written by Karen Chen
I was a fake in the workplace a decade early.
The medical residents I talked to were constantly asking me, “Are you planning on becoming a doctor?” To which I always answered, “I’m thinking about it.”
False. If anything, my summer internship at the hospital had solidified my belief that I did not want to be a doctor. For the last three weeks, I had been following medical residents and doctors to many different patients’ rooms, so I could observe their treatment. I quickly discovered that when I spent more than fifteen minutes in a hospital room, I often had to excuse myself and run outside, where I would squat down with my head in my arms, trying to dispel the dizziness and nausea. I hated the antiseptic smell of the hospital and the brooding reminder provided by the sanitation devices every two feet that the building was consumed by illness.
Today, I was following one of the cancer patients to his daily 1 P.M. treatment on the radiation oncology floor. His name was Mr. Pentley and he exuded anger in his identification picture, where the lock of hair that hung over his left eye resembled a scar.
At 12:57 P.M., I methodically rubbed hand sanitizer all over my hands before stepping inside his hospital room. It was darker than I expected; Mr. Pentley had probably been napping. I stood in the corner and breathed in the familiar antiseptic smell, balancing my heels on the edge of the tiles and waiting. The nurses nodded at me before swiveling around to oversee Mr. Pentley making his way from his bed onto the gurney. He grunted softly and faced away from us; then he slowly and arduously pushed his torso off the bed before dragging his legs along as well. And then he was very still as the nurses arranged his limbs on the gurney and pushed him into the hallway.
His hair was now trimmed short. I hadn’t expected that.
Mr. Pentley glanced at me out of the corner of his eye, and the aspect of his appearance that stood out as a stark shadow against his skin was not his neatly cut hair, but rather his glasses. He didn’t have a book or magazine, just the rectangular black frames. It occurred to me that perhaps he was trying to see the world a little better as it was, without the words.
Unconsciously, I reached up to touch my own frames, but I barely felt them. He looked at me with a naked sort of gaze, unattached to emotions like surprise or happiness or disgust, and then just as quickly he looked down. I wasn’t something worth looking at—just another high school intern gawking at a patient.
I didn’t say anything because he was right. Of course he was.
I am familiar with cancer.
My aunt died of liver cancer last summer, less than a year after her diagnosis. The doctors in China originally thought it was stomach cancer, which shaved a few extra months off of her life, as if she had some to spare.
When I was in elementary school, every time my aunt called from China, my mother beckoned me over and hissed, “Say it!” I always dutifully took the phone and said, “Auntie, I love you.”
My aunt would always laugh in a mixture of embarrassment and joy and respond, “Wow, you are such a good child!”
I was always a good child, an obedient child, except when my mother called to tell me my aunt had passed away, I merely said, “Okay, Mom, does that mean you’re coming home soon?”
I didn’t shed a single tear for my aunt. But when my mother asked me if I had liked Auntie, I answered, “Sure I did. She was my favorite aunt.”
That was true. I liked baking egg tarts with her and watching her cook. I liked making conversation with her as we cracked open peanuts. Those were things we could never do again, which I regretted, but I was mainly filled with a sense of detachment. I wasn’t sure where it had originated from, but it was there, strong and sure. A nagging voice inside my head told me I was some cold, unfeeling creature, but it didn’t make sense. I had always been overly sensitive in other situations; I cried for days when my friend broke her leg back in eighth grade, but now, when confronted with what most saw as the ultimate tragedy, I was strangely apathetic.
Maybe you didn’t love your aunt, my inner voice whispered. It’s hard to say whether I did. Even though we shared many fond memories together, that didn’t change the fact that I saw her once a year at best. But I think I did. I think I loved her, and I think I still love her, but I didn’t cry for her, and I still haven’t.
There’s a distinction between loving someone and loving someone enough to spend a lifetime mourning their loss. It’s something I realized recently, as the one-year anniversary of my aunt’s death approaches, but it feels like a weak excuse. It’s too little, too late, but what can I do? How can I change that part of me? What do I do now?
He went in for his radiation treatment with his glasses on.
I stood in front of the gurney as the nurse backed Mr. Pentley into the patient’s transport elevator. Once they were in, I hurried into the small space left in the corner. We rode quietly, listening to the heaves of the elevator sinking downwards.
When we arrived at the radiation oncology floor, the doctors there immediately began cooing at Mr. Pentley. “Hey, Dan! How are you doing?” they asked cheerily. “Want another blanket?”
He gave the barest hint of a nod.
I headed to the computers to look at the CT scan images on the screen. There was a little window on the computer monitor that showed Mr. Pentley lying on a table that would soon move forward into the CT scanner.
The doctor pointed at the picture of Mr. Pentley. “It’s really a shame. He’s only thirty-four, and his second child was just born recently. A few weeks ago, we thought it was the end, but one day his eyes popped open. It was a miracle. But unfortunately, he won’t live for much longer. The cancer has already spread to his spinal cord.”
The doctor was matter-of-fact. He showed no hints of regret or sympathy. He sounds detached, I thought, perhaps as a doctor needs to be.
Mr. Pentley’s arms were still folded over his chest, like a corpse’s. His glasses were perfectly balanced on the bridge of his nose as his torso slowly moved into the donut-like CT scanner.
“This is just to get the CT scans,” the doctor explained. “He’ll go into the scanner again afterwards to get the actual radiation treatment. He’s so good about not moving around. That way, we don’t have to keep fixing his position.”
I watched, my arms stiff by my sides, as he lay motionless on the table. A few minutes later, when the invisible radiation beamed up onto the middle of his back, I sucked a chemical-clean breath of air into my lungs and tried not to cry.
“Why him?” I asked quietly.
The doctor shrugged. “We don’t know. Maybe genetics. Maybe an environmental factor. He’s not one of the lucky ones.”
No, he wasn’t. Not like me, who had always been lucky.
“I can’t go?”
It was springtime. I thought I had finally done everything right: gotten my papers in to my teachers on time, did well during AP testing, qualified for Summer Nationals for fencing. And here my mother was, saying that neither she nor my father wanted me to go to Nationals.
“But I paid the event fees already,” I added. “I can’t get a refund.”
“Compared to what we would have to pay for the plane tickets and hotel, the event fee is very little,” my mother shot back. “Nationals is in Texas! Texas! What do you need to go to Texas for? It’s just a competition, one that you won’t even do well in. You know that when you’re up against all those kids who fence six days a week and compete every weekend, you’ll be squashed in an instant. There’s no need for you to go.”
Her eyes turned hard. “You’ve always been so privileged. You never think about how hard your father works to earn the money you spend so recklessly.”
“I’m not spending it recklessly! I’ve spent a lot of time and hard work over the last four years training, and I finally qualified for this competition – ”
“Well, and I’m telling you that the money we would have to pay isn’t worth it,” my mother snapped. “Are you going to squander our finances just for your childish wants? You’re so selfish.”
By this point, I was in tears. “If we don’t have the money to go, you should have told me earlier.”
“Well, I’m telling you now,” my mother said brusquely.
But a week later, I brought the topic up again: “Why can’t I share a hotel room with one of my friends who’s also going to Nationals? Then we would pay less for the hotel, and I would only have to buy one plane ticket round-trip because then Dad wouldn’t have to come with me, since I wouldn’t be staying on my own.”
“I don’t want you staying with some ‘friend’ of yours I don’t even know! I thought we were over this topic,” my mother said shortly. “And I’m still not letting you stay in Texas alone.”
“But wasn’t money the root of the problem? If the problem is how much the hotel and plane tickets cost, there are solutions, this is a solution – ”
“It’s not the money!” my mother burst out. “It’s because your father doesn’t want to go, okay?”
“What?” My father had always been the supportive one who drove me to fencing competitions an hour away and encouraged me to train even when my mother was against it.
“He doesn’t want to accompany you to Texas for five days with nothing to do. Just the plane rides would tire him out.
“He is just too tired to go with you.”
And that reason shut me up. It was enough.
“Your father has been exhausted lately when he comes home from work. Have you even noticed?”
“What about you?” I said in a small voice, already knowing it was hopeless. My mother had never supported my fencing the way my father had. “You don’t work. Would you be willing to go with me to Nationals?”
“Ha!” she laughed. “I want to go even less than your father does!”
That was the true end to our conversations regarding Nationals. It was the first time my mother had openly confronted me with the idea that I was abusing my luck and privilege. It was the first time I realized that my father was truly worn out—his hair was turning white, he sighed through dinner and had less of an appetite.
That was why I couldn’t compete in Nationals. It had to be enough.
He was thirty-four. His second child was born three months ago. He had a brain tumor. He was receiving radiation treatment on his spine. In a few weeks, I imagined, he would probably shut his eyes for the last time, overcome with regret that he never got to see Reggie grow up and become a boy.
“Thank you so much for letting me watch today, Mr. Pentley,” I said politely, my fingers tightly interlaced in front of me. We were back in his room, where the nurses had helped him struggle back onto his bed. A woman cradling a baby was sitting in the armchair next to the bed, waiting to see him. Beside her, a toddler hugged her arm.
“It’s no problem,” he answered. His voice was gruff and surprisingly kind. As I paused to squeeze hand sanitizer on my hands by the doorway, he lifted his hand surprisingly high and waved to me. He was still wearing his glasses.
I sucked in another deep breath and squeezed my eyes closed. There was that deep-down urge to say something, anything; Do your glasses really make it easier for you to see? I like them but I hate them too. Instead, I swiveled my body away from him and escaped into the residents’ workroom.
I was a fake hospital intern. I could never be a doctor in the future because I would never have been able to treat patients like Mr. Pentley without tearing up. How could I help a cancer patient when I couldn’t even help my own father with his health? Just as there’s a difference between loving someone and loving someone enough, there’s the same glaring difference between caring and caring enough, and I wasn’t sure if I do the latter justice. Thinking back on the doctor’s aloof reaction to Mr. Pentley’s impending death, I realized that perhaps detached was not the right word for it. It would be more accurate to say that the doctor had no guilt or regret concerning the patient. And I do.
The last thing I saw in the dimly lit hospital room was Mr. Pentley turning to the woman and children, his own face broadening into a smile. He poked the baby’s cheek; the infant gurgled. He and the woman then began to converse, his low voice complementing her higher one. Mr. Pentley, who had cancer consuming his body, looked happy.
The moment I stepped into my house’s doorway, I began to wail uncontrollably. In my arms, I clutched the photo of my family that had been perched on the end table and traced the black frames on my father’s smiling face, blowing the snot from my nose and thinking of the droop in my father’s eyes and the words my mother had confided in me a few months after my aunt died:
She was a little more tired than usual on that trip we took to Vancouver, a few months before the diagnosis. I could see it in the way she dragged herself while she walked.
And I had said, Oh, Mom. I hadn’t noticed.
Karen Chen is a 17 year old from New York City, New York. Her writing has been honored regionally and nationally by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards; in 2016, she was an American Voices Nominee. She was also a winner of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Promising Young Writers Program in 2013. In addition, she is a monthly columnist for English Salon magazine, which is a publication used in many schools in China as a high-level academic resource that teaches English to high schoolers. Her work is forthcoming in Visceral Brooklyn and Yo-NEW YORK! In her spare time, Karen enjoys reading, fencing, and doing math.