The sounds of water and bracelets clinking against porcelain surround me as I linger unnecessarily in a cubicle at the Chris O’Brien LifeHouse. The voice of a woman with a European accent is audible over the hot air blowers. I can hear only parts of what she is saying on the other side of the cubicle walls. Her voice is warm, resigned and holds intelligent humour although she sounds upset. She sighs aloud, stating for herself and to the bathroom it seems, ‘I have cancer.’ I can’t see her, only hear her continue, ‘They want to treat me but I don’t know. When you reach a certain age, you only have a few years left’.
The blowers start up again and I hope they are drowning out people answering her, but I think they could be talking to each other. Slowly, I open my door and step quickly over towards the mirrors to wash my hands at the nearest sink. The warm water is soothing as it flows over my palms, the backs of my hands. It is so welcome. I had been nervous about the test I had come for, but felt better now it was over with and my results seemed okay, actually fine.
A black handbag sits to the right on the shelf above my sink, along with an umbrella that has a white and black pattern. I wonder what the disjointed shapes turn into when the umbrella is open. My conclusion is that they are likely to make big abstract flowers, huge angular petals. Sometimes we don’t see what something is, or even who we are, until the folded over parts unfurl, or get stretched. Her hand reaches past me to softly pick up the umbrella, along with the black bag that she then carries with her outside. I follow after her wiping my hands on my jeans and walking much slower than usual, because she walks slowly.
As in the bathroom, it is hard to tell if she is in company or not, as there are two women in cardigans who had pushed through the door in front of her that she seems to walk with now. However, the faster pace at which they walk creates a widening gap, communicating they are strangers.
Even though some of the most reassuring and comforting words I have said to myself were to admit that I am alone, there are times when no one should be alone. It angers me, they didn’t say goodbye to her.
I’m walking slower than her, until I eventually resume my own pace and leave through the building’s sliding doors. Then I wait, suspended in a state of non-action. I am thinking about her, upset to have heard her news and confronted by the finality of having a few years to live. To choose that or to have no choice about that. Another question I don’t want to ask myself but am, is if the social pressure for old people to die becomes internalised? Do people die sooner than they might otherwise because they are not valued. Or is it, when considering aged care for yourself, chillingly pragmatic? A centenarian I heard on t.v. said that they wouldn’t like to be one hundred and in a nursing home, that ‘You are better off dead.’ His 101 year old companion had nodded firmly, ‘Well said.’
As I stand on the footpath I notice the movement of the two doors sliding open and a woman coming through them. I see her shape, an umbrella and handbag, jewelry against dark-coloured, elegant clothes. I see her face as she lifts her chin and looks ahead clearly, bracing gracefully.
She notices that I am looking over and gently acknowledges me with her eyes as she leaves the building. I step forward and ask ‘Are you okay?’
Her face softens as she hears my question, her shoulders drop slightly as she smiles and with the same resignation and intelligence I heard in her voice before, nods and replies,
‘Yes darling’. There is a moment of silence that is more comfortable than I would expect between people who don’t know each other. I am taller than her, but she feels taller somehow. She says, ‘I have cancer.’
‘I am sorry’, I say.
She nods and smiles to accept, and continues, ‘They took out 94 nodes but it comes back. My doctor told me she wants to put me on light chemotherapy, but I told her I don’t know.’ She shakes her head. ‘I told her, I need to think, you know, I am coming back in a week to tell her’.
It took me a few days to understand what that actually meant.
The chemo wasn’t going to cure her, but prolong her life until there would be another decision like this one to make, then more. She is thinking and starts to walk again, leaning on her umbrella as it clacks softly against the concrete and after a while the tone shifts. She says thank you to me and we talk, still moving slowly. ‘I am using my umbrella as a walking stick today’, she laughs lightly, ‘I forgot it. I got some food, some soup, before, but it was terrible!’, she says emphatically and laughs more.
She asks me if I can help her to a taxi and takes my elbow. I don’t want to leave her and think again about how she is alone. Every part of me knows that it is wrong to say goodbye at this time, and yet it was right. Sometimes things that aren’t right are still right. She is making me laugh now, nudging my forearm conspiratorially and declaring that she is going to get a hamburger. She pronounced hamburger with vigour and defiance, like a bold assertion. The taxi driver had a deep voice and he greeted her warmly. He asked her where to.