I can see her across the shiny, sterile hallway — or at least I can see her feet. My neighbor. The hospital bed juts out from behind the curtain like a peninsula. Her legs are wrapped tightly in white fabric, her toes and the tops of her feet poking out in a forgotten way. Her toenails are not polished, the skin on her legs pale and freckled. The flurry of activity when I arrived prevented me from seeing her fully. The ladies were blocking my path with their noontime cart. Would you like a sandwich, a fruit cup? The other things are there, too, the ones that aren’t offered — ginger ale, applesauce, saltines. The more sinister offerings of lunch time in the chemotherapy ward, on a shelf below the others as if hiding in shame. Her visitors grab a few items, then turn solemnly back to their quiet corner.
Her doctor arrives and brings a colleague. I hear the rolling pitch of questions being asked, gentle murmurs in response. The illusion of privacy here is as subtle as an elephant. I am embarrassed for her and I turn my head and try not to listen. I see her people now. The young man in khaki pants, his nervous, fidgeting hands climbing the upper half of legs, unsure of what to do, where to be. The couple, so orderly in their suits and collars, pumps and pearls — but their eyes betray them, they are lost and grasping at the empty air. Her husband, her parents…she is young. She is like me. The realization of this hits me and I’m taken by surprise. I let the shock wash over me and steal a glance at my husband, his hands on the iPad but his eyes looking up, at them — at her. He has seen it, too. I say casually, I wonder how old she is? Do you think that’s her son? I know the truth, and still I pretend. No, he says, she is young…those are her parents.
They come for her then, the doctor and his assistant. One is pushing a wheelchair, the other is lowering his voice once more as he turns to speak to her father, her mother. Suddenly she appears as the curtain slides back, her hair dark and close to her head, her face sharp and angular, framed by sunken cheeks. Her arms are two thin rods, bent now around the neck of the young man as he lifts her from her bed and into the chair. She settles into it with a heaviness that belies her slight figure. My husband is also observing this and I panic briefly at the thought of being caught watching her. Instinctively my eyes are drawn to her mother. She is looking at me. She is seeing me. Her eyes are sad and possess a knowledge no mother should have. Our eyes meet several times as the wheelchair is pushed away and goodbye’s are exchanged. I see myself through her eyes, I am her daughter’s past. They are gone with as much activity as they came and I am once more alone with my husband. The infusion rooms are quiet now, we do not speak and turn back to our separate distractions. There is no need for conversation, we are silent in our shared understanding of what we’ve seen. She is my future.