This week, I’m relating some experiences and thoughts that have occurred in the wake of the blog posting, “How to Talk to Me: The Don’ts and Do’s List.” Someday, we will all come to know the difference between what is said with love and awkwardness and what is said with carelessness or thoughtlessness. Until then, there’s this blog.
At the end of this week’s blog posting, there’s the usual quick update on my health, in italics. Next week, a new installment of my cancer history.
Dreamboat and I were out for a walk one late afternoon last week when we spied a friend of ours. I’ll call our friend Benzie because, well, maybe if you know he’s a tall, dark (gray), and handsome, 70-year-old single guy who dates online and drives a 20-year-old Mercedes convertible that’s been patched with no more than two short lengths of duct tape—silver to match the exterior—you’ll get the picture. You wouldn’t mind if he dated your mom (or grand-mom), but you can’t help wondering: what’s wrong with him? Is he just too nice? Or is he a wolf in a sexy-old-guy automobile?
We followed Benzie to his car, where he opened the door for a woman we didn’t recognize. Presumably, a date. Benzie introduced her by her real name, of course, but I’m going to call her Alicia. He introduced us as old friends. Alicia was pretty in that independent-older-lady way: comfortable shoes, jeans, button down shirt, scarf. Her lipstick was a nice rosy color, her glasses rimless, her hair salt-and-pepper, and full. Within the first five minutes of our conversation, she made some excuse to expose her political persuasion, which neatly matched mine, Dreamboat’s, and what I know of Benzie’s, which is a lot. So far, I approved.
Then we launched into cancer talk and things went downhill. It started with Benzie’s standard refrain—step one in his saying-goodbye routine. (You would almost think he wanted to get rid of us.)
“Don’t forget, I’m available for rides anytime you need them,” Benzie said.
As it happened, Dreamboat and I had just been discussing an appointment I was having trouble arranging a ride to.
“Okay,” I said, “how about Friday at 11 o’clock?”
Benzie blinked a moment of surprise away and answered, “Sure, I can do Friday. I’ll be happy to. Where are we going and for how long?”
“To the Cancer Center. Bring some reading material—it’ll take about two hours. I’m having chemo.”
At the word chemo, Alicia let out an audible gasp, poor thing. Her gasp was audible to me, anyway. I don’t think the men heard or noticed it. We stood on the sidewalk in a long semi-circle: Benzie still holding the door open for Alicia, Dreamboat beside Benzie, then me, then Alicia beside the car’s bumper. The men launched a discussion of why Dreamboat couldn’t drive me to chemo this week—a baseball game in San Francisco. (Dreamboat, love of my life, rooting for the wrong team.)
I was wearing what I call my schmatta—Yiddish for rag—a kind of pre-tied scarf that slips on and off my head very easily. It hid the patchy remnants of my hair and didn’t scare off children, but also gave away my situation vis-à-vis drugs that make your hair fall out. I had noticed Alicia eyeing my schmatta during introductions. Now her eyes widened. Her lips parted, as if to make room for surprise to flow in and out, along with oxygen.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said in a low voice. And, ignoring the baseball talk, “It’s going to be alright, though, isn’t it?”
“Oh,” I thought. “Here I am on this glorious afternoon, taking a walk with my Dreamboat and feeling alright. Now this woman I just met needs me to be alright in a permanent sense. Wants me to say I won’t die. But, come on, Dearie—dig up your compassion. What will it cost you to lie a little?”
“No,” I said, in the most matter-of-fact tone I could muster. “No, it’s not going to be alright.”
Alicia flinched and we ladies went silent. Dreamboat and Benzie’s conversation was still on baseball—one lauding, the other mourning the great season the wrong baseball team is having this year. I looked for an opening and used it to close the conversation. It was time for Dreamboat and me to head home to dinner.
“I will pray for you,” Alicia told me when we said our goodbyes.
I thanked her. I always thank people for their prayers I don’t believe in. They believe, and I guess that’s what matters.
Benzie helped Alicia into his car and closed the door. We called another set of goodbyes and see-you-Fridays, and Dreamboat and I set off down the sidewalk.
“How many rules did she break?” Dreamboat asked.
“She erased them as soon as she made them,” I said.
“Wow. How’d she do that?”
You may remember Dr. Friend from my last post and that he was one of Dreamboat’s best men at our wedding. Dreamboat’s other best man is a doctor too, a now-retired gastroenterologist and a never-to-be-retired gastronomist—a man interested in both the outs and the ins of eating, so to speak. Let’s call him Dr. Gas.
Picture Dr. Gas with his two round cheeks set in a round face beneath a round of bald head and imagine the way the rest of him looks: grandfatherly. You know the way a grandfather will slip a finger under a lens of his eyeglasses and rub his eye to distract himself from laughing at something a grandchild said quite seriously? Or to mask bad news? Having spent some time with him and his grandchildren, I can tell you, that’s Dr. Gas.
I would also say that Dr. Gas, like most doctors I know, is on the ADD side of the ADD spectrum.
A few days ago, I ran into Dr. Gas shortly after having my hair cut. And when I say shortly, I mean possibly not shortly enough. The stylist had done what anyone with a snippet of generosity would call an excellent job. She took a headful of wisps—like a four-inch wheat field that was grown during a drought, then picked over by a murder of wheat-crazed cancer-crows—and she sheared it into a sparse but uniform one-inch field of white-gray stems. I was immediately grateful. Though later, as I checked the new look in every window and mirror I came near, I noticed how much the one-inch stems resembled the sticking-up-with-alarm-looking hair of a baby bird. I began to think that just a half-inch of sparse white-gray stems might make for a more sophisticated field atop my own otherwise bald noggin.
Dr. Gas was sitting at one of the outdoor café tables at the Forest Bean coffee shop a few blocks from our house. After hellos, Dreamboat went inside to order our coffees and I, schmatta-less, sat down with Dr. Gas.
“You got your hair cut,” Dr. Gas said.
“Yes,” I said, and I brushed the white-gray stems with my hand. “What do you think?”
“It looks great,” Dr. Gas said automatically. Then he inserted a finger under one eyeglass lens and rubbed his eyelid.
“Got it,” I thought, and I prepared to change the subject—to something along the lines of, “Do you think it’s hair or feathers that baby birds have sticking straight up from their heads when they’re newly born?” But before I could launch my new topic, Dr. Gas’s finger popped out from under his eyeglasses.
“I shouldn’t have said your hair looks great. I read your Do’s and Don’ts List or whatever you call it…”
“Don’ts and Do’s.”
“…and I know you want people to be honest with you.”
“Your hair doesn’t look great,” Dr. Gas said. He was staring at the Forest Bean entrance and I wondered if he wished Dreamboat would suddenly appear there to relieve him of this one-on-one conversation. “It looks good,” Dr. Gas said. Then his finger headed for his eyelid again—before it stopped, mid-air. “I mean,” he said, “it looks fine.” His hand dropped to the café table. He wrapped his hand around his to-go cup and looked over at me. He said, “Truthfully. It’s okay.”
“Oh,” I started, “well, th…”
“What’s Dreamboat ordering for you in there?” Dr. Gas changed the subject.
“Decaf,” I said. I stared at the Forest Bean door too. Moss-green, with delicate, hand-lettered signs in its pane of clear glass. Hours and Open. “Do you think it’s hair or feathers that baby birds have sticking straight up from their heads when they’re newly born?” I asked Dr. Gas.
“Because, I never know what my wife wants when we’re out for coffee together,” Dr. Gas answered. “I mean, I just start to think I know her order; then I’m pretty sure she changes it.”
I sat back in the uncomfortable iron café chair and thought how dear Dr. Gas is, even with the attention span of a puppy.
In my inbox is a message from another friend—part of my political network, someone I don’t see often. I’ll call her Franny. I haven’t answered Franny’s email yet. It chokes me up.
Franny starts, “I hate that you have cancer. I really do.” Good start.
Franny goes on to tell me that she had a friend, a woman she had known since kindergarten, who died in their hometown in the Midwest, a few years ago. “I didn’t fully realize what she went through because she was far away,” Franny writes. “I’m beginning to realize more through your writings… Thank you.”
Remember to add to the Do’s List:
- Do say whatever comes from your heart. You’re sincerity will erase any mistakes you make.
- Do be as honest as you can be, even if it makes you—and your friend with cancer—feel really very awkward.
- Do start a text, email, letter, or conversation with “I hate that you have cancer. I really do.” You will have your loved one’s attention. He or she hates having cancer as much as you can imagine, and more than that. Depending upon the sensitivities of the one with cancer, you can even try “I fucking hate that you have fucking cancer,” because FUCK CANCER. Fucking-fucky-fuck it.
But thanking-thanky-thank you people who are listening to me and teaching me so much.
And giving me life.
My health now: I’m embarking on a treatment-free week this week—no chemo, no radiation. Though at other times “treatment-free” has meant “worry-filled,” this time I’m ready for a break. I have some scanning scheduled for next Tuesday. There’s a new tumor in my left shoulder; I can feel it. That means more radiation ahead and, probably, a change in chemo—hopefully to something that won’t let lymph nodes become cancerous (like those we just finished radiating), or new tumors pop up (next to the one we radiated to death in January). Keep sending those prayers-I-don’t-believe-in, thought-waves-of-positivity, and whatever else you’ve got. If you think I need it, you don’t have to convince me. (Please do not try to convince me.) I’ll take what you send. With gratitude.
This week, I found out how to create the little social media share buttons you see on other blogs. If you like this blog post, or any of the previous posts, please consider sharing. My ego craves an audience. (Who knew?)