Live it, Learn it

“You live it, you learn it.”

The nurse’s melodious, accented voice soothed our nervous minds. At least a little. Just three weeks ago, a surgeon had removed a tennis-ball sized tumor from Kevin’s colon, and now it was time for Phase 2. Chemotherapy.

We were scared.

We walked across the parking lot, his fingers entwined with mine in a painfully tight grasp. I think we both took a deep breath as the doors automatically slid open before us. Outside the door to our left, an understated sign named the office and listed all the doctors. I saw the name of the oncologist we’d been referred to, and pointed it to Kevin.

“This is the place,” I said.

His grip tightened.

We went in. He wrote his name on the patient sign-in sheet, and sat down beside me. Later, after many months, which turned into many years, of this routine, he’d joke around with the receptionists and empty the candy bowl of his favorite hard candy – peppermints to quell the nausea. But today – our first visit – we just sat quietly, holding hands, holding our breath.

A nurse came into the waiting area. She called off some names, Kevin’s among them. All of us first-timers. All of us nervous, wondering what to expect in this new chapter of our lives. I remember words, lots and lots of words. Various chemo drugs for different cancers. Side effects. Tests. I wrote some of them down to look up later. This new vocabulary was overwhelming, I didn’t know how to spell the things she was telling us, and I worried that I was already failing in my role as Kevin’s consigliere. How could I help him get through what came next, if I didn’t actually understand what came next?

We’d brought a bag with books to read during chemotherapy and to that bag I added handouts. So many handouts. So much literature. When we finally stumbled out of that meeting room to the exam room, waiting to meet the oncologist who would guide us for the next five years, we just sank into the chairs and stared at the floor. His nurse entered, then her beautiful voice filled the air and we exhaled. She told us not to worry about all the literature we’d been handed: “You live it, you learn it.”

You live it, you learn it.

For the next five years, we lived it. Six months of chemo here, nine months there. Some nice, well-earned, well-deserved breaks in between so we could enjoy a life with the Bear. We became a familiar fixture in the halls and when the social worker saw us, she’d call out, “It must be Friday!” As the Bear grew older, she came along, too. She liked to watch the nurses draw blood through Kevin’s port, always checking to make sure it was red. “It’s red, not green!” she’d cry out with excitement, eyes focused on the small tubes filling quickly. “That means Daddy’s not an alien!” She logged many hours in a chemo chair, wrapped in a warm blanket like her Daddy, watching Dora the Explorer on her portable DVD player, then filling her art pad with colorful sketches.

It sounds odd, I know, but that chemo room became a home to us. And the people there felt like family.

I found a stack of reports the other day, from those early days of chemotherapy. The words are clinical, sterile, listing lab reports and exam notes and chemo regimens that are seared into my memory.

We lived it. We learned it.

But among the office notes and status updates, I found bits of humanity. The name of the nurse who cheers on the Pittsburgh Steelers and could always be counted on to talk football with Kevin. The name of the technician who took his vitals and shared recipes with me. Dr. T’s nurse, always ready with her dry humor, waiting for Neil Diamond to whisk her away. The nurse who is an amazingly talented artist and who is convinced the Bear will be President some day. And the nurse who didn’t send me back to check-in that horrible December day when Kevin was delirious and dehydrated and couldn’t stand up; I pushed his wheelchair directly to her and said, “Please help him” and she did.

I looked at those reports and tears ran down my face. I felt a tug, a sadness, inside and it took me a second to realize: I was homesick. Homesick for the chemo room, for a place that had been part of our life for such a long time. I was homesick for our cancer family, the doctors and nurses and technicians who laughed with us, rejoiced with us over good CT scans, and cried with us when the prognosis got worse and worse. I was homesick for a place that, against all odds, is filled with hope and compassion and laughter.

You live it, you learn it.

She was right. We did. We learned so much in those years of living with cancer. We figured out all the words and initials and reports. I learned how to unhook his infusion pump and administer nausea meds.

But that wasn’t all.

And, as it turned out, that wasn’t even the most important.

No, the most important things we learned had little to do with cancer and everything to do with life. We learned how to joke about cancer, how to fill the moments with joy, how to live with strength and grace – and we learned it in the chemo room.

Thank you so much for those lessons, my friends. And keep an eye out for me and the Bear – the only way to cure homesickness is to go back home. We’ll be seeing you sometime soon…

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