Sunday, February 12, 2012

Day 647: I'm Sorry, So Sorry, Please Accept My Apology

"I'm sorry."

Simple words, right? Complicated message. I've been thinking about these words ever since I had a conversation with a woman at the gym at work the other day. She is quite obviously pregnant, and we started chatting in the locker room about how classes have been crowded lately, what with everyone's ill-fated new year's resolutions. I asked her if she was going to keep it up as long as she could, and she said, "Well you did! I was really impressed by that!" We laughed about the memory of me waddling into the gym 8 months pregnant. I asked when she was due; she was given the date of May 29. Hey, that's my son's birthday! I said. We started talking about hospitals and doctors and she asked me who I went to at Northwestern, adding "there are so many doctors, I know it's not really worth asking." It turns out we have the same ob/gyn. She seemed really tickled about this; he is, after all, a strange one, and many women don't like his style. I talked about all the reasons I thought he was a great doctor, going through the things that happened during my pregnancies, him delivering Lenny, and how I thought he always paid attention to me, took me seriously, answered my questions, and genuinely cared about me. The swearing, the punching of Gabe's arm during every visit, the anger when delivery was slow, all of that worked for me. She seemed to really appreciate the insight. So I added, and, on top of that, he was the one who gave the ultrasound order for my breast cancer, so I'll always be grateful to him for that.

Her hand shot up to her face. "Oh my God, I'm so sorry." She reached out and touched my arm. I couldn't believe it. "Oh shit, I'm sorry," I said. "I walked around bald here for so long, I thought everyone knew." She touched me again, told me she was sorry again, and then said she was glad that everything seemed to be fine for now. We both successfully steered the conversation back to the original subject, far away from cancer.

But the whole exchange just stayed with me. This woman, someone I don't know well but like anyway, as she has always been friendly to me in and out of the gym, remembered me pregnant, weighing sixty pounds more than I do now, barely looking like myself, three years ago. And yet when I looked exactly as I do now--same weight, same figure, sans hair--she honestly had no idea that I was the same person. That cancer girl, that can't be the same woman who powered through all those squats and lunges when she was as big as a house, right? She can't be the same small woman I see three or four days a week in this locker room. That must be someone else.

This happens to me at work all the time. People just don't make the connection, even though I never hid my illness at work. I never wore wigs, never painted my face to hide the lack of eyebrows. It's as if my overall humor and health defy any other reality. It makes me think back to a year ago, when at this time I had written two very deep and somewhat painful blogs--one about being hit on at a bar only to have the guy tell me he knew I had cancer, and the other about my overall feelings of ennui and depression. What was hard then was being "almost normal," being deep inside the "absurdity" of the way that people experience an illness like cancer. What is hard now is acknowledging to other people that yes, cancer did happen to me, might still be happening to me in fact...who knows?

The point is, I'm sorry. I'm sorry that you didn't know, and we were having a nice conversation between two women, one woman who could impart some wisdom onto another who had never done this thing called motherhood before, and I ruined it, by bringing cancer in--I honestly, truly am sorry. I shouldn't be; there is nothing to be ashamed of, and cancer is indeed just now a fact of my life like any other, but I still carry that guilt. I have carried it now for closing in on two years. I'm sorry mom, I'm sorry Gabe, Jesus Christ I'm sorry for the things you know that you shouldn't, Lenny, Augie I'm so sorry you can never breastfeed again, friends I'm sorry you have to see me like this, boss I'm sorry I don't know what I will and won't be able to do. I'm sorry, me, or whoever I used to be, that the shit had to hit the fan yet again, that the normal decisions and petty distractions had to be put on hold for a while.

Regardless of whether it's right, or logical, those feelings of apology, those feelings of "sorrow" from which the word sorry actually comes, are absolutely true, absolutely heartfelt. So often people say I'm sorry to get out of something, because it is expected, because they want to exit the tough conversation. Saying I'm sorry actually has gotten a bad rap. But sometimes it's actually true. People say I'm sorry you have cancer, and that is so much better than the other ridiculous things people say (oh my God my grandma died from that; what, is it the bad kind?; I'm sure you'll be fine; you're tough, you'll beat it; I once had a lump too and it turned out to be nothing; does that run in your family?) because it is really the only appropriate thing to say that isn't a lie. And the experience I related above, that young pregnant woman's "I'm sorry" was so good--so real, the way she touched me (people are so often repelled by someone with cancer, as if it's catching, as if to touch a cancer survivor is to touch death itself), the way she looked surprised, the way she realized, wait, I'm a grownup, I need to do this right, say something positive, not give any pity, not pretend that I can't talk to her about pregnancy anymore.

I didn't want to hug her for what she said, but for acting so human about it, and treating me likewise.

I have apologized so many times for having cancer, and yet it will never feel like enough, not to me. Don't get me wrong--I don't believe I brought it on myself, I don't believe it's my fault, and I don't think there's anything I would have done differently if I had known what was coming. But it's still bullshit, and I'm still sorry it happened to me and in turn to the people who care about me. That sorrow is there, and it probably always will be, however long that always turns out to be.

When Gabe was reading the last blog while we were feeding the kids dinner, he suddenly got choked up. He put the iPad down and ran out of the room. The kids acted like nothing was happening and I continued to uselessly badger them about eating. Later I asked him what got him, was it the part about our strange, somewhat botched engagement story? Nope, he hadn't gotten that far--he stopped at the point when I talked about my appointment with the oncologist. What's upsetting about that? He got choked up again: "Twenty months in, you said Kate, 20 months. It just seems like there's so much farther to go."

I'm not the crier in the family, so I just sighed. Yes, there is, but I can't look at it that way, can I? I have to look at it as if I am close to two years with no evidence of disease. We have to live like this now, for a while, counting days and months and checking them off--now, we just wait.

And Jesus babe, I'm sorry.

I'm sorry that sometimes you have to run up to the attic to cry. I'm sorry that I don't cry about this anymore. I'm sorry that I look like the pinnacle of health, and yet there might be something lurking, defying me, waiting to destroy our lives again. I'm sorry in the way that sorry means "regrettable, deplorable, unfortunate, tragic," in the way that Webster tells us it means "sorrowful, grieved, or sad," even in the way that it means "useless." It isn't much, but it's the truth. .

So there's that..

In addition to the concept of apology, I've been thinking about that too--about waiting. It is in some ways the hardest part, and really isn't. When people say that waiting for bad news is worse than receiving it, they are only telling half truths. Waiting is agonizing--it's hard not knowing your stage, your prognosis, whether your daughter has a high probability of contracting cancer, and all of that. And yet having cancer is REALLY hard, and some people do it, live with it, every day for the rest of their lives. I won't lie: Every day without having to do cancer treatment is a day I have back, every week that passes with no chemo, every month when I don't need surgery, every year older that I turn, is worth it even if I don't get to have this reality forever. So it's there, potentially waiting, but it's not there, in my face.

It's hard to explain what I'm trying to say. Let me try this: I'm writing today from the north woods of Wisconsin, our serene and austere getaway place that I still can't believe we have access to, considering how far removed Gabe and I are from being "lake house" people. It's not OUR lake house, of course; and yet here we are. The last time I was here was almost six months ago. I wrote a poem about overcoming my fear of heights, and that experience overshadowed something else that happened that I never wrote about. It was summer, and I took at least two walks by myself every day in the solitude and the trees. As I was coming back home one day from one of those walks, I looked straight ahead and my heart caught in my throat. There right in front of me, maybe a hundred yards away, stood an adult black bear. She was looking right at me, frozen. I had no idea what I was supposed to do--I grew up in Chicago, after all, and my street smarts have helped me escape from men bigger than me, but leave me at a loss in the wild. So I stood there, breathing hard, not daring to move. Time really does stand still when you're scared out of your mind. Then she moved into the woods, and I waited a while longer to make sure no bears would follow her. After about five minutes, I started walking again; it was no use to go in the other direction, since there was no one to help me, no one to call out to, no one to ask for advice. I got home, said you will not believe this! breathed a huge sigh of relief, and started to tell Gabe the story.

So it is with cancer. You wait, stand still, your heart caught in your throat, you assess whether the beast will walk away or walk towards you, and either way it works out in the end, you just keep walking, find someone who loves you and tell the story. But waiting is still better than being mauled by the bear. You know what I'm saying?

Me neither, honestly. In an attempt for explanation, in order to try to define what it means to wait, and whether or not there are things worth waiting for, I decided to write a poem for my kids. I admit I have only ever done this once before, when Lenny was two and I wrote her a poem called Why Popsicles. It is simple enough that she could understand it even then. So here is a way to think about waiting, to think about poetry not as literature but as a way to explain something to my kids. I hope they can see what I see here--I hope.

Frozen Lakes, Explained

For Lenny and Augie

We are going to walk out onto the lake.
We will not be the first ones.
There are people in that box, because that box is actually a house.
The people are not really small; they are just on the other side.
It is all a matter of perspective.
The house and the trucks weigh much more than you.
You will not fall in, even if you do fall over.
That’s right, I am making you a promise.
The snow is clean, so you can eat it.
The trees are beautiful, so you can try to run to them.
There are deer tracks; birds have walked here.
No, I don’t know why. I don’t know where they were going.
Do you understand what expansion means?
That is what is protecting you; the cold has made this playground.

This is something I had to wait more than thirty years to do.
This: the ice, the trees, the quiet, those men looking across at us,
the reminder of animals, the looks on your faces,
the way you let go and took off running,
the sound of your voices in the cold when you asked to come inside
the curiosity that led you to ask for an explanation,
the fact that I didn’t want to tell you,
having waited for this, this moment when you no longer believed me
when I told you that some impossible things are actually possible.
You can run now where you might otherwise drown.
Trust me, trust all those who went before you:
those who knew that it would work, and those who didn’t,
but walked across the water anyway. Especially them.

1 comment:

  1. Katy,
    I love the honesty and flow of your writing, not only the rhythm, but the abundance of thoughts and words, of perspective and wonder. Thank you for writing.