At the desk, my friend Fran registers for radiation therapy and we take our seats in one of three chilly waiting rooms at Sloan-Kettering’s oncology department. The early-morning sun shines through grimy, rain-spattered windowpanes. Suddenly a diminutive figure breezes in; her black-and-white striped floppy hat all but obscures her face. A raincoat of the same design flows from her shoulders, forming outstretched wings.
She sinks into the last empty chair and in a peppy voice says, “We’d all rather be someplace else, done with all this stuff, but that’s life, isn’t it?”
I stare, mesmerized, as does everyone else in the room. The woman parks her red-wire, fold-up shopping cart — containing newspaper, Danielle Steel novel and lunchbox — beside her chair. When she checks in at the desk, the staffer chides her, “Mrs. G., your appointment with Dr. R. is for tomorrow at 2.”
“That’s O.K.,” she says. “I’m here now. I’d rather be a day early than be called ‘the late Mrs. G.’ You can call me Pigeon; that’s what my boyfriend calls me.”
A giggle goes around the room. She settles in her chair and forages for her lunch, saying: “I’m 86. I have diabetes, high blood pressure, a heart condition and now this. Nevertheless, my doctor told me I’d be fine — therefore I must not give up. It’s all about attitude, isn’t it?”
Pigeon knows that cancer is the common denominator in the room. She greets some of the patients, rejoicing with the college student in remission, inquiring of the mother from France about the progress of her 11-year-old son. Watching Fran go in for radiation, she says to me, “You are a true friend to come with her every day.”
En route by taxi back to Fran’s apartment on 58th Street, Fran doesn’t feel like talking, giving me time to ponder Pigeon’s philosophy of life: that it all boils down to the will to survive, despite all obstacles. Our driver threads his way across Central Park, pausing to make a turn near Strawberry Fields. I watch a groom feeding lunch to his chestnut mare. No sooner has he set the pail of oats on the sidewalk than a flock of pigeons swoops down, sharing the horse’s lunch.
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