Friday, December 12, 2014

In the Garden of Angels and IV Poles

“Oh, and wait ‘til you see the angel garden!” Madeline said, “Have you ever seen an angel garden?”

We were on our way to the infusion room. It was my first day with the Oncology Massage Alliance, a group of oncology-trained massage therapists who volunteer to give free hand and foot massages to people receiving chemotherapy. Madeline, the lead therapist, was showing me the ropes.

“Um…I don’t think so. An angel garden?”

“All the IV poles have angel ornaments hanging from them! There are angel figurines and pictures. People bring them in so there’s more all the time! Angels all over the place. It’s wonderful.”

My voice gets high when I lie. “Oh,” I squeaked, “That does sound wonderful.” It didn’t sound wonderful. It sounded tacky.

I can be a bit of a cynic.

I’d say I’m not proud of that, but that’s not really true and you’d know it isn’t because my voice would hit a register that only dogs can hear, so let's drop the charade. I’m a cynic from way back. I was ejected from my eleventh-grade sex ed class for excessive eye-rolling and gum snapping. I have no regrets. The instructor (a gym teacher who’d been saddled that month with “health” class duty) had an appallingly rudimentary understanding of human physiology and his contraception lecture was limited to, “Ladies, place an imaginary pea between your knees. Keep it there until you’re 30.” Eye roll. Gum snap. 

My mother gave me a copy of Our Bodies Ourselves for Christmas when I was nine. By the time I’d reached Mr. Gym Teacher’s class I’d read it cover to cover about 150 times. Frankly, I don’t think I deserved punishment. I deserved a medal! In the face of that nonsense rolling my eyes and snapping my gum was the least disrespectful response possible. He pointed to the door. “Out, Miss Jordan!” I glared at him with my right eye, the left side of my face completely obscured by a curtain of black curls. Eye roll. Gum snap. “OUT!” As I stomped out of the room he intoned like some ancient oracle, “They may take the girl out of New Jersey, but they'll never get the Jersey outta you, Jordan!”

Maybe he had a point. I seem to be an anomaly in my profession. Unlike many of my colleagues, I just can’t go in for fairies, astral projection, or angels (or imaginary peas between the knees, for that matter). I have no problem with those who do, but I prefer science. I prefer the banal miracles of the human body in all its fallen-from-grace glory.

Of course, Madeline is no Mr. Gym Teacher. Madeline’s affection for angels doesn’t diminish Madeline’s super-smarts and so, of course, Madeline was right.

In the infusion room where I volunteer there are angels all over the place. Some of them are made of porcelain, glass, or wood and many of them are, in fact, tacky. Lots of them, however, are beautiful, wing-less and wonderful.

Machines are beeping. Phones are ringing. There are a million and ten things that need her attention and must get done, but the angel with the blue nitrile gloves sits absolutely still. She holds a huge syringe of too-bright, lurid red liquid. She says to the patient, “This can burn if it goes in too fast, so I’m going to push it very slowly. If it hurts you at all, tell me. I can go even slower. Don’t worry. There is plenty of time.

The woman in the corner always comes alone. She never speaks to anyone but the nurses. The angel places a steaming cup on her tray. “I was getting some cocoa for my mom. I thought you might like some too.”

The angel under the blanket is too ill even to lift his head. He is clearly in pain. “No, thank you,” he says and gestures to the worried woman sitting in the uncomfortable-looking chair next to him. “Give the massage to my wife. She needs it more than I do.”

The angels give each other gifts and advice.

“Here, I knitted this hat. It’s softer than the ones from the store. No, no, keep it. I just make them to keep my hands busy…”

“Mouth sores? Yeah, me too. Try canned peaches. They’re slippery enough to go down fast and they’re the only thing I’ve found that doesn’t taste like sand.”

It seems so unlikely, these angels in this unholy garden. From the IV pole trees the shiny bags of chemicals hang like strange, menacing fruit. Blood blooms on gauze petals. There are weeds of needles and tubes. The mulch is piles and piles and piles of paperwork. The ground here seems fertile for hopelessness and despair. But what grows here instead, like persistent green shoots are countless angelic acts of faith and kindness.

The patient is one of my “regulars.” She smiles shyly. “Today is my last treatment. I was afraid I wouldn’t get to see you. I wanted to tell you – I want you to know. You’re an angel for doing this.”

I have no urge to roll my eyes, but I do wish I still had hair long enough to hide behind. I take her foot in my hands.

“Me?” I chuckle, “Far from it.”

I’m just a cynical girl from New Jersey. But sometimes I can see angels.