A slim, fake Christmas tree stands close against a set of chairs in front of the nurses’ station at Missouri Baptist Hospital’s Cancer and Infusion Center outside St. Louis. Oversized gold and silver ornaments and tinsel cling to the tree’s nylon branches, which sway as the nurses, treatment counselors, and orderlies hurry to serve their patients.
A few feet away, a string of red and green letters spelling “Merry Christmas” dangles in a low curve from the ceiling. Air blowing from the heating vents causes the letters to dance and twinkle in the fluorescent light.
Beneath the string of letters, I listened to Martha, mother of four and grandmother of nine. She was in a treatment lounge chair near mine. We were not introduced. However, I turned my head when a woman sitting next to her commented on Martha’s wig.
“This one is much better,” the woman said to Martha. “Almost looks lifelike.”
Martha smiled and reached up to touch her new hair. “Yes, it does. I think it’s a real improvement, don’t you?”
Small things matter now, such as how Martha’s bangs frame her forehead and curl over her ears. These are the elements of her life she can control. Everything else depends on how her body responds to the pint bag of clear fluid hanging from a metal rod by her head. As she touched her wig, the fluid trickled down a tube toward a pump sewn into her shoulder.
Martha was worried. Thanksgiving was in two days, and she was expecting 30 house guests – family and friends from across the country. She wanted to feel well enough to see them, enjoy them. The last time she was here for treatment, three days of nausea followed. She vomited so hard a blood vessel burst in her eye.
“I can’t be sick this time,” she told her friend. “Every moment this week has to count, you know?”
The Infusion Center is a broad, open room subdivided into small, curtained cubicles. This is where cancer patients receive chemotherapy treatments. Each cubicle contains a reclining chair, a pump to dispense intravenous fluids, and a small flat-screen TV.
Treatments can last hours depending on the dosages and immediate side-effects. The nurses do what they can to make patients comfortable: warm blankets, cool drinks, conversation. One walks around with a guitar and offers to sing the patients’ favorite songs.
On the day Martha and I were there, all 35 cubicles were occupied.
Three weeks later, a young woman named Karen was in the recliner nearest mine. The curtain was drawn between us; she requested privacy. A nurse pulled up a rolling chair next to Karen, and they began chatting.
In August, Karen received her master’s of Business Administration. She already had two job interviews scheduled in New York when she walked onstage at Washington University to accept her diploma. Karen blamed the summer-long exhaustion that came with her across the stage on too much studying. Her parents insisted she get a checkup to be sure.
The nurse listened as she prepared Karen’s first chemotherapy treatment.
“I wish I could plan. I wish I knew what was next,” Karen said, “I feel I was just getting started. Now, I don’t know.”
The nurse’s voice was calm, reassuring.
“You should go ahead and plan. It sounds like you’ve got a lot going on. And it’s always good to be optimistic. Helps with the recovery more than you know.”
Karen said she was trying to keep an open mind, but it was difficult. “Nobody hires someone with cancer.”
The pair turned quiet as the metallic clicking and snapping sounds of chemo treatment preparation continued. Then:
“Is there someone here waiting for you?” the nurse asked.
“No,” Karen mumbled. “I don’t want anyone seeing me this way.”
On my third visit, I was sitting near the Christmas tree awaiting an open cubicle. Across from me, also waiting, were two women with Kyle, 8, a slight pale boy in flannel pajamas, SpongeBob slippers, a blue knit cap and a big smile. Kyle squirmed in his seat. The women – his mother and aunt – were tickling him. He giggled. He charmed the nurses, the orderly pushing a mop bucket, the woman with the guitar.
“Looking good, Kyle. Like the hat,” said Amy, the social services counselor, whose white smock fluttered against Kyle’s ears as she breezed past.
“My sister made it for me,” he said happily. “She’s 13, you know.”
Kyle’s initial leukemia diagnosis had come before he turned 5, which means his lifetime of memories is framed by the disease. He knows everyone’s names at the Infusion Center, including the volunteers who work without name tags. He sparkled like the Christmas ornaments. They bounced and clanked as his chair nudged the tree.
It occurred to me at that moment: the ornaments were oversized because everything else here is, too – the love and the loss, the plans and dreams, the joy and pain, and the laugh of a little boy awaiting his next dose of hope.
Each of us carries around a gift too great for the space in our hearts. Yet we take that gift for granted because it fits neatly within the container of our lives. This holiday season, pay special attention to those great gifts. For millions like Martha, Karen, and Kyle, they are the most precious any of us ever possess.