The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.
Tonight, I’m propped up next to one slumbering husband, one cat, one dog (wonder what the other dog is up to?) and my bag is mostly packed. Tomorrow is the beginning of my radiation treatments in Burlington and my 7 week residency at Hope Lodge.
I hear that crazy wind roaring around the trees and I know those temperatures are falling. The wind is representative of my feelings right now — I am a maelstrom of conflict, resolve, cowardly trepidation and brazen optimism. I feel like an 18-year-old preparing to experience dorm life…
I would have written yesterday, but once I arrived at the Lodge..unpacked and enjoyed both an excellent dinner and conversation…I discovered that I did not know the magic incantation to get the wi-fi to work.
First on my agenda, I went to the hospital for my radiation trial-run. I love that everyone introduces themself to me by their first name — the personalization of my care throughout this journey instantly makes me feel welcome, like I am with friends, rather than nameless curators simply performing their jobs. After being properly arranged in my “mold,” I relax and hear music piped into the room. “We have satellite radio. Do you have a request?” At first, I’m tempted to just listen to whatever is playing, but on a whim I mention, “Well, I do like the 70’s…” and there is enthusiastic agreement that this is an excellent choice. Strains of “The Midnight Special” fill the room, and we get down to the business of walking through my treatment. This is a high-tech dress-rehearsal. We are using a “breathing technique” to shield my heart and lungs from the radiation. I am pronounced a “consistent breather” and pass the test with flying colors. We will fire with live ammo tomorrow.
Hope Lodge borders the hospital grounds, so it was a quick spin around the corner and I arrived at my home-away-from-home for the next couple of months. From the front door, throughout my tour, I was and am amazed at how thoughtfully Hope Lodge is designed and decorated. I instantly feel at home and comforted…yet there is an energy, a creative buzz, that travels hand-in-hand with the zen calm of the fireplace, the nature paintings and arrangements, the natural light that streams into each room through the oversize windows and french doors.
In my room, I lay out my personal items…the cinnamon flameless candle instantly changes the atmosphere of the room from “anyone’s” space to mine. I place it on one of the bedside tables…I have brought a few comfy throws and I place them on the back of the rocking chair in my sitting room. There is a delightful quilt on the back of the couch and I love the splash of color it lends to its neutral upholstery. It’s already feeling (and smelling) more like home.
In the hallway, I meet Irma. She identifies herself as a caregiver at Hope Lodge — which means she is there to support her husband. She reminds me so much of my deceased mother-in-law — impeccably dressed, friendly, slightly hard-of-hearing, but sharp as a tack — she has been folding her laundry and is now heading back to the suite they share. He is suffering from throat and stomach cancer, she tells me. She asks me why I’m there, and when I tell her she says I look great and then confides that she too is a breast cancer survivor. “They’ve come so far now from where they were years ago…”
I am thankful for this too…
Dinner is served at 6. I head to the kitchen early to see if I can help. Paul, the associate that will manage the Lodge tonight, tells me that since it’s my first night, I’m not allowed. Instead, I’m invited to visit with the volunteers preparing dinner tonight; affectionately and collectively known as “The Lab.” There are steaming swedish meatballs and buttery egg noodles, homeade soup, ziti smothered in mozzarella, a vibrant salad of greens, peppers and tomatoes…and desserts. One of tonight’s volunteer chefs is known for her baking ability — she has made a flan, pumpkin squares, and a raspberry swirl cheesecake. Everyone loves it when The Lab is in the house.
We visit over coffee as they busy themselves in the kitchen. They’ve been doing this for years. It started when the hospital split the lab between two floors — it became more difficult for long-time colleagues to stay in touch. They decided, as part of an initiative, to donate their time and talents to Hope Lodge and spend time together doing it. When they embarked on their Tuesday night culinary adventures, Hope Lodge was in a much smaller location. It was just a family home, not the specifically dedicated facility it is today, and they laughed about the old stove. “It was about yea wide,” one of our chefs indicates a width of about two feet with her hands, “and it was slanted — so you had to hold onto the pans to keep them from sliding off onto the floor.” Everyone laughs. “It was nothing like this….” She means the gleaming oversize kitchen with rows of refrigerators, a couple of cooktops, granite countertops and gleaming cabinets full of anything and everything anyone would ever want or need. It is impressive.
Folks filter into the dining room from their respective suites, everyone eating together in the glow of new and old friendships and a kinship — after all, there is something that unites us…cancer. Everyone there is either undergoing treatment or caregiving for someone who is. So, no matter where the conversation may wander — family, pets, travel, work — it tends to drift back toward cancer…what causes it, can it be avoided? How the treatments have changed. Everyone seems so satisfied with their doctors, so impressed with their credentials and skills, equally touched by their humanity. We all seem to have the home or cell phones for our surgeons, oncologists, radiologists — we shake our heads in amazement at such generosity, compassion, dedication.
And each conversation, from group to group, all seem to culminate in the final agreement, that at the end of a day spent at the hospital — whether it be for chemo, radiation or surgery — we are all blessed to have Hope Lodge to call home. We universally concur that the tangible evidence of the great goodness of the human heart is everywhere in this house — and for those of us grown cynical or beaten-down by the barrage of negativity played out in the workplace, the politics, the nightly news — this is a paradigm shift of major proportions.
After dinner, we linger over coffee and tea; realizing we are all bound by this invisible thread. Eventually, I turn in…check my messages…and drift into a sound, restful sleep.
My eyes open at my usual time, 5:18. I have been waken by the spectre of a ghost cat that I swear tiptoed up my side, just like my Bootsie would at home. In my sleep, I reached out, but there was no cat. I awoke confused and disturbed…I could swear that he had been meandering over me.
After a quick shower, I dress and head to the kitchen…where I meet Will. He is vigorously scrambling eggs. I quickly gauge that he is about my Emma’s age and younger than my son, Jon. He is wearing a woolen hat, pulled down tightly over his ears, a t-shirt, jeans….at first I wonder if he is here with family. But, the truth is, every Wenesday, Will prepares his specialty — cheesy eggs (my personal favorite) — for the residents of Hope Lodge. They are delicious and we invite him to join us. I wonder if he is in college, but he responds — almost sheepishly — that he is not…right now. He is a pizza maker and shift manager at a local pizzeria. But, he quickly adds that he is about to begin an EMT class. Will is originally from Charlotte and he listens kindly as I gush over the brick store that I love to stop at. He knows it well.
I ask him why he gets up early Wednesday mornings to do this. After all, the temps were in the single digits today and the wind has been brutal. He could be back at his warm apartment sleeping in after a long day at the pizza shop. He says, “My older sister was doing it first for school…then I took over. I guess I’ve been doing it for about six months.” He smiles and finishes his coffee. “I like to cook.” We thank him…and then he is gone…off into the streets where the puffs of exhaust hang like thin balloons in the anemic sunshine of early morning.
As I write, the intoxicating aroma of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies wafts into the room…A new crew of volunteers have arrived with tasks to complete. I glance at the clock and realize its time to prepare for my trek to the hospital for today’s treatment. I have discovered that Hope Lodge is so much more than a place to stay while going through cancer treatment.
This oasis heals much more than the incisions and wasted frames of cancer patients; it salvages the muddy soul and restores one’s faith in humanity.