They’re the most dependable ones. The cancer patients. Arriving at the same time each week, head wrapped in a turban or scarf, checking in before chemotherapy. Or worse, hobbling in daily for three, four, five weeks straight to receive radiation. One might think they’d be most irritated by the three screening questions I’m required to ask everyone who enters the building. No, they haven’t been outside of Massachusetts in the past two weeks; they’re too ill to go anywhere but here. No, they haven’t been around anyone who’s tested positive; they’re too vulnerable to see any one any way. No, they don’t have COVID symptoms; the nausea and aches of trying to expunge cancer are symptoms enough.
In truth, when a frequent flyer approaches, I cheat the questions. As the same dwindling woman whom I greeted at the hospital information desk the day before approaches, I lighten up. “You didn’t go down to Providence for a COVID dance party last night, did you?”
Cancer patients possess nobility, how they suffer bodily abuse in an attempt to stave off even worse. The crabby ones, angry at cancer’s arbitrary victimization, are easy to forgive. There but for the grace of god… But the stoics, the good-humored ones: they’re inspiration. I am lucky not to be among them; luckier still to witness their grace under duress. I can only hope, should their fate befall me, I confront cancer with such magnanimity.
I am particularly in awe of Helen and Rajiv. For in addition to their dignity, I am enthralled with their love.
Helen (the names are changed, but the story is true) is a classic, dignified WASP. The remnants of a sturdy frame and authoritative bearing shine through her radiated form. A crisp Yankee accent; elegant yet undistinguished clothes; a generous, if discreet, smile. Helen arrives every day of her five-week regimen with Rajiv, a tiny, shriveled Indian man so much smaller than his wife, one might assume he is the patient. Rajiv defers to Helen in every way, yet the sparkle in her eyes when she gazes upon him reveals mutual appreciation.
The effort of getting from car to information desk exhausts Helen. I settle her into a wheelchair and navigate her to radiation oncology. Rajiv is too frail to push her himself. We take separate elevators: three people cannot maintain the required six-foot distance. During the sixty seconds Helen and I are alone in our cab, she speaks of her husband. “What would I do without Rajiv? That man is my strength. He is my miracle.” Every day, her accolades are variations on the same theme. Every day, she iterates them as if fresh news. Every day, when our respective elevators arrive at the ground floor and the two lovers set eyes upon one another again, they beam as if their separation had been months, not moments.
After I deposit Helen at her therapy I wonder, briefly, how Rajiv got dispensation to attend his wife’s appointments during this era of ‘no visitors.’ Far be it from me to let a mere virus come between them. Then I speculate, at greater length, about the origins this lovely couple.
Helen once told me they’d been married 52 years. I do the math: 1968. The height of social non-conformity. Yet, I wonder what Helen’s family thought when their daughter—easy to envision turning about a sailboat or stepping off a tennis court—brought home this small, dark man, with his high, quiet voice and retiring manners. I wonder even further back: what brought them together in the first place? Perhaps their physical and cultural differences provided the metal of their union. Some couples dissolve under pressure; others get fused by it.
I will never know. It is impossible to know such intimacy in the time it takes to wheel a person to radiation. Actually, it is impossible to ever know the vines that tangle two souls into love. The miracle of lover lies beyond human determination. Yet, it only takes a moment to witness love in its purest form. And rejoice in those who have found it.