In Absentia

“I’m not going to live to see my baby get on a school bus am I?”

The patient said this from her chemo chair in the oncology unit I work in, with tears in her eyes. She was a young mother with a 2 year old son. I don’t remember what my colleague said or how she got past the moment, but I do remember that the patient was right…she didn’t. She was gone within a year.

When told that I’m an oncology nurse, most people exclaim that they don’t know how I can do it. Many times I’ve wondered the same thing myself, you see things so sad that you just want to scrub the memory from your mind. Some memories I’ve put in a mental drawer never to be opened again…or not very often. I’ve been in oncology long enough now to have taken care of friends and relatives and teachers and neighbors and now even co-workers.

But there is this, it has made me remember to live my life, to be present in the moment, to look around my table and be grateful, knowing that one day there would be empty chairs, and now, of course, there are. It has made me leave dishes in the sink and play with my kids, and not leave things unsaid and undone. It has made me appreciate all the joys of life, the great ones and most especially, the small ones. I try to live with the thought that I am also living it for those that can’t.

We have new neighbors across the way, and they have a son who rides the bus to school. I am an empty nester now, and haven’t thought of the bus for a long time. But when mine were small they rode it, and waited in the same spot he does. I would turn them out in the morning, tumbling over each other like puppies, while I rushed around doing various necessary and forgettable tasks. But when I would hear the school bus coming up the hill, I would stop what I was doing and go to the nearest window and watch my babies get on the bus. I did it for me because I knew it was a privilege, and I did it for her, because she never got to.

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