, its thumbed-through copies of parenting magazines, and now— look!—he’s discovered the hospital version of Candy Land, this world of music and glitter and dogs. He takes a tentative step into the room. Gina blocks him, her arms outstretched like the wings of some great white bird. Gently, she directs the family back to maternity services. The little boy tries to crawl through the space between her legs. Gina scoots him away. His face flattens. Who are these people, these lucky people, to have all of this? Why is he being denied? He stretches his neck for a last look at this wondrous place, this Shangri-La from which—unfairly, unfathomably—he’s just been excluded. Then he begins to cry.
Patricia Horvath is the author of the memoir All the Difference (Etruscan Press). Her stories and essays have appeared in Shenandoah, The Massachusetts Review, Bellevue Literary Review, and descant, among other journals. She teaches creative writing at Framingham State University and is the recipient of New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowships in both fiction and literary nonfiction. “Envy” was named a Notable Essay of 2014 in The Best American Essays.
You can visit her website here.