By Nicole Clark
My eyes open, I’m already anxious. It’s amazing how our brains work. How it links smells, sights, and sounds to old emotions. Especially to our suppressed ones.
Each med day morning, I would wake up with a bad taste in my mouth, feeling sick to my stomach before even stepping out of bed. These feelings would get worse right around the Truro exit, and once we slowed and were pulling into the QEII parking lot, an Ativan had to be dissolved under my tongue to keep me calm and from vomiting upon entry of the hospital.
Each time it was the same.
Take a pill. Drink some water. Breathe with eyes closed. Say a silent prayer asking for strength.
Chance would put the car in park, turning off the ignition. “Ready?” Nod. Step out of the car. Walk slowly up the hill — which at this point I can no longer get up without being short of breath. Take a moment to realize how I’ve taken my body for granted when it was able to walk up hills without being short of breath. Walk through the doors being held open for me; express my gratitude while looking at the floor. One pump of hand sanitizer even though the strong alcohol scent turns my stomach. Walk slowly. Doctors, nurses, fellow patients weaving in and out. Some staring at their phones, some laughing with each other, catching up on what happened at dinner the night before. Look up at some art that’s on the wall for sale, see if there is anything new, wonder who purchased the ones that are gone since we were here the week before. Wonder if the new owners are happy with their purchases and what made them choose that specific piece. Was it a feeling it gave them? A memory it took them back to? Maybe they just liked the colours or the lines. Who cares?
Walk past the cafeteria knowing Chance probably wants to eat something so bad but won’t because he wouldn’t want to upset my stomach. Stand in line at the elevators. Invisible. Ding — doors open. Step inside a step ahead of Chance with his hand on my lower back, guiding me in as if it’s date night and we’re on our way up to our hotel room. Will we ever go to a hotel again? Stand quietly among an elevator full of people. Some beginning their shifts. Some delivering supplies. Some visiting their loved ones. Some doing the same thing as me.
Ding — the doors open. Fourth floor. That smell. The smell of the fourth floor. I can’t pinpoint what it is, but it disgusts me. Everything about this place makes me sick. People walking back and forth, friendly smiles which I return sometimes, but not all times. Chance makes up for me not being social by greeting those who pass us. Thank you, God, for this man. Check in. Go grab a seat in the full waiting room, wait for my name to be called at the same time as two others. Talk to no one. Chance grabs the paper, makes small talk with those sitting around us. I’m the youngest in the room.
Chance folds up the paper and tells the person beside him to “have a good one.” We follow the nurse down the hall, past the zodiac artwork along the walls, the stars on the floor. Stop. “Shoes off. Step on the scale.” Do as I am instructed. Nurse writes on her notepad. “Room 11, the doctor shouldn’t be long.” Walk with Chance further down the hall to the number 11 sign over top of the doorway. Sit in one of the three chairs — I always pick the chair with arms. Put my shoes back on and wait.
Read the instructions on how to properly wash hands above the sink. Who knew this would prepare me for a future COVID-19 outbreak? Read the “What to do if you have measles” poster. Look at the “I have cancer, now what?” poster. Another nurse comes in, introducing herself. I smile and say, “Nice to meet you,” even though I already met her at the treatment before; I don’t mention it as I’m sure at this point we all look the same. We’re all just numbers here. Check my blood pressure. Go through a list of questions regarding symptoms that I just answer yes or no to. Tells me what I weighed in at. I know; I saw the scale. Tells me my counts look good and that the doctor will be in soon. I can hear the doctor in a room close by talking to another one of us Cabbage Patch Kids.
The doctor steps in, sanitizing hands, with a warm smile and tilted head giving me a hello and genuine “how are you?” Do you want the truth? You can’t handle the truth! I respond with the automatic “Fine. You?” We quickly go over the notes and answers that the nurse went through, and I’m sent on my way past the elevators, down to the other end of the hall to a room filled with more Cabbage Patch Kids. A bunch of bald people, all different shades of skin with hopeful eyes, but instead of their bodies being covered by big green cabbage leaves, they were held by green plastic chairs. Plastic, cabbage-green recliners full of knitted hats, hope, sadness, drugs, and pain.
The nurse tells me which chair is mine and pulls one over for Chance. Go through more questions and wait for my chemo cocktail to arrive. Listen to Chance talk to other patients and their companions around us. More small talk. Little jokes. I stare straight ahead. As with each time before, I’m the youngest person in the room. I relate to none of these people. I want to know none of these people.
I go to the washroom before I settle in and get hooked up. I don’t feel like listening to small talk. I’m sure my resting bitch face is on point at this moment; I don’t want to bring the mood down of those around me. Close the heavy wooden private bathroom door. Don’t look at the mirror as I pass it. Do my business. Try to touch as few things as possible in there. Flush the toilet with my foot. Wash my hands. Try not to be sick due to the scent of the unscented hospital soap. Wonder how an unscented soap can actually smell stronger and worse than scented soap. Meet the gaze of my reflection. Ask myself, “Who are you? Where did you go? I know I’m in there somewhere, but where? How far gone am I?”
Return to my chair. Supplies have arrived on the small stainless-steel table beside it. Sit down. Nurse comes over and swabs the end of my line with an alcohol swab. I turn away, trying not to smell the alcohol. Syringe of saline gets twisted into the end of my line. Flush my line. Untwists empty syringe. Swabs another full saline syringe. Flush my line a second time. Taste the saline. Try not to breath until the last bit escapes through my nose with a warm breath that I can’t hold in any longer. Swab the line with alcohol again. Eyes closed. “Do you mind the saline?” I’m asked. I nod. “It helps if you suck on candy when we flush the line.” I shake my head. Gee, thanks. Tips! I force a small smile. “No, not for me. I’ve tried everything. Every suggestion that’s been made to me. The only thing that works is holding my breath. I just can’t hold it for very long anymore.”
Hook up my bags of chemo. Push some buttons on the machine. The drugs start making their way through the clear tubes and into my bloodstream. A long-term patient rolls into the room, her IV pole covered in neon-coloured stuffed monkeys. I wonder what her story is? What’s with the monkeys? My eyes get heavy as the Ativan kicks in. Why are these rooms so sad? Why can’t they paint them bright and happy colours or murals? There are so many artists out there, get them in here! Volunteer walks by with a sandwich cart and a sympathetic smile “Egg salad or chicken salad sandwich dear?” I shake my head. Hell Nah! How about another Ativan with a side of whatever will knock me the fuck out? Nurse grabs a warm blanket for me. Chance lays back my chair, covers me with the warm blanket. Blanket is no longer warm by the time it’s unfolded. He tells me he’s going to go downstairs and grab something to eat. I nod. I close my eyes. I’m out.
Wake up to beeping. Chance is sitting beside me, reading on his phone. A nurse comes over — one who recognizes me from the first time I was sick. “I wondered about you,” she said. No response, just a confused expression. “You did really well with your treatment the first time you were here. We worry about the ones who tolerate treatment so well.” Makes sense. This shit is supposed to knock you on your ass and make you wonder how you got there. I place my chair in the upright position. Still tired, but wanting to get out of there. Nurse unhooks chemo, flushes my line. Saline taste is stronger now and everything about me is weaker. Try not to vomit.
Walk to elevator. More small talk. Step into elevator surrounded by a handful of people. Exit hospital. Find car. Get in slowly.
Lay back seat in car. Roll down window. Sleep.