The Cancer Chair

Christian Wiman in Harper’s:

The second-worst thing about cancer chairs is that they are attached to televisions. Someone somewhere is always at war with silence. It’s impossible to read, so I answer email, or watch some cop drama on my computer, or, if it seems unavoidable, explore the lives of my nurses. A trip to Cozumel with old girlfriends, a costume party with political overtones, an advanced degree on the internet: they’re all the same, these lives, which is to say that the nurses tell me nothing, perhaps because amid the din and pain it’s impossible to say anything of substance, or perhaps because they know that nothing is precisely what we both expect. It’s the very currency of the place. Perhaps they are being excruciatingly candid.

There is a cancer camaraderie I’ve never felt. That I find inimical, in fact. Along with the official optimism that percolates out of pamphlets, the milestone celebrations that seem aimed at children, the lemonade people squeeze out of their tumors. My stoniness has not always served me well. Among the cancer staff, there is special affection for the jocular sufferer, the one who makes light of lousy bowel movements and extols the spiritual tonic of neuropathy. And why not? Spend your waking life in hell, and you too might cherish the soul who’d learned to praise the flames. I can’t do it. I’m not chipper by nature, and just hearing the word cancer makes me feel like I’m wearing a welder’s mask.

In the cancer chair there is always a pillow and a blanket. I’ve never used either, though on two occasions (2007, 2013) my spastic reactions to my cure led nurses to hurriedly pile blankets on my feverish form in the way I pile blankets on my twin girls when they are cold. Now why did I have to think of that. The comparison, I mean. It is wildly inapt: the nurses’ ministrations are efficient and mirthless, and not once have they concluded with a good tickle. Why must the mind—my mind—make these errant excavations into pure pain? I was just digging along like a dog, chats and chairs, a pillow and a blanket.

My children have never seen a cancer chair. They’ve visited me during extended hospital stays, but that’s different, and the last one is just far back enough in their consciousnesses to be, for now, benign.

More here.