Friday, January 23, 2015

I Think I Failed to Get My Point Across

I suspect my previous post may have come off a little harsh, and ended up saying almost exactly the opposite of what I was trying to say.

What I meant was, don't worry about it. Unless you're a total jerk who is 100% caught up in your own needs and doesn't know how to listen at all, you're probably fine. Seriously, you can be up to 70% caught up in your own needs, and you'll still probably do fine. Also that nobody, at any time, is completely divorced from meeting their own needs, so it's an unreasonable thing to ask.

What I meant was, our expectations of what people should say to us during difficult times are too high, and we should take it down a notch. Focus on the intent, not the content.

That's all.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

On Saying the Wrong Thing

Because I think it's fair to say I'm above-average neurotic, I want to get a couple of things out of the way before I start.

  1. My husband is the one who is sick. I am not. I come at this from the "well spouse" perspective. Being an existentialist, I recognize that, while we can provide each other valuable support, it only goes so far. Other people matter, but ultimately we all face an infinite, unknown void, and although it's a universal experience, every one of us does it alone. Even the people closest to us cannot relieve us of that. I speak for myself because I'm the only person I'm qualified to speak for. 
  2. My husband's illness does not, at this point, appear to be life-threatening. I might have drawn very difficult conclusions if it did. We don't know if his illness is a "get your affairs in order" kind of thing, or more of a "gosh, that's a bummer." 
  3. I'm not perfect, and may have violated the very rules I'm advocating at times. Of course, nobody wants to be a hypocrite, but I'm more afraid of being judged as someone with no self-awareness, and if I had no self-awareness, I wouldn't know it. So naturally, I worry. 
  4. This isn't meant to be a passive-aggressive dig at people who have offended my delicate sensibilities. I hope and believe that, on the off chance they ready my blog - and I have no reason to believe they do - I'm leaving out as much detail as I can while still making my point. I can honestly say that only, like, 10% of me hopes these women recognize themselves. 
So that's out of the way. 

You know what I hate? Those list/articles circling the internet, helping us all out by telling us "the 9 things you're doing wrong and making everyone hate you" and other such nonsense. Look, internet, you deliberately make us all as self-conscious as possible, and when you're done, you tell us we're narcissists. But having to monitor my behavior for any and all possible faux pas doesn't leave me a whole lot of time to think about anything else. So if you have a sincere desire to improve humanity, lay off. 

So why would I write this? Is it a list of the two things not to do? Or am I just venting? It must be the latter. An idea can swirl around in my head for months or years, until one day, I'm seized with such a strong desire to write about it that I won't have any peace until I do. This is one of those times. 

One thing I've never wanted to do is keep a mental record of all the stupid, insensitive things people have said to my husband or me in regards to his illness. Partly because my experience has been that nobody has said anything all that bad, and partly because I'd rather recognize good intentions than get caught up in the details. People aren't perfect, and I like them anyway. I'm not perfect, and somehow I haven't been shunned by all of society. Expecting every attempt at support to be graceful and perfectly executed is the quickest road to having no support I can think of. 

Additionally, I know that my husband being the one with this particular malady doesn't relieve others of their inherent fears. Most of us know making everything about ourselves isn't how you provide support. So we try, we really do. It's better if you don't launch into a story about yourself when you're supposed to be talking about someone else's problem, and keeping your own ignorance in mind is always a good idea. 

All that is true, and remembering it goes a long way. But we're all going to die, and none of us are happy about it. Serious illness in someone else provokes a very real, valid and primal fear in all of us. The fact is, nobody - from your nearest and dearest, to the cashier in the grocery store - wants to hear, "I don't know what's wrong." It removes their ability to figure out all the ways in which they're totally different from you, and therefore not vulnerable to your affliction. If God-knows-what , God-knows-why can happen to me, it can happen to you. If that bothers you, you're right on. It should. 

Without their defense mechanism of trying to distance themselves, people will try very hard to find an answer. Sometimes, they'll go so far as to make something up. I get it. 

Fact is, people are complicated, and they don't stop being complicated even if I'm the one very close to the center of the drama. Life is messy. Other people are whole even when it's supposed to be about me. Keeping that at the front of your mind will spare you much heartache. 

What I'm trying to say is, people have every reason to say clumsy, thoughtless things. Considering the impossible burden they all carry, they do remarkably well. So well that over the past few years, only two reactions have really, really gotten under my skin. If you want to hear what they are, you've come to the right place. 

Getting on my nerves, part 1: 

A woman who had a prepared speech she liked to give regarding the medical field. I heard this speech no less than three times. 

"Everyone thinks you go to the doctor, they figure out what's wrong, and they cure it, but it's just not true." 

There was more to it than that, but that's the gist of it. It doesn't merit further elaboration. It bothered me because she had us dead wrong, and didn't seem to hear this no matter how many times I tried to say so. 

While I can't say I ever thought my husband would be the one with a mystery ailment, I had no trouble wrapping my brain around their existence. We aren't, and never were, doe-eyed simps who expect daddy to solve all our problems, okay? Not because we're jaded by misfortune, but because we're realists. We don't believe in miracles or miracle workers. We do believe in human kindness, however, and find it's almost as good. I have always know doctors can't diagnose or solve all our problems. 

Also, when I said "in sickness and in health" (I don't remember if I really said that when I got married, but it was definitely implied), I meant it. Moreover, I knew sickness was a "when", not an "if." Did I expect it to happen this soon? No. But I've never had that feeling of the universe reneging a promise it never actually made. On some level, I knew it was possible. 

When I tried to explain to this woman what she was getting wrong, I hadn't yet articulated the nature of my dissatisfaction with the doctors who told my husband, "your tests are fine; go home and wait for something worse to happen." So although I'm fairly certain I told her no, we do not think doctors are magicians who can wave a magic wand and make all one's problems magically disappear, I didn't yet have the words to drive my point home. I do now, but that's its own can of worms, and hopefully she isn't reading this anyway. 

Getting on my nerves, part 2: 

I don't believe in unselfish good deeds. Which isn't to say I don't believe people are good and well-intentioned. I do. I just think we're all trying to get out needs met, all the time. A desire to help is usually at least partly sincere, but there will always be a bit of a self-serving element. That's fine. Advice either pans out, or it doesn't. Kind words of support resonate, or they don't. It doesn't matter. I see your good intentions, and I'm not going to subject them to a purity test. 

I'd prefer your attempts at support be at least, say, 30% genuine, which leads me to the other thing that bothered me. 

A friend made an armchair diagnosis. This happens often enough, and it's fine. Well, I wouldn't blame my husband if he was sick and tired of it, but at this point, you can still bring your guesses to me. You're probably wrong, but probably is a far cry from definitely. 

What offended me about this particular armchair diagnosis was that a) it was very dire, and b) I knew this woman's MO. She loves proving how intelligent and knowledgeable she is so much, she would have been fucking thrilled to have been proven right. Not because she wishes us ill, but because that's how much she loves being right. I could elaborate, but can you see why I didn't appreciate that? 

That's pretty much it. If you want to support us, don't use our misfortune to stroke your own ego, and please refrain from implying we're stupid or naive. You might think we are - that's none of my business - but if your aim is ostensibly to be supportive, I would ask that you keep it to yourself.  I'd say it also didn't help that, as far as I knew, neither of these women had actually earned the wisdom they were so generously sharing with me. 

Also, how lucky am I? The fact that these are my only two complaints are a sign that my family and I know a whole lot of intelligent, kind people. I thank you for it. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

It's a Metaphor

My latest tattoo, designed by my son, immediately after I got it. I already had one of my daughter's art work, and had been waiting for quite a while for my son to authorize the use of his art. When he finally did, I chose this adorable bat. His name, as chosen by my son, is Alex.

Not that I'm especially tattooed, but I do have four. A fairy on my back, obtained soon after college. I imagine it hurt, but some 16 years later, who remembers? I wanted a cute little goblin, but a domineering friend talked me out of it. It's become a symbol of weakness, and I've grown to hate it. But it's on my back, so I rarely see or think about it. The belief that tattoos are permanent used to bother me, but now I'm more bothered by the truth - they aren't permanent. They are only there until I die, which, in the grand scheme of things, will be pretty soon. 

Jenny Linsky, the cat, on my ankle. That one is fine. 

A parrot designed by my daughter on my left bicep. I love it! The way I remember it, getting that one wasn't especially painful. 

Still, I was nervous about this one, located on my inner right forearm (the picture is at a weird angle, making it difficult to tell what body part that is). Since I was very fond of the fellow who did my parrot, I went back to him for this one. 

"This is going to hurt, isn't it?" I asked, right before he got started. 

"Aw, you'll be fine," he said in a deliberately dismissive tone. Tattoo artists discourage theatrics. 

He got started, and, well....motherf%$&r! 

In addition to being stoic, tattoo artists are excellent conversationalists. Dave that tattoo guy deftly kept the conversation going - we talked about dogs (his passion, not mine, but if someone loves something enough, they can probably get you at least temporarily interested), exotic animals, science, and being in a persistent vegetative state. There was never an opportunity for me to point out that this was quite an uncomfortable procedure, or to demonstrate the bravado I had all prepared. 

"I've given birth. Twice!" I would have said. "This is nothing." 

It was a half truth. I have, in fact, given birth on two separate occasions. But this was not nothing. My logic was severely flawed, and within hours I was thankful I'd been prevented from saying something so ridiculous and stupid out loud. Giving birth hasn't caused me to laugh in the face of lesser physical pain. I don't care for having my body carved up with electronic needles any more than I ever did. Same goes for migraines (those things are no joke), stubbing my toe (mother of GOD!), or dislocating my rib while coughing (it's happened twice). 

The 30 Rock celebrity benefit to get Jack's dad a kidney might be the funniest song ever written, and "if you had two dogs attacking you, you'd wish it was just one," might be the funniest line. But even as I laughed myself silly, I knew it wasn't true. If I had two dogs attacking me, I'd wish I had no dogs attacking me. Perhaps more importantly, if I had one dog attacking me, I would not take the time to be grateful it wasn't two. 

What's the most painful thing in the world? What is happening, to you, right now. 

Monday, January 12, 2015


“And the child, Francie Nolan, was of all the Rommelys and all the Nolans. She had the violent weaknesses and passion for beauty of the shanty Nolans. She was a mosaic of her grandmother Rommely’s mysticism, her tale-telling, her great belief in everything and her compassion for the weak ones. She had a lot of her grandfather Rommely’s cruel will. She had some of her Aunt Evy’s talent for mimicking, some of Ruthie Nolan’s possessiveness. She had Aunt Sissy’s love for life and her love for children. She had Johnny’s sentimentality without his good looks. She had all of Katie’s soft ways and only half of the invisible steel of Katie. She was made up of all of these good and these bad things. She was made up of more, too. She was the books she read in the library. She was the flower in the brown bowl. Part of her life was made from the tree growing rankly in the yard. She was the bitter quarrels she had with her brother whom she loved dearly. She was Katie’s secret, despairing weeping. She was the shame of her father staggering home drunk. She was all of these things and of something more that did not come from the Rommelys nor the Nolans, the reading, the observing, the living from day to day. It was something that had been born into her and her only—the something different from anyone else in the two families. It was what God or whatever is His equivalent puts into each soul that is given life—the one different thing such as that which makes no two fingerprints on the face of the earth alike.” 
Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

At an early age, my daughter began saying she was an Atheist. I once remarked to my husband that although she might think this was true, she wouldn't really know the meaning of the word until her eleventh birthday came and went with no letter from Hogwarts. Even my husband, a militant, humorless Atheist, had to admit it would be a sad day.

Tomorrow, that sad day will come. She'll be eleven. Eleven like Harry Potter. Eleven like Francie Nolan. After 70 hours of labor, she was born with a sweet smile on her face. The nurses said she looked like Snow White. I'd once heard of a cult in which someone would attend the birth and, when each child was born, state the essence of each child - strong, kind, powerful, whatever. I didn't want to join a cult, but thought it sounded like a nice thing to have at a birth. But when she was born, I didn't need it. I looked at her and thought, "curious and good natured."

I didn't stop smiling for a year. We took walks, we stared into each other's eyes, we screamed into each other's mouths just to hear the weird echo it made. I was 27, but remember myself like a wide-eyed teen mother, growing up with her child.

When her brother was born, she instructed me over the phone not to step on him. She loved princesses, Egyptology, reading, writing, cooking, sewing, science fiction and fantasy. She's been an Atheist, a Buddhist, an Agnostic, a Christian and a Unitarian Universalist.

When I was pregnant, I kept hearing how awful it was to have a newborn. My life was practically over, they said, and I believed them, approaching her due date like my execution date. She turned out to be a beautiful, happy angel, and I've been waiting for the other shoe to drop ever since. So far, it never has. Thank you so much for being exactly the right daughter for me, my sweet girl.

She tells me she hasn't given up on the letter summoning her to wizarding school. While she acknowledges it won't be Hogwarts, she points out that Hogwarts in England. She feels it's entirely possible that in America, wizarding school starts a little later. Maybe we have a little more time.