Between the fall of 2003 and the winter of 2005, I lived in the heart of London. It was cold, dense, bright and amazing. When my son was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, I never expected to start considering the hospital a home, much less start comparing it to one of the most metropolitan places in the world. But the parallels between my former city of 7 million and the place my family of three has lived for 24 of the past 37 days and a good percentage of the past eight months have become both eerie and strangely revelatory.
The multiple buildings that comprise the hospital complex resemble one borough of some small city. Gift shops become corner stores, and the barista at the coffee shop on the ground floor begins to remember your name and order. There's a local library. In London, each apartment seemed no more than 10 blocks from some library or bookstore; here, the selection is a little less sprawling. A corner pub would be a welcome addition, but that idea hasn't gained much traction yet. At least instead of street drunks, it's nurses coming in for 4 a.m. lab work that keep us up late.
The hospital's front door has the equivalent of a doorman, who doles out visitor passes as needed. As on a tower block, the front desk often calls up to the room to get permission for these guests. On many afternoons, the main street that connects the hospital tower blocks turns into a sort of community market. Sometimes it's medically focused, with local businesses and groups promoting healthy agendas. Other times, it's a farmers market or a cancer telethon. I recall never knowing what would wait outside my front door in London, either. From protesters and a book fair to individuals at a small table on the sidewalk raising money for cancer, it was an open public space, the same as that offered by the hospital.
In London, I lived in multiple high-rise buildings—the third floor in Islington, up in the clouds on the 22nd in Battersea overlooking the Thames, the seventh in central Bloomsbury. Those varying views serve as signifiers of fond memories. Here at the hospital, we've stayed on the same floor each visit, but the room assignment for each admission changes—and so, the view. Sometimes the sight line is vast as we look east, past the parking decks and construction cranes, into a seemingly endless sky above the treetops. Other times, the window overlooks a dreary roof parapet decorated with colorful sculptures of bugs and flowers, a camouflage for drabness.
Staying on the same floor at least affords some sort of neighborhood feel. We see many of the same families each visit; they become neighbors dropping off some books or asking if the kids can play in the hallway. There's a common pantry and plain neighborly small talk.
Sitting in the family room on what's become our comfortable fifth floor, typing and watching the cars pass by below, I am reminded of the many nights I sat out on my balcony in London typing what I, at 24, considered profound words. If I dug back through that text, I wonder what it would say about my view of city life, my definition of home. I always wanted to be somewhere else, somewhere better. Now, only a few years later, I only want to be wherever is the best for Oliver. Turns out, whether that home has a front door that walks out onto a brightly lit medical hallway or a back door that opens into a verdant backyard is less important than the family inside.