Years of tending bar in Key West has made it a habit of mine to ask people where they are from not long after they settle into their bar stools. This is a habit that has been a hard one to temper over the last several months. It isn’t necessarily a bad way to start a conversation with new guests at the bar, but more often than not it’s reasonably unnecessary. Considering both bars I’ve worked in since I’ve been back are located in midtown east – not exactly a mecca for people on vacation – it’s a simple assumption that they live, work or some combination of the both in the neighborhood. Still, it’s become an even more problematic question at the new bar:
100 yards away is the Sloan/Kettering Cancer Center. It’s regarded as one of the leading cancer institutes in the country, and to get that kind of recognition means you deal with some pretty heavy forms of cancer.
I work mostly day shifts, so when someone walks in during the middle of the afternoon, especially during the week, it’s pretty easy to put them in one of two classes. Class one is a worker, someone who does finance, business or lawyering. They’re pretty easy to spot, mostly because they seem dressed for the role. If there’s any confusion, all I need to do is listen to them talk for about 30 seconds. Class two, simply put, doesn’t look the part.They could be dressed anything from super casual to “Are you sure you leave the house in that?” They come alone, or with a friend, but it becomes obvious quickly that they aren’t taking a long lunch break from the office.
After the first couple of times my question of “What brings you guys out?” was met with “We just came from Sloan” I knew better than to ask. I’ll listen to people and use the context clues of their conversation to figure out what their situation is. As you could imagine, people who are looking for a brief respite while a loved one is fighting for their life, don’t necessarily want to talk about what they are going through. Of course some days they do. This was one of those days.
A guy walked in with whom I rightly assumed was his daughter. He was wearing a UCONN shirt which I complimented him on. We talked about Connecticut, beers and cocktails, and he was so impressed with the French Martini I made his daughter he gave up his plans to sample all of our IPAs and instead switched to a Perfect Manhattan. (Naturally when he asked if I could make one, I said “All my drinks are perfect.”) Before long the wife/mother came over, and also before long I knew that his daughter was across the street.
He mentioned a little, that she had been at another hospital in the city and had been moved here, but didn’t say much more about it, and I didn’t really want to ask. It’s a personal journey and I’m just the bartender. He had mentioned, more to his daughter than to me, that his son-in-law, the husband of the woman who was receiving treatment, would like the bar not only because of the bar itself but also because we had Hoegarten on tap. The three of them talked among themselves, I chit-chatted a little with them, but mostly we were on our own. Until he asked where the restroom was.
I pointed out the unisex one on the main floor (and don’t anyone get started on that please) but mentioned, as someone had just gone in, there were more upstairs. He told me that was fine, he’d wait, and then he sat at the end of the bar and I realized he didn’t need to use the restroom as much as he needed to talk to someone who wasn’t in the middle of the shit storm that was tearing up his family.
His daughter was not yet 30 and she’d been fighting cancer for 2 years. What started as one type of cancer (and soon turned into stage 4) eventually became other cancers as well. In the middle of this two year battle her boyfriend became her husband. And now they were here, trying to tell each other all the right things when he said the one thing to me no parent ever wants to say to anyone:
“We have to decide if she spends her last days at home with her family or in a hospital room.”
I’m sure it’s something every one of them had been thinking, some more consciously than others. They each in their own way had probably had some reckoning that there was not much more to be done, but the hope and desire of success was outweighing the fear of mortality, and nobody wanted to be the first to say it. Still, he had to admit it to someone just to give him the strength to admit it to himself. Joke all you want about bartenders being low rent shrinks, but y’all do tell us things you won’t tell anyone else just because you need to tell someone.
I didn’t really know what to say to him at that point. I’m sure I muttered the work “Fuck” especially when he told me her age and specifically her marriage situation. I grew up with three friends, brothers all of them, one of which was two years older than me. As an adult he had a girlfriend, they got serious and were planning to get married. Then he got diagnosed with Leukemia. Convinced she wouldn’t want to marry him knowing he carried what proved to be a death sentence, he pulled back his plans.
So she proposed to him.
I don’t have to tell anyone reading this how unfair life can be, and I certainly don’t have to tell anyone that cancer sucks. You can split hairs and say “Well at least she made it to 29/at least she has a supportive family” and so many other things to find the good, accentuate the positive, walk on the sunny side of the street, whatever, it doesn’t change the fact that there is this family who spend their days watching their daughter/sister/wife die and there isn’t thing one they can do about it.
Call me a coward, call me a pussy, call me selfish, whatever, but I don’t ever want to be that father. Hell, I don’t want to be that son, brother, uncle, husband or friend. I certainly didn’t do it because I wanted to, and I don’t even feel like I did it because I could as much as I did it for those who wanted to and couldn’t. But if I could never be in that hospital room again, I’ll take it. And if (when) the situation is reversed, believe me you won’t know. Not until you say “Huh, I haven’t heard from Jack in a while.” I’ve brought too much joy to too many people (and a fair amount of suffering to a few.) Why would I want the last thing I bring to people be so much pain and suckage?
The father came back in the early evening, this time with the son-in-law. (I felt bad. The Hoegarten was flat and we didn’t have another keg.) We talked a little bit more, and I got the icy sense that things, in the span of only a few hours, had taken another turn for the worse. As they were leaving, the father turned to my coworker and I and thanked us. He said that it had been just what he needed, a little respite in the middle of so much crap, a calm spot in the storm. We thanked him and wished the best for his family, but I couldn’t help but hurt, knowing he had a lot more heavy decisions to make, and it would most like be his last calm for a long time.