CBC Literary Prizes

Funhouse Mirrors by Alison Hughes

Alison Hughes made the 2021 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist for Funhouse Mirrors.

2021 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist

Alison Hughes is a writer and university writing advisor living in Edmonton. (Samuel McInnes)

Alison Hughes made the 2021 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist for Funhouse Mirrors. 

She will receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and her work has been published on CBC Books

Chanel M. Sutherland won the 2021 CBC Nonfiction Prize for Umbrella

If you're interested in the CBC Literary Prizes, the 2022 CBC Short Story Prize is open for submissions until Oct. 31.

You can read Funhouse Mirrors below.

They come into the room as a unit, like partner-cops — determined, wary, expectant, trailing suppressed momentousness. The set, purposeful faces of people approaching border guards, hands tightening on their bags, a quick scan of the territory, then focus, focus. 

It's their turn. The biggest turn of their lives.

First-timers, I think, idly glancing up from my book. Wonder which of them it is. Hard to tell when they both still have hair.

Looking straight ahead, the couple brushes past the friendly old guy in the recliner near the door — the lifer, the weekly, the fixture peering through bifocals at the perpetual crosswords — and follows the clerk to a bed by the window. She goes first, he follows.

So, it's her; he looks like the type who usually leads, has probably led throughout their 30 something year marriage. 

Him: well-fed, tanned, one of those bullet-proof, no-iron politician blue shirts, khaki pants. A golfer for sure. Dentist? Accountant? Her: trim, lined, three kinds of blonde, Lululemoned, peering. I imagine them running or biking in expensive gear, top of the line, or marching their tiny, neurotic, purebred hypoallergenic non-shedding dog who's straining diagonally away from them on a leash.

I hear him ask the clerk why they were given a bed, why not a chair? I notice the plural, the cancer equivalent of "we're having a baby." They're in this cancer, this chemotherapy together, by god. 

But the bed/chair dilemma had panicked me the first time, too. They really should have a sign: Bed/Chair Assignment is Completely Random. I'm in a recliner, hooked up, halfway through. Jumpy first timers always assume the allocation of a bed instead of a recliner is sinister hospital code, shorthand for sicker, later stage, red alert. Upright, sitting, lying, grave. 

"Just what's available, we just go in order," the clerk says, her face blank. 

"Greg, it doesn't matter, this is fine. Look, window," the woman says, intercepting further clerk interrogation. Divert, divert. The couple turns to their window, him, hands on his hips, her, hugging her waist, looking at the thin sliver of blue unsullied sky. 

"Nurse will be over soon," the clerk says pointedly to the woman, sliding the clipboard onto a hook at the foot of the bed. He glances at the clerk's retreating back, grabs the clipboard, fumbles for his reading glasses, flips pages, frowns.

She slides off her shoes and slips into the bed. 

The bed is where it happens

I look over expectantly, shamelessly; the ward is one big bedroom, practically a sleepover. Relentlessly public, like it or not. Only one of the many stations has its curtain pulled. 

The bracelet or gown can be worn, the green plastic cancer card carried, brandished at endless uniformed officials, but the act of lying in a hospital bed is when a person finally becomes, unequivocally, a Patient.

This is the interesting part. The transformation. The bracelet or gown can be worn, the green plastic cancer card carried, brandished at endless uniformed officials, but the act of lying in a hospital bed is when a person finally becomes, unequivocally, a Patient. 

There, she sunk back, sighed, closed her eyes, surprised by weak tears. I look down at my hands remembering that first time, the surprising tears, the weary head-roll, the sudden, infantilizing consciousness of weakness, frailty, sickness, of actually, truly being, imminently, the recipient of chemotherapy. Cancer made dreadfully real. 

He, Greg, is unaware. He frowns, flips.

Some people feel the need to chat inconsequentially during the transformation. Nurse, clerk, support person, unlucky bed/chair neighbour. The weather, the season, current events, sports, any touchpoint of normalcy. "Help me, help me," as loudly as if they'd screamed it. 

Others sit jackknifed uncomfortably in bed, perch at the side of the chair, overly hearty, joking, up for a laugh, all good, all good, fine just fine, a 100 per cent! Resisting, resisting, resisting. 

In the end, we all lie back.

He unpacks methodically for his wife: fleece blankets, sweaters, slippers, Gatorade, clock, journals, pens, laptop, two novels, a candle, framed pictures. He swings the wheeled, laden bedside table over the bed, pinning his wife there with possessions and memories, diversions and distractions. There is an aura of industriousness, almost festivity to him. 

" ... we'll get it all down, hon. Google every last med when we get home, get a handle on it ..."

Well, that sure sounds like some awesome post-chemo fun. 

I glance away, grateful to have always refused the additional burden of a support person. Better alone, no brave face, no solicitude, no small talk, no explanations or obligations. Just me and the bag of poison, staring into each other's watery eyes before the duel. 

When I look up the woman in the bed looks away just a split second too late. New ones always stare at the head. But if you can't go scarfless, hatless, wigless in the chemotherapy unit, where can you? 

Get used to it, hon. Your future, coming down the pipe.

I only went scarfless at home, during chemotherapy, and when I was walking alone in the trees, discovering unfamiliar pathways of wind slipping, cold as trickles of water, over the channels of my bare scalp. Otherwise, that horrible wig, a brigand silk scarf, a cotton beret. All hot, too hot on this July day.

The couple's nurse, a Filipina named Carmen, is my favourite. She has a big garden and a big family, laughs easily, is capable and unhurried and is exactly the person you would want with you when you die. 

"He-llo, Glo-ri-a," Carmen says to the woman, her sing-song voice like a hymn. "I have your med-i-cine." She snaps and twitches the IV tubes and cords busily, like a roadie setting up a stage. She chitchats easily, relaxing even the husband perched on the plastic chair, journal and pen at the ready.

Oh, he's a chronicler. Save me

Chemotherapy, Round 1, today's date. IV meds: Underline. Some just offer up their arm, their bodies to whatever monstrous cocktail the doctors ordered. Gloria seems like she's that type. Do with me what you will. 

Some are more curious: "and this is ... ?" nodding tightly, bravely, matter-of-factly, even though the drug is just a name; they could literally have been told a city in Finland. Okay, mm-hmm, okay, got it. 

This husband, though. An exhaustingly dutiful support person. The nurse rummages in her plastic basket of drugs, like an adult giving out candy on Halloween, and I see him whip out his wife's identity card (front pocket, at the ready) as though there are marks for alacrity. He half-stands to supervise the nurse's ritual of matching the name on the card with the name on the bracelet with the name on the bag of drugs; head tilted, leaning action pose. 

These are her drugs, all right. They all agree, nods all round. Some hapless bystander hustled into a bed or a junkie slipping the line at the front desk and crashing the chemo ward won't be getting these particular toxins, that's for sure. 

"Adriamycin ... just a sec. Okay, got it. And the other one? Taxotere. Spell that? If you could just read out the numbers." He reads them back — to the nurse then scribbles busily in the journal. I imagine a hastily drawn table with deep, embossed, unsteady vertical lines. Headings: Drug, Dose, Drug number (underlined, maybe twice).

I've seen others do this, as if documenting the poison somehow controlled it, controlled something, anything.

I've seen others do this, as if documenting the poison somehow controlled it, controlled something, anything. It wasn't, then, a nameless, merciless liquid seeping into a soft beloved body, spreading, hunting down and killing fresh new cells, any fresh, new cells  the ones in the mouth, the hair follicles, the busy little tumour-makers — anything moving, anything dividing with that squishy, liquid, microscopic pop. It was a word. A medicine. A dose. Written down there on the page, finite, corralled, contained by name and bag number. 

The nurse half-turns her back on him and addresses the woman, the actual patient, the body in the bed. 

"Shall we begin?" Carmen has an oddly formal style of speech. I remember her tapping the needle attached to my empty drug-bag and singsonging: "If it's con-vee-nee-ent, I can re-move it now." 

The man grips his wife's hand painfully (I can feel it from here), they coil in unison, tension building, building until — there — the needle's in, the liquid in the bag is dripping. 

They're officially on chemotherapy.

A profoundly deflating moment, I remember. No fanfare. All the buildup, all the preparation — classes and nutrition and water, water, water — and then just a fizzle. Nothing to do but let it seep in.

A beeping sound, not quite an alarm, has all eyes flying to the bed with the curtain, directly across from the newcomers. We all jump, all prepped for catastrophe. Carmen and another nurse both lunge behind the curtain. The alarm cuts abruptly and the nurse shrieks the curtain open along the U-shaped rod.

My couple sits frozen, their eyes snaking to the thing in the bed across the aisle. 

It is astonishing how blank the face in the bed is, how erased, like a rudimentary drawing by a young child: here's the sleeping eyes, two curves, the sharp bump of a nose, and the o for the mouth. No hair, no eyebrows; vacant, lonely flesh. Is he 30? 50? 70? An open, gaping hole of a mouth, a thin, bony smudge of a face — pale, pale, pale. Then nothing. A flat blanket down to the foot of the bed, peaking at two grotesquely pointed feet, sharp reminders that there's got to be a body under there somewhere.

I was similarly appalled my first time seeing him, bracing myself for the swooping, unearthly, straight-body rise from the bed, this cancer-ward Nosferatu.

"My god," I hear Gloria's horrified whisper, her revulsion at the death's head on display. A figurative scuttling away to cower pressed against the head of the bed. 

The alarm sounds again.

"Greg, he's dying, right there in front of us ..." Gloria's voice is shrill, shushed by her husband. They crouch together like characters in a silent melodrama. 

Carmen bends over the man in the bed. His blurred face solidifies into a grotesque grimace and his dark eyes fly open. He jolts up suddenly, flinging back the covers. The couple across the aisle flinch, their hands tightening.

The cadaver stands, skeletal body fully dressed. He reaches over to the side table, shoves a cowboy hat low on his head, calls "See you next week, Carmen!" and stomps away on pencil thin legs, boots clattering loudly on the smooth floor, high-fiving the old man in the recliner by the door.

Giddy up cowboy. Giddy up. I shudder in helpless laughter at the look on the couple's faces, my hand over my mouth pressing on teeth, jawbone, skull.

Raw fear — familiar, infectious, sobering. Small children seeking comfort, needing to know it will all be okay

I catch his eye, her eye and my smile fades. Raw fear — familiar, infectious, sobering. Small children seeking comfort, needing to know it will all be okay. 

Will it all be okay?

I don't know. How can I know?

I catch the eye of the old man by the door, the chemo-lifer like the cowboy. He smiles and gives a little wave, and the tilting world rights itself.

I look over at the couple, smile, and give them a little wave.

I see myself, them, the old man, the cowboy, all of us — thousands, millions of figures, madly, bravely waving our way into infinity in these funhouse mirrors. 

Read the other finalists

About Alison Hughes

Alison Hughes has published 18 books, and her work has been translated into Korean, Dutch, Turkish and French. She was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature — text and won the Writers' Union of Canada Writing for Children Award and the Alberta Literary Awards' R. Ross Annett Award. Her short fiction has been shortlisted for the Writers' Union Short Prose Competition for Developing Writers and longlisted for the 2011 CBC Short Story Prize. She has degrees in English and law, works as a university writing advisor and editor and is currently working on a novel of interlinked stories.

The story's source of inspiration

"I spent almost a year in chemotherapy after a cancer diagnosis years ago. The chemotherapy unit was fascinating — a place where strangers bonded and veterans counselled newbies, where people cried and laughed and raged and small-talked, alternately incredibly stoic and at their very lowest ebb. It was fraught with expectations and assumptions; sometimes it was as banal as a Tim Hortons and at other times it was filled with existential dread. This story covers a period of perhaps 10 minutes of interaction and observation on one particular day that I thought encapsulated some of these contradictions."

About the 2021 CBC Nonfiction Prize

The winner of the 2021 CBC Nonfiction Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.

The 2022 CBC Short Story Prize is currently open for submissions until Oct. 31, 2021. The 2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize will open in January and the 2022 CBC Poetry Prize will open in April.

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