A Chemo Manifesto
illustration by Jesse Reno
It's so hard to think here, in the Hillman Cancer Center, where Rick comes
twice monthly to be infused with chemicals that would burn through his flesh
if they weren't contained by his veins. There are so many other people,
mostly older, who hobble by, heads turbaned, arms entwined with their
compatriots. I imagine them married, fighting cancer together, as we do,
unmarried. I can only imagine cancer is less and less kind with age, if ever
kind at all. Rick tells me the story of being in stage four, and what that
means statistically, and how this is all a game of statistics. And time. Its
mostly time, and wagering. We discuss the frustration of the inexact, the
lack of really knowing what is happening. He describes to me the doctor as a
galactic star fighter, steering an ever-unworthy craft through unmapped
space. Except that he doesn't quite phrase it in those terms.
The pump that delivers the drugs with measured regularity reminds me of old
remote army phones, the kind that bore immense bulk for the convenience of
its signal. The communication happening between the nurse and the drugs
seems somehow in line with war and front lines, but this half walled foxhole
loses the glory of the dirt for endless expanses of beige and something like
a lilac gray.
Rick never talks to me during these four-hour events, except at first, in
the waiting room before they draw his blood to see how his counts are doing.
It's then we discuss the article in the paper, the show he wants to see. I
end up watching his eyes get puffy, heavy and fall with drug induced sleep.
I don't want to imagine that he sleeps because of the pain; I want this all
to be as anesthetic as the environment. He shows me his port, how the
constant needle presence there has killed the nerves and dug a
semi-permanent hole ringed with black. Without his shirt on, in the light,
the tube under his skin reaching for the vein near his clavicle looks like a
scar. He shows me the card they gave him after they implanted itcomplete
with instructions. The needles they use to access his port, strange language
to a non-medical professional, are bent, with wings. Mosquitoes delivering
There is endless commotion here. Nothing is ever quiet, and today especially
as we are plopped next to the nurses' station. We are regaled inadvertently
with stories of families, holiday weekends, good restaurants. The people in
the waiting room discussed cremating their loved ones to press them into
faux diamonds. I believe cubic zirconium are created through a similar
process and laugh at the thought of grandma being a gaudy bauble at the
throat of her kin. Not that I oppose the idea, certainly it's very
economical in terms of space, and it carries the significance of not just
grandma but the value of a jewel as well. Countless scenarios well into my
mind, all creepy and full of the obvious horror I feel at the idea of
wearing a pressure cooked relative on a four prong setting.
“She made the most beautiful jewel.”
The texture of this place is solely derived by the presence of these people.
As with all institutions, anonymity must be required. Cuba, I think of Cuba,
and the pictures friends brought back with them. Cars with chrome and fins
and bubblegum colors; they are dinosaurs, classics, in service because there
is nothing else. There is nothing else. It's not the lack of the aesthetic;
it's the lack of money. It's crumbling elegant ruins still inhabited. It's
rice and beans and pork every day. It's bananas in the backyard, the streets
lush with mango trees. Green is taking over because the economy has wizened
into 20 dollars a week to live and a black market where paint can be bought.
There is nothing but the presence of life. Is that true? I ask them
questions, it seems like everything is owned by a money less government that
people are afraid to speak against. And so protest becomes expressions too
clever and subvert for the government to notice, and the weeds grow up
between the cracking cement.
Certainly, suffering cannot sit well among those with conscience.
But as Rick's head droops with sleep, I think suffering is parcel to our
existence, is a means to an end. I remember my coworker who after I had told
her the story of Rick and cancer and his father and his sister's wedding and
the family business all suffering sent me an email saying that a friend of
hers had just experienced three deaths within a short period of time, as if
to illustrate to me that other people suffer. This should have alerted me
that she was not the person to go to for humanitarian needs. I am only
twenty six, but with every year that passes in my life, work becomes less
important to me, or maybe it is not work, but working for someone else's
gain. It becomes clear to me, here in Hillman that work is simply an
institution, not a definition of self as I have let it be for so long. As my
eyes are filled with those taking the risk of uncertain methods, I am ready
to risk my own alternatives, step out of anonymity. I am ready to put my
financial solvency on the line (if ever I could truly claim solvency) to
step away from my job, towards me. I wonder if my boss will understand. My
loyalty surprises me, it runs deeper than I had imagined. Maybe, like the
Cubans and Castro, my boss expects us to suffer for the greater good. Maybe,
like Rick, I suffer there because for a while I really believed and now each
pinprick has added up to dead nerves. Nerves I would like to get back.