Monday, January 10, 2011

Cancer Man: Old Lang Syne

Gina wanted to give me ten dollars. Over and over on the way back she said, "You ought to get something for this. You're doing me a favor. It ain't much, but it helps, don't it?"

I wouldn't take her money.

"Gina, that's okay," I told her. "I'm doing fine."

At least, good enough, but Gina...

A couple of months ago, I picked her up for a couple of cancer treatments, went to the tiny apartment she was sharing with at least two kids, her daughter and her daughter's boyfriend. Gina was a tiny, mousy woman who moved quickly, but gingerly, as if she didn't get to where she was going soon her back would snap in half.

Her life has been impossibly hard. She didn't have much to begin with then lost her husband when she was in her late 20s or early 30s. She raised a pair of daughters alone, worked every crummy job a woman with limited education and resources could get to support them and it never got any better.

"My parents helped some," she said. "His did, too --and my Grand dad."

She never got over the loss. Gina has mourned her husband these last 25 years and struggled like a fly caught in the web of a very fat and very bored spider. Cancer is just the latest in a long line of insults and injuries leading to her eventual end.

The last time I saw her was before Halloween and I didn't have particularly high hopes of seeing her again. It's one of those unfortunate things I've figured out about driving for cancer patients. By the time they get to needing someone like me to get them to their appointments, they're on their last legs. Their support system of friends and family has failed. They're usually broke and you can feel the fear and hopelessness rising off them like an awful heat.

Gina seemed spry when I met her, but I didn't expect her to last through Christmas. It was the type of cancer, the round of treatment she was on and of course, because she needed someone like me to get her where she was going. I was delighted when I got the call.

"Yes, I'll go. Yes." The details hardly mattered. I'd have taken her to see the doctor at midnight.

In the car, she was all chatter. It was cheerful, but miserable. Her daughter and the boyfriend were in the middle of a move. They had a house they were renting a few blocks over, but she wasn't sure where it was or if she was going right away.

"I might go stay with my other daughter for a while." But they'd been fighting and things were tough with the daughter she was living with now. She felt like she was contributing, but the daughter and her boyfriend kept borrowing money.

"I don't really care about money," she said. "I don't have much and I have stayed with them some." She smiled. "But I watch the kids, too, and buy some of the things in the house."

They always promised to pay it back. Sometimes she'd get a little bit, given to her in little amounts, handed over like spare change. Gina resented it and she didn't like that her daughter opened her mail.

None of them had much. Her daughter was often between jobs. The daughter's boyfriend worked mainly in fast food. He had a criminal record --something he did when he was a teenager.

"But he won't tell us what he done," she said.

The criminal record followed him everywhere. He couldn't shake it and nobody wanted to hire him, except burger joints and pizza places. He can't get ahead and he blows what little money he gets his fingers on.

Outside the door of the apartment there was a swollen trash bag, the transparent kind you sometimes see in restaurants. There were a lot of beer cans; more beer cans than soup cans, more beer cans than tightly tucked disposable diapers.

"He talks about going to school, becoming a paramedic --all kinds of things." She laughed. It was useless. "He's a big talker. He even says he's going to get that felony moved off his record."

She likes him and doesn't mind the money so much, but it bothers her that she doesn't know what it is he did. Gina doesn't know who her daughter is sleeping with. He won't tell them.

On the way back from the doctor, just a consultation, where they kept her waiting for an hour and a half, she points out houses where she used to clean and one place where she used to take care of an old man.

"He had Alzheimer's," she said sadly, like that somehow might be worse than what's happening to her. "Over there." She pointed. "That's where a man was shot."

It's less than a block from where she lives.

She offers me the money one last time before she grabs her purse from the floor and bolts for the alley and the icy steps leading to a battered door closed tightly against the cold.

1 comment:

eclectic guy said...

Cancer and blood series- good stuff. Tragic, but good reading.

"Gina was a tiny, mousy woman who moved quickly, but gingerly, as if she didn't get to where she was going soon her back would snap in half.

That's a description!