Ouch. That awkward moment when I realize not everyone in cancer land is nice. Aren’t people “this” close to losing their lives kinder, gentler, more compassionate versions of themselves? No, not always. Alas, cancer like money, does not transform. It only magnifies. Appreciative people appreciate more, bitter people become more embittered. This particular person does bait and switch, setting up poor unsuspecting Kumari like a kid in a gingerbread house.
Initially I’m attracted to her overtures of friendship. The Best-friend Fairy reunites me with a long-lost acquaintance who promises in a big-sisterly way to be a resource, a guide, to speak to me as a person who has been through “it” all. I am hungry for the help. Several rounds of sweet emails ensue. Like Hansel (or maybe Gretel) I’m eating the gumdrops and the frosting uninvited. Suddenly the witch pops out. I must pay for my crime of letting this person into my intimacy.
The gingerbread homeowner pisses in my cornflakes, as they say. She describes the demise of her marriage. A bad relationship exponentially aggravated by cancer. Twenty years of passive aggressive rage is not a great foundation for life threatening illness. The end result ? In the last act she looses it all. I can appreciate losing it all. As you know, I lost my husband, my health, my employ, my home, my belief system, many friends, my religion, my dog each loss fertilizing the next, and ever so many other things I can’t name them all here. So far be it from me to be unsympathetic to her plight but had that been me. . .
I wouldn’t rain on someone else’s parade. I wouldn’t burst their bubble. I wouldn’t be a doomsday prophet, a sour puss, or a party pooper. I wouldn’t be a wet blanket. I wouldn’t swat a puppy on the nose. Or if my metaphor is too obtuse, allow me to say: I wouldn’t ruin or criticize someone’s aspirations. I wouldn’t tell someone in the frightening early stages of testing to expect to lose everything with particular emphasis on relationships, finances, and dignity.
Regarding Relationships? Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce due to a cancer diagnosis. A married woman diagnosed with a serious disease is six times more likely to be divorced or separated than a man with a similar diagnosis. That’s the stats. But stats are numbers not people. If I don’t lose my partner I wouldn’t care if the odds were a hundred to one. If I did lose my partner, I likewise wouldn’t care if my chances were a thousand to one. Unfortunately, the fifty percent isn’t random. Bad relationships get worse, good ones manage.
My point is, and I do have one, is that it is not a kindness to tell a person their relationship is doomed. It may be a fact, but it is never a kindness.
Anyway did I mention I’m not married? I am statistically impervious. Regarding finances, when I state I plan on working throughout my treatment, I believe the correct response is “Bravo!” My attempt should be encouraged no matter how foolhardy, for what is the alternative? I guess I could lose my health, then my employ, then my home and my savings to collect disability/welfare or social security. But I can’t expect to collect anything until I’ve lost all, all over again. I find the idea of losing everything all over again emotionally unacceptable. I mean I seriously think that would kill me sooner than the cancer.
Even a person with savings knows the trail is slippery and the way is vague. When major illness arises unexpected expenses arrive in the wake. For example? I buy herbal supplements I never bought before. While I am in the drugstore getting odorless garlic and garbage bags I’m tempted by a smiling stuffed animal. His bright eyes cheer me, and I am in sore need of cheer. I resist the urge only to be charmed by an unsolicited gift.
A empathetic friend loans me a cancer bear. I hold Grace up to my chest to protect my sore spot where my biopsy was taken. Hugging her keeps people at bay, defining my personal space. I find the bear strangely comforting. On Saturday I sit at the office squeezing Grace to my chest believing cancer people are cool – we’re going to look out for each other. We’re all going to cross the finish line together. “Teri” believes she got cancer so that she can help me through it – but I remain unconvinced. See I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone. I believe I got cancer because certain cells in my body are multiplying rogue and insidiously. That belief helps me navigate my life.
If I can help someone else in life, in the future, I would have done that anyway – cancer or no. I certainly wouldn’t retreat to the forest, building a house made a of sugar to entice unsuspecting naifs. Some cancer survivors remain enraged by the inevitable indignities. Don’t sign up for treatment if you’d rather die than throw up on yourself. If you’d rather die than look ugly, bloated, bald – I got bad news for you. Even without treatment you might end up looking like a total wreck before life’s over.
Luckily, most people are nice. Extremely nice. Wendy teases me on her way out the door, “I’m going to send you ‘warm thoughts’ not “prayers” because I know you hate that word.”
Yeah, yeah. “If it makes you feel better,” I reply. Although her sentiment? I think it’s nice. Extremely warm. I may not care about prayers but I enjoy having her on my side. She is neither scary nor discouraging. Not uninterested nor know-it-all. And Wendy’s attention leaves me less lonely for a moment. I absently bounce Grace on my knee.
“What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”
– Kurt Vonnegut Jr., AM’71
Delivered to the graduating class of 1974 at the Hobart and William Smith Colleges, just three years after The University of Chicago accepted “Cat’s Cradle” as his master’s thesis, and 25 years after he started as a student in anthropology. Kurt Vonnegut did many, many things in between. Yet, this one – almost 50 year-old piece of advice – among many astute observations, really resonates with me because among terrible diseases, though it seems now even more rampant, this one is curable. And the cure can be just plain fun! Even in Los Angeles.
Now y’all play nice.