We all know what our ultimate ending is. We wake up each day knowing this information. We go to work, we interact, we eat, we play, we laugh, we cry, and we go to sleep. For the most part, none of us think or speak about death on a normal basis. Some people only hear or read about it in the news and do not experience it much in their own lives. Sometimes I think the people who never encounter death are lucky. But are they? Are they lucky or is it beneficial to us to experience sadness at some point?
Every day I go to work and I am faced with life and death. As I’ve mentioned before, I work in an oncology office. I’ve blogged about this before, back in November 2013. I blogged about how working in the office has affected me. When I wrote that first blog, I had only been working there 2 months, now it’s been almost 3 years. I have hopped around to many different positions in my time at this office. This past fall though I started working mainly at the check-out desk. I used to fear the check-out desk! Check out is responsible for scheduling tests and follow-up appointments for patients. I think I was most afraid of messing something up or not knowing how to explain things to patients.
By the time they get to me, they’ve already gotten their news, whether good or bad. Every day is a lesson in how to react to people, how to comfort them, how to be kind and happy even when it is hard. Sometimes I want to cry for them, but I hold it in.
These people are undergoing treatment to save their lives. Some end up being cured, some get treatment to improve the quality of their lives, and some get treatment to help maintain a life long illness. Every day these patients with life threatening diseases wake up and actively know that there is a monster inside of them trying to destroy them. They wake up every day and they fight.
I was speaking with a patient the other day that I have known for a while now. I am familiar with both her and her husband. She is typically one to come out with a smile on her face, a bubbly personality despite the journey she is on. She sat down and I asked her how she was doing. That day she kept her head down and her husband answered most of my questions. I had to schedule a test for her to make sure the disease was not spreading.
“So when do you want to do the MRI?” I smiled as I often do, attempting to make the appointment making process easy and quick.
“I don’t want to do it, but if I have to, any day is fine,” she said and rolled her eyes.
I called the MRI department and set her up. I also gave her the time for her follow up appointment for the next week.
“Have a good week, okay?” I said. It can be hard to convey that I care without showing too much emotion. I don’t want them thinking I’m giving them an empty auto-generated “have a good week” response, but I also don’t want to cry in front of them.
“I promise I’ll smile more next week”, she said. “I’m sorry I’m so grumpy. I’m not one to let this get the best of me.”
I didn’t know what to say. I stared at her with a half smile on my face. Her husband caught my eye and smiled and said thank you. They continued on their way, to face another day of their journey.
I wake up every day, roll over and groan as I attempt to pull myself from bed. The first face I see is my husband’s. He smiles in his sleep. He’s always smiling. I on the other hand act like waking up in the morning is the end of the world. I drag myself to the shower and quickly prepare myself for the day because I am consistently running late. I drive to work in a huff, stuck in traffic almost every day.
Traffic and waking up early, these are the things that make me angry? Really? That’s pathetic. I roll over in the morning next to a smiling husband. I wake up every day free of pain and physically able to do whatever I want with this world.
That patient who is suffering from cancer and just got news that it might be spreading apologized for not smiling. That hit me. A lot of things have hit me since working in this office, especially since working at check-out, but that got to me that day. If anything, she has every right not to smile. She has every right to be angry with this world and whoever or whatever it is that decides our fates. She is allowed to frown all she wants. But she doesn’t. Why does she smile?
I see these people who are actively fighting for their lives and many of them are smiling and laughing. They tell jokes and they make the staff smile and laugh. How can they smile and laugh when they know what they know? They know there’s a good chance they won’t make it to their granddaughter’s fifth birthday party. There’s a good chance they won’t make it to their nephew’s wedding next year. But they keep smiling. I think they smile because they can. They smile because they are still breathing. They are still surviving. They smile because they are alive and when you are alive even if there are reasons to frown, you have to will yourself to keep smiling. Every day can be a struggle, but knowing that you still have that day to experience life is comforting. I hope that the staff is also part of the reasons they smile. I strongly believe our staff is a group of some of the nicest people I’ve met. I’ve seen every staff member go above and beyond for our patients.
Death scares me. I won’t hide that. Working in this environment has forced me to come to terms with a fear that I have always stuffed in the back of my mind. I have experienced family funerals as I have noted before in other posts. But it is easier to face death when it is not in your face every day.
This environment has not only opened my mind, but also my heart. Even those who are closer to death than I am are smiling. These patients that I encounter each day remind me that every day is a gift. No matter our situation in life, we all need to strive to find reasons to smile.