The Grumpy Old Man in the Cancer Room

My chemotherapy sessions took place in a room full of leather La-Z-Boy recliners, dingy green carpet and bumpy walls.  Every other Thursday for a little over a year, one of my parents would drive me to an office building tucked off the heavily trafficked Wadsworth Boulevard and I’d sit in a chair for a few hours while nurses changed out life saving chemical bags.

I was rarely the only patient present and with my mom or dad by my side that little poorly decorated room was usually a place of chatter and laughter.  Get enough people hooked to bags of life saving chemicals and things are get pretty jolly, pretty quickly.  We were there to cheat death.  That’s a happy place.

One Thursday morning, of course during the ‘low’ point of chemo when energy levels and sapped and happiness is fleeting, my mom sat by my side and we laughed about Bruce Campbell movies.  Most chats in my family center around movie quotes applied to inappropriate situations (ie, coming back from an oncologist’s office bathroom and responding to the question ‘everything ok?’ with “yep, two dead bodies, everything’s fine.’ -because Clue is always relevant).  

I was having a rough time that week.  School was hard, my energy was low and I had friggin’ cancer.  Sometimes it gets to you.  Sitting in the chemo-chair, as it had come to be called, was actually a highlight.  I was getting better and soon I could use the ‘R’ word when discussing my health.  Sitting around quoting Bruce Campbell movies was perfect and my mom and I were giggling like hyenas at a Carrot Top show.  I don’t know what that means, but we were laughing a lot.  It was a wonderful moment in an otherwise crap-tastic (the technical term) time.

We were not alone in the room.  Across the way, sitting in the very uncomfortable blue La-Z-Boy recliner that never swiveled properly (these things matter), was an old, old man who’s coat rack had five or six bags attached to it.  He was keeping to himself, coming in and out of sleep while flipping through a magazine (probably the Economist, because there were never any magazines with a 20 year old in mind).

A nurse, Cheryl, went to check on him starting with the usual question, “how are you doing?”

“I’d be doing better without all this giggling,” the old man said quite loudly.

My mom and I stopped.  I stared at him in shock and horror.

The nurses moved him to another room and assured my mother and I that he was just a grump.

To this day, I cannot fathom the man’s attitude.  He and I by all rights should have been dead.  If not for modern medicine and accessible health care, our bodies would have failed and that would have been it; end of story, no giggling in a La-Z-Boy, no coat rack jokes, nothing.  But there were giggles, there were La-Z-Boys, there were bad jokes and here he was being grumpy about a mom helping her scared kid laugh.

Fuck that guy.

To sit in a chair begging for a little more life, only to squander it away by being mean.  What a waste of the nurse’s effort.

I never said a word to the old guy as he was moved to a different room to slowly die alone.  I have spent years thinking of what I should have said to him.  I’ve thought of mean things, hurtful things, terrible wishes for his future, but none of those things would have made the matter better.  Had I told him to eff himself in that cancer room I’m pretty sure my mom would have unplugged my tubes for a few minutes.  That would have been funny, but pretty messy.

That’s no way to go about life though.  Since that encounter, I’ve tried to lose my judgmental side (with exceptions being poor drivers and Republicans because are comedy writing goldmines I tell you).  There’s too much joy in this world to spend it chastising, judging, or generally being terrible to others.  As Wil Wheaton advises, “don’t be a dick.” Spending a life that way may one day lead you to being escorted out of the room nurses regularly check.

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