This is a piece I wrote about my experience visiting a friend on his last day of chemotherapy.
I’ve been lucky; I’ve only experienced cancer peripherally. I’ve known people impacted by it, but overall I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid any life-changing episodes with the dreaded C-word, that “Destroyer of Worlds.” But earlier this week I went to a treatment center to see a friend ring a bell, signaling the end of an arduous round of chemotherapy, and the experience was, well, life-changing.
The first thing that struck me was the duplicitousness of the building. A new construction, the brick edifice was lined with shiny hardwood floors, tranquil paintings, inviting furniture, and state-of-the-art equipment. But for all its warm decor and impressive appurtenances, it was still the place in which no person wants to find themselves. It’s the embassy to the land of the afflicted. It is the meeting place of the unwell—a place of worst case scenarios, of nightmares, of catastrophic news given gently by kind doctors. It is the last vestige of hope, where people barter and bargain, agreeing to drain bags of unthinkable poison for the chance at a few more years.
Then there were the nurses who were genuinely positive and optimistic, with radiating smiles and welcoming greetings. Their demeanor is a medicine of a kind, putting everyone at ease, no small feat in such a place. The good rapport with their patients is immediately apparent, as they exchange friendly banter—asking questions about family and interests, alluding to previous conversations and appointments. It’s clear that they are invested, that they really have come to know the people whom they treat. This environment, these amiable interactions help lighten the unimaginable load.
Patients that endure the regular doses of radiation have a chance to “ring the bell,” symbolizing the culmination of these torturous medical treatments and marking the next step on the road to recovery. Loved ones usually arrive with gifts, the patient reads aloud a message encapsulating the experience, and the bell is rung a number of times—once for every session. As my friend rang the bell a dozen times, I was moved almost to tears for a number of reasons: my friend’s journey, the words he read as he himself was choking up, the authentic clapping from the gathered onlookers. It was affecting.
But then I glanced around and saw some people who would almost certainly never ring that bell, who had presumably heard those celebrations a number of times, all the while knowing that their reprieve would never come. As the last bell chime dwindled back into silence, the juxtaposition hit me. Here it was again: the hope for life springing from a place cloaked in the prospect of death. The ward is, for so many, the gateway to that “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.”
For a person in good health, passing through the halls of this realm is jarring. There are people everywhere, some alone, others in small groups, all wearing looks of unmistakable worry. Despite any uplifting words about odds and stages, there is a palpable fear that comes with the realization that this could be it. The room, the hushed whispers, the pained expressions all pull everything sharply into focus. They shatter the veneer of the throwaway platitudes that we all say but never truly absorb. “Life is short.” “Someday we’re going to die.”
That’s the epiphany that bears down on any visitor with ocean-bottom pressure. Here are people who, until recently, had been living lives of serene normalcy until a phone call or a doctor’s visit brought everything to rubble. Each and every one of us is living on borrowed time, our good health on a knife edge, only days or months or years from a similar call, for us or a loved one.
We become so mired in the banalities of making ends meet, of useless gossip, of meaningless arguments and grudges, of utter irrelevance; we live as though we’ll never be the one who is the subject of the inevitable bad news. These were the thoughts that pummeled me in this pantheon of suffering and perseverance. I was reminded of Charles Bukowski, who wrote shelves of poetry about glaring facts of life that we tacitly ignore. “We’re all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities, we are eaten up by nothing.”
The visit to to the cancer treatment center was a formative one. It was the starkest reminder of mortality, of life’s transience, of human kindness and tenacity. I’m going to keep the echo of that bell in my mind; I’m going to remember the time it tolled, and the many times it stayed silent, despite the deepest longings. And I’m going to try to live my life the best I can, because I know someday I may be back in that building, under different circumstances.
This year and every year, think on the bell. Because like poet John Donne said when pondering life’s brevity, “…never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”