My office is located in a cancer treatment center. Although I do not have direct patient interaction in my department, but I do pass by them as I go about my day. The design of the building is laid out to be comforting, there is an inherent sadness that builds the emotional elephant in the room for those passing through. You are dying.
It is an awkward experiencing, passing people in wheelchairs as you go to the bathroom or out to your car for lunch. We always do our best to put a brave face, but there is a silent, uncomfortable understanding. This is often their last stop, the way station for those whose numbers are up. Tired caregivers do their best to draw out the inevitable. You are dying.
At times, it feels like rooting for the losing team. Occasionally, they win a few, and those are the days that make it all worthwhile. Those are the days when people get a clean bill of health or the best phrase they could hope for: “complete remission” and we all cheer inside. But more likely and far more often than anyone likes to admit, the battle against the tiny but deadly cells is lost, and another person dies what is probably an uncomfortable, uncertain and indeterminate way to go.
It begins, I imagine, with a hung, a node or a lump that shouldn’t be, or perhaps a feeling of being “off” or “unwell.” It triggers that innate animal instinct that something is wrong. And from there, after labs, body scans, biopsies, and surgeries, the doctor often confirms what your guts have known all along. You are dying.
When I worked as a portrait photographer, a joke I would tell the children who were more difficult to work with was: “Why do seagulls fly over the sea?” The punchline, a simple pun, was “because if they flew over the bay, they’d be bagels!” Whomp, whomp!
I once posited this joke to my cranky husband in the grocery store, and although he knew the punchline, he answered, “Don’t they fly out to sea to die?” I considered the value of that, as a dying animal, you muster as much strength as you can and fly as long as possible off into the beautiful horizon. You leave nothing behind for your flock to clean up after you’re gone.
Looking around my office building, I see why all the beautiful pictures are hung, the treatment rooms overlooking the many fountains and murals as soothing as they can be, as the dying take off on their own toward the inevitable.