Kathy Chaffin's Spiritually Speaking: A face to remember for strength

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 5, 2007

There’s an image of a man embedded deep in my memory.

I can still see his face just as clearly as I did the first time I saw him almost 17 years ago.

It was my first radiation treatment for the fibrosarcoma in my scapula, and I was scared and still sore from extensive surgery the month before.

The radiology department was being renovated, so there was little room and no privacy for patients awaiting treatments. We put on our blue-and-white seersucker robes and waited in the front lobby in full view of everyone coming and going.

I never talked while I waited. Few of the patients did, but because the treatments were scheduled for the same time every day, we developed an unspoken comradery.

We were warriors in a battle for our lives.

Rarely did we let anyone know that we were scared. The only fear I saw was on the faces of the people who looked at us and realized that it could just as easily be them in our robes.

Two women who waited for their fellow church member to finish her treatment whispered to each other when a patient was rolled in on a stretcher. “She looks awful,” one said.

I wanted to scream at them that if I could hear them, then so might she, but I never said a word.

A mother passed around a photograph of what her teenage daughter looked like before her hair fell out as a result of chemotherapy. Her daughter sat beside her, looking straight ahead.

I sat in the same chair almost every day. In front of me, a woman about my age helped her father put on his robe while he sat in his wheelchair.

He was weak and seemed to have difficulty holding up his head.

Putting one arm in the robe seemed to tire him, so his daughter let him rest before starting on the other arm.

I watched the same sad ritual every day for almost four weeks. Each day, the man’s condition seemed to worsen. As the weeks passed, it seemed difficult for him to even sit up.

Over time, I grew fiercely protective of them. I believed if I concentrated hard enough, I could will that man enough of my strength so he could hold his head up, if only for a while.

My appointment was right before his, and I always smiled at them as I got up. The daughter smiled back, but the man never saw me.

Preparing to start my fifth week of treatments, I walked in and didn’t see them anywhere. I waited anxiously, hoping they were late. The fear welled up inside of me, choking me, blinding me, and for the first time, my confidence faltered.

That whole week was a blur. I arrived for my treatments, waited impatiently for my turn and practically ran out the door when I was finished.

I didn’t allow myself to look at any of the patients for fear they wouldn’t be there the next day. I would not allow myself to feel anything for any of them.

Then, on the first day of my sixth and final week, I saw the man again. I don’t know if I would have recognized him had it not be for his daughter. He was sitting in his wheelchair, talking to her.

For the first time, I saw his eyes, and when I smiled at him, he smiled back.

It was on that day that I declared I would not die of cancer. My treatments ended soon afterward, and I never saw the man or his daughter again.

But I thought of them often as I went for followups, every two months at first, then three, then six, then annually. And whenever a strange lump or pain sparks a fear of recurrence, my thoughts return to them and what they meant to me.

When I visualize that man whose name I never knew, his wheelchair is long gone and he walks confidently with his head held high.

Before his face fades, he smiles at me. It is the smile of a friend.

Contact Kathy Chaffin at 704-797-4249 or kchaffin@salisburypost.com.