I had walked past it several times already but hadn’t thought much about it. It was as unobtrusive as it was firmly attached to the wall at the entrance of the chemo suite at Royal Victoria Hospital’s Regional Cancer Care Centre. I dared not examine that bell too closely as it was reserved for the occasion of the “final chemo” treatment and I didn’t want to jinx my luck. It felt as though only those whose paths had taken them through the other side of cancer could really look at that bell. It was reserved for the survivors. And I was terrified I would not survive.
There were several times, during my chemo treatments, though, that I heard someone ring the bell. It was a celebration. There were a flurry of nurses and individuals who gathered at the entrance of the chemo suite similar to the way restaurant staff merge to sing happy birthday to blushing customer. I saw the exodus. It was really only a matter of seconds. I heard the bell ring. And then – I heard the cheers. I couldn’t help but smile. That ring resounded like a gong throughout the entire facility. It was loud and clear in it’s broadcast that yet another person’s life had been freed from the grips of cancer. We all smiled. It was such a happy, inspiring moment. But, still, I dared not look at that bell.
It wasn’t until after my surgery when I was declared, “cancer-free” that I reconsidered my bell-vision. What a strange transition it was to be granted my time with the bell. It was the morning of my 6th chemo when I lifted my eyes to take a look. It was small, simple, and under-stated. It was wasn’t the bell’s appearance that struck me though. There was something much more profound that was revealed. The bell was mounted on a plaque which was clearly marked with a dedication. Even without my glasses I could read the name, “Ward Charlebois”.
Ward Charlebois. I knew him. I had attended high school with him. He and I had been friends. We shared a great mutual respect. Ward had graduated and went on to become a pharmacist and it was during these years when he met his wife and began a family. We had lost track of each other over the years as was the same with so many of my friends from Eastview Secondary School. Life moves on and I guess I had too.
It wasn’t until my 7th chemo just last Tuesday when I was brave enough to ask the question that had been nagging at me for the past three weeks. The other rooms and dedications at Royal Victoria Hospital had been made in memorial. I was afraid to discover that this bell had also been dedicated in memorial.
“So, are you familiar with the name inscribed on the plaque below the bell just outside the chemo suite?” I inquired of one of my nurses, Kelly. Kelly was, as it turned out, an Eastview graduate as well.
“Yes”, she replied hesitantly. It seemed she knew my next question.
“Can you tell me about him, please? Why is his name below the bell?”
“He donated that bell while he was fighting cancer. He was a wonderful man and very positive – right until the very end.”
Gone. He was gone. I was stunned. How could this be? He was younger than me. He seemed to have such a bright future! And he had always been such a nice person. I had had no idea. Where was I when this was happening? Blissfully unaware. How, how, how was that possible? We get on with our own lives and miss details of others’. It is impossible to follow everything, but how could I have missed this one?
That bell. That bell that I was so excited to ring to mark my new life — was given to “us” by someone who was not able to do so himself. I was torn with the injustice of it all. It was difficult to see that bell in the same light anymore. It was not about me – it was about all of us. That bell had watched as Ward struggled for life – as it had watched over so many others. It had seen death as well as life. Yet, all the while, it had stood as a sentinel and a promise at the same time. It had become the beacon for inspiration. At least – it had for me. I had been working towards being able to ring that bell for a very long time. I had worked for it and it had worked for me. We had toiled together. That bell had been for all of us fighting cancer. It was Ward who had given “us” the bell.
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.” (John Donne)
(Post dedicated to Ward Charlebois and family)