All the time I was running away in a blind panic from the hospital on Ash Wednesday afternoon, a small but perfectly calm and reasonable voice in my head was saying it was probably a bad idea.
“You know, this isn’t going to make you not have cancer.
“And you’re going to have to go back. You’ll be all embarrassed and people will be mad at you.”
On the train on the way into the City that morning, Christopher had given me two presents. A little pink leather Agnus Dei, a tiny heart shaped votive object that I put into my wallet, and a rather precious thing, a first class relic of St. Thomas Aquinas in a little metal container. “I read yesterday that St. Thomas cured a woman who was suffering from an issue of blood.” I put it carefully into my purse, along with the documents that verified it.
It had fled my mind at that moment that that day was Ash Wednesday. It was the first time in many years that I had not got my ashes. Christopher said the same. One might have hoped that this important spiritual date would have inspired more confidence, perhaps that what was happening was at the very least being monitored by God or maybe one of His friends. But all of that would have required a functioning rational capacity.
I was standing in the car bay in front of the emergency room, on the phone telling my friend the art teacher about cancer when the ambulance driver came up to me. “Mrs. White? Are you Mrs. White?”
It amazes me that in a place as huge and apparently chaotic as a large urban hospital anyone knows what anyone else is doing. But after we had gone out for some air and sun, after I had ceased to be capable of helping myself or even of feeling the ground pushing up against the soles of my feet, someone in that dark jungle of bustling, chattering people had made a phone call and we were to be taken off to the next stage.
It appears that the Gemelli is made up of a main, monolithic terribly ugly, and incidentally cruciform, building and a number of smaller satellites. We climbed into the back seat of the ambulance, Christopher smiling hopefully at me. “Ambulance ride!” he said. I laughed with a sort of brief snort. He the one who, the few days before, had been trying to convince me to go to the emergency room with the promise that in hospitals they, after all, bring you breakfast in bed every day. And ice cream.
“Yes, when you’re six!”
The ambulance driver talked into his cell phone the whole five minute ride, leaving Christopher and me to the task of calming my now nearly hysterical brain. It had begun chanting the one word it remembered of the last hour, “Cancercancercancercancer…”.
We got out of the van in front of a more pleasant, somewhat less Stalinesque building. On one side of the driveway was a tall hill with a statue of the Sacred Heart. In front of the entrance, a little garden with a tulip magnolia in full bloom. Inside, more chaos chaos chaos. We followed the ambulance man to a hallway with chairs along one wall and were told, “Aspetta qui.” Wait here.
In a surprisingly short time, a middle aged nurse came and found us with a clipboard of forms in Italian to fill out. Being Anglos, we set about deciphering the code right away, with my aversion to government form-filling kicking my anxiety level up another ten notches.
“No, no. It’s ok. You wait. Do later. Tomorrow maybe.” The nurse gestured toward the elevators and we bundled up all the luggage and followed.
The ward was not unpleasant. It was clean, there was no one screaming. But to my horror the rooms, all double, had no curtains or screens around the beds. I had forgotten the differences between Italian and Anglo standards of privacy. I was going to have to watch procedures, cleanings. And be watched myself. There was a closet with a small safe, a lock on the door.
I knew that day that Christopher had to be on Vatican Radio and the time was getting close when he had to go there. All assurances that everything was going to be fine. The old lady in the next bed had her daughter visiting. Like a good Anglo, I tried to observe custody of the eyes.
The first doctor we saw came in and spoke to us in Italian. She paused, “You don’t speak Italian?” I shook my head, “Not enough.”
“It’s ok, we can speak English.”
She asked the questions, medical history, family history, allergies, date of birth. I perched on the edge of the bed answering. She was a young woman, perhaps in her thirties and smiled kindly at me, and said that things were going to be ok. I was to have a chest x-ray and an EKG as preparation for surgery later that day. These were being arranged.
She left us a few minutes later and then the form-nurse came back. I signed consent for treatment, consent for medical records, some other things. Then Christopher was talking and I was answering.
“Why don’t you lie down and pull the blankets up?”
“Because then I would really be here.”
“That’s silly. You should lie down. It’s going to be all right. At least take your shoes off.”
“Hospitals really scare me. They really scare me. The last time I was in a hospital no one there had my best interests at heart. Really bad things happened.”
“All these people want to help you. They’re going to be very nice to you. They’ve been really nice to you so far, haven’t they? The doctor in the emergency room was nice.”
“There are demons in hospitals. I’ve been reading and writing about medical things for a decade. Hospitals are full of monsters.”
“This is Italy. They don’t let demons into hospitals here. And it’s a Catholic hospital. I saw there’s a chapel on the top floor. They’ve probably got the Blessed Sacrament there. There’s a crucifix on the wall. Demons wouldn’t come here.”
As we were discussing diabolic infestations in North American hospitals, the chaplain came in. Late middle aged, dressed in a clerical collar and white doctor coat, he smiled at us.
“Catholics?” he asked, heavily accented.
That was all the invitation he required. In Italian he said, “Well, let’s say a little prayer.”
Prayer to the guardian angels, Hail Mary, a blessing, then he was off with a smile.
“See? The devil would never come near that guy.”
“Ok, I believe you.”
We checked that the lock on the closet worked, looked in the bathroom, put the forms I had signed and the St. Thomas relic into the bedside table drawer. I took off my shoes and Christopher cranked the head of the bed up and hung up my coat. I curled up and tucked my cold feet under me for protection and still refused to touch the blankets. The doctor came back once or twice and a nurse came in and took another blood sample from me. Another came in to look after my elderly roommate. She was cold and Christopher pulled her blankets up over her. We waited while I breathed and shook.
Christopher, who had been listening at the time, told me again everything the doctor had told us in emergency. That I was young. That there was no reason to think that I was going to die of this. That this was one of the best reseach hospitals in Europe. That there are a lot more things they can do now than they could do for my mum. That there was a chance they had caught things early. I wasn’t going to be alone. Everyone has said they want to help.
“Do you want me to organise a team so there’s always someone here?”
Things became quiet in the ward. It was getting on for the afternoon riposo, and time for Christopher to go be on Vatican Radio. He had been invited to comment on the Papal Mass for Ash Wednesday. He really had to go and he’d come back later. Gregory was going to come later too. He was going to leave his computer with me. It had the full collection of Firefly and the Blues Brothers and Canadian Bacon and all sorts of funny videos. Here were the headphones. Here was the internet stick. Make sure that if you go out, you lock it in the closet.
He had to go talk about the pope, so I smiled and said, “Shoo.” Normal life. Things need to keep happening, people have to keep doing things.
“You’re going to be fine.”
“Yes. Go on. Go.”