Dealing with a chronic disease can sometimes be like taking a Rorschach test – each person interprets the inkblot of their illness in their own unique way. As someone whose been undergoing treatment for chronic lymphocytic leukemia for several years, I’ve consciously tried to be positive. Last week, I spent four days at MD Anderson in Houston, ranked as one of the top two hospitals in cancer care every year since U.S. News & World Report began its annual “America’s Best Hospitals” survey in 1990.
Each time I arrive, I’m struck by the beauty of the place and depth of camaraderie that permeates every nook and cranny. Each of us arrives, alone or with family members, anxious and filled with trepidation about our diagnosis and treatment protocols. Somehow, however, over the course of our visit, the loving hands of care givers, prayers of spiritual advisors, art, music and beautiful landscapes help us understand and embrace the shared fragility of what it means to be human, and how fleeting is our time on earth. What for some is life’s most difficult journey can for others is filled with elements of aching beauty.
This time, when my driver pulled into the circle drive at the hotel, my friend Carlos greeted me as he opened the car door, with a “Welcome back Mrs. Manning, I’ll get your luggage and meet you inside.” I stepped up to the registration desk and as always, the receptionist asked for my name and patient ID number. I was quickly handed a detailed schedule of appointments including the doctor or lab name, the location including the building, floor, and elevator number. Of course, my preference would not to be on a first name basis with these people, but in a strange way, it was a comforting feeling – like coming home.
Carlos took my luggage to my room on the fourth floor as I headed for the restaurant. My last meal before my procedure could no later than 11:00 that day. The familiar faces of the wait staff welcomed me back as I pointed to the empty favorite table of mine and Inez brought a pot of coffee and a tall glass of ice water to my table when she brought the menu. I chose chicken pot pie, thinking I might as well splurge on my favorite comfort food since I wouldn’t eat for at least 24 hours and began to ponder how I would spend the rest of my day.
I decided to walk the grounds at the hospital complex hoping to set a new daily record of steps on my Fitbit. Twelve thousand shouldn’t be too hard after walking the floor at the San Antonio airport earlier that morning, I decided. On the elevator, I encountered a couple from Galveston and another couple who spoke no English. We exchanged looks, quickly sizing up each others’ circumstance. The folks from Galveston were headed home with good news from the woman’s double mastectomy. And, while I never learned why the other couple was there, as I began to step out of the elevator, this beautiful stranger squeezed my hand and I hugged her close. My words stumble and my throat tightens when I try to explain the empathy and love I feel for and receive from these other patients, total strangers. Perhaps it’s a feeling that we’re all in this together.
Stepping out of the elevator I scanned the familiar huge main lobby, noticing that the Children’s Art project volunteers were selling Christmas Cards, aprons, yard decorations and other small items made from the designs created by children who are patients at the hospital. Click here to check out their amazing work.
While shopping for Christmas cards, I realized someone was playing beautiful guitar music. I followed the music and was drawn to a young man playing his instrument.
His beautiful music, the movement of his hands on the guitar strings and his gorgeous smile captivated me as I stood listening until he finished his piece. “Your music is beautiful,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Rafa,” he smiled.
“May I take your photograph? May I take a photo of your hands? Your music is beautiful!” I gushed.
Blushing, he flashed a wide-open grin and responded, “Yes, of course.”
I added, “May I post it on Facebook and on my website? Are you a volunteer?”
“Yes, yes and yes,” he responded still beaming his beautiful smile.
Before we said good-bye, I asked if he’d like the address of my website and, because he was such a gentleman, he acknowledged he’d like that. He asked, “What’s your website about?
“My book, Where the Water Meets the Sand and fighting the stigma toward people with mental illness…” I replied as I began my spiel. Gracious and kind, he seemed interested.
My encounter with Rafa was a highlight at the beginning of my odyssey that day. He was a kind young man donating his talent, time and goodwill to strangers. When we only focus on the negativity, we often overlook the happiness that surrounds us.
After I left the lobby, I decided to visit the chapel and walk through the gardens. The chapel at MD Anderson is one of my favorite places. A sign on the door reads, “This room is open to anyone for meditation and prayer.”
Outside the chapel door there is a basket filled with small pieces of construction paper. Visitors use them as a prayer
request for themselves, someone they love or anyone who is struggling.
Two of the notes grabbed me. One said: “Thank you MD for giving Denise a successful stem transplant. God Bless All of You.”
The second one was written by a ten-year old: “Dear good make sure My Grandpa Get’s home Safe I’m only ten years old and I want my Grandpa forever Plz Don’t Let him Go Love You Grandpa.”
I said my prayers for Grandpa and thanked God for Denise’s successful stem cell transplant, leaving the chapel filled with gratitude and hope. It’s too bad we forget to be grateful when things are going well. Sometimes we forget to remember how fortunate we are, until something goes wrong and we want the past back.
I spent the rest of my time walking the gardens, and capturing photos of beautiful things and interesting buildings.
By the time I returned to my room, I had logged a little over 16,000 steps on my Fitbit.
That night, I walked and walked some more. The gardens are especially beautiful at night. My last stop before going to bed was the outdoor firepit. When I wasn’t walking, I stared into the fire and contemplated all the good times I shared with my grandfather, PaPa, and with Larry, cooking steaks on our tiny grill outside the back door of our duplex at Reese Air Force Base.
Thank God for beautiful people, places, things.
© Tyra Manning 2017