The challenge, the horror – the public bathroom

The challenge, the horror – the public bathroom

I hate cancer. It’s awful.

And being the loved one of someone with cancer, I find, is an emotional roller coaster. I hate roller coasters, too. They leave me feeling dizzy, scared, and powerless in the hands of a scruffy fellow who distractedly looks about and smokes cigarettes while I am having a full-blown panic attack and wishing I hadn’t just eaten my weight in junk food.

When days are spent navigating the strange world of cancer, it’s important to tend to basics, like healthy snacks, good books, and weekly updates of “The Bachelorette.” In the face of disaster, it’s often the little things that matter.

I refer you to the public bathroom experience.

Today’s bathrooms are extra challenging, thanks to electronics. And by “thanks,” I mean the Super-Mega-Flush-Midstream-Tsunami-Just-Inches-Below-A-Sensitive-Part-Of-One’s-Anatomy-Meaning-Mine. These Extreme Flushers are timed so when your neighbors get up, or you shift a little, a flushing domino effect occurs, a sort of toiletus interruptus. Not the kind of refreshing splash I’m after.

Recently, I was in the ER with my loved one. The work-up took forever. Even he was bored, but he couldn’t exactly go out for pizza, what with the hospital gown and all. After a while, I found a bathroom, a single-seater. I could’ve earned an engineering degree figuring out the lock from hell, which would not click in place unless the door – which swung both in and out – was precisely aligned. Then it locked tightly in place. After which, of course, someone walked in on me. No knocking. No “Hello, neighbor, can I borrow a cup of sugar?”

Afterward, as I waved my hands frantically in front of the new-age electronic faucet so I could get back to the ER quickly, the water automatically sprayed onto my hands. And sleeves. And pocketbook (the crazily expensive one I finally felt I deserved, at age 58.) Also blessed by this prolific water supply were my entire right pant leg, new sneakers, and paper baggie containing my previously dry and healthy bran muffin. Oh – and the brand new bestselling novel I’d just purchased so I could “take good care of the caregiver,” as advised by so many well-meaning folks.

Long before TV ads urged us to sing “Happy Birthday” to encourage persistence and excellence in hand washing, I was humming the entire first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth. I’m no slacker. As a nurse and trained observer, I can tell you there are a lot of unsung birthday songs in public restrooms, if you know what I mean. I even use the paper towels to open the door. I wince at those brave soldiers who grab the door handle bare-skinned. Not me, man. I could detail my entire super-hygienic bathroom regimen, but I have a sense, minimal though it may be, of my image as a reasonably sane person (and please stop laughing). I just wanted clean hands before I returned to my loved one. I did not want a shower.

All this, and my heart was racing awaiting unknown results of yet another cancer-related procedure. We had been through several.

I won’t even mention the “new improved” paper towel machines with the unpredictable sensors. Then again, if you’re stuck with the old pull-out paper towel model, a spring-release supposedly releases the next one. Right. It rarely works, so you end up fighting with turning that weird-shaped, slippery plastic thing on the side. I just want to dry my hands and get back to my…well, you know the rest.

Seems I just can’t figure these things out at a time when someone I love is fighting cancer a few yards away. It’s not enough to hear the news that life will never be quite the same, that days will, at least for a while, involve more things medical than of comfort and routine, like “Jeopardy” or dollar stores.

Cancer is a powerful motivator. So it’s no wonder that when Tri For A Cure comes along, people put routine aside to take part in an effort that truly makes a difference. Every single day, new detection, treatment and optimism spring from the hearts of humans and brains of scientists. And early on a Sunday morning, thousands of people break from their comfort zone to bike, walk, run, and raise money to make life with cancer more and more hopeful with each passing day.

And I wonder – while we are doing just that – if someone couldn’t maybe invent a public toilet that works better.

Kathy Eliscu is a nurse and freelance writer who lives in Westbrook. She credits her way of looking at the light side of life to her mother, the late Marge Eliscu, whose “Coffee Break” humor column ran for two decades in the Maine Sunday Telegram

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