Where I live, in my hallway, Vanderbilt Hospital rents 6 of the 10 apartments to accommodate cancer patients who come from out of town for treatment. Every few months they come and go, so the four renters are always meeting new families. I was walking in from taking out the trash when Butch, a man with whom I’ve spoken a number of times over the last couple of months, asked me how I was doing. I said that I was just settling back into the workweek. He said, “Wish I had that problem; we’re going home.” I didn’t understand at first and politely wished them safe travels, but this time they weren’t just visiting home for the weekend. He said, “They can’t help me and are basically sending me home to die.” I have no idea what to say to that. Life can be so miserable sometimes then it’s all over. Three days earlier he’d told me in the hallway that his “blast cells” were over 20%. I didn’t fully understand the severity of that when he told me, but now as I recall that conversation I can see the somber resolution in his face; he knew he was going to die. They offered me the rest of their groceries, which I humbly accepted and then strategically piled into my freezer alongside more groceries that were given to me by a previous patient, Jackie, who, only a couple of months ago went home with better news. They both gave me Popsicles; apparently chemotherapy limits what one can comfortably eat.
Only a couple of weeks before heading home for the winter holiday season I had a conversation with Butch. He was short and slightly stout, a southerner from Kingston Springs, Tennessee and not at all prone to balderdash, but he went on about how he loved to work on engines. In his old pickup truck he had installed a 350. Maybe it was a 360; I’m not sure. Despite me telling him that I understood nothing about cars, he still lit up when telling me about his love for working on them. I politely listened and tried to converse even though I felt awkward trying to talk about cars.
Our conversation drifted to the weather, as most do when they lose their volition, but then he told me how he had placed a feeder in the trees that lined the back parking lot. For the previous few days he’d witnessed an old, female squirrel whose body was worn. Her repeated attempts to jump from the ground into the dumpster to scrounge for food were all failing. He knew she wouldn’t make it through the winter. He said his favorite hunting was squirrel hunting, but he clearly had a love for animals and nature. He gave that old squirrel hope; now I wish I could give him some. I sincerely hope Butch makes it far beyond winter.
Living here has been a remarkably enriching experience. The neighbors are friendly and the cancer patients have given me a whole new perspective on my life. I remember one day I was standing outside in the common area. Exiting the hallway was another neighbor whose name escapes me but she was coming directly to find me. I had told her I worked in the online industry so that instantly pegged me as the nearest computer technician. The provided Wi-Fi was not working and she asked if I could help them fix it. After about thirty seconds and two clicks, the magical interwebs had been restored. She thanked me, and I jokingly said, “That’ll be $185.” We laughed, but I’ve never seen that couple again. They must have gotten their leave one day when I wasn’t home. I hope they went home with good news.
Butch didn’t go home with good news but his stoicism that lasted until the end has left a mark on me. Whether you prefer carpe diem or yolo, the fact is our time is limited. If we aren’t doing the things we enjoy with the ones we love, we are wasting precious time. As he and his wife solemnly pack their belongings, I’m wondering if Butch will ask me to watch over the squirrel for the winter.