Donald Freed
International Playwright
and Master Teacher

WAITING ROOM————RADIATION THERAPY

by Lance Fogan

Hot, August. We drive in silence. The A/C fan hums. She always needs air-conditioning. I'm in long-sleeves and cold. She doesn't like the radio on, at least not tuned to my talk-radio stations. I steal glances as I swing my attention over to each side mirror or turn my head when I change lanes. She's focused straight ahead, sullen. Who could blame her? I swing off the Freeway and coast up the ramp to Hollywood Boulevard. The traffic light is red, like it is almost every day of her sixteen treatments. I stop at the boulevard. Most mornings disheveled, dirty bearded guys hold signs next to our idling minivan. I avoid their eyes. I turn away, but with disappointment and guilt. Then, relief. They leave me and approach new "meat" in the vehicle behind. Across the street 10 tattooed youths sit on the stairs of a low two-story non-descript building's doorway. They talk, smoke and watch girls pass. The light's finally green; I turn onto the raunchy boulevard in raunchy Hollywood.

"I remember that sign, Adele's for Costumes," she says with a soft smile. "It always comforted me twenty-three years ago when I came down for my first radiation treatments. Look at that. I'm glad it's still there."

I concentrate on my driving and the characters on the sidewalks. Some push shopping carts piled with what must be their worldly belongings. Thai, curly-kewed lettered signs on restaurants resemble Chinese-Hebrew characters. We pass open-doors atop twelve concrete stairs off of the sidewalk; they seem to invite us into this Armenian Church. "I've always wanted to go in there. It looked peaceful. It still does," she breaks the silence again. We approach the corner. It's bordered on two sides of the intersection by neat five-storied buildings with the familiar blue Kaiser Permanente logo. Mexican and Indian and Nicaraguan store-front restaurants are across the street. Several cars ahead of us line up to pull into the driveway. We idle, wait, and then it's our turn. I pull out the parking receipt from the meter box, the arm goes up. We drive in. "Should I drop you off here at the walkway to the building?" "No." I roll around and around and around up to the fifth level before we find an empty spot. Are they all here for cancer?

A few people are in the garage elevator. I look at them. Some smile, most just stare ahead. Then she stands behind five people to check in. We're a half hour early. The area is clean and fresh. With my reading material in hand I stand aside and watch. Wheelchairs—bald heads—kerchiefs—canes. The black lady checking her in is so cheerful. "How are you today? I like that blouse." Broad, toothy smile. Just right.

We wait at the bank of four-elevators midst a small crowd. What are their problems? How long have they had it? We go down. The doors open, "Waiting Room-----Radiation Therapy" is on

the wall. We pass through and into a bright, three-story atrium with potted trees, windows high up above and banks of chairs, half of them occupied. The walls are tan and lilac-colored; pretty, calming.

We sit and look around. It's where I had accompanied Gene Pawlowski a few months ago when he invited me to go with him for his lymphoma radiation treatments. I went but with trepidation. "You'll see how efficient they are, Lance," he told me. "Really impressive. When my name comes up on that sign, right to the minute, I go in and then I'm out in five minutes. After, we'll go to the Vietnamese restaurant." Gene is just too matter-of-fact about, and with denial, for his down-hill course. I joined in and rolled with his insouciant attitude. I asked no questions.

Today, two large electronic signs look down on us from high up; one sign is further down the long wall in this large hall where people wait. I see last names; some have first names and others have just initials followed by their radiation treatment appointment time to the minute. What about the privacy that seems so critical these days—HIPPA (Healthcare Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). I've been here a few times, now. I get to know some of these nearby strangers' names. I look at the patient when I see the name spell out on the sign. I search faces and their clothed bodies for signs. I'm taken by a short-haired blond woman. She's young, pretty, tall and slim. Each day I see her alone, reading. Alone? Why alone?—that guilt is still with me. Twenty-two years ago she drove down here alone for thirty treatments. That was my doing. I had to attend to my neurology clinic. We don't talk about that. This girl is usually dressed in running shorts, a tee shirt and sneakers. Does she jog over here? What is her diagnosis? What body-part is treated. Melanoma? I see no scar. I know her name now from it appearing on the sign. She looks Scandinavian, but, no, she has a Jewish name. When the name appears she stands and walks to the hallway of treatment rooms. In five minutes she walks out as though nothing had happened.

A tall man, old, pushes a wheelchair. They stop across from us. The elderly woman in the wheelchair has swollen edematous ankles. A bandage is over her upper lip. What lesion does she have? She reads a paperback. A bag hangs over the chair's arm rest; a green water bottle protrudes from it. The elderly man now sitting next to her looks fit. He's scanning the room. Then, another last name, followed by an initial, lights up on the overhead sign. My eyes widen. The man has risen and walks to the treatment area.

An obese couple sits nearby. They're still. They gaze into the vastness with vacant eyes; their hips and thighs press against each other's. His arm rests across her shoulders. Which is the patient? I look down at my open magazine. "… fiscal cliff will become real when ..." I look up.

An elderly black man sits opposite me. I attend toward his direction. What's his diagnosis? Lung cancer, probably. But, maybe not. His eyes crinkle as he smiles. Empty spaces—two lower teeth are missing. "Good morning," he says. My tongue rubs the back of my lower teeth. I smile back

with a nod and look down at my magazine again. "… No one expects an easy resolution to the disagreements between the democrats and …"

People pass in and out of the entry of the atrium. Some are alone, some accompanied. I recognize many of them. We come at the same appointment time day after day, except on weekends. The unisex bathroom door under a treatment-schedule sign is pushed by a woman. It's locked. She moves on. Then a flush reverberates through the door. Mothers push strollers with infants or toddlers. Who is the patient? The infant? Is it the new mother with breast cancer?

A heavy-set black lady breaks into a warm toothy smile and laughs as she sees a black couple enter. She waves. They wave back with smiles and sit next to her. They're all nodding now and grinning and chatting. They dip into bags and pull out an apple, or a doughnut. I've seen them do this every day so far this week. In another place, could a stranger guess their grave journeys? It really is "old home week" in the radiation therapy waiting room. And, why not make the best of it—if one can? They manipulate their emotions, their fears, and their hopes with collegiality and with prayers.

Some of these individuals whom I've been watching each day I don't see again.

Two girls nearby remind me of my daughters. These kids are probably 10 and 13, or so. Their heads are bent, seemingly oblivious. They tap fingers on digital games and phones without letup. Both had bright little kerchiefs on their heads, the same as their mother's but of different color. They came to the seats opposite us. I'd been watching them for days, speculating on their clinical situation. Always, it's which is the patient?

"Do you live in Santa Clarita?" the mom asks. "We passed you on the freeway going home yesterday. My daughter saw you. You have a dark gray minivan, right? She said that you were the people she saw at the treatment center at Kaiser." Debra continues the chat. I sit, show my smile and watch. The mom tells her story of recently diagnosed breast cancer. She is hopeful. Debra tells her story; it's been twenty-eight years and she's still going. That has to encourage this woman, or anyone. They exchange phone numbers.

The next day Debra presents the girls, who turn out to be non-identical twins, with bracelets she made at her jewelry desk in her study the night before. "I love it," each tells her. "It's so beautiful. How did you make it?" They each give her a hug. The bracelets are on their wrists each time we see them again for several more days.

Her name blinks across the sign. Now, I sit alone and scan the room. "Am I dying Lance?" My mother lies in hospital seventeen years ago in Buffalo—our hometown. I had just flown in. My sister and brother-in-law sit at the end of her bed. I look over at them, anticipating—what? They watch me with startled gazes. I turn back to my mother's querulous, half-open eyes. "Yes, Lillian, but they'll keep you comfortable." Did I say the wrong thing? Will it panic her? My instinct, gained over countless death experiences, told me what to say. I had learned that truth usually serves. I was right. There were no more words, no change in her expression. Lillian just closed her eyes.

I look down and stifle a laugh as I recall a scene from that time. Three of us, my brother-in-law Louie, my 40-year-old nephew, Louie's son and I sit in a pavilion down at the end of the hospital corridor. It was a death-watch. As we talked quietly we were struck by some inexplicable facet in our conversation. We began to laugh. It was an infectious laugh. We laughed harder and louder. We tried to stifle this inappropriate behavior before we were overheard. We couldn't. As we looked at one another our guffaws exploded again and again and again. Tears ran down my cheeks, my sides ached. We couldn't stop laughing. Finally, a loud prolonged exhale. I wiped my tears. We stood, chortled a few more times, put our arms around each other's shoulders and walked back to her room. Lil died a few days later, sensibly refusing all nutrition and fluids. They would have been fruitless in her battle against pancreatic cancer that was diagnosed three months before. She was 85.

Now, my wife, my love, comes out from the therapy corridor after five minutes. She is smiling. It is her last treatment. I go to her and we walk out past "Waiting Room-----Radiation Therapy."