The C Word

My sister always told me, “We don’t get physically unhealthy in our family. No cancer or strokes or Parkinson’s disease. It’s just our minds that go to shit.”

I used to find this vaguely comforting, till my oldest sister began showing signs of dementia. Some might say I’m being too harsh, that’s it merely a strong fixation on her part, but I say anyone who watches Hoarders for more than three hours straight is a nut case.

My paternal grandfather, Grandpa Jones, went batty in his old age. When he was younger he had a temper, and used to beat up Grandma. My Dad was the eldest of four kids, and he tried his best to protect her.

One day Grandpa beat Grandma so badly that Dad decided to stop him once and for all. He loaded a shotgun, but while he was tamping down the bullet, he shot off the top of his index finger instead.

The good news is, it all evened out in the end. When Grandpa went senile, Grandma locked him up in the attic and fed him on Wonder bread she slid under the door. One day Grandpa escaped and ran down the street, naked and babbling.

Or so I’ve been told.

All of which is my way of saying I’m fortunate that I haven’t had to deal with a serious illness.

Last month Cameron’s Dad had a cancerous tumour removed from his skull. He and his wife came to Toronto, where I visited them at a hospice for chemo and radiation patients and their families.

If you’ve never been to a hospice for cancer patients, you don’t know what you’re missing. And believe me, that’s a good thing.

The Princess Margaret brain tumour hospice looks about the way you’d imagine: miles of drab, grey corridors filled with elderly people shuffling about or slumped in chairs.

The main lounge resembles a bed and breakfast I stayed in when I was a kid; an effect made more real by the fact that one wall is filled with Reader’s Digest Condensed Books from 1960.

Looking around, it was hard to see where those billions of dollars for cancer treatment are going. I mean, last I checked, chemo and radiation were considered cutting-edge around the same time as Reader’s Digest Condensed Books.

One place those dollars definitely aren’t going is The Humour Room. This drab little space boasts a few chairs, an old timey television and – I shit you not – a VCR and tapes. An old lady sat there alone as we passed by, watching CNN.

The next time we go, I’m bringing a DVD player and a copy of Dumb and Dumber. Even if it’s their only movie, it’s beats an evening with Wolf Blitzer.

Cameron’s parents, Cameron and I decided to go for a walk. When we got to the end of the block, we turned the corner and found ourselves facing a compound straight out of The Wire. Teenagers huddled in twos and threes, daring us to make eye contact. All that was missing was D’Angelo’s orange couch.

We quickly circled back to the hospice and sat in the lounge for a while. Then it was time to go. On our way out we passed another room filled with books. There were boxes and boxes of them, all donated by volunteers.

“Look at this one!”

Cameron’s Mom held up an old paperback. On the cover was a picture of a keyhole and the words The Discreet Gentleman’s Guide To The Pleasures Of Europe. It was basically a Frommer’s for the raincoat brigade, circa 1976; a sort of European Orgies On $10 A Day.

“Here, take it,” she said, pressing it into my hand.

“I couldn’t,” I protested. “It’s for patients.”

“The sign says ‘Help yourself. Yours to borrow or to keep.’ Why don’t you use it to write some sort of skit.”




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