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Adam Reiner | Longreads | June 13, 2023 | 4,992 words (17 minutes)

The hospital room is full of strangers. I do my best not to look worried and take a deep breath, inhaling the antiseptic odor that permeates the air—a sterile cologne of surgical masks, latex gloves, and industrial-grade cleaning solvents. Worry is the enemy of hope, and cancer spreads faster in the crevices where hope slips through.

My uncle Robert is propped upright in the hospital bed in the center of the room, leaning limply to one side like a resting marionette, awake, but looking like he hasn’t slept in days. Malignant tumors are blooming along his spine like mushrooms on a log, which makes lying on his back incredibly painful.

A square-shaped cake studded with plump, bright strawberries rests atop a tray stand at the foot of the bed. The generous layer of vanilla frosting reflects the fluorescent light above like a moonlit snowdrift. The longer I stare at it, the more the cake’s soft edges blend into the stark whiteness of the hospital walls. A tangle of shiny helium balloons sways on the nightstand.

It’s my uncle’s birthday. We’re all standing in a semicircle around him wearing adhesive identification tags from security. It feels awkward, like a company mixer. One of the strangers passes me a Styrofoam cup filled with tart sparkling cider. I wish there was alcohol in it.

A plush doll of Pope Francis lies on the blanket next to my uncle. The pontiff had recently traveled through Philadelphia—where the hospital is located—only the second papal visit in the city’s history. Robert was too weak to attend the procession but had wanted to go, a surprise given he wasn’t a particularly religious person, nor a Catholic. The souvenir was meant as a joke, but the doll never wandered from his bedside.

Robert’s cancer is rare, a soft tissue sarcoma that formed on the crown of his left ankle three years earlier. Doctors amputated his leg from the thigh down to stem the tide. He’d been in remission for months, but now the cancer is everywhere. Over the summer, he consulted sarcoma specialists at the Abramson Cancer Center, and after weeks of commuting from New York City for radiation treatment, he and my aunt Terri took refuge at the nearby Kimpton Hotel Monaco. 

The strangers in the hospital with us are hotel employees. They brought the cake and all the party favors. Kayla, the hotel’s front office director, flashes a cherubic smile. She has soft, bronze skin and round cheeks that dimple slightly like those of a mischievous toddler. Her voice is raspy with the deep timbre of a jazz singer. “Don’t worry, we take very good care of your uncle whenever he’s down in Philly,” Kayla says, winking at Robert. Terri gently adjusts the pillows behind Robert’s back, maneuvering his frail body into a more comfortable position. He winces a little then goes back to reading the pile of birthday cards that are strewn about the bed. 

I introduce myself to Roshid, the portly and affable concierge, and the bellman, Maurice, who they affectionately call Coach. Roshid puts his arm around Robert and sings a few bars of one of his favorite pick-me-up songs, “Games People Play” by The Spinners:

Can’t get no rest

Don’t know how I work all day

When will I learn?

Memories get in the way

Roshid presents Robert with a special mixtape of his favorite soul and jazz music, along with a custom-printed photo book. Coach pulls a leather football out of his long black trench coat, signed by all the members of the bell staff. “I doubt I’d be much of a force on the gridiron in my current condition,” Robert says, catching the shovel pass from Coach and looking down at his missing appendage. “Definitely not the kicker.”

The strangers in the hospital with us are hotel employees. They brought the cake and all the party favors.

Before his illness, Robert had a full head of black curly hair, wound in tight, springy coils like a poodle. He’d lost all of it during chemo, but it had begun to grow back in sporadic, directionless threads like matted shag carpet. His face was gaunt and his cheeks sunken, but his smile still had the same paternal warmth. 

When I was a kid, my uncle’s visits were like holidays. My sisters and I would climb up on the green velvet couch by the bay window in the living room overlooking the driveway. As soon as we’d see him pull up, we’d run outside and bum-rush the car before he could turn the engine off. In the mornings, we’d barge into the guest room where he slept and violently wake him up by jumping all over his bed. He didn’t visit often, so we savored every moment. Seeing him lying there in the hospital, I felt the urge to vault onto his bed again, wishing I could somehow wake him up from this nightmare.

Kayla had arranged for the chef of the hotel’s restaurant to prepare a strip steak, one of Robert’s favorite items on the dinner menu. He devours it out of a cardboard takeout container while Kayla neatly divides the birthday cake into even slices. After an hour or so, we share warm hugs and say our goodbyes. Although the thought lingered in the back of all our minds that day, none of us knew that it would be my uncle’s last birthday.

The Hotel Monaco opened in 2012, an opulent 268-room hotel located in the historic Lafayette Building overlooking Independence Hall, a stone’s throw from the Liberty Bell in the heart of Philadelphia’s Old City. The 11-story Greek Revival-inspired tower was built in 1907 by the estate of the late financier and philanthropist Stephen Girard and named after his friend Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette.

The facility served as office space for over a century, but after sitting vacant for several years, Kimpton transformed the building into a luxury hotel. The interior is accented with nautical elements—a giant crystal galleon in the entrance, compass-themed carpeting, and porthole-shaped mirrors inside the elevators—an homage to Girard’s seafaring days. The hotel painstakingly restored the façade, preserving many of the building’s original architectural elements, like the towering Corinthian columns that guard the entrance and the stone gargoyles ensconced in the cornices.

Terri and Robert discovered the Monaco after visiting several other hotels in the area on foot, my uncle hobbling on crutches in the scorching late summer heat. With medical bills piling up, the hotel was more extravagant than they could afford, but they needed accommodation for two weeks while he started a new round of radiation. When they arrived, Kayla welcomed them graciously from behind the front desk and checked them into a handicap-accessible room.

The next morning, Terri took the elevator down to the lobby for the complimentary coffee service. The urns had already been dismantled, so she approached the front desk to see if it was possible to have someone deliver coffee to the room. Kayla recognized Terri from check-in and said she would send someone up right away.

As she did with many new guests, Kayla asked why they were visiting Philadelphia. “My husband has cancer,” Terri said. “We came here to start radiation treatment.” After a long silence, they locked eyes. “Is he going to be all right?” Kayla asked. “I don’t know,” Terri said, with a tear in her eye. “I really don’t know.”

Terri explained their commute to consult with specialists at the Abramson Center and the arduous schedule of medical appointments ahead. The travel was taking its toll on Robert. Their room was comfortable, but he hadn’t slept at all the night before because of debilitating back pain.

When they returned later that day, the bed was covered with brand-new pillows. Kayla had been to a local department store and purchased a variety of head and neck pillows with her own money. She had also arranged for room service to deliver a basket of wine and cheeses. A valet left a selection of relaxing bath products for Terri and installed a coffee machine, so they wouldn’t have to worry about missing the morning coffee downstairs again. Personalized notes from staff were scattered around the desk wishing Robert a restful stay and a speedy recovery.

As word of my uncle’s tragic circumstances spread, everyone who worked in the hotel knew their story. The doormen greeted them with hugs every time they returned from doctor’s appointments, always inquiring with genuine concern about my uncle’s health. “Those hugs from the doormen gave me the inspiration to get through the next day,” Terri told me recently.

When they returned in mid-September for another round of radiation, checking back into the hotel felt like a family reunion. Kayla upgraded them to room 601, a much more spacious suite. They only expected to be in town for a few days, but an MRI revealed the source of his excruciating back pain—new tumors on Robert’s thoracic spine—forcing them to extend their stay.

Kayla had been to a local department store and purchased a variety of head and neck pillows with her own money.

Roshid, the concierge, caught wind that they were running out of clean clothes and snuck a pair of my uncle’s pants out of his closet to check his size. He bought three extra pairs of khakis from a nearby Old Navy store—again with his own money—and had the pants hemmed and altered to remove the left leg to suit Robert’s amputation. Before they returned to the hotel, and without a word to anyone, Roshid hung the altered pants in his closet.

“At that point, I didn’t even see him as a hotel guest anymore. I saw him as my friend, somebody who needed help,” Roshid says of my uncle. “It humbled me to know that someone like him was walking the earth. He was a genuinely good man.” Robert and Terri returned to the room later that day, flabbergasted to find the closet filled with the new tailored pants. 

In late October, after the staff threw Robert’s hospital birthday party, Terri asked to meet with James, the hotel’s general manager. James is a man of very few words, but he chooses them carefully. As a point of pride, he prefers to operate in the background, mindful not to upstage his team. Terri was concerned that she wasn’t doing enough to show the staff appreciation. She hoped that James might have some insight into how she could reciprocate their generosity. Should she be tipping them more? James listened intently, nodding along without answering until Terri finished speaking.

“How do you like your room?” James asked with a sheepish smile. “I love it,” Terri said. “It’s bigger than our apartment in New York City.” It wasn’t true, but she wanted James to know how much she appreciated being upgraded to a larger suite. As Robert’s condition deteriorated, Terri hadn’t been able to teach as many yoga classes, so financing their trips to Philadelphia was becoming burdensome.

“It’s yours for as long as you need it,” James said. The next day, he notified Kayla that the hotel would stop billing room 601, effective immediately. The Monaco would also extend heavily discounted room rates to family members so that Robert would be surrounded by loved ones whenever support was needed.

Kayla couldn’t wait to share the news with Terri. “I started crying,” Kayla says. “I called Terri, and we both started crying.”

I questioned James about his decision over the phone recently, wondering if it caused any controversy. “The financial piece didn’t matter anymore, so why should they have to worry about it?” he said, not wasting any words. “We decided to just make that go away.” From that day on, Robert and Terri never received another bill from the Monaco. The hotel established a standing reservation for room 601 under their name to ensure that the suite would be available to them at a moment’s notice.

The joy of staying in a hotel lies in absolving yourself of the responsibility for maintaining order and cleanliness. Every time you return to your room, your messes are untangled by an invisible hand like sorcery. Linens are always fresh. Hand soap and tiny shampoo bottles regenerate like magic.

All humans are born with a deep, primal anxiety about self-care that begins the moment we’re jettisoned from the womb and detached from the umbilical cord. The world’s finest hotels quell these anxieties effortlessly. They dote on us like devoted mothers, with staff that anticipates our needs and makes everyone feel at home.

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Truly great service demands profound selflessness and integrity. That isn’t teachable. Money affords luxury, but even the most obsequious service rarely makes guests feel seen. That’s because transcendent hospitality is a more profound connection, earned through mutual respect and an equitable exchange of sacrifice for appreciation. 

The etymology of the word hospitality is the Latin hospitalitas—or the English hospital. Checking into a hospital is, obviously, far less luxurious than an overnight stay in a five-star hotel, but it can be 10 times more expensive. According to a 2022 report by The Commonwealth Fund—which conducts independent research on health policy—the United States spends more than twice as much on medical care compared with 38 other high-income nations. Meanwhile, we boast the worst outcomes, the highest rate of citizens with multiple chronic diseases, and the greatest likelihood of dying prematurely from avoidable causes.

The prohibitive cost of health care leads Americans to routinely neglect preventative care and leave grave illnesses untreated. Extended hospital stays are one of the most common causes of bankruptcy. Yet, despite the cost, service in medical facilities can be perfunctory, rote at best. The choice between dying in a foreboding hospital room or a luxury hotel suite is an easy one, but, of course, most never have that luxury. 

Robert spent Thanksgiving confined to an inpatient rehab facility. A life-threatening surgery to remove spinal tumors—requiring hours on the operating table and multiple blood transfusions—meant weeks of physical therapy to regain his strength. 

The day after Thanksgiving, Roshid’s mother sent him with a care package of leftovers: turkey, mac and cheese, and other holiday trimmings. “She told me: ‘Now, you tell that man that we season our food here,’” Roshid says, adding, “Unless he was a good liar, he tore that food up.”

By December, their trips to Philadelphia grew longer. Terri and Kayla would often convalesce in the hotel bar over a glass of wine and a cocktail at the end of a long day. Kayla was managing personal trauma of her own, shuttling back and forth to Delaware to care for her ailing father, a military veteran living on a modest pension, who was battling alcoholism and early-onset dementia. 

Over drinks one night, Terri confided in Kayla that the oncologist had told Robert there were no treatment options left. Since his cancer was no longer treatable, he needed to be discharged from the hospital. Terri knew that he was too weak to return to New York, that he might not survive the trip back home. She feared that transferring him to hospice care would make his final days intolerable.

Early the next morning, Kayla met with James in his office to discuss a contingency plan—installing a hospital bed inside room 601, so that Robert could spend his final days in the hotel. No one dared say the quiet part out loud: What would happen if he died in the room? But they all knew it was a possibility.

The engineering team removed the king-size mattress and box spring from their bedroom and replaced it with a rented hospital bed. The adjacent common area had a fold-out couch that could accommodate attending medical staff. By the time Robert returned to the hotel, the suite had been transformed into a hospital room. Terri hired nurse practitioners to monitor Robert’s health during off hours when she needed to rest. 

No one dared say the quiet part out loud: What would happen if he died in the room? But they all knew it was a possibility.

I took the train down from New York that week to visit him. He’d lost so much weight that his body seemed hollow, like paper-mache. He didn’t speak much, and his gaze was dull. At times, I couldn’t tell if he recognized me. He had a tube threaded through his nostrils to a nearby oxygen tank and was heavily sedated on morphine. Some days I would sit in silence for hours while he slept. If he was awake in the evening, he watched episodes of The Voice. I wondered how a frivolous reality show competition could matter to someone so close to death, but I suppose he welcomed the distraction.

One night, near the end, Robert and Terri watched a movie together in the bedroom. Terri lay down next to him on a rolling cot pushed flush against the edge of his hospital bed. She was happy that there were no machines creating distance between them. They watched in silence, holding hands in the dark. When the movie ended, Robert told her he didn’t want to eat anymore. “It’s okay,” Terri said, “you don’t have to eat.” The next day, his condition severely worsened, and Terri called an ambulance to transfer him back to the hospital.

Kayla remembers seeing their hands clasped through the rails of his hospital bed. “I saw what I felt was the purest form of love that I had ever seen,” she tells me. “Watching them in that moment, it was like nothing else mattered.” She remembered Terri telling her about meeting Robert on the beach. How their love affair was kismet. Fate brought them together, and fate tore them apart. Though their relationship was fleeting, everyone around them could feel the deep spiritual energy they shared and were drawn to it. Robert privately described their relationship as his version of Eat Pray Love. The kind of romance you only read about in novels.

Back in 2010, Robert was healthy and practiced yoga regularly. He had never been to Tulum, never even heard of it, in fact—but a friend suggested it as a tranquil getaway where he could refresh and clear his head during a contentious divorce (that was costing him his sanity and thousands of dollars in lawyers’ fees every month). He’d given up on the idea until, sitting in a coffee shop, he overheard a random couple mention how much they loved the Tulum beaches. It must be a sign, he thought. He booked a last-minute flight, driving miles out of state to renew his expired passport.

Terri adored Tulum. She’d attended yoga teacher training seminars there but never alone, always with work colleagues or friends. Her family typically gathered in Florida for the holidays, but this year they celebrated early. So she decided to spend a week in Tulum by herself to focus on her yoga practice.

They both arrived at the yoga studio at dawn, unsure which room the class was being held in that day. After a brief conversation outside, they went in and set down their belongings next to each other. Robert laid out his mat and assumed a headstand, a pose he’d recently mastered. Terri assumed he was showing off, but she still thought he was cute.

After class, they continued the conversation. Robert was staying at a hotel nearby, and Terri mentioned how much she loved the restaurant there. “Would you like to join me for lunch?” he asked. “Okay, what time?” Terri said. Robert looked at an imaginary watch on his wrist. “How about noon?” They ate lunch overlooking the beach, chatting the day away as the frothy waves disappeared into the parched sand, exhaling a briny mist into the air. As the tide ebbed, the sun hovered above the shoreline, casting a blanket of warm shimmering topaz across the horizon. They met again for dinner and spent the night walking along the ocean under the stars. Terri likes to say that the lunch never ended. 

While they soaked in Tulum’s majesty, a massive snowstorm shut down all the airports along the Eastern seaboard, rendering air travel nearly impossible. When Robert was notified that his flight was canceled, he immediately texted Terri that he needed to stay in Mexico for a few more days. It was late, so she texted back her room number and said she’d leave the light on for him. They spent the remaining days and nights together as though their time had never been interrupted until Robert was finally able to book a return flight home. 

When they said farewell, Terri doubted she’d ever see him again. Robert was still anxious about his divorce. But they continued to talk over the phone every day. Robert flew to Cleveland to see Terri just two weeks after leaving Tulum. They traveled back and forth to each others’ cities over the ensuing months before Terri eventually moved to New York to be with Robert permanently. They found an apartment in a quiet neighborhood in Brooklyn, and she found a job teaching yoga in Tribeca.

Robert privately described their relationship as his version of Eat Pray Love. The kind of romance you only read about in novels.

His cancer diagnosis interrupted the fairy tale two years later, but by then their bond had grown stronger. In March 2015, between debilitating rounds of chemo, Robert married Terri in a quiet ceremony inside the office of the city clerk in lower Manhattan. He looked handsome in a black tuxedo with a red rose boutonniere and a backward black Kangol hat concealing his hair loss. Terri looked angelic in a flowing silk wedding gown with a white faux-fur shawl she borrowed from her sister and strappy blue suede heels. For a moment, when they kissed, the cancer disappeared. As sick as he was, it was one of the happiest days of his life.

On Christmas Eve, my cell phone rang. I was on my way to my restaurant job and didn’t even need to look at the screen to know who it was. Terri had warned me that Robert might not make it through the night. The sidewalks were icy, and the coarse salt scattered on the sidewalk was crunching under the soles of my shoes.

“He can hear you,” Terri said softly. “But he can’t answer.” It was hard to concentrate over the rumbling garbage trucks and police sirens wailing in the distance. Terri’s voice wavered a bit, but the cadence of her words was soothing. “I’ll put the phone up to his ear in case there’s anything you’d like to say,” Terri said. I could hear his oxygen tank wheezing in the background.

I cobbled together a few sentences but struggled to find the right words. My uncle was my hero, my rock, my brother. After my mother died when I was 17, he became a surrogate parent. My sisters and I nicknamed him “LG”—short for legal guardian. “I love you, LG,” I told him, covering my other ear to drown out the traffic.

I hung up feeling like I’d failed an audition. I broke down crying on the street corner, wishing I could transport myself to his bedside. There was so much more to say. I never told him how scared I was of losing him because I didn’t want to burden him with my fear. He never wanted to burden me with his either.

Robert passed away quietly in his hospital bed later that evening, leaving behind his wife and 10-year-old daughter from his previous marriage. He was 57 years old.

We often mischaracterize cancer as a test of will—a battle with tangible wins and losses. Before his illness, Robert was much physically fitter than me, even though he was 16 years my senior. Unlike most life-threatening diseases, cancer doesn’t need to exploit a person’s deficient health. It destroys life indiscriminately.

“I’m not a doctor, but I’m pretty sure if you die, the cancer dies at the same time,” the late comedian Norm Macdonald once famously noted. “That’s not a loss, that’s a draw.” Macdonald, who would eventually succumb to cancer himself in 2021, understood how naïve it is to assume that living or dying of cancer is determined by one’s will to live. Cancer’s violence lies in its willingness to leverage its own survival to destroy its host. It isn’t a fair fight.

Millions of people across the world quietly suffer from cancer every day, their families and their doctors befuddled and powerless to cure them. From the sidelines, we goad victims to fight harder. We tell them: You got this! But then we remand them to sterilized, underfunded medical facilities that provide little comfort to the sick, nor empathy for their survivors. My uncle was one of the lucky ones who, in a new city, found community and love from people outside the medical complex—people who had no reason to provide it other than the purity of their hearts.

A month after Robert died, we held a memorial service at a local church in Brooklyn. He’d befriended the church’s pastor, finding comfort in her counsel. On sunny afternoons, he lounged in the gardens of the church’s courtyard for hours. 

I never told him how scared I was of losing him because I didn’t want to burden him with my fear. He never wanted to burden me with his either.

Kayla, Roshid, and Sean—one of the hotel’s doormen—took Amtrak up from Philadelphia together to pay their respects. In front of the congregants and mourners, I shared a passage from one of my uncle’s favorite books, Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. In it, a young Siddhartha stands along the banks of a flowing river, contemplating its secrets: “[Siddhartha] saw that the water continually flowed and flowed and yet it was always there; it was always the same and yet every moment it was new.”

Even without the physical presence of our loved ones, I told those assembled, life’s current pulls us forward like a rushing river, always the same and always new. When I finished speaking, I looked over to see Kayla wiping away tears.

Robert asked for his body to be cremated. He wanted his ashes spread in three places: The first set in an urn at a gravesite in a cemetery upstate where his parents were buried; the second in the flower beds around the courtyard of the church where the sun soothed him. Terri promised to return to Tulum to scatter the rest of Robert’s ashes in the infinite, crystal-blue waters of the Caribbean, along the beaches where they first met—his final dying wish.

To show her appreciation for the hotel’s generosity, Terri developed a mindfulness and meditation workshop for the Hotel Monaco staff, that she could offer for free to all who wanted to attend. The following spring, she returned to Philadelphia for the first time since Robert died.

Addressing a room full of Kimpton employees, Terri recounted her emotional story. She spoke about the stages of grief. How suffering begins as a gaping wound. “According to Rumi, the wound is the place that light enters you,” Terri said. “Our light-infused wounds can become beacons for helping others to heal.” When we let love and light into these wounds, she told them, they become scabs and then, eventually, scars. “In Sanskrit, a remnant of unliberated past experiences is called samskara, an impression or imprint. We carry these scars with us until we learn to liberate their foundation.”

She peered out at the faces of all the maintenance workers, housekeepers, restaurant staff, and management who’d offered strength in her darkest moments and helped assuage her suffering. She was grateful for the opportunity to replenish their strength and resilience as they had done for her. “I’ve learned that part of the healing process is that even though the scar remains, the wound can heal,” Terri said. “I carry that scar with me like a proud warrior.”

Years have passed, but the Monaco staff, both past and present, still hold my uncle’s memory near to their hearts. Kayla keeps a framed picture of her and Robert on her bookshelf at home, a reminder of life’s fragility. “It was a part of my mission to make sure the end of this chapter was peaceful for them,” Kayla says. “If these were his last moments, the only thing that mattered was helping them find the peace that they both deserved.” She works as a general manager for Equinox fitness clubs now and frequently shares the story with new team members to remind them about the power of hospitality.

James tells me that Robert’s passing felt like a death in the family, but the experience fundamentally changed how the hotel cares for guests with special needs. “Whenever a situation like this arises and we’re made aware of it, I always immediately think back to Terri and Robert’s time with us,” James says. “We certainly learned from that situation and utilize that in every decision we make for every family that comes here with these types of struggles.”

Roshid puts this knowledge into practice regularly. “There’s a 3-year-old staying in the hotel right now who has eye cancer that’s breaking my heart,” he says. When Roshid found out the boy’s favorite superhero is Spider-Man, he immediately sprang into action. “He and I have something in common because I love Spider-Man too,” Roshid says. “So, every time this kid comes in with his eye patch on, I have a tent waiting for him in the room with some Spider-Man goodies in there.”

He forwarded me an email Kayla sent to the Monaco staff in 2017, recounting my uncle’s heartbreaking story, almost two years after he passed away. She stressed how every guest interaction is not only an opportunity to improve someone’s day but also how those interactions can profoundly alter the trajectory of people’s lives. She changed Robert’s and Terri’s, and they changed hers. “Remember,” Kayla wrote, “there are a million Robert and Terri Barnetts walking around out there. You never know when one of them will walk through that door. So, keep making those moments.”

Adam Reiner is a food writer and editor of The Restaurant Manifesto. He is currently writing a book about dining culture for LSU Press and lives in New York City.

Editor: Carolyn Wells
Fact-checker: Julie Schwietert Collazo
editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands