The Cancer Centre

As an interpreter, my biggest fear is the prospect of delivering bad news.  I would rather have my mental glossary go blank at a legal assignment than confirm a patient’s worst fears with faultless clarity at the doctor’s office.  I might bask in my own munificence except that I know it’s mostly cowardice that holds me in dread of such an appointment.  I was able to avoid it, too, for five years.  This providence ran out on Friday.

My first clue came on Monday when I got the assignment to go to the cancer centre in London on Friday but I wasn’t given any details about the patient, only her name.  Gloom wrapped me like a clammy blanket the moment I stepped into the building.  I hadn’t been there since my brother Abe’s chemotherapy appointments two years ago but that same sense of despair, of feebly railing against the monster that hurtled him headlong toward death washed over me again.  It wasn’t coming from outside me.  The patients in the waiting area looked calm.  The staff was calm too, cheerful even, as if we were at a garage getting an oil change on our lunch break.  I smiled back and willed it all to be over soon.

When I dread something, I assure myself that things rarely turn out as bad as I imagined they would.  I hope that the very act of anticipating the worst will make me immune to its fulfillment.  I did that on Friday.  I expect the patient did it a hundredfold.  But when the doctor ushered us into his office and began to speak, I knew it wasn’t working.  He was too painstaking in his explaining of cancer to this newly diagnosed patient, too determined to make her understand just how unknowable and uncontainable this monster is to be preparing her for any but the worst of news.  He was so thorough that the words that came next couldn’t have been a complete shock to her, yet I don’t know if it lessened the horror.

”incurable”…”affected organs”…”months to a year”.

I performed okay.  My mental glossary never faltered.  My brain dutifully rolled everything the doctor said into Low German except for three small words, “… will kill you.” uttered with no change, no lowering or perceptible gentleness in his tone.  I didn’t deliver him a contemptuous glare.  It might have added to his patient’s distress.  I deliberated, then said,

“it will take your life.”

We’re strictly taught to interpret everything we hear without diluting its message no matter how emotionally difficult it might be but I’m not sorry.  It didn’t matter much anyway.  I know that she knew what he said before I said anything.

The place was suddenly a hive of activity.  The doctor dispatched plans for the patient’s care and a swarm of nurses bustled cheerfully about to do his bidding…“We’ve included a free tire rotation with your oil change ma’am.  Do you collect air miles?”  I made my way to the patient’s side and whispered, “Do you have a pastor you trust to talk to where you live?”  Her eyes didn’t move but she nodded once.

Cold, wet wind blew my hair over my face when I left the hospital.  Cars lined up at the stoplight a block away and across the road, people pushed shopping carts in and out of the Metro grocery store.  It was altogether ordinary, benign and completely undependable.  As is proper, I know.  It’s good that this disease stricken, grief laden life is not all there is.  There’s a new one for the quietude, the elation, the sinking-to-our-knees-in-relief respite of every follower of Jesus Christ.  I know all that.  But I don’t think I’ll accept assignment to the cancer centre next time if it’s all the same to Albert and the agency.  Not for a while, maybe.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. I do not envy you the ability to speak multiple languages when you have to deliver like that. I don’t blame you for wanting to turn down an assignment to that clinic.

    Reply

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