Lady on the Train
On a journey through the Austrian countryside, two women form a remarkable connection.
She gets on the train in Salzburg. As it pulls out of the station, I see her standing in the passage outside my compartment. A European woman in her late 40s, very well-turned-out in a peach jacket and a long, black, silk skirt. I watch her from the corner of my eye, hoping she would walk on and find a seat elsewhere.
She lingers there for a few minutes, looking up and down the corridor, somehow undecided. Then, sticking her head through the door, she asks hesitantly if the other seats are taken. They are not. There are five of them, all empty. Except that I have my feet up on the one in front. I start taking them off, thinking it inappropriate in this oh-so-formal country to be lolling in my seat with my bare feet stretched out.
"Oh leave them be. That's exactly what I had in mind," she says as she slides her bag on to the shelf above. I smile and put them up again as she settles into her seat, slipping off her fashionable black patent leather high heels and putting her feet up.
With that remark, and my smile in response, a little tennis match of pleasantries begin.
I ask if she is going to Vienna. "No not so far, only to St Valentin."
She then asks where I'm coming from. Heidelberg, I say.
"Oh, that's where my homeopathic doctor is. I haven't met her yet, but I am in regular email contact," she says, running her hand over her hair. It looks professionally coiffed, turned slightly inwards at the ends and streaked in darker shades of chestnut.
Before I can respond, she adds, "She is treating me for cancer."
Cancer! So personal. So impossible to leave without comment. Homeopathy against cancer!
I have memories of my friend, Gina, turning to alternative medicine in search of a cure for her breast cancer. Her distrust of chemotherapy, her stubborn commitment to 'green therapies', and her faith in her so-called doctor had been suicidal. Gina died a painful death after an excruciating six months, where her healer denied her painkillers, saying she must feel the pain, she must experience her body battling the invader. It was a long, agonizing battle. In the end she died, beaten and besieged.
My scepticism must have been evident. "Don't worry, I'm doing it along with conventional medicine," she reassures me quickly. "I know I have to try everything."
"Oh, that's good. Very good!" I say, unsure if I should probe further.
She looks at me and guesses my unasked question.
"It's breast cancer," she says, ruefully. "A tumour they found three years ago. It was too large by then to operate, so I had five months of chemo to make it shrink. Along with the chemo, I decided to get homeopathic treatment. I'm so glad I did."
She asked her cousin, a practising homeopath in Vienna, to treat her but reluctant to take on a relative, he sent her to Zurich, to the doctor he had trained under.
"It was a good time to be there," she says. "The crisp, clean air in Switzerland, the sunny days, the quiet, the sounds of the cowbells on the green hillsides, the break from my work, yes, even from my children--they all helped. I healed. The tumour disappeared after a few months!"
I laugh out in surprise. Quick to congratulate and expecting an answering smile, I am puzzled to see a cloud drift across her face.
"It disappeared here," she says and undoes her jacket. Underneath her blouse, she is wearing a white lacy silk halter top. It clings to the curves of her full breasts. She caresses the top of her left breast, the place where the tumour once was and now is gone.
I say, "Isn't that wonderful! Miraculous!"
She smiles sadly at my enthusiasm. "Well, it left the breast. But three months ago they found it had metastasized in my brain. In six places--too many to operate."
Speechless, I look at her. We are silent. The noise of the train is suddenly very loud.
There is a whooshing sound, as the train races through the dark Austrian countryside. The compartment shakes, the windows rattle, the wheels turn, metal against metal, the train against the wind, our time here and now against time running out.
"I've just finished another round of chemo," she says. And suddenly, with a little confessional smile, she dips her head quickly, slips off her wig and shows me her scalp.
"Already the hair's growing out again. See," she says, rubbing her palm gently over her head.
In the harsh light of the compartment, I see the fine stubble on the shiny mound of her skin. It looks white, dried out, like corn stubble on a snowy field.
She slips her wig back on and leans her head back against her seat. She looks at me.
I am overwhelmed. I feel excruciating sorrow at the sight of her hair growing back in a poisoned field. I think of minefields, her tumours lying in wait, for the incautious foot, the careless step.
Not knowing how to proceed, but feeling the need to speak, I say, rather tritely, that the chances of recovering from cancer are so much higher today than in the past, that even in my small circle of friends there are three or four who have had cancerous growths but they are all doing well now. I don't mention Gina. Empty reassurances, when we both know she has a time bomb ticking in her brain.
She is not taken in. "Well, perhaps they were in an earlier phase than I. I know I waited too long. Six weeks at least after I felt the first lump. I thought I'll go tomorrow, next week. There was always something more important."
I say nothing. She turns to her reflection in the window and adjusts her wig.
"Or perhaps your friends had less stressful lives than I've had. My husband left me alone with our children when I wasn't quite 30. I hadn't worked since my marriage. All of a sudden, I had to find work, look after the children and take care of the house. It was all very stressful."
"How many children do you have?"
"Three, between 12 and 18. Also as a mother, you get used to always putting the children first," she says matter-of-factly.
"Yes, I know," I add, although I only had one child to bring up alone.
"You know, I never took care of myself. I never bought myself anything unless I really needed it. Now, when it may be too late, I am changing."
She rubs the soft suede of her peach jacket, lying beside her on the seat, and down the silk of her skirt. They are obviously new purchases.
"Now I do things that make me happy," she says with a big smile. "Things that are good for me. At my age, imagine, I started Quigong [a holistic healing system] involving breathing and exercise! The exercises are wonderful, I feel rejuvenated. That, and the homeopathy. That's what makes me feel so good."
I tell her I do tai chi, and we talk a little about the importance of doing the exercises every day, the strength you need even for such seemingly gentle movements, the positive energy they bring.
The train starts slowing down. The lights of St Valentin pierce the darkness outside the window.
I feel touched by her confidence, by her quiet courage. Not once was there anger or self-pity. Just calm acceptance in the face of the unacceptable.
She slips on her shoes and stands up. She puts on her jacket, brushes her skirt down and adjusts her wig.
The train is beginning to pull into the station as she turns to me. I stand up to shake her hand. Instead, she holds out her arms and gives me a hug. We both know we will never see each other again.