The Other Women in the Room
Fiona is in the next bed. She is a trim blond woman with a worried face and a breathless, whispery way of speaking. She’s always hot. At night, when I’m huddling under the blankets, hugging myself for warmth, Fiona is resting under a single bed sheet while an oscillating fan, placed above her bed, makes whirring sounds like rain falling. Perhaps she is going through menopause, but I am unable to confirm this one way or another, as she is also currently menstruating, as am I. Fiona is 53: a fairly standard age for menopause. I, however, am only 43. Both of us carry thick hospital sanitary pads back and forth to the one shared bathroom. Fiona’s husband died more than 20 years ago, of cancer, after only three years of marriage, in this very same hospital. Fiona recognizes some of the oncology nurses from then. “So I guess you figured that you’ve had enough crap dropped on you for one lifetime?” I ask her on the third day of our being neighbors in the two beds on the west side of the room. “Something like that,” Fiona says.
The Repeat Offender, whose actual name is Jean, is in the bed opposite my own. She is in her early 60s, a retired nurse. Five years ago it was the left breast that came off. This time it is the right one. But as she repeatedly says: “At least I’m even.” She has three grown adopted sons—the children of her husband —and many grandchildren, who make her get-well cards. She tells us of their exploits. She has a pile of trashy magazines by her bed: British gossip rags with photographs of Princess Diana’s butler’s house; Cherie Blair; and various movie stars and singers. She also reads the junky, slightly right-wing The Daily Mail. I read The New York Times and the Baton Rouge Advocate on the web, and now also read either The Herald or The Guardian, depending on what my husband picks up on his way home from the university, where he is ensconced this year—this much looked-forward-to sabbatical year in Glasgow, Scotland—in an office overlooking the ancient University Chapel, with its stained-glass windows and soaring spire. The Guardian is a better paper, but it sometimes lapses into such politically correct posturing that in recent weeks I have done nothing but write letters to the editor, protesting its stand on everything from the Middle East to the Midwest. None of my letters to The Guardian have been published. I miss Baton Rouge.
The Old Lady isn’t actually older than the Repeat Offender, but because her short boyish hair is white-white, without a trace of underlying blond or gray, her person is long and somewhat shapeless, rather like a cartoon character’s body, and because she hums while she does needlework, I think of her as The Old Lady. The Old Lady also snores, loudly, but this doesn’t bother me much, as I’m zonked out on painkillers. I decide that of my three roommates the Old Lady is the one I am least likely to bond with. (“Bond with” is a term that both my mother and brother use, and I’ve always thought it sounds new-agey and intellectually flaccid, but I can’t think of a better way to put it.) The Old Lady has had one breast removed, prompting the Repeat Offender to say that she will now feel like she has a “spare tire,” which prompts me to say, “a spare tire and a flat tire.” A few hours after her surgery, the Old Lady is visited by one of the hospital chaplains. He closes the curtains around the bed. I feel a small wave of envy. The next day, the Old Lady pads in her nightgown over to my bed and recites a verse from Deuteronomy.
It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.
She says that when she went into surgery she had this verse taped on her stomach and another one, from the Gospels, taped on her thigh. She explains that she was born a Catholic, but became a Baptist, whereas, as everyone in the room already knows, I’m Jewish. She wears a series of silky, sexy nightgowns in soft colors —peach, cream—trimmed with lace, and her husband comes to see her every night, bringing a sense of peculiarly male bewilderment.
The Western Infirmary, Glasgow, is a place filled with people who say “wee,” as in “will you have a wee tea, then?” and “you mean this wee tiny lump here?” It is so drab that I am already deciding how I will describe it to my friends in the States: as a hospital out of the Gulag perhaps? Or something left over from the Great War? Already I am planning on telling them: “Even if I survive the cancer, I might have to commit suicide just to get out of this place.” The acoustic ceiling tiles are stained and falling in. The linoleum is peeling. The walls are covered with ancient pea-green paint, cracked and streaked with water stains. The molded plastic chairs date from the early ‘60s, and come in colors that shouldn’t exist: avocado; aqua; pumpkin-orange. The one pay phone is in the day-room, itself decorated with un-matching chairs in various stages of decomposition. The windows are filthy, which is a shame because the views of Glasgow from the 10th floor ward (breast cancer and general surgery) are magnificent: to the south, the River Clyde and the sprawl of what was once the might of industrial, dirty Glasgow; to the north the sandstone tenements of the West End climbing up the hills and glowing in the sun as if on fire. It is December, and night comes early. By 4:30 we can see electric lights twinkling for miles in every direction.
Contrary to what my father, in Washington, D.C., (who wants to fly me back to the United States for treatment) seems to believe, my doctors appear to know what they are doing. They sit on my bed, look me in the eye, laugh at my jokes. The head surgeon, who is actually rather famous, notices that I am sharing my bed with two small well-loved creatures. “Who are these wee friends?” he asks. “This one,” I say, pointing to a small black elephant with red ears and an extraordinarily compassionate and wise expression on his face, “is Elephant.” “Ah,” the famous breast surgeon says. “And this,” I add, indicating a larger and less elegant animal who seems, to the untrained eye, to be either a dog or a rabbit, “is Bumby.” Bumby, I explain, has been with me since I was a toddler, and she is a rabbit. A bunny, actually. Bumby has her own rather complicated history, but I don’t go into that with the famous breast surgeon. I will save the story of Bumby’s complicated history, which is really the story of my own complicated psychic history, all mixed up with my search for God and for comfort and for feeling at home in the world, for my new friend Debra, who is also an American, also in her 40s, and also (even though she’s a serious scholar with a bunch of books to her name) has a family of stuffed animals. I love Debra. I met her just four months ago, at a cocktail party in a beautiful, high-ceilinged Victorian flat in the West End. The kind of place that’s furnished with priceless art, antique Oriental rugs, and books. At that point in time we had been in Glasgow for only four days, and going to the cocktail party in the beautiful flat gave me a real estate envy attack unlike any I had previously known.
Joyce is the night nursing aid. She’s big—_big_ — with a fat woman’s jolly laugh and good humor. Clear white skin. Thick brown hair. “Well, girls, what will it be tonight? A wee dram? Vodka or Scotch?” she likes to say as she is clearing the tubing that drains our incisions or helping us to the toilet. “We need to get you some sexier knickers,” she might add. One night when I can’t sleep I join Joyce out in the fluorescent-lit corridor and learn that she was once married to an Arab, and that the Arab is now long gone. Joyce thinks the Arab is pure shite, but she loves America. “I love America,” she says. She went there last summer, on holiday with a girlfriend. “I’m like ’I’m in America! I’m really in America!’ Only the women kept saying something that bothered me, you know? What was it? Right. It was ‘wow.’ They kept saying ‘wow.’” She says wow in a thin, whining American accent, and I picture New Jersey.
Joyce: a good name for a nurse, and I think of the Joyce I know at home in Baton Rouge; the Joyce who works as a caregiver at Saint Anthony’s Home, a hospice for AIDS patients, where until our departure for Glasgow in July, I did volunteer work. The work was dull: reading the Bible, primarily Psalms and various pieces of the Gospels, to the residents; running errands; hanging out. But I’d loved it. I’d felt a profound sense of having been embraced, of counting, and I came home every week with stories about kindness, mercy and faith. Before we’d left Baton Rouge, I’d asked Joyce to give me a blessing to keep me safe on my travels, and she’d burst forth with the full gospel treatment, with the patients chiming in with Yes, Jesus and Amen! I have always been fairly terrified of flying, but we’d arrived in Glasgow safely. Now I get out my notebook, write myself a note: Write to Saint Anthony’s. Ask them to pray for me.
The Chaplain who finally comes to visit me is Church of Scotland. Previously, when I had put in my request, I’d been asked which denomination I wanted sent to my bedside. “What are my choices?” I replied. “Church of Scotland, Church of England or Catholic,” was the answer. “It doesn’t matter,” I answered. I have always been nondiscriminating when it comes to clergy, perhaps even a bit promiscuous, figuring, as I always have, that if God exists, as he better, then anyone with a good heart and a specialty in God Relations can help me out. All of which I try to explain to the Chaplain, who has an open, friendly face and a sweaty forehead, which he dabs continuously with a handkerchief, only my words come out all wrong. Perhaps because I’m talking so fast. Or because I’m crying. But the main problem is that what I really want to say to the Chaplain is: “Do you think I’m going to die?” Instead, what I say comes out in little unconnected bursts. For example, I tell the Chaplain about how my Catholic psychotherapist in Baton Rouge had suggested that I pray to God to feel his heavenly love, and how, though I’d been skeptical, I’d gone along with the program—discovering the very next morning a package on my doormat under the mail slot, which turned out to be a book from my father in which he’d inscribed, in Hebrew, “With love from Abba.” Coincidence? Or sign from God? The Chaplain seems to be impressed.
I also tell him about a dream I’d had the previous night, only “dream” is too solid a word to describe what I experienced, which was more like a semi-waking fantasy in which I was aware of myself in the role of stage-manager and director. In the stage-managed “dream,” my old friend, Ronnie Shaab, who himself had died of cancer a few years earlier at the age of 56, appeared on the balcony of a hotel-motel, wearing his characteristic white hat, pants and shoes. In life, Ronnie was a businessman who never quite made it, and a friend-in-need to all who came his way, the son of a large family of Syrian Jews who had come to Baton Rouge from Aleppo in the 1920s and opened a shop, Broadway Linens, on Third Street. In death he was acting as my broker, signaling that he’d try to work something out with God. Finally God himself appeared, looking frail and beat-up, a bit like a bum or a used car salesman, as my Orthodox grandfather (of blessed memory) might say. For some time it looked like God wouldn’t cooperate, but finally he seemed to signal that he’d spare my life if I would promise to return to Saint Anthony’s Home. I explain to the Chaplain about Saint Anthony’s—how I’d volunteered there once a week; how the work, though boring, was uplifting; how once, when I asked her, Joyce told me that she could hear the voice of Jesus speaking to her as clearly as she could hear me. What I don’t explain is that since I’ve been admitted to hospital, I’ve decided that I probably would have made a good Christian, and in fact, though I’m rooted in Judaism’s theology and historical view, and convinced that Sinai is ongoing, the covenant still being made, I’m more drawn to certain aspects of certain Christian worship services—notably in the black Southern Gospel tradition—than I am to the public expression of my own faith. The God of love is what I like best —that and the singing. It’s Jesus on the cross who died for our sins that I can’t quite get around, not to mention the 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism. Not that I have any intention of arguing theology with the Chaplain. “So what do you think of my dream?” I finally ask.
“You’re obviously a person who dreams a lot, and for whom symbolism and narration is important,” the Chaplain says disappointingly, and at that very minute, my local rabbi, who is also my son Sam’s bar-mitzvah teacher, walks in. I am a wee bit embarrassed to be seen talking to the other side, but both men—the priest and the rabbi—are terribly polite.
The Repeat Offender says: “Would you get a look at how Princess Di’s butler lives? A bit of a toff he is, I should say.”
My family is not happy. My husband is one of those very smart people who look very smart: long thin face, beaky nose, big eyes, gray hair. He has college professor written all over him. His father died of colon cancer almost 20 years ago, and my husband still talks about the horrors his father endured during radiation. “He’d just lie in bed, moaning and screaming,” he’ll say, looking at me with big mournful eyes in his long, intelligent, mournful face, until I have to tell him to stop looking at me as if I’m nearly dead, because if he keeps looking at me like that surely I’ll develop a brain tumor. He is very smart, my husband, my life companion; he is also good, thoughtful, compassionate. His impulse is to keep things in, whereas my impulse is the reverse.
Samuel, 13, says he wants to be a rabbi. When I tell my mother about Sam’s plans, she says: you’re kidding, right? In Hebrew, his name is Shmuel. The name means: God Has Heard. He is funny and sweet and so handsome that I fear for him, for his robust, graceful beauty. My twins, Rose and Jonathan, 9 years old, are fearful. Am I going to die? Who will take care of them if I do? Even if I don’t die, will I be able to help them with their homework, pick them up after school? Rose is named for my father’s father’s mother. She is down-to-earth, wise beyond her years, with a certain adult gravitas. She senses things before they happen. Jonathan is moody, stubborn, eccentric, clever. School work comes easily to him. He reads a lot. He also cries a lot. Of the three of them, he is the only one who even vaguely resembles me.
Over the long-distance wires from Washington, D.C., my father says: “I’ve known women who have undergone this kind of thing. It’ll be one, two, three, and it’ll all be behind you.” Then he switches to comforting Hebrew words. My sisters, Barbara and Amalie, telephone daily. My brother David sends flowers.
My mother, however, does not yet know that her second daughter, who has done everything right—has breast-fed her three babies and stopped drinking coffee, has taken up yoga and weighs the same as she did as a freshman in college—is lying in a bed on the 10th floor of the Western Infirmary in Glasgow, recovering from having a cancerous tumor removed from her left breast and praying that the pathology report, which comes in on Friday, won’t be too bad—the tumor invasive, spreading into lymph nodes, already sending its lethal messengers to other parts of the body. This is because my mother has an even worse cancer, ovarian cancer, and has already outlived her doctors’ best predictions for her by several years, much of it marked by illness and suffering. And now she is once again sick, desperately so—weak as a nursling, unsteady as a twig—and though on the phone she assures me that there’s no need to come home and see her, I can hear how frail she sounds, how tired, how fed up. But my mother, in classic Jewish mother style, worries about me even when everything is going well, which has always made me feel inept and anxious—as if I can’t get on with things properly without Mom’s vigilant care. I’m almost as worried about telling Mom about my breast cancer as I am about the cancer itself. I tell Dad: “If Mom knows, she’ll give me a brain tumor.”
The Repeat Offender sits up in bed and says that once, when she’d first lost her breast, she was taking off her bra but had forgotten how heavy the prosthesis was. “I hit myself in the eye,” she says, “nearly knocked myself out.” Everyone laughs. “The problem with not having even one booby is that now I can see how big my stomach is,” she says.
Fiona’s long-term live-in boyfriend comes every night and looks at Fiona with worshipful eyes. He is in the construction business. Fiona is a virologist. Her lab is downstairs. Hence she knows all the corridors, how they hook up, and where the back stairs and working elevators are.
Fiona tells me that she’d been adopted as a child but that her parents—her adoptive parents—were truly her parents. “I knew that my father was dying,” she said, “I was driving the car, on my way somewhere, but I got this feeling—it was like a sixth sense—and I turned the car around to get to mum and dad’s. An hour later he was gone.”
The Old Lady, whose real name is Liz, sits up all night long in a chair by the window, listening to the wireless, as she calls it, and humming hymns to herself. At dawn, thinking of her daughter, who is to come up from England to visit her today, she begins to weep.
I have been having visions. Visions like I’ve never had before. They come at me, day and night, singing. Look up, Jennifer! Open your eyes and see! And I do: I see black women in white hospital gowns floating through the blue air; big red flowers —tulips perhaps; golden trees; and God’s arms enfolding them all. God has very long arms. They reach all the way from there to here. When I go home I will paint some of these visions. Just a few weeks ago, I was up half the night rocketed by one vision after the other and finally had to take a sleeping pill. Later, I wrote a long letter to my friend Richard Brickner, a novelist, telling him that at times I felt that I loved my own creativity more than I loved my own children, and that surely this was a sin. Richard called the day he got my letter and said: “You know, of course, that you’re setting up a false conflict.” I confessed that I knew. Now Richard calls again, from New York, worried about me. Richard himself is the survivor of a car accident he suffered when he was 20, leaving him to a life in a wheelchair and only partial recovery of his upper limbs. “Frankly,” I tell him, “I’d rather have what I have than what you have. That is, if the cancer doesn’t kill me.” “Well, yes, I agree,” Richard answers.
I make a list for living (I have always been very organized):
See my friends
Love my family
Work with faith
Meet with the breast cancer ladies for lunch every month or so
Enjoy God’s gifts (food, drink, etc.)
_ Animals (Bumby and Elephant)_
Go back to Saint Anthony’s
“Why,” I ask all three of my roommates on our next-to-last night together, “would God give me these gifts if he doesn’t want me to use them?” I begin to cry; Liz pads over to give me Kleenex, and the others—all of them, no doubt, thinking of their own torn flesh, their own vivid hopes—murmur words of encouragement. I would like to sit there crying all night long—I love being the center of attention—but just then one of the night nurses comes in with the tea trolley. “Any of you girls wanting a lovely cup of tea?”
The Christmas Carolers
On the fourth night in hospital, a group of Christmas carolers come through the ward, singing “The First Noel,” “Silent Night,” and other old faithfuls in chirpy, chipper voices, forced smiles plastered on their faces. Who invited them? I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I tell my roommates: “My theory is that they’re all drug addicts, and this is part of their rehab.” I also say: “If they sing ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,’ I’m going to scream.” Mary, one of the nurses, says: “It’s medieval torture.”
The Wrong Side of the Bed
When my husband comes to visit, with his big, doleful eyes, I tell him that I am on the wrong side of the bed. I’m not supposed to be here, I say. I’m supposed to be there, in the chair, holding someone else’s hand. I’m the one who consoles, who sits by the dying, who makes vague murmuring sounds meant to convey solace. I’m the one who reads Psalms, hears prayers, goes to funerals, remembers to write letters of condolence to the bereaved. I’m not supposed to be here, I repeat. “So get up and take a walk,” my husband says. Together, we do laps around the 10th floor ward.
The doctor said that the lump was small, but then again, the lump never should have been there anyway. What if the lump, though small, was filled with an unusually aggressive and deadly form of cancer? What if, despite the movie playing in my head featuring me, myself and I as funny, feisty heroine, the cancer spreads and spreads until all that’s left of me is a pair of eyes that open and close, until at last they no longer open? In the melodrama version of my life, wouldn’t it be fitting if, just as I am coming into myself—just as I’m working with ease, as if God himself supplied both prose and imagery, and just as the children have reached that sweet age where they still adore us but are old enough to be quite independent—I get zapped? Particularly as, as I will later explain to my husband, I feel blessed with extraordinarily clear vision, an almost instinctive ability to see into the souls of others? As if she’s prepared to go. In my own warped version of events, it is just as I’m rising to such heights that I will be stricken, punished, ground to dust. Oh! The chutzpah! Fiona says: “Don’t even go there. Don’t let yourself go there.” Jean says: “We go to the peaks and the valleys, you see.” Liz says: “Do you know the story of the two sets of footprints in the sand? And then one set disappears? God is carrying you, and he will not let you down.”
I make a new list, this time of what I have to tell my husband to do if, God forbid, my future is one of absence:
Get a dog
Stay in Baton Rouge
Spend summer vacations surrounded by family, even if you don’t like them
I’ve also found a second wife for him: my friend Debra. Debra is true, loyal, funny, smart, well-read. She loves kids, but doesn’t have any of her own. She isn’t Jewish, but that’s okay, as she’s philo-Semitic. The only problem is, Debra is already married, and I would have to kill off Debra’s husband, Matt, in order to make this particular match.
When Debra comes to visit, she brings a small soiled pouch and hands it to me, saying: “I know this isn’t much of a gift, but I thought you might be able to use it.” Inside are three tiny, discolored plastic birds—one is red, one is the blue-turquoise of bathroom tiles and the third is the color of dirty teeth— with furrowed, cranky expressions on their beaky faces. “They’re Worry Birds,” Debra explains. When she was a little girl, she got them out of a vending machine in Nashville and has kept them by her side ever since. “They got me this far,” she says. “Now you should have them.”
I have been anxious my entire life—so anxious that at times it’s all I can do to put one foot in front of the other, or tolerate my three children’s childish moods, their enthusiasm, their schoolyard stories, their desire to share their lives with me. But now the anxiety abates, abates. I sleep with Debra’s Worry Birds under my pillow. I do not think about Friday.
The Question of Hair
If it’s only radiation, I will simply get my hair cut a couple of inches, as I do every few months anyway. If I have to undergo chemotherapy, too, I will have my hair cut very short, like a boy’s, which is something I kind of want to try anyway but am afraid to, as it might look stupid and would take a long time to grow out. I have already e-mailed to my sister Binky in New York, explaining that if I’m going to lose all my hair, I want an authentic Yankees baseball cap to wear and not one of the cheap knock-offs that they make in Britain.
Cancer Is a Gift
On the phone I tell my Baton Rouge rabbi, Stan Zamek, that somewhere —perhaps in one of those alternative-medicine books by Andrew Weil that I started reading after my mother got sick—I’d read that cancer was a gift. Or maybe not. Maybe I’ve made that one up. “Have you heard of this?” I ask him. “Can’t say that I have,” he says. He is awkward on the phone—his long-distance bedside manner a little stiff. “The idea,” I tell him, “is that cancer lets you let go of all your crap. That is, if it doesn’t kill you first.”
“Baruch ha Shem, you’ll be fine,” he says.
What The Other Women in the Room Say
Fiona says: See you on Friday, girls! Jean says: You’ll be fine. We’ll all be fine. Liz says: God doesn’t give us anything that we can’t handle. I’m going to miss you, dear, when you go home.
Perversely, I don’t really want to go home. I like it here in the hospital, here with the other women, chatting. I like the nurses, the doctors, the residents. I like being served tea in bed, the smell of the flowers that are filling up the room, and the sense of being in a spaceship, cozened and protected from the world. Most of all I like the routine that allows me to blot out thoughts of Friday. What I’ll learn on Friday. What my doctors will tell me on Friday about what they found under the microscope. And then: I’ll light the Sabbath candles, welcoming Shabbat.
But I have to go home, home to our little, cozy, furnished house in Glasgow. My incisions are clear. My family needs me.
I’m always worried about running out of material, about my well running dry, even though my Baton Rouge psychotherapist has told me time and time again that the well will always be there, that it will not run dry, that it is my soul. Now I know that this is true. When my brother-in-law, David, calls from his home in Jerusalem, he says: “So I guess you’ve got all kinds of new things to write about.” He is an editor at an English-language bimonthly and understands something of inspiration, deadlines, the way ideas can enter your mind, like birds, squawking, and just as quickly fly off. “Are you taking notes?” he asks.
Yes, I tell him. Yes I am.
Jennifer Moses is a writer who lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she is at work on a book about being Jewish in the Deep South.