Monday, September 12, 2011
Day 494: The Kiss and the Story
For the last eleven days, I have had no inspiration whatsoever to write this blog. Of course, I didn't really write a blog on September 1 either; I just wrote that poem and posted it and decided that would suffice. I started thinking that maybe there isn't anything left to say, so I could forget about it for a while and just lounge on the couch and watch some football, (see what the kids learn from me? Some kids might mimic their mom by playing dress-up, mine sprawl all over the couch during the game), cook some comfort food, and do other run of the mill things.
So why am I sitting here on a Monday night, contemplating writing one of my deepest blogs yet, while watching the game? Well, in part because I can't imagine NOT watching Monday night football if it's on, no matter what, but mostly for two important reasons.
One is that yesterday was the tenth anniversary of September 11. I am not going to attempt to connect the events of this blog with the events of that day. As I will discuss later, I don't take myself that seriously. But I do read the newspaper, and I read the coverage of the memorial services in New York, Washington, and other places. There were so many moving moments, but the one that got me the most was something a teenage boy had written for his dad, which went something like this: "I still miss you, dad. I wish you had been around to teach me how to drive, how to ask a girl out on a date. I hope that my brother and I became the kind of young men you would have wanted us to be."
There really isn't anything for me to add to that, and most people reading this will know why that makes me tear up, beyond just the given feelings of empathy. The second thing that happened is that an old friend and colleague posted the following link on Facebook about Dignity Therapy for the Dying (this is what I love about facebook, that you get to see what other people are thinking about, out of context, and yet it makes perfect sense and you remember what you like about those people, even when they literally live halfway around the world): http://www.npr.org/2011/09/12/140336146/for-the-dying-a-chance-to-rewrite-life
All of a sudden, these two passages converged for me. What is so poignant about all of the memorial statements for those who died on September 11? Well, one of them is the way that loved ones talk about the sudden nature of all of those deaths and the lack of closure. News coverage mentions a woman and her 23 year old sister, a man's 29 year old son, someone's 67 year old mother. But those are their ages stopped in time ten years ago. The present-tense nature of the way these things are portrayed is a brutal reminder that those people did not have the chance to age another ten years, and no one saw it coming.
While everyone who dies is always eternally placed at the age they reached before death, I think it's even more significant when you die suddenly or when you are the subject of unexpected news. That child will always be 29, that life will always be cut short. We conflate this and bring it into our everyday lives. I know that one of the reasons that the friends of my childhood and my youth are so affected by the story of my cancer is that I am literally cemented in their minds as the age I was when they knew me or saw me last. I know that I would feel the same way.
Recently, my mom brought me a few of my formal dresses from high school, thinking I could fit into them. My favorite dress was a vintage, rose-colored dress with a beautiful back that I bought for $35 on the north side somewhere. I couldn't believe I could fit into it. Haven't I had kids? Didn't my hips finally expand when I was 20? Didn't I grow an inch and a half in college? (Alas, the only thing stopping the dress from fitting comfortably is that my damn rib cage grew. It even fit better on my behind, I didn't even have to suck in my stomach, but that ribcage must've expanded somewhere down the line). I know that if my boyfriend at the time or someone else from that era saw this picture of me wearing it now, they would think, that's Katy! 17 years old, in 1992. Because I will always be Katy, 17 years old, in 1992, to some people. That's just how it is. The things you are go back to the way you are remembered.
But it doesn't have to be so static, and that's what's neat about life. If your only sibling dies, are you an only child? You might think you are, but you will never be an only child, because you and so many other people have all the memories of you being a sibling. And if you are alive in the world, you get to age, and people who see you as stopped in time somewhere in your past just have to deal with the fact that that image isn't real. But if you don't get that last glimpse, that closure, if you don't get to see that body or bury that person, time and memory can play all kinds of tricks.
This contrasts so completely with the subject of the other piece, which focuses on the actions of people who know they are dying, who have time to prepare. Normally, when the cheesy question of "what would you do if you knew you only had x amount of time to live" arises, no one gives the option: "I would sit down and write about my life so that I could be remembered and the whole thing would seem real." And yet that is probably the only really true answer that a person could give to that question.
What do these things have to do with me? Well, nothing, really. I don't think I'm dying, not right now, anyway, but having cancer does bring you that much closer to death, or at least to thinking about death. And it makes people say things to you like, well, you might have cancer, but you know you could get hit by a bus tomorrow, we could all die at any time. And you want to smack those people, because of course you know that, and actually you were hit by a car, thank you, and you did have a gun at your head, and you almost died from an allergic reaction to penicillin as a baby, AND you had cancer, so clearly none of these things precludes the others. But the difference is that cancer gives you time to think, to reflect. When my grandmother knew that she had a breast lump when she was 75, she let it go for over a year. She was too terrified of cancer to get it checked out, thinking that having cancer meant that she would die. Her doctor sighed and told her, no Marthagene, it's not like a heart attack. Cancer won't kill you just like that. You have to suffer first.
She suffered more than she needed to, and she also lived another 11 years and died of other causes. But I digress. These two pieces of media converged in my convoluted mind and I thought, isn't that what I'm doing here, isn't that what this blog is about? I have enough presence of mind to realize that even if triple negative breast cancer ultimately does me in, I am alive now and will be for a while. I have time to tell my story. I have always admitted that I write this blog in part as a love letter to my kids, so that they could know me if they miss out on the real, corporeal me. I have also stated that I am doing it to make this real, so that I know that all of these things really happened, because I wrote about them and somehow that makes them true. If not for this blog, morbid insomnia might be some kind of off-color joke, that head-shaving experience might be some kind of dream Gabe and I had in the basement of our old house, and this relatively normal life wouldn't seem quite so marvelous.
I wrote it, so it must be true. I told the story, so it must have happened. Telling our stories brings us back to that basic aspect of ourselves, that somewhat desperate innocence. I knew I needed to write this blog after meeting our new young next door neighbor, a boy who is about ten, who spent at least an hour telling our entire family all kinds of stories, mostly small (life is so detailed at that age!). I realized how important it must be to him to get those stories out, even to us. It was also important to him that we believed him, as if he expected that we wouldn't believe the story he was telling us--about himself, and his life.
And it's important for your life to seem real, to be true. Every once in a while Gabe tells me that I got some detail wrong in this blog. A few times I will reflect back and say, yeah, I guess that happened at a different time of day, that event actually happened before the other one, not after. Other times I look at him and wonder what world he is living in, where he clearly experiences everything in a fog, because I know, I just know, that the way I remember it is true. And I'm sure he feels the same way.
Why do we have this need to tell our crazy stories? Why the task of dying, as the article reveals, that forces us to take stock and come to terms with what we've done with our lives? Are we narcissistic enough to think anyone cares? I remember when I was fresh out of an extremely painful breakup, I said to a friend that the last thing I wanted was to become one of his stories, or even many of his stories. And she looked at me thoughtfully and said, why not? I know it hurts now, but what is wrong with that? That's what happens to all of us, and it's an honor to be someone's story.
Don't I have insightful friends! Of course, she was right. It is equally important to be an actual part of someone's life, but if for some reason that isn't possible, how wonderful to think that someone thinks of you when they could think of so many other things. Perhaps being a part of the story is the whole point. Maybe we need to take ourselves much less seriously, think of ourselves as just part of the play, and try to entertain the audience.
But who am I to give advice? Here I was a week or so ago, entertaining some teenagers at my house, though I was sure they should have had something better to do, and I wanted to laugh at myself as I played at giving advice, as if I know anything at all. At one point I found myself telling them not to take themselves too seriously, not to think that everything matters so desperately. But of course it does when you're 18, right, and death is so far away! Your life is such an important thing, your decisions matter, your love is the only one. And yet, experience does teach you a few things.
I have very few regrets in my life, since I have always laid my cards out on the table, even when it was embarrassing, even when it made me look weak. And different things that I've survived or experienced have taught me not to take today too much to heart. In the middle of wondering why parents in Chicago need to spend a few extra work weeks of time figuring out where to send a child to first grade, I thought, does it really matter? When I was out of school for months after my car accident, I had a tutor for one hour a week--that's it. All we did was math. I liked other subjects more and asked her about reading and social studies and science and she said, you are smart, you can read, you won't forget those things. I pressed her, and she said something along the lines of "It's fourth grade. It doesn't really matter. You'll be fine." And when I went back to school it was as if I had never left.
As I was talking to these kids and thinking about how deeply you feel everything when you are young, I was brought back to the time right before I left for college. I had started dating someone, even though I knew I would leave and move 400 miles away a month or so later. One day we were at his parents' house lying in bed and he asked me if I wanted to go out. No, I said, this is nice, let's stay here. And he said, no--do you want to go out with me? Do you want to be my girlfriend?
In a moment typical of my own innate romanticism, I responded, sure, but I have to go out with this other guy first.
At the end of the day, I dated that guy I had known for a hot minute after high school for more than six years. But who was this other guy, the one I had to go out with first? Well, he was a boy I had always liked as a friend, and he seemed to like me. He played football, we were really different, but we had a great time together and had been lab partners in chemistry. One day I was walking down the street and he drove by, got out of the car, and asked me out on a date in front of all of his friends, and all of my friends, who were all different people. How could I say no? High school was over, none of it seemed to matter anymore.
So we went out, ate some ice cream, saw a movie, and he thought it was funny, not annoying when I talked through the film and yelled at the screen (hey, that's how I grew up). He tried to hold my hand in the theater and that's how I learned you can't squirm out of hand-holding without being a total bitch so you should just do it, no matter who it is. He's trying to hold your hand, not feel you up. You have to let him. Then we went back to his house and talked on the porch for a long time. He drove me home and leaned in to kiss me, and I pulled away, because I felt I would be cheating on the other boy. As soon as I did that, I regretted it, but I didn't know how to fix it. A few days later he moved to New York and I never saw or spoke to him again.
Oh, how serious I thought it was, how I thought it mattered if I kissed him. Of course it didn't. I could have slept with him, and what would that really have done, how would that have changed the course of things in all of our lives? The great part is that wasn't on the agenda at all. This was one of those moments you have in your life where this sweet kid is telling you, hey I'm moving away, and one of the last things I want to do before I go is kiss you, and then you take yourself so seriously you don't even do it. If only we could protect ourselves from ourselves at those moments. Because we can't, we give vague unsolicited advice to kids who look at each other like, this lady's crazy.
But maybe the moral of the story is that the boy in that story won, because here I am writing about him almost 20 years later. Maybe being a part of the story is better than the kiss, though I contend we could have had the kiss and the story, and that is what we should all be trying for at the end of the day. Telling the story is important, but so is living the story before you get to tell it.
Now, do I think that way because I am a woman and I relate to people through stories, not actions? While I scream out after witnessing an incredible 99 yard touchdown run, I am simultaneously thinking about the ways that gender plays out in our very real lives. I am remembering a story I heard from a friend, a guy who had been in a relationship with the same man for many years. He started talking about a trip he had just taken with his sister, and telling this hilarious story about how they suddenly were attacked by vampire bats. I was just about on the floor laughing, as was my other friend, when I realized he had never heard this story before this telling. And I thought, right there, that is the difference between men and women. You get attacked by some damn vampire bats, and you forget to tell your boyfriend? I would have had to build my own phone in the wild to make sure I could tell that one right away. It's so bizarre, how else would you know it was real?
That's what I guess this blog has brought to me, selfishly. What a gift to be able to recognize your life and what it is and what it means, not later, not in hindsight, but while it's happening. What a gift to yourself and to anyone else who is a part of that story. But you can't do that if you are too wrapped up in yourself and the way things are supposed to be. That's why we have conversations like this in my house (and we always have, way before cancer) while we're watching movies on Netflix: OK Gabe, if there's ever a civil war and you haven't seen me in two years and the world has gone to hell and you see Natalie Portman living by herself in a godforsaken cabin, just sleep with her. You will probably both be dead within the week, and I wouldn't hold it against you anyway. Or, ok Gabe, if you could save the entire human race but the only thing you have to do is kiss a woman who isn't me, you had better kiss that woman or I will make sure to kill you myself. In fact if you could save just one person, or even stop one person from getting hit by a car, by kissing someone else, promise me you would do it, ok?
And this circuitous train of thought brings me back to the early days of my cancer diagnosis, when I told Gabe I had something to tell him, and he gave me a crestfallen look before he steeled himself to hear it. I hadn't really thought about asking "permission" to have an ex take half-naked pictures of me once I found out I had breast cancer, but he suggested I find out if Gabe cared. Instead of asking, I just told him. When Gabe heard this he sounded really relieved and said, oh, that's not what I was expecting you to say. I thought you were going to say you had slept with someone else or that you wanted to sleep with someone else.
And then I got pissed, because first of all, did he really think that was at the top of my mind in the middle of my terror and sadness and grief? Really, I was thinking about sex? And then I got even more angry, thinking about this supposed hall pass I seemed to be getting, since it didn't even seem like he would have been mad, just a little hurt, if I had cheated. Like I was Cancer Girl. I said, what, do I have one foot so deep in the grave that the normal rules don't apply, I don't even need to be a normal wife anymore? And he stumbled, trying to explain. No, that's not it, of course I want you to myself, I don't think of you as dying, I just think that it's your life, and you need to do what you need to do, whatever will help you deal with this.
I was still angry, and confused, by this reaction. I told a good friend about it and she said, huh. Can you imagine being in that place? Imagining a betrayal from the person you love most in the world and immediately seeing past it, forgiving it, because you just want that person to feel better and you don't know how to help her? Think of how much pain you must be in, how much love you must have, to feel like that.
And while I was marveling at the existence of my super-intelligent and thoughtful friends, I understood exactly what she was saying. In part she was saying, you need to flip it, Katy. You need to realize that the story you just told me isn't about you at all, it's about Gabe. And I would take it further and say that by saying what she said, the story was really about her. Or the story was about the man who took the photos, who asked if Gabe would think it was weird that we were in our bedroom with the door closed and I was taking off my clothes in front of someone who used to be my lover while my husband played downstairs with the kids? All I could say is no, since I didn't have the heart to say, he thinks it's weird that I have cancer, that he might be raising those kids by himself, and this is really just some meaningless small potatoes in comparison. I couldn't say that because it wasn't meaningless to him. He wasn't living with my cancer every day, he was living in that awkward moment.
So for one of many times in my life I learned how to see myself as someone else saw me. And like everything does, that brings me back to gender politics and gender identity. Under the guise of empowerment, we spend a lot of time telling girls not to care about what other people think, not to see themselves how other people see them. And yet, I feel that we are taking away one of girls' greatest strengths when we do that. My mom used to say "men think they're beautiful." That means that many men have a hyper-inflated view of themselves and their attractiveness, their appeal. But it means something else too--they don't get that we don't necessarily see them that way. They just don't see it because they have never been taught to care what we think. But women, on the other hand, think about this all the time. We receive so many thoughtless comments (thoughtless in the real sense--even if they are positive) about how we look, our sex appeal, that we learn to objectify ourselves, to sit outside of ourselves and look in. However, too often, we are too hard on ourselves, and we make up flaws that no one else can see. In my mind there is a happy medium. Why can't we encourage everyone to see themselves the way that other people ACTUALLY see them? To put themselves in the other's shoes, and look back inward?
But again, here I am playing at giving advice. I can't say I'm very good at what I have just described. I have had my moments though. I was able to do that when I lost my hair. I thought, realistically I believe, that people will see me bald and think, that's kind of strange looking. Or they will think, she has cancer. A few people might think it looks nice. A few people might appreciate it. But no matter what the reaction, most importantly, those people will think whatever they will and then never think about it again, because I am a stranger and they don't give a shit about me or my bald head, so why should I make such a big deal out of it myself? The knowledge that my "otherness" wasn't so interesting in this wide world made it easier, just like it made it easier to be in a wheelchair, or to have such pretty hair that people you have never seen before and will never see again reach out to grab it and ask if it is real. Those people were seeing one perspective of me, they weren't seeing ME.
To see that, you would need to read this blog, or tell a story about me, and you would need to see me in the flesh or talk to me. Because if you have both, you can appreciate all of the unseen possibilities, you can think about that stranger who did a double take and then smiled and winked at you, and you can wonder if he would go back to the office and tell a little story about the cute bald woman he saw on the street. The wink made it real, the story made it last. And then you're outside of yourself, without ever having to leave. That's what completes the picture right? That's it--the kiss, and the story. You need both.