More To This Life
Today I watched in silence as people passed me by, And I strained to see if there was something hidden in their eyes; But they all looked back at me as if to say
Life just goes on...
The old familiar story told in different ways, Make the most of your own journey from the cradle to the grave; Dream your dreams tomorrow because today
Life must go on...
But there's more to this life than living and dying, More than just trying to make it through the day; More to this life, more than these eyes alone can see, And there's more than this life alone can be...
-Steven Curtis Chapman
When I was a sophomore at Anderson College (now University), I was planning to go into the field of Physical Therapy at MUSC. My dream was to be a sports trainer. You know, the guy that runs out on the field when a player gets hurt and helps him rehab from injuries, etc. Always training and staying in great shape. Drinking smoothies... Hanging out with athletes... At least, that's what I had in mind...
Well, after getting a lot of (and maybe too much) advice at the time, I found myself volunteering on the weekends at the Physical Therapy wing of a local hospital there in Anderson. This was to see what PT "really" was like. I was working a lot with burn victims, and with some very elderly patients who had lost their will to live. One of the burn victims was my age. He had been outside burning trash, and an aerosol can blew up in his face. He endured some of the most painful treatments one can imagine. They were still trying to get pieces of his tank top out of his skin when I was there. As far as the elderly patients were concerned, the last thing they wanted was some young kid trying to force them to stand up out of their wheelchair and walk around. Most of them didn't even know what day it was or why they were there.
One of the elderly ladies there was named Miss Sadie. She was a handful. I fancied myself as some kind of a part-time philosopher and I used to write a lot of poems and song lyrics back then. I wish I still had a copy of the one I wrote about Miss Sadie, but I remember it was titled "Sadie's December". I remember using a lot of the jumbled words and phrases from Miss Sadie's confused stream of consciousness in the poem, and I remember one of the lines said "you've been old for thirty years". (Probably to rhyme with "tears" or "fears" - haha. Written from the perspective of a 20-year old boy trying to relate to an elderly woman with dementia and walk a mile in her shoes.) But Miss Sadie was just one of the patients whose story broke my heart, and I decided I just didn't have what it took to be a PT. I was not strong enough for it emotionally, and I didn't have a strong enough stomach for it either. I took a programming course that summer at Greenville Tech and ended up changing my major to Computer Science and transferring to Clemson.
I haven't thought much about that time in my life until last week. I went in for infusion #5 (of 6), and I didn't realize they had me coming in at 10:00 instead of the usual 8:00. Hoping that they could get me in sooner, I decided to stay in the waiting room, get online, and do some work.
A lady came in by herself on a walker. She gave out her birthdate at check-in, and turns out it was a day before mine, only she was about 30 years older than me. She was there for an infusion. Her hair was gone. The skin around her eyes and lower forehead was almost rainbow-colored from what I assume were surgical bruises in various stages of healing. Her eyes were sunken into the back of her head, and her mouth was drawn. She had on old sweat pants, a cheap fleece sweater, and some worn out slippers. She was clearly just not in any kind of position to give one thought about her appearance. Of all the people coming in and out that day, she was the most shocking to look at.
I struck up a bit of a conversation with her, leading with how our birthdays were just a day apart. What struck me about her was that, despite her appearance and condition, she had this cute, almost childishly high voice. She wasn't from the South. I got her name and I wish I could remember it, because what happened after our brief chat in the waiting room is what I just can't get out of my head.
We ended up taking our treatments right next to each other. And although she was just a couple of feet away from me with just a curtain between us, you didn't have to be that close to learn about pretty much everything that was going on in her life over the next couple of hours - whether you wanted to or not. I'm sure most people in the infusion center that morning heard it as well.
Apparently, her husband is also in bad shape health-wise, and seems like they are both going for some kind of treatment almost every day. She was literally crying to the nurse about how overwhelmed she was from trying to keep everything straight. Couldn't figure out how to use her phone calendar. Her ringer was on loud. Her grandson was calling her. Her daughter was calling her. Her husband called her several times because he couldn't find certain things. When he would call, her demeanor would almost instantly change. She would immediately burst into tears and say something like, "I don't know. I don't know. What do you want me to do? I don't know!" She never said goodbye in these brief interactions with him. She'd just say "I have to go", in tears, and hang up on him. I could tell they were one of those older couples that never showed kindness or compassion to each other any more. The kind of couple that makes you uncomfortable around them because they're always trading jabs. Her mood swings were so severe, she would instantly go from laughing to crying. They finally gave her a Xanax, and she calmed down and slept through the rest of her treatment.
Made me wish I could have one myself.
But seriously, this is what I am talking about when I say that I can't complain. I wish I could have helped her more, but I was all strapped in myself by then, and the oncology nurses did a really great job helping her get organized - writing everything down for her and making sure she understood what was next, so she was in good hands. I don't think she has dementia. I just think she was literally overwhelmed that day. At times, I felt really bad for thinking about myself while this was going on. (Wishing she would be quiet, etc.)
Chemo has a smell. It's a smell that you can't describe. I guess it smells like what it is - medicinal poison. It's like you can't get the toxic smell out of your mind or your pores or your bodily fluids for about 24 hours. When I get back home, I can't even look at the clothes I wore or the backpack I always take in there without feeling nauseated. I leave it all in the car for a few days until I feel up to the task of bringing them back in the house.
After you've had a few of these infusions, when they first hook you up you get a certain familiar taste in your mouth. And when they are pumping you full of Benadryl as part of the prep, your body isn't fooled anymore, so it just starts pumping out adrenaline in response, preparing itself to fend off the all-too-familiar attack that's about to happen over the next 5 hours. All of this triggers your head to start pounding and turns your stomach upside down.
This was what was going on at the time, and I found myself trying to meditate and pray for her to be able to calm down. I prayed for myself to do the same, but I also prayed that I would never find myself in her situation. No hope. No peace. No rest. Tired. Nowhere to turn. You'd prefer just to go ahead and leave this earth, but instead you're having to endure this depressing, disgusting treatment - again. At her age, I'm sure she went home with some severe side effects and was miserable all weekend. My heart just ached for her.
Like I've said before, I believe that cancer falls on the righteous and the unrighteous. In this fallen world we live in, none of us have any guarantees except one - that God will be right there with us all the way. Anything we're going through, He went through worse when He was here. And this fallen world is not our home. There is a much better place for us, and it's near God. A place where there's no more shame. A place where we can be fully restored. That gives me hope.
And that's was what was missing in this lady's life. Hope. I'm sure she once had hope, but now it's just gone. Understandably so. But without hope, we literally have nothing. Made me think of Miss Sadie back in Anderson for the first time in years. She had given up hope, too.
But I've also seen the opposite first hand - elderly people in the “December” of their lives that did have hope. My grandparents had it. Most of my aunts and uncles had it. Almost all of the folks in my parent's circle of friends who were older than they were had it. I am not in the December of my life, but I've had it, lost it, and gotten it back. All I can say is, what a difference!
And speaking of hope, I hope I get to see this lady again, because I can't stop thinking about her. She has a name. She's someone's mother. Someone's grandmother. Someone's wife. Someone's daughter. Somebody's high school sweetheart. Most importantly, she's the apple of her Maker's eye. I feel like I let her down because now more than ever, in her "December", when the nights can be so long, she needs to know that there is hope.
Now stay focused on Jesus, who designed and perfected our faith. He endured the cross and ignored the shame of that death because He focused on the joy that was set before Him; and now He is seated beside God on the throne, a place of honor. Consider the life of the One who endured such personal attacks and hostility from sinners so that you will not grow weary or lose heart. Among you, in your striving against sin, none has resisted the pressure to the point of death as He did.
Hebrews 12:2-4 (The Voice)