Below is the text of a piece that I had the honor of sharing last night as part of "Syllable: A Reading Series" at La Paloma Sabanera coffee house in Hartford, Conn. Reading such a personal piece – out loud – to an audience of fellow writers and lovers of literature was both terrifying and comforting. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the varied works of the nine other writers who put together poems, song lyrics, fiction, and nonfiction – all set to the theme of love. What a wonderfully talented group of people and a fantastic platform for writers. I was so happy to have been given the opportunity to take part.
"Vials of Love"
I love a woman whose name I don’t remember. In my musings about her, I call her Ona or Aziza or Albutus – names that are strong, gutsy and exotically Eastern European.
I love this nameless woman something fierce. It’s not a love driven from deep in the loins. There is no primal sexual attraction. Though she is old enough to be my mother, the love I hold for her is not of daughterly admiration, nor is it a love of friendship or convenience. It’s an uncomplicated, organic love from one human being to another. It’s a love of deep appreciation and gratitude for the compassion and respect she displayed in a situation where sterility, ache and isolation ruled supreme.
Even if my love is unrequited, the compassion she displayed toward me was humbling and unforgettable. I’m sure she’s moved on to spread her love to the next hundreds of stem cell transplant patients, each enduring the intense recovery that follows replacement of their entire immune system. No doubt she is there holding hands, petting bald heads, arranging someone else’s stuffed animals against their thin hospital pillows to greet them when they get out of the shower. But it’s okay; I’m willing to share her.
She probably loves me like she loves any of the other cancer patients that she cares for. A love of compassionate obligation? Or was it something more? If it was just “doing her job,” then that woman far surpasses all stated requirements of a “Patient Care Technician.”
Even though a protective mask always covered her mouth, I didn’t need to see her lips to know she was forever smiling. She wore far too much floral perfume and the nurses lovingly remarked that her breakfast of early morning meat chunks at the nursing station would make them all gag. She told me it kept her strong. Her eyebrows were drawn on following a curve that was too drastic in a color that was too orange.
Her words always bubbled over like a pot of water left to boil too long. Her body had the mountains and valleys glorified in Renaissance paintings of nudes. Shiny and polished, her porcelain face was dominated by cheeks rounded out as if in permanent trumpet blowing position. The plump flesh of her stockinged feet seemed to pour over the sides of her thin-walled nursing shoes. She was thick and strong and radiant.
I love remembering this Ona/Aziza/Albutus like I love burying my face in a warm towel right out of the dryer. I love her like I love the whirr of our garage door opening each evening, signaling the arrival of my husband. I love her like I love the feel of our dog’s determined snout snuggling its way in to rest on my lap. If it’s something that brings me comfort, it circles back to her – her voice, her authoritative, but encouraging touch, the bedside talks we had, her reminders to me of the simple fact that I was okay, I was beautiful, and I was loved.
I wrote very few words during my 28 days as a quarantined hospital inpatient on the transplant floor at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. But there was one note I typed on my phone on July 1 at 2:06 pm, four days before my hospital release. It was a quote from my beloved care tech that I’ve held in my heart ever since.
Every day when she came into my room, she’d glance at the chart on the wall that tracked my blood count numbers. They were finally improving and she rejoiced, dramatically:
“Beautiful numbers for a beautiful girl! Just perfect! Just great! Everybody loves you!” She said it like a bird cooing at me, infusing great joy. Her comment resonated so much that apparentely it drove me to type it out – never wanting to forget it.
Her comment came at a time when I felt so ugly and so imperfect. I remember it so vividly I can hear the strong accent of her voice perfectly clear in my head.
Her voice was sing-songy and rolled like a lion’s purr at the back of her throat in a way that both soothed and infused energy. She brought in a beam of sunshine, an ethereal presence amid the constant barrage of the cold metal stethoscopes and the stark antiseptic white of doctor’s lab coats.
“Go shower; You feel good,” she’d push. “I make your bed while you get dressed. Look, I lay out your towels, soap, wash cloth.” She’d open the door to the nondescript bathroom as if it were a palace of marbled floors and brass fixtures. It was far from it.
She was really there because patients like me were not allowed to shower without someone in the room for fear that we would fall from being so weak and woozy. Every morning just as the sun was rising she’d come in to get me going.
“You ready beautiful girl?” she’d ask as she burst in the room donning the requisite mask and gloves, interrupting my quarantine daze with the cheerfulness of a three-ring circus. It was like being greeted by a life-sized colorful Russian stacking doll.
If I groaned that I wasn’t ready for a shower yet, she’d give me more time.
“It’s okay; I be back,” she’d coo. And, she always came back. In a place where there was so much unknown, she was my constant. Her job was to get me up and out of bed and ready for the doctors to come in on their rounds. She ensured that I showered, cleaned, dressed, and moved out of the dreaded bed to sit on the chair in the beams of sun that came through the window.
I remember nothing of the details of what we spoke about, but I do remember how our morning conversations made me feel. She made me feel like a princess to be pampered. She’d wash the overnight spattering of my vomit off the toilet seat back while humming the polka in her deep guttural tone.
She’d clean from the shower the heaps of curly black hair that had tumbled from my head when the chemo got to successfully destroying all of my follicles. It fell to the tiled floor in chunks as I shampooed. It’d swirl around the industrial shower drain, sticking on its way down to the cheap, plastic excuse for a shower curtain and the sliver of antibacterial Dial soap I had to wash with.
I’d groggily apologize and she’d brush me away with a soothing and musical: “Don’t worry. Relax, sweet girl.”
She was a bottle of effervescence who complemented the infusions of chemotherapy, steroids, fluids, vitamins, blood, pain meds, and antihistamines. She injected me right along with the shots given by the parade of kind nurses, but her vial was filled with love in the liquid form.
Those infusions were the daily boosters I needed to push past the sadness and lean toward the light. What is love but rejoicing in the sight of a face and the sound of a voice that is the first that you see in the morning? It was hers that woke me and calmed me on 28 mornings when I could barely see or hear anything else at all.
Compassionate love can transcend a mind and body blurred by heavy narcotics and fear. Love can carry the hope that is vital to making it to the other side alive. That love can come in the most unexpected of packages. Mine just happened to be in the form of a Russian cherub who ate marbled meat for breakfast and tucked the tightest hospital sheet corners I’ve ever seen.