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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, May 20, 2005

The B.C. Cancer Agency

This morning I drove Kimmie and Robin downtown to the B.C. Cancer Agency for Robin's 8:15 appointment. Robin was diagnosed with a phase 1 melanoma a couple of months ago, and had it removed from her inner forearm. She was booked for an all-over exam at the Cancer Agency. Besides being groggy from having to get up so early, Robin showed not the slightest fear or depression at going to the Cancer Agency. She was calm and cheerful throughout.

The B.C. Cancer Agency is located in a hospital building adjacent to but administratively separate from Vancouver Hospital (formerly Vancouver General Hospital or VGH, the abbreviation still on all the signage). The neighborhood, Fairview Slope near city hall, is beautiful: on the brow of the long rise from False Creek, narrow streets once paved with flagstones are shaded over by great leafy trees among the office buildings and the occasional old house surrounding the block-sized hospital complex. This morning it was overcast, breezy, moist.

At reception Robin had to fill out a questionnaire, then we were sent to the 2nd floor to wait in a small bay off a corridor, opposite room 8. Through a doorway behind me was a larger, more bus-depot-sized waiting area with a few people in it. I took my "sketchbook" with me--a hardcover notebook in which I sometimes write descriptions and impressions of my surroundings. I've tried to remember to use it more again lately. Here is an extract from this morning's entry:

Hard-wearing carpet of grayed rose: grayed peacock-colored chairs. An older couple in 2 of the other chairs: crewcut man in dark jeans & pale-blue shortsleeved check shirt. Soft oldish voice. Farmer? She is round, plump, almost squat, in navy cardigan & navy pants; hair cut mannishly & suspiciously dark. Flat tanned face.

Room 8 is opposite me: shiny linoleum floor, fluorescent-lit like the whole rambling building. Through the functional aluminum-edged window @ the end: another squared-off modernistic bldg, with green oblong windows & a large circular window, the bldg itself brain-colored.


Kimmie and I accompanied Robin in to the examination room, where the plainclothes female assistant cheerfully told Robin to remove her shoes so she could be measured and weighed, then she would have to undress.

"Welp," I said, "here's where I cut out."

Kimmie came out with me. While Robin was calm and relaxed, Kimmie's eyes were brimming with tears. But her eyes often brim with tears.

We went down to the cafeteria to have a muffin and coffee. We sat looking across 10th Ave. to a plain cream-colored institutional building with blank square windows, now part of the Cancer Research Center, but formerly a civil licence office and a VD clinic. It was the building where my parents were married in 1959, 10 days before I was born. It was also where Kimmie's recently deceased brother Freddie was married to Evelyn in the early 1960s.

I have another connection to VGH: I worked there as a janitor off and on between 1976, when I got a summer job while still in high school, and 1981, when I finally quit for the last time. I was 17 that first summer, and 22 when I left--a powerful and often painful time in my life. I saw my first corpse; I saw surgery close up and cleaned blood-spattered ORs; I saw people comatose, broken, burnt, sick, and suffering; I experienced feelings of attraction and even love for nurses and other women I worked with.

One vivid memory is of July 1, 1976, Dominion Day, my 2nd or 3rd day on the job. I was sent to Fairview Pavilion, one floor of which was devoted to geriatric care. Confused, dejected, terry-robed old people occupied the wards. A few sat in wheelchairs out in the middle of the corridor. One of these was an old man who beckoned to me. Since I wasn't supposed to have contact with patients, particularly, I approached warily. He kept beckoning and whispering something. I couldn't hear what, so I walked closer.

"Pardon?" I said. "Pardon?"

I bent to put my ear close to his mouth. Now I could hear him:

"I want to go home."

I looked into his eyes, which were bright blue, and felt a pain in my heart.

"Yeah," I said, "I don't blame you."

He kept repeating it, and I backed away, feeling bad.

Robin was finished long before we expected. No new cancer, but she is at high risk with her white, nontanning skin, and will have to be vigilant. I did an errand in Burnaby, then took us out to a Mexican lunch on west Broadway. The sun was coming out; the trees were lushly green; it was a lovely day.

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