I’m sitting on the fourth floor of a hospital, in the waiting room with Andrea. Not quite what Australian Crawl had in mind, though whenever someone opens the stairwell door at the end of the hallway a flood of sunlight pours in. Outside is a golden May day of blue skies and autumnal-turning trees. Inside, this waiting room is filling with women, most of whom are carrying large envelopes with x-rays inside of them.
“Don’t mind me if I go quiet,” Andrea says. “I feel like talking at times, but then I drift off.” It’s okay; I understand. I’m a bit of a drifter myself after all, even without sitting here waiting for a doctor to look at the lump I’ve discovered only two weeks prior. And anyway, it’s before 9 am and neither of us have been morning people for a long time. Not like when we were kids, and we got out of bed one hot summer morning and jumped into the swimming pool in our nighties. I am still harbouring the hope that her lump is as benign as the sun coming through the stairwell door.
One by one they are called – Anita, Barbara, Li. I know Barbara’s name is Barbara because it is written on the side of her white envelope. She has pink streaks in her hair to match her pink top. When they call Andrea’s name the surreality goes up a couple of notches to 11. What on earth is my cousin’s name doing, being called to go into that room? She doesn’t have cancer, for fuck’s sake. She can’t have. It’s not fair. But then when is it ever fair? But both of her parents were claimed by it, and she has two kids and a husband and I don’t want her going anywhere for a very long time.
She disappears into one of the doctor’s rooms, and is being told as we speak that yes, she does have cancer (she knew from the start), that it hasn’t spread, that she will need to go for a biopsy next week to determine what sort of cancer it is – slow-growing or aggressive. We’ve known each other all our lives. Our friendship has been solid since we were eight – the same age as her youngest son is now. Her name just does not compute with people who have cancer.
Across from me in the waiting room is a nervous lady with grey hair speckled with brown and sadness spilling out her eyes. When she opens her wallet I see a picture of two cats. She has a scarf round her neck and a nice shade of plummy lipstick on. She looks scared. She has frown lines and a big blue bag that she keeps shuffling through. I wonder if her bag is as chaotic and disgusting as mine, with its bits of raggedy paper and random empty packets of things and crumbs lining the bottom. She too gets out pen and paper from her bag and begins writing notes. We are a couple of old-fashioned writers in a sea of smart phones. Later, she examines the pictures on her hankie. It is the same hankie I had as a child, with Australian flowers and their botanical names on it. She looks so scared that I try to catch her eye to smile at her, but then I lose heart when she doesn’t look at me straightaway and I take to examining people’s shoes instead.
There is a plethora of coloured shoes going on at the moment. Ballet flats that were last fashionable to wear back in the 80’s. Still black predominates. I count a tan pair, an orange pair, a pink pair, a yellow pair.
There is a TV on the wall which is broadcasting the usual muck and slime of morning commercial television – either fearmongering or saccharine sweet but little that has any relevancy for any day I ever live. The Pick A Part ad comes on. I was wondering where it had gone. I know every word to that ad but I can’t remember what I walked into the room for three seconds ago. It would be very nice to be able to take some parts of your brain that are holding useless information and transfer those bytes over into the short-term memory compartment.
An older woman comes in, accompanied by a couple steering a pram. The older woman carries a bag that has a reproduction of Bieres de la Meuse, a print from the late 1800’s. It is Art Nouveau and all curves and flowers and pretty women, and I wonder if her x-ray envelope is hidden inside that bag, or if she is a pro, who has been initiated already into the clan and doesn’t need to bring her x-rays along anymore.
The couple with their baby take centre stage. I look at the worried woman across from me. Her face has softened and she smiles, like many other people, at this squalling little thing, who we were all like once. Somewhere around four to six weeks old, I’d guess, she is wearing pink mittens to stop her scratching her face and matching pink booties. She’s making snuffly mewling noises. “Shhh,” her dad says. “Shhh.”
I wonder whether the woman who is here for her appointment is the mother of the woman or of the man. I take a guess and say the man. The baby cries. The mother of the baby, who is wearing red and black, moves into the most inconspicuous corner of the waiting room to feed her baby. The woman, the mother and the father all watch. This small little creature has them all tired and captivated. “She’s on there. She just doesn’t want to feed,” I hear the mother say, and she takes her baby out when she keeps crying. Such a little thing, so dependent on them for her every need.
Everyone is on their phones. I feel sick. Different people get up and go into different rooms when their names are called. Nadia, Anastasia, Marjorie. The woman next to me is looking at pants on her mobile. Row after row of disembodied legs sporting red, yellow, teal, black pants.
A woman in a mustard top receives a visit in the chair next to me from one of the hospital workers. “Agnes is in Korea for four weeks, so I’ll be looking after you today,” the worker says. “Yep, I’m still here! How long’s it been since you were last here? Three years?”
I was wrong. The woman is related to the baby’s mother, not the father. The mother and the woman speak to each other in a Eastern European dialect. The woman hands the baby to her husband. “Shhh,” he says to his baby, multitasking on his phone while she sleeps in his arms. “Shhh.”
Out in the hallway there is a woman on a gurney, swaddled in white sheets and blankets and black straps, whether to restrain her or stop her falling off I’m not quite sure. But she doesn’t look like she’s capable of doing much fighting to me. The straps aside, she looks very cosy and comfy in her bed.
Most of the other women here probably have breast cancer. They’ve been sent as a matter of urgency by their doctors – well, as urgently as the public hospital system allows for, anyway.
It’s the waiting that does your head in, Andrea says, when we are out of the hospital and in the car on the way home, out again in the sun and under the sky. When you know what you’re up against, at least you can do something about it. She’s been reading online, accounts of fellow sufferers who found the experience of treatment easier, when there was something they were doing about it. Once you have beaten the cancer, sometimes the depression can set in because you’re back again, waiting.
That’s understandable to me. We need to frame our journeys, make a story of what is going on in our lives. It’s why I’ve sat in this waiting room writing about the people in it. When you are actively fight against something, like any captivating story it’s one that’s sharp, with contrasts, with heightened emotion. When you’ve come down on the other side (if you’re lucky enough to have an other side), and you’re waiting for something to not return, that makes it a little bit more difficult. Many people who have beaten cancer are surprised at the emotions that come out the other end. How do you frame waiting in a captivating narrative?
It’s a problem I wish upon her, a waiting that is hopefully one of the extremely long variety.