Complete strangers regularly tell me intimate details of their bodies, illnesses, and suffering. As near as I can tell, they see my prosthetic leg (and previously my scarred and misshapen leg), and this sign of my suffering and survival sparks an urgent need to share their illness stories with me.
I have received dozens of stories throughout the 28-year saga of my diagnosis, treatment, and recovery from bone cancer in my right leg, as well as my coping with late effects of cancer. Here’s one of my favorite moments, a story told to me not too long after I became an amputee, almost 20 years after I had cancer.
I watched anxiously as the last of the passengers left the gate area, proceeding down the broad airport hallway in response to the gate change announcement. An American Airlines representative gave a distracted smile to me and the man next to me, calling out as she left, “Someone will be back to get you.” I sighed.
“Hope they send someone soon,” commented my companion. He and I were stranded in airport wheelchairs, their stainless steel parts shining in the harsh fluorescent lights.
“Hope so. I need to make this flight, for sure,” I responded, turning to smile at the gentleman. “I’m going to a conference.” A fringe of white hair ringed a mostly bald head marked with several brown age spots. His watery, pale blue eyes were alert and focused on me.
As we waited, the man kept glancing at my prosthesis. “Were you in the military?” he asked, looking at my leg again.
“Ah no. I had bone cancer in my thigh years ago, and the doctors rebuilt it with bone grafts and metal implants. Then a series of staph infections led to the amputation this past summer,” I explained patiently, having answered this question several times already on this trip to other inquisitive travelers and flight attendants.
Pain etched itself on the man’s face. “The bastard took my wife!” I nodded, not sure what he meant by that. He continued, “She had lymphoma three times, and she fought real hard. She beat it twice. And then the third time she, she… She just…” he trailed off, stricken. Ah, the bastard was cancer.
“I’m so sorry about your wife,” I said automatically. “That’s so sad. It’s so… hard,” I finished weakly.
His eyes delved into mine, seeking understanding. “The third time she didn’t want to fight again. She told me she was too tired, that it was time to go.” Anguish twisted his face. “The bastard!”
I smiled sympathetically. “I’m so sorry. I’m grateful to survive,” I said. “And I never understand why some survive and others don’t, can’t, that is, I mean, they aren’t able to.” My face flushed as I stumbled.
“Yeah,” he said, nodding, still looking into my eyes. “Yeah.”
“It’s good that she had you to take care of her,” I offered hesitantly.
“Mmmmm” he responded, nodding. Our gazes held for a few moments, and then he looked off into the distance, seemingly lost in thought.
A younger man strode with purpose toward my companion and released the brakes on his wheelchair without addressing the seated man. With no choice but to go where pushed, my companion headed out. “I won’t let them leave without you!” he called, smiling at me and waving his hand briefly.
“Thanks! Nice to meet you. Hope you have a good flight,” I responded. Soon after, another efficient airline employee arrived to push me to the gate, and I pondered my encounter with the older man as we rolled along.
I am less a storyteller than a story-gatherer. Perri Klass, author of the classic medical school tale, A Not Entirely Benign Procedure, suggested that patients told her the intimate details of their lives because they saw her “as a comfortable repository for secrets,” and I think that is what I have become as well.