My hospital roommate is a 65-year-old woman with recurrent breast cancer. It’s in her brain, bones, lungs…everywhere. She’s in the hospital not for a cure, but for palliative radiation. She is the living definition of ‘no nonsense.’ If any of you follow me on Twitter, you’ve been privy to numerous quotes from the Russian roommate.
Whenever someone tries to help her, she says, No, I am strong, independent woman. She does everything for herself because when people try to help her, when they try to assist her to get up or down, they end up hurting her, even though their intentions are good.
When she was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, her husband planned a trip for the two of them to Vegas before she started treatment. On the third day, she said, he tell me he don’t feel good. Then, pffff! He drop to the ground. We take him to the hospital, but he die. I say he didn’t want to stick around to watch me be sick.
Her boys are in their 30s, the youngest maybe a little older than me. The oldest isn’t dealing well with her upcoming death. He jokes around with her in that teasing way kids do with their parents, but there is also true anger underneath the teasing. He is too clipped in his speech, his pauses between jokes or warm remarks too long. I know she hears it, but she doesn’t say anything to him. She knows he is angry.
Her younger son is gentler. He talks quietly with the nurses when his mom is out of the room about how they aren’t going to put her through chemo, that they prefer quality of life over quantity, four good months over six bad. He talks as though this decision was made between him and his brother. Really, though, the decision was made by her and I think she has managed to convince the younger that it was a decision he made, but the older knows it is the decision she made and it’s the not the one he would choose. He says little things once in a while that give it away. Allusions to not having definitely decided against the chemo, that they still had to wait and see how good this radiation is at getting rid of and controlling the pain in her spine that makes it difficult for her to move. Positional pain, the pain that comes from moving from one position to the other. She is fine when she is sitting or laying down or walking, though she tells me, I can feel the radiation working in my brain, I want to touch something when I walk, not hold, but touch.
She’s making her youngest son propose to his girlfriend of 13 years. She okay, she mean well, my roommate says. That praise sounds cool, but I’ve learned that ‘means well’ and ‘heart in the right place’ is not euphemistic coming from her mouth. It is genuine praise–not backhanded. It’s funny to hear those phrases stripped of archness and irony.
She spoke on the phone with her younger son as he shopped for rings, telling him what kind he should look for, what the wedding band should look like, how the diamond should be set in the engagement ring. Practical, set back in the band so it isn’t snagging and catching on things all the time. She says to her older son, who is leaning on the counter while his eight year old sits on the chair and watches the boxy TV stretched out on its arm, I am missing all the excitement. He scoffs, What excitement, Mom? They’re just buying rings. Like I said, he is angry. He doesn’t want to think about the excitement she is missing. He knows this is excitement. He knows she might not make it to the wedding.
I just want to make it to the engagement party, I don’t care about the wedding. I just want one party and to know he will have the happiness I want him to have in life.
I asked her this afternoon how she met her husband. It’s stupid, she said, we met on the train. It was 24 hour train ride from south Russia to Leningrad. We met and then that was it. We were together. We married eight months later. I don’t even know if I was madly in love with him, I know I wasn’t. But I knew he loved me. I knew from the first day that he loved me 100 percent and that this was my life.
I asked her if she fell in love with him madly later. I think so, maybe. I guess so because we were together 42 years. It was a good life. We didn’t have the things people have, not even a house, but everything we had, we had together. We made our money together, no talk about this is my money or this is your money. Two kids. We went to Florida every year for vacation because that was the cheap trip in those days. My husband worship me. I was always right. I wasn’t always right, but he didn’t think it was important to talk about. Think, we talk every day for 42 years. We fight a bit, but 15 minutes later we go back to talking. It wasn’t important. My mother say he didn’t want to see me sick, that’s why he die before me. Maybe that why I get sick again, I don’t want to live without him.
Yesterday I slept almost the entire day through, and when I didn’t sleep, I lay in bed with my eyes looking off in different directions, I was so tired. It was actually pretty standard for the weekend that comes 10 days after my infusion; every other weekend I am exhausted for a day or two, sleep hour upon hour. This weekend, I had pneumonia, a blood transfusion, pain medications, and a cocktail of three antibiotics to increase the fatigue. Today was much better, but today whatever is in my chest must be loosening up, because I’m coughing for the first time since I was told I have pneumonia, and sometimes when I talk, I get light-headed, and after eating pupusas from El Asador that Dara brought me, I had to scurry back upstairs to put on the oxygen my oncologist said she wanted me to wear all weekend because eating had made me so breathless. I guess I didn’t scurry, but we didn’t take our time getting to the elevator.
Thank you to everyone who has offered help and food and company, or just plain get better messages–it’s cheesy and cliché and I can’t say it enough, but I know the best people. And I know some of you who have sent messages or offered help have felt a bit shy or worried that it’s strange because maybe we don’t know one another well but it is okay, I like it–one of the only benefits of being sick is having lots of time and opportunities to get to know people. I mean, it’s definitely a morbid social mixer, but I like learning things about people. There are people who have become very dear to me who started out as near strangers who brought me things and spent time with me in hospital rooms. It’s weird, yes, but think of all the other people in your life you’ve become friends with as a consequence of shared bizarre experiences.
Anyway, this is becoming treacly and a bit too sweet, and I’m going to blame it on the pain medication, but I am going to leave you with one last quote from my Russian roommate, something she said to a friend of hers here this afternoon: She have beautiful, crazy friends but their hearts are in the right place.