As I walked into the chemo room, she was sitting in my line of sight, the first chair seen as you walk down the hallway. She was covered with blankets all the way up to her chin. It took me a second glance to place her but I knew as soon as I laid eyes on her that I knew her. I’d only ever seen her in and around the pool for aqua therapy. There are often 4 patients in the pool at the same time, each one with a therapist, and she was almost always in the pool or waiting to start at the same time I was. It’s rather intimate as we’re mostly physically exposed, doing weird things with our bodies that everyone can see and every word uttered can be heard by everyone else. There are no secrets in aqua therapy.
I had eyeballed her before our sessions as we waited, as I did everyone, to size them up and see if I could determine why they were there. Unlike me, she was quite talkative and her positive attitude and smile were always on display. My therapist tried to make conversation with me but I rarely played along.
Her circumstances seemed to be quite similar to mine. From what I could deduce, she was a few years older than me, had breast cancer and the pink scars on both of her legs and hips, along with her rehab of those areas, led me to believe that it had also spread to her bones and she’d had surgeries similar to mine only on both of her legs. After I thought I had her mostly figured out, I asked her a few pointed questions as we sat waiting for our sessions to start. I was right.
She was walking with a rolling walker when we had therapy but was moving well and improving, to my dismay, at a faster rate than me. What?? Most of the folks in therapy looked like they were in much worse shape than me and much of the time, a few decades older, rarely any of the athlete variety. There was no reason any of these people should be making progress faster than me, dammit! I had the potential and the drive to rehab at a rate better than, well…everyone else I encountered, or so goes the indignant story in my head.
Seeing her now, sitting in a chemo chair, I wanted to talk to her, to see how she was doing. Not just to compare our rates of progress but because she and I had a bond. We were in this together even if she didn’t know it. I witnessed her grown son come to therapy with her and in every session I’d heard her talk of her family. It was easy to sense her overwhelming love for them. She laughed easily and I liked her even though I hadn’t shown it. She still had her hair so I assumed she was getting the same drug as me, the same regimen. She and I shared rare experiences, unlikely circumstances that were almost identical. We were both unicorns and up to that point, I’d never seen another one. I wanted to know how her son was doing. I wanted to know how she was doing.
The Man that had accompanied her was talking with her so I left them alone as I walked past and picked out my own chair, always in the row facing the windows even though they are high up and all you can see is the sky. As I waited for the nurse to prepare my drug and my needle, I watched her and when she looked up, I smiled and waved. I was happy to see her. She gave me a confused look, waved and then I could see it click in her eyes. She gave a faint smile. She’d probably never seen me anywhere but in the pool, wearing a swimsuit and bed head so it took a moment to place me.
I wanted to talk with her before I left but as I sneaked peeks at her, I came to understand she didn’t feel good. My eyes landed on the wheelchair next to her and realized it was hers. Her smile and positivity had faded, her normally rosy cheeks had gone gray. I was equally curious and concerned. She had arrived before me but still wasn’t hooked up to an IV. The nurses were coming and going from her sporadically. The Man sat in her wheelchair and rolled gently back an forth, about a foot or so. He wasn’t wearing a wedding ring and I couldn’t see any physical resemblance to her so I didn’t fill in the blank regarding his connection to her.
Finally, a nurse came out and said loud enough for me to hear that her labs were not good enough to get chemo today. They were sending her home. Her face fell even further and mine fell with it. The nurse and The Man took the blankets off of her. Both of them gently grabbed a side of her to help her stand. She was wobbly and needed a moment to steady herself, even with help on each side. The Man had moved the wheelchair as close as possible and she didn’t even have to take a step to sit in it. As they slowly lowered her into the wheelchair, she winced and said, “yeah, that was painful” as if to confirm the suspicion in their eyes.
I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I wanted to go to her, to comfort her, to ask her if her cancer was now killing her at a rapid rate. I wanted to line us up and compare us, apples to apples. She was me. Right? She was as close to me as I’d ever seen and it was stunningly close. Now, terrifyingly close. I knew looking into her eyes was looking into mine, save an unknown amount of days.
The Man covered her up again with blankets and rolled her out. My machine beeped. The nurse came to pull out my needle. I put on my coat, gathered my belongings and walked out into the cold.