He took a seat in the waiting room with a big black bag. I always carry too much with me to appointments – books, scarves, a little embroidery kit from a friend. But he took paintings out of his bag, canvas stretched over wood frames. He started wiping each one down with a rag and then exclaimed – one of his canvases hadn’t dried properly, and he had smudged bright orange paint across the artwork.
In the quiet stillness of the waiting room, I watched him attempt to fix the problem. He started with more wiping and – therefore – more smudging. Then he walked across to the kitchenette and tore the plastic wrap from the tower of disposable cups. He struggled to rip open and un-crumple the sleeve so that it would cover the mess on the rectangular canvas.
The waiting rooms at the cancer center are usually full of people pretending they don’t see each other. We politely leave as much distance as we can, allowing each other the illusion that we each have our own personal sphere in this public place.
But bringing a bag full of paintings into the waiting room seemed to suggest the usual etiquette could be waived. In my bags of everything, I had a plastic wrapped copy of a New York magazine – and it seemed the envelope would at least provide better coverage than the crumpled-up cup wrapper he was wrangling. I walked over to offer it, together with the small set of scissors from the embroidery kit. He smiled, and said “You look more organized than me, do you want to do it?”
I sliced open the plastic pocket and slipped it over the canvas, my fingers catching blobs of orange paint. I ripped the center pages out of an old Economist magazine for the edges furthest from the smear, and the whole canvas ended up neatly and completely covered.
“When I was in high school,” I told him, “I remember getting in trouble from my art teacher for leaving the paint too thick. I feel like I got in more trouble in art classes than in any of my other classes. Even though it feels like the kind of class where you shouldn’t really get in trouble at all.”
And so we started talking about education, and then work, and then other things.
“One of my collectors is a lawyer for people facing the electric chair,” he told me.
“Australia doesn’t have the death penalty.”
“Neither does New York. Did you hear that the Pope recently condemned it?”
Our conversation morphed into a discussion about breaking from tradition, and how the Pope was doing it, and whether Trump was also doing it, and whether it was different if the breaking of tradition was guided by other, deeper principles.
He told me the paintings were offerings for the nurses. Eventually, we talked about cancer. Samuel, in his 70s, was in remission from multiple myeloma. He had also had a bladder cancer scare, and knew it was a rarity in someone my age and gender.
“But I thought bladder cancer was very curable?” he asked.
“Well, it isn’t once its metastasized. It’s in my lungs, my liver, my spine…”
“But you look so well!”
I enjoy hearing those words. I felt I had encouraged them that day, in my red rain boots, my yellow leather skirt, the fire-toned silk scarf turbaned on my head.
He looked at me with a new interest. “Has your attitude always been so…” I can’t recall the exact adjective he used. Something like good, calm, steady. He went on to try and clarify: “You don’t display any… hysteria about it.”
But our discussion about attitudes was cut short by the nurse calling him in for treatment.
I’m usually in waiting rooms with people much older than me. I usually feel distant from them – not just because we carefully ignore each other, but because it’s hard to see myself in them. My peers are the children and grandchildren who accompany them to appointments. My peers are the doctors and the nursing staff, doing their daily work – like I would be doing except for this illness.
But that day, I was given a glimpse of what it feels like to bring your personality – your paintings – into this space. Of allowing your edges to messily merge into the other people waiting. That these rooms are full of humans, not patients. That sometimes it feels good to have your hands covered in orange paint while you wait for a blood transfusion.