Tuesday, August 28, 2007
I spent last night tossing and turning and dreaming of giant livers, glistening and distorted. I dreamt of masked surgeons. I dreamt of the lady I saw yesterday - the lady who sobbed in my room, as I informed her that her CT scan showed a cancer growing on her liver.
To be brutally honest, I'm not sure why I am so disturbed. I have met Diane* only twice now (usually she sees another doctor at the surgery where I work). She is not someone others warm to ..... the receptionists moan about her being an 'awful woman'. As I called her in to my room yesterday, I asked her if her husband was coming in with her, and she spat out "No! I don't want him anywhere near me. He's useless." Howard sat a mere six feet away. He quickly grabbed a newspaper, and studied it fiercely.
I ushered Diane to a chair in my room, closed the door, and sat down. I told her gently and simply, "The scan shows you have a cancer growing in your liver." I passed tissues as she cried. With her permission, I called her husband in. As he tried to comfort her, she swatted his hand away and told him to 'Shut up, Howard!'.
When I have to break very bad news in my job (which, thankfully, is rare), I often feel quite emotional. I have to steel myself and blink more than usual. I am inclined to get very attached to my patients, so to tell one of my regular patients that they have a life-threatening condition always twists me up inside. But with Diane, I felt concerned yet calm. I let her cry awhile, while I stayed dry-eyed. When her sobbing abated, I quietly explained that I had made an appointment for her to see a surgeon. I passed more tissues, and answered her questions as best I could. An hour later, I drove home thinking of this unhappy, grumpy woman, who was now devastated, bewildered, terrified.
When I was younger and more self-absorbed (yes, more!), I had no affection for 'difficult' people, and outright disliked patients who were rude or irritable or demanding. I took their impolite behaviour as a personal affront. I bewailed their lack of manners; their failure to show me the appreciation and respect I felt I deserved. Why was this person so angry and annoying, when I was being so helpful and nice?! Yes, folks, I thought it was all about me.
These days, patients can still rub me up the wrong way, but I hardly ever get in a stew. It has dawned upon me that sometimes a person is 'awful' because awful things have happened to them; because they have been treated awfully by others; because they did not have the intrinsic resilience to survive what life has thrown at them. I may still find their behaviour offensive, but I don't take offence. More than that, I develop a strange sort of fondness for some of these perpetual pouters. One of my patients stridently refuses medication for her depression, continues to smoke like a chimney despite her diabetes, tells me she wishes her husband would die, and complains that I haven't helped her sleeping problem one iota. Yet she keeps coming back, and I care about her; I want the best for her. I believe I understand her.
Today, though, my thoughts keep returning to Diane. She faces a huge battle with this nasty ball of malevolence growing inside her. From what I can tell, her emotional reserves are low. Her medical history means that any surgery carries higher risks. If she survives the surgery, her fight may not be over, because the scan showed there has been spread beyond the liver. This woman who defeated another cancer, over a decade ago, now must face up to a malignancy once more. I doubt that Diane will have much support, because I suspect she has alienated many friends and family. Misery loves company, but no-one wants to come visit.
I do not know what exists beyond our lives on Earth, but just in case this is IT, I'm living my life as well as I can. I love my life. But what of Diane? What does she think of the life she has lived? Does she feel satisfied with any part of her life?
Was she frightened last night, as she lay stiffly beside the husband she shuns? I'm certain she was scared.
Scared, and utterly alone.
*As usual, names and other medical details changed to protect patient privacy
Sunday, August 26, 2007
The other night, I read to the kids about a tiny goblin who wanted to know the secret of forgetting. He 'had once done a wicked thing, and couldn't forget it'. So the goblin went to the cave of the Wizard Tall-Hat to ask for help.
When the goblin left the cave, the children in the story asked him what the secret to forgetting was. The goblin answered them thus:
"I'll tell it to you, because then if you do a wrong thing, maybe you can get right with yourself afterwards. It's so dreadful if you can't."
"Well, the Wizard Tall-Hat told me that if I can do one hundred really kind deeds to make up for the one very bad one I did, maybe I'll be able to forget a little, and think better of myself. So I'm off to do my first kind deed".
The day I read this, I was feeling uneasy about something I'd done wrong. I don't know that it was a 'very bad one', as the goblin put it, but I knew I'd made a hasty and silly decision. I'd been feeling guilty all day. So it was uplifting to read this funny little book, and to remind myself that the best way to atone for a wrong deed (beyond apology, or fixing the wrong - which may not always be possible anyway) is to concentrate fiercely on doing many more good deeds in the future.
We all like to tell ourselves that we are 'good' people, and I believe that most people are 'good' at heart. However, it is frighteningly easy to slip off the path of honourable behaviour. It's all too easy to be jealous, to say something unkind in anger, to pass on nasty gossip, to tell small lies, to be uncharitable. I know, because I have transgressed in every one of these ways.
On the rare occasions I go to church (weddings, christenings, when staying with my husband's family), I almost always enjoy the sermon. Perhaps because it's a novel event for me, I find myself really listening to the words of the minister. I soak up the message, because I know myself to be flawed. I know that I need reminding of how to be good.
I'm not a religious person, though, so going to church seems hypocritical. When prayers pledging belief are read aloud, I sit silently. When the congregation goes up for wafers and wine, I remain seated. And once, in my twenties, I sat through a christening sermon in which the minister explained how we are all born 'wicked', and that we remain thus until we are christened. Those who are not christened, the minister explained, stay wicked in their hearts. I sat, distraught, through the service, and left in tears (I've never been christened).
So without a regular Sunday sermon, I try to stay on the straight and narrow by being accountable to myself - by examining my own behaviour, and trying to make changes when I go astray. But I get busy, and I get lazy, and I forget.
Inspiration for me in the constant struggle to live a 'good' life has come from an unexpected source. Almost every day, John Cowart writes on his blog, Rabid Fun. John is wryly funny, he is anything but pious, and he is always striving to be a better person. He quotes the bible, and he takes lessons from everyday life. I read and enjoy every post. If you want humble wisdom, go no further than this blog!
Socrates said, 'The unexamined life is not worth living'. I reckon he, too, must have been a pretty switched-on guy.
Thursday, August 23, 2007
"Do you ever feel that you never finish a conversation? That you never hash out a topic fully, to the point where there is really nothing more to say?"
"Yes, I know what you mean", she confirmed.
I'm wondering now if it is all women with young children who feel this way. Is it simply the fact that we have children to care for, as well as the household duties and/or paid jobs? Will this feeling go away when our children get older? Or is this some modern affliction of all women, where we want to do this, read that, see that, listen to this, study that, make this and more? Are we, in trying to live rich and fulfilling lives, forgetting to take the time to just be?
Maybe I just need a holiday, but I feel like every day is too busy, even the days I spend at home. There is washing to do, or fold, or put away. There are meals to be made. My kids want attention - chatter listened to, books read, games played. There are balls of dust and dog hair to be swept up. There is always some darn thing to be done. I still spend time with my friends, but they also have their own families, their own sets of duties and obligations, and our time together feels like all-too-brief snatched moments.
I sometimes wish I could just spend a whole day with a friend, once a week. Spend the day to talk, eat, talk, walk, talk, drink wine, and talk some more. Because the occasional couple of hours with a friend is too infrequent, and never feels like enough time. I crave those kinds of conversations I had as a younger woman, where a friend and I would talk, or let the other talk, or both talk in turn, until everything felt alright again; until we both felt that we had expressed ourselves and were understood by the other.
Earlier this year, I spent an entire weekend with my dear friend Chooky. This was something I hadn't done since having children (almost seven years ago!). Words cannot describe how blissful it was to do whatever we pleased, whenever we pleased, all the while catching up on each others' lives. By the end of the weekend, we both were on a high. Our conversations all reached their natural conclusions. We had been heard. Our worries had been lifted. All was well, and our friendship was reaffirmed.
I know things will (hopefully) get better as my kids get older. I know I will feel better in a day or two (probably after I spend tomorrow afternoon having coffee and confessions with Chooky!). For now, though, I'm using you, my readers, as an outlet. I'm venting. So please forgive the self-indulgent complaining, and please no-one tell me to pull my socks up and stop whining.
(Chances are, by the time you read this I've not only pulled up my own socks, but folded ten other pairs as well)
Thursday, August 16, 2007
When I was a struggling student, I owned a pair of cheap brown flats, a pair of black flats exactly the same, and some battered running shoes. It was better than being barefoot, that's for sure, but it's still nice to be able to afford some decent shoes these days. Because many times shoes simply tell us that the owner is on a tight budget. But once a person has enough money to even buy one pair of shoes they truly fancy, then I think this choice says a lot about the shoe-wearer's personality.
I dragged out my decent shoes, and examined them closely for 'evidence'. (And may I just add here that when my husband arrived home from playing squash, he looked at the array of shoes on the kitchen floor, looked expressionlessly back at me, and then went wordlessly off to shower. He's very accepting like that. Frustratingly un-curious perhaps, but also endearingly accepting!) I realised that many of my shoes don't quite embody the true me, but were chosen because I liked what they seemed to represent.
These red shoes I bought not so long ago because I've always loved other people's red shoes. They looked cute, they looked funky, and they were on sale! I do feel good in these shoes, like maybe I'm not so matronly and mumsy after all. But with my fair skin, the colour is not as good on me, and they're not true Jelly footwear.
These boots are undeniably sassy (shhh! nobody ruin my fun by denying it!), and I liked the idea of that. However, although I like to think I am at least occasionally flirty and appealing, mostly I am sensibly hanging washing and reading and cooking pizza. So these boots are not really me.
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
Right now, I am struggling with some mixed feelings towards one of my close relatives. This person I love dearly, but this person is quite different to me, and I am intolerant of this. I want my relative to be like me, because of course I am the gold standard for perfection (cough).
I have never been very good at agreeing to differ over something and moving on. Or rather, I have never been very good at this when it comes to someone I love. I so desperately want to feel that my loved one and I are in synch. I want us to be in harmony, our thinking aligned, laughing at the same things and railing at the same injustices. Of course, life doesn't work this way. Everyone is different, even if only in small ways.
One of my worst qualities is an overdeveloped sense of justice. I want everything to be fair in life. I become upset if I feel I am doing more than my share, in any situation, without thanks or acknowledgment. I demand appreciation from my husband. I secretly get irritated if a friend neglects to thank me for doing her a favour. Although I cultivate an image of sweetness and light, underneath I am a cranky grudge-bearing, score-keeping old cow. Now you know. The truth is out.
'Jellyhead' may have a dopey smile and a wobbly brain, but she's also got a steel backbone and a stick up her a**. Not to mention quite frequently her foot in her mouth.
(Now there's a mental picture you don't want to dwell on)
Wednesday, August 08, 2007
Without further ado, I present this anonymous post for your ponderance:
Way back when I started blogging, years ago, I sat perusing the vast blogosphere in search of inspiration and entertainment. I wrote in my blog only occasionally and only for the benefit of family and friends. My posts were chatty and filled with pictures of my family and I never considered what it might be like to join a community of anonymous bloggers and write in a style that might entertain or engage them without compromising too much of my anonymity.
But then I came across a blog, written by an anonymous stranger, that reached out and sucked me into her world. It was so well-written that I often sat reading it with tears streaming down my face --whether they be tears of laughter or sadness. I cared about this person. I worried about her. When she stopped posting, I feared that I might never know how her life turned out.
To be honest, I idolized her in a way. Her wit. Her writing talent. Her unique way of putting things into perspective.
Then one day I read a story from her childhood. It was written in that same beautiful, flowing style that I loved so much. I was carried along by her gentle and confiding tone but was left shattered at the end of the last paragraph.
This woman-- this warm, witty, beautiful, talented, engaging woman -- experienced horrors that I have never, and will never, have to face. Many of them she experienced very early in her life. Extremes of brutality and indifference shaped her personality.
Much of her wit was formed out of a desperate desire to alleviate anger with a well-placed quip. If she could make the grown-ups who surrounded her laugh, she could often avoid fanning the smoldering flames of their tempers. Her gentle, nurturing nature developed when she tried to shield her siblings from treatment similar to hers. Her habit of shying from praise was a result of her learning to be invisible to avoid notice and thus avoid being belittled or beaten.
To me, it seemed an unacceptable trade-off. That her stunning, magnetic personality was a result of having the stuffing beat out of her by Life--it wasn't fair. I ranted and railed against God, against Life, against societal pressure for people to marry and bear children whether they're narcissistic hedonists or not.
And the gentle writer grieved that she had brought pain into my life. Because her heart is so beautiful, she worried about me. She lived through these horrors. I only had to read about them. And she worried about me.
She said, "God lets things happen for a reason. These things happened so that I could learn and grow and be kind and help others." I refused to believe that the God I love, a gentle and caring God, would let anyone suffer such atrocities for the sake of personal growth. So I said, "That's bullshit!" (I am nothing, if not eloquent.)
And she stood back and waited for me to finish the process of sifting through the information she'd given me and the resultant anger and sadness and heavy grief that set up shop in my chest.
And now, I still hate it that she's ever suffered. But I am able to appreciate that I have a beautiful person in my life. I am able, once again, to appreciate her writing and the depths she can take me to with it. I am able to appreciate her. Period.
Sometimes, though, I am still caught by surprise by the strength of my reactions to the reality of what her life has been. Last night, I sat up late, unable to sleep, and read through the archives of a blogger who's new to me. I was turned on to this new person's blog by a mutual friend and have immersed myself in her archives for the same reason I was drawn years ago to the aforementioned writer. This new writer is witty, engaging, enormously talented and pulls me along with her through depths of despair and back again only to make me laugh until I think I might pee.
I made my way through her archives, hoping all the while that I wouldn't find what I suspected would be buried there. But I found it anyway. Tales of neglect and abuse and emotional agony inflicted on her by the very people who should have been her fiercest protectors. The fact that I had suspected as much all along certainly did not make me feel victorious. Rather, I felt beat up. I was surprised to find that my breathing was ragged, my jaw clenched, angry tears welling in my eyes.
So, this is how it is. Those among us who have this phenomenal power to pull us into their lives and to find their way into our hearts, effortlessly --it's almost always because we sense the wells of pain inside of them. We sense it, even when they are causing side-splitting laughter with their self-deprecating humor or bringing us to our knees with sadness with their uncanny powers of observation and communication.
We sense it and we try to pull them to us. We try to protect them and make it so that the bad things never happened. And because they are wise, and patient, and gentle, they step back and allow us to explore these extremes of emotion that we might never have felt had we not encountered the stories they have shared. They don't remind us that it was harder for them to live it than it was for us to read about it.
As for me, I'm so thankful to have chanced across these remarkable women in the blogosphere. No matter how limited their involvement in my "real" life, they have made an impact. I am kinder, more empathic, more gentle, and more generous because of the impressions they've made upon my heart.
But from time to time, like last night, I am still going to cry at the injustice of it all. I am still going to have moments when I question God and accuse Him of neglect and abuse for allowing such atrocities to befall the most innocent and vulnerable among us.
I stand up for them now, when I can. It doesn't help much. But the point is that I want to help and that I care and that my eyes are opened to the knowledge that not everyone gets to have the sort of life that was given to me.
If knowing the stories of these women can affect change in one person and if I can help even one child, maybe God really did know what He was doing.
Whether I like it or not.
Sunday, August 05, 2007
The house which the curb fronted was small and unlovely, with peeling white paint. It sat amidst the car fumes from the main road. I found it hard to imagine these expensive-looking shoes belonging to anyone in this house. And if the shoes had been a special purchase, a saved-for splurge, then why had they been abandoned so callously?
I wondered if perhaps the shoes were pinching the Italian-shoes-man, as he walked home from the bus stop after Friday night drinks. Did he swear softly, as he stopped and gently eased the shoes from blistered or aching feet? Did he sway as he placed his footwear with drunken precision by the curb? And did he then smile with relief as he lurched away in his brown socks, feeling the grass soft and springy underfoot?
If only the tongues of those shoes could talk.