Cancer Update: The Room Where People Go to Die

Cancer Update: "You know what they usually use this room for, don't you." That was the nurses response to my many exclamations about how nice the room is for this week's stay at the hospital. 

(Yes, I'm back for another week of chemo at Sacred Heart hospital. I'm working on a streak of spending 3 of 5 weeks dancing with a shopping-cart-wheeled tower of tubes and machines.)

Unlike the many other sterile, fluorescent cubicles I've been assigned to in past weeks, this spacious room has faux hardwoods and carpet, earth-toned wallpaper, and even it's own fridge and microwave. The soft lights paint the room in a soothing glow. They call it the suite, and, being a pastor, I know exactly what they "use" this room for. 

This is the room where people go to die. 

When the chemo wing of the hospital is full they use this hospice room to handle the overflow. I am truly delighted for a peaceful space but I confess to a slight hesitation lying down on this bed that has been the final resting place for so many. I've sat around beds like this dozens of times; holding hands, offering prayers, shedding tears, but I've never climbed in one and pulled over the covers. 

Ever since my doctor muttered the words “tumor” and “cancer,” it seems like death has been a constant companion. The first thing I did when I got home from the doctor was to check my life insurance policy to make sure it was current. In those first weeks of crisis, when we didn’t know if a cure was possible, I was haunted by the question, “What if this is it?” My well-worn defenses keeping death at a safe distance were shattered. It’s been the most unsettling experience of my life.

But here’s the thing, now that the crisis has settled down and we’re hopeful for a cure, and the chaotic rhythms of those early days have given way to the odd boredom of treatment, there is part of that initial brush with death that I don’t want to let go of. 

I was talking to a 15-year cancer survivor friend about this and he surprised me by saying, “I know exactly what you mean.” We talked about how there is something about staring one’s own death squarely in the face that clarifies and empowers. It peels away frivolous layers of fear and anxiety, it puts things in perspective, it awakens you to the beauty of being alive, and it’s something worth holding onto.

Ann Lamott writes about an encounter with this clarity in a conversation with her dear friend Pammy who was dying of breast cancer. Ann was trying on clothes that she hoped would impress her boyfriend and turned to Pammy in her wheelchair for advice, “I asked whether it made me look big in the hips, and Pammy said, as clear and kind as a woman can be, “Annie? You really don’t have that kind of time.” (Traveling Mercies) Lamott marks it among the most important bits of wisdom in her journey toward faith and sobriety. 

It’s the kind of wisdom that I want to hold onto from this experience with cancer. I’m not so worried about how my hips look, but I have a long list of other frivolous worries that the fresh truth of my someday-death is freeing me of. I just don’t have that kind of time.

So I welcome my week-long sojourn in the hospice suite. It’s a good reminder that I’ll be back someday, hopefully 50 years from now. And somehow that’s helping me this week transform this room where people go to die into a room where I come to live - more abundantly, more generously, more beautifully, more lovingly, more peacefully.