The Wrong Words

She is a proud elderly woman, dressed always in the immaculate pink gabardine suit, 30 years past prime.  She wears too much lipstick and rouge, applied carefully.  Tired black shoes, cheap polish over scuffed leather.  The faint perfume of mothball is her accent.  Alone in the world, she fights cancer with polite grace.  She is compliant and courteous.  A quick half smile and needy eyes betray her fear.

I have worked with her as time slips and she outlasts the odds.  Therapy, side effect, fatigue and pain, a year has passed. Her advanced cancer has not grown. Somehow, together, we have kept disease and terror at bay, hope alive.

Today she sits on the table, her eyes distant. Through fatigue I sense a change.  I see in her new suffering.  I ask.  With quiet words, she tells a story. Hesitant, she is afraid of my answer.

She has deep faith in her family doctor.  He has been with her for many years. She understands he is a man of wisdom and honesty.  She knows he can see where she does not wish to go. She visited him yesterday.  He greeted her in feigned astonishment.  He said the words.  “I can not believe you are still alive!  No one lives with this cancer for so long!”

I know him; he is good man, excellent doctor. Perhaps he was tired, off his game. I know he meant well.  He meant to congratulate her. Meant to build her up.  He would never plot to hurt her.  Nevertheless, confronted with undeniable truth, naked before imminent death, hope tumbled down.

The path seems lost. Fear and loss drown all. She is adrift, with no will to move.  Paralyzed she does not even thrash in the icy waters.

I touch her hand,  warm skin against cool.  Tanned against pale.  By motion, I reassure her that I am there for her and will not cause further pain.

Carefully, we need to build, almost from the start.   The future’s time is unknown. It may be short or long.  We discuss how far she had come and how well she is…now.  How healthy she feels.  But cancer is like that…impossible to predict and without a clear map. Some, who should live, are lost.  Some, who are doomed, carry on.  The road ahead is unknown. She has today. Perhaps tomorrow. We will live today and make a plan for tomorrow.

Through it all, I promise to be with her. A path we will walk together.

After a while, she finds a tiny piece of unmoving ground.She clings to that anchor in the flood. Fear washes by. She sighs deeply. She dries her eyes. She straightens the threadbare hem of that heavy suit. Finds a small tight smile. Gently she rises with dignity. She moves on.


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