Recently, I’ve spent some time at Caring House on Pickett Road in Durham.
It is an aesthetically and spiritually beautiful place all but enveloped by trees, nearly hidden from the road, where guests with cancer can stay – often with a family member or friend – while being treated eight minutes away at the Duke Cancer Institute.
Yet lodging is the least of what’s happening at Caring House. This home and its environs are life enriching in every nook and cranny, even in the stark face, at times, of death.
I’ve been manning the reception area now and again overnight. And it’s while I’m all but stationary in a central spot for hours that I see. Little things, if the stakes weren’t so big.
I observe guests and their loved ones as they go to and fro in the expansive home with a giant kitchen and a myriad places to relax, think, wonder, read, converse and hopefully, heal.
What follows are jottings of a sort I’ve made. There is no order, just as there is often little order in the lives of people battling cancer.
I identify no one in this piece. Before submitting the column, I had the executive director of Caring House, Sheridan van Wagenberg, carefully consider the idea and these words.
1 a.m. 2:30 a.m. Then, four o’clock in the morning, too. A man who cannot sleep. It’s the medications he is taking for pain. He pads down the hall, nods and heads out the front door for some air.
One time he came back in and said the terrible lack of sleep is better than the terrible pain.
I said, “I’m so sorry.” He said: “It’s all right. I’ll make it.”
Surgery on a tumor comes soon.
People are cooking, preparing food, consuming tasty snacks and meals seemingly all the time at Caring House, except when they do find sleep. They share endlessly and save the leftovers for visitors as if the visitors have never eaten.
There is camaraderie in cancer.
A woman who’s here for another round of chemo – she’s had it twice before – talks about a woman she knows who’s smoked cigarettes her whole life, and remains spectacularly healthy.
Fate. What’s up with that?
I hear a man coughing. Coughing bad. It hurts him. He doesn’t complain.
A man with trouble breathing sits on a chair near me and asks if I have a couple of aspirin.
“It’s probably that cancer in my chest,” he said, rubbing the area. He’d just gotten the details.
Aspirin, for now.
Two women sign out, one heading for radiation. I say: “One of you sure smells good.”
The responsible party grins, while dressed as if she were going to the gym. She’s not.
How do the folks here keep smiling?
How do I … how do we fret about the rattle in our car engine, the bill we can’t quite pay, the spot on our rug, while guests at Caring House who need such difficult, advanced medical treatment receive it with such warmth and bravery?
The man seeking out the just-unwrapped newspaper at dawn. He prepares his breakfast and eats alone, eyes on the print.
Each patient here … no, each person here … travels in their own thoughts about the cancer that has caught them.
‘Bad news today’
Then this, last Thursday: A woman I’d come to know best in my first few days, the woman who calls me “honey,” passed by. Head down, moving slowly, which isn’t like her. Usually, she’s inviting me to have a sample of something she’s baked.
“Bad news today, honey,” she said. “Really bad. Totally surprised us.”
She spoke of her husband’s sudden prognosis after some tests. She said hospice was now next, as in within weeks. He looks fine. He’s not.
I got up to hug her.
I’m reminded of what sports anchorman Stuart Scott of ESPN, and UNC, said at the ESPY awards five months before he died of cancer at 49.
“When you die, that does not mean you lose to cancer," Scott said that night. "You beat cancer by how you live, why you live and in the manner in which you live.”
Back at Caring House. A woman all but tiptoes along, with wet hair from her morning shower. A man in a yellow polo walks by with wisdom on his face.
“How are you?” I said as he glanced my way.
He stopped. He hesitated. He didn’t look well. He didn’t feel well.
“I’m a little slow today,” he said. “But not bad.”
Not bad. And to the dining room, and then on to another day of cancer treatment at Duke he went.
You can reach Tom Gasparoli at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-219-0042.