When someone is diagnosed with a serious illness or suffers a loss or separates from their spouse or has a child that engages in a behavior not universally accepted, the way that they are perceived in the community shifts. Townsfolk may feel sympathetic, empathetic or, my particular “favorite”, judgmental. Depending upon the particulars, the aggrieved may be sought out or avoided, but rarely anything in between. By virtue of little more than happenstance, they have taken on a sort of celebrity status, albeit it dubious.
I am acutely aware, for a variety of reasons and through a wave of intuition, that I (and my family) have become the people who others are considering, talking about and, I am wise enough to recognize, judging. While I experience “CVS moments” that fill me with dreaded anticipation as to whom I might bump into, I am likewise acutely aware that many people, upon seeing me for the first time since our announcement, are tentative as to how to approach me. I sense the underlying anxiety and feel the “that’s her” glances in the most benign spots: the gym, the market, Starbucks (venti, decaf non-fat extra hot no foam vanilla latte, please) the post office. (Full disclosure: I don’t really recall the last time I went to the post office, but it represents the kind of spots that I have found this to happen.) But, alas, this is not the first time in my adult life that I have felt this way.
It happened in the seemingly endless weeks between my breast cancer diagnosis and my surgery date. I recall well-meaning people not knowing which way to look when, just days after my diagnosis, my father in law passed away after having fought colon cancer for four years. And then, again, when I lost my own father several months later, he a victim of lung cancer. All kind, caring people and, I am fairly confident, devoid of judgment, they just didn’t know how to process all the loss that we were experiencing over such a short stretch of time. It was incomprehensible to everyone. Mostly us.
Sometimes it is a look which oozes discomfort. Or it might be that I sense (perhaps in error) them having a fleeting, silent thought that perhaps I hadn’t see them so they could just keep walking. I’ve done it myself: spied a friend or acquaintance across the store (usually CVS) that has recently endured a life event and found myself gripped with a sudden loss of language and ability to offer condolences, or support or any other solace that a woman of a certain age should be able to share without reservation. I get it. I hate, however, being on the receiving end of it.
I assume no malice, anger or opinion, rather their profound discomfort which, in turn, dumps the onus on me to make them feel better. I am quite sure this is no one’s intention, but a rampant phenomenon, nonetheless. Hardly unique to me, I do believe, however, that given the shitstorm that has been our lives for the past ten years or so, I happen to be particularly sensitive and in tune to it. It probably speaks to my discomfort in being told that I am doing a great job…because I know, in my heart of hearts, that I am wildly unclear as to how I would react should the situation be reversed and I was an onlooker and not living through it. I am also well aware that I have been given no choice and all anyone ever really wants is to feel a semblance of control and at least a modicum of choice. In instances of death, illness and finding yourself the parent of a transgender kid, all that flies out the window. We are left with a choice – sink or swim. And as treacherous and unpredictable as the waters may be, the choice to swim is gonna trump sinking every time.