The New Sun

Beauty in a Cancer Ward

by Jimmy Breslin

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All day she walked in and out of rooms, bringing with her the needles and sacks of clear harmless looking liquid that actually was chemotherapy drugs and would have somebody in one of the rooms deathly sick within moments.

Or she came with dark red plastic bags of blood. She and another nurse had to stand and read the labels on the blood to each other and then the name and blood type of the patient.

All day she took somebody's frail nervous hand and patted it briskly, sometimes even slapping, as she tried to bring up a vein into which she could put a needle that would start the flow of chemo drugs dripping into the person. One clear sickening drop at a time.

She spoke to them brightly and with as much laughter as possible. It is not a place for laughter, but she tried to put it into the day, anyway. Surely, this day.

Every few minutes she would go to one of the light blue phones at the hallway nursing station and call her sister in Pennsylvania. The closest person to her is her sister, who was pregnant and had started the day out in labor. The sister was taken to the hospital, where they waited for the first baby of the family.

And here in this hospital in Manhattan she called the sister again, "How are you?" she said at first.
"A little busy right now. I think I better get off."
And in the hospital, she let out a yip. "She's having the baby right now."
Not quite. Noon hours went into the afternoon and then the sunlight outside changed to building shadows in the late afternoon.

She was going to leave the chemotherapy ward at six thirty p.m., right after Mrs. Sammin came in. Mrs. Sammis had breast cancer. She had been coming for almost a year. It wouldn't take long to give Mrs. Sammis a treatment and then pack up and run over to the hospital bus terminal and get the seven p.m. bus right to her sister's hospital in Scranton. So she'll get there by ten. This was the family hospital. She had been born there and she worked for the first time as a nurse in that hospital. She could walk in to see her new niece at 10 p.m.

But she was worried that while she would be on the bus, the sister would be having the baby and she would not be the first in the family to get the phone call. She would come in later, like a spectator. Her best friend in the whole world, her sister, and she would be the last to know because she was on a bus.

She looked around at five thirty. No Mrs. Sammis. She made a call to the hospital in Scranton. Nothing.

It was five to six and she stood by the reception desk at the elevators and waited for Mrs. Sammis. The elevator light lit. Out came a woman pushing dinner trays.

At six ten, with anxiety owning the bottom of her throat, she called Mrs. Sammis' doctor in his office downstairs.

"Oh, we didn't get her name off the computer," the nurse said. She won't be coming anymore."

She hung up and stared down the long hall. The ceiling lights had replaced the sun light through the windows.

Of course she had been through this so many times before, but it still meant that it was seven o'clock by the time she was getting her coat and the small suitcase packed for Scranton. It was too late now for the last bus that made sense.

She was going to make one last phone call to Scranton when the woman at the desk called her name out over the speaker and she picked up the wall phone.
"A girl!" her brother-in-law yelled over the phone.
Now she shrieked with joy in the cancer ward.
"She's fine and the baby looks like you!"

She started to talk, but her brother-in-law said, "I have to get off. I have to tell her mother. You're the first one to know. She made me promise. See ya."

She hung up. "One dies, one's born," she said. Suddenly, there was indescribable beauty in a day of sorrow.


Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Jimmy Breslin is the quintessential New York City newspaperman.

His numerous books include -

Branch Rickey
I Want To Thank My Brain For Remembering Me
Damon Runyon
The World According to Breslin
World Without End, Amen
Table Money
Forsaking All Others
The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight
How the Good Guys Finally Won