I’m still alive, dear readers, if there are any of you left.

What I’m listening to in the background as I write this: Merry Happy by Kate Nash

Sorry I’ve been silent.  I’ve just been busy. Stricken with death *my grandmother* who I lived with and took care of for the past 6 years died at the age of 99, on July 31. My mom got diagnosed with breast cancer first of this year. I worked like a dog at my job between the two shitty events. Now I have moved back home to take care of her. Not working. Trying to write my novel–as always–. It sucks. She–my mom–is ok. Maybe going to live. Maybe not. I hope and pray the former is true. However, no matter how hopeful I am, I know that it’s not up to me and that no matter how good things seem to be getting or how hopeful I am, anything could really happen and this life is really not up to us. Basically–we could go at any time and we’re all going to go some time– And what do we spend doing most of the time? Not that which we truly love. Most of life is spent doing obligations, pushing papers around, pleasing people at a job, putting off that creative project one more year, saving, or paying off debt one 20 dollar bill at a time.

Random Kind Stranger #1
Every day in LA, I run into somebody (usually around my age) who left her job to take care of a parent with cancer.  I don’t know what attracts them to me, but they are all around.  The hairdresser today when I went to get my hair cut asked me all sorts of questions to start small talk: Do you live around here? Are you working today? Is this your day off? All specific questions that are hard to avoid the huge and horrible reason why I am really here. After the fifth question, I find myself explaining–confessing the whole story again.  Why are you cutting your hair so short all of a sudden? How come you don’t look at all your hair on the floor when we sweep it away? I shrug my shoulders and look at myself in the mirror.  Am I getting older? Are those worry lines on my forehead? God forbid.
For each new person I meet…I nervously wonder, how do I explain to them my silences… I’ve never been one to look back on my decisions. I don’t look down as they sweep away my hair. I am unflinching. Spartan. (Literally because my mom’s family is from Sparta on one side.)  My long hair is the least of my worries. I’m cutting my hair short in solidarity with my mom, etc.  *It looks cute by the way.* The hairdresser cut and styled it for an hour and a half, talking all about life, her mom, her vision for the salon, etc.  I think the woman liked me because we shared the same experience.  She hugged me at the end of the haircut, but not in a pathetic way. It was one strong, wise woman to another kind of a hug. We tactfully tried to talk around the fact, but I got the impression that her mother–who had stomach cancer–died.

Random Kind Stranger #2:

Random Kind Stranger #2:

A month ago, I went to a party in Silverlake. The people at the party went to college with my husband and me. It’s the first party I’ve been to alone in a long time. He was up visiting his mom who has just finished her chemo. That is another story.  I knew people at the party, but there is something about driving to a party alone when you’re not used to it that makes one feel unhinged. I start realizing the obvious that never made a difference to me when we were all drinking together in college. They make more money than we do, work in biotech or for the city and throw the kind of birthday parties that hire private bartenders and have dj’s and Thai buffet catering.  Our birthdays usually involve a split tab with a few friends, burgers, and maybe bbq on the back patio if we’re going all out.  All the wives and girlfriends wear sequins, designer dresses with plunging necklines, fantastic high shoes, smokey makeup around the eyes.  I’m in jeans and a dressy cotton tank top from Target, coming from a friend’s baby shower. I stuffed my high heels in my purse all day and bust them out right before going to the party, putting my stinky sandals at the bottom of my bag, where they won’t be seen.  The bartender–their hired help–likes me and we immediately strike up a conversation.  She compliments me on my jeans because they were flattering toward the curvy and asked me where I got them so she could find a pair. Oh these old things? 13 dollars at the clearance section at the Ross in Emeryville, I throw in.

Oh, I used to live in the Bay Area. Did you come all the way down here for this party?

I explained how I don’t really know the birthday girl well, but like her well enough, and that I’m here for my mom, her cancer and the whole story. Blurting it all out, unaware if I am scaring her away or not. But she is a captive audience because we are waiting in line for the bathroom and the person in front of us is taking forever, and I’ve had a glass of wine so…  We are in this fantastic home with brand new hardwood floors and a living room overlooking the glittering downtown LA skyline. I feel like I must sound pathetic to her.

OMG! That’s exactly why I’m here, she says.  She explains the whole situation. She moved down to help her dad who had bladder cancer and is now in complete remission. That’s the exact same reason I moved here. I wasn’t always a bartender and a cocktail waitress you know…she said. I used to have a high-powered career in advertising in the City and I was a dj at night. Now I cocktail and bartend because I had to leave my job to take care of my dad and now he’s okay. Complete remission, and he quit drinking and found a new career as a pre-school teacher.

Random Kind Stranger #3

Last month, at Trader Joe’s on Hawthorne Blvd, I run into a guy who was talking himself out of buying something fattening. I hear him say under his breath that his trainer would kill him for eating the thing he was picking up and trying to talk himself out of buying it. It’s one of those pre-made salami and cheese wraps.  (I was considering it healthy because it was in a wrap and I always feel cheated when it’s in a wrap and not delicious bread–so for me it was a sacrifice).  I was also about to pick up the same thing.  We get into talking by the carrot isle and we stay there for 45 minutes. He mentions somehow that he was  taking care of his mom who just finished her chemo treatments for some kind of cancer and he started giving me tips on foods for people going through chemo and anti-nausea remedies. We were the same age.  I think the universe is putting these people in my path on purpose, but I’m not sure why.

Kind Person #4

An old friend who I grew up with in the Greek community, Steve, who is a cop now, drove my mom and I to her 3rd chemo. apartment on Monday. I know what you are going though, he said, well…I don’t know exactly, but I have known 8 people who have had cancer in the past few years.  He gets it. When he talks about the friends of his he has driven to chemo, he is also tactful to avoid talking about the fact that they had died, and I appreciate this. I would do this too, knowing what it’s like to actually be the family member.

Things not to say to a person who is fighting cancer (or their family members)

People come up to me all the time and tell me stories about people they know who have died and how awful it got in the end. This one woman who is like 60 told me at a poetry reading that watching her father die was really a gift and I had to interrupt her and say, look lady, you are hella older than me. Your dad probably died of old age. That’s really not the same. My mom isn’t going to die, alright? I snapped at her.

Oh, I didn’t mean it that way, she quickly recovered.

People who actually have somebody close to them who have died, know better than to do this.

Just cut em both off, random Greek people say to my mom, one month after the diagnosis the one time we go to the Greek church. Don’t worry, get the cancer and they make a tomahawk gesture in the hair with their hands.  Do people go up to men with testicular cancer and say the same thing? Just cut em both off? We have since stopped going to church because too many people come up to us wishing us well and spilling their pain and it’s just too overwhelming for us.

I don’t think that people understand that they are being weird when they say these kind of wild things.

Other people–friends I have known for years–shrug off what I am going through by saying, it’s just breast cancer, it’s not a death sentence you know, and the good news is there is a 98% cure rate as if I’m over-reacting about the whole thing. Well, I have news for you people, the 98% cure rate stuff is a very nice myth. Breast cancer is cancer. It has different rates of survival depending on the staging, age, lifestyle, hormonal receptors, etc. It’s not so cut and dry. You can’t just say 98% cure rate and feel like you are taking it away for me, making it better, so you don’t have to feel bad, etc. It doesn’t make it better.

Others of my friends–my longtime friends, my closest friends– who don’t want to descend from their cloud of happiness to be with the wretched little me say things like, “That’s almost as much as what I’m going through with my crazy job, life, husband, etc. I’m just so busy and I’m working. At least you aren’t working.” I would rather work ten thankless jobs than be dealing with this, is the one-line zinger that I didn’t think of until now.

Then there’s the famous one-liner from another friend: You are the strongest person I know, Alex. You’ll get through this. I know you will. It’s you.” As if this gives them permission to drop me. Because I’m somehow strong.

Another friend–who we took in for four months to live with us when she lost her job–who is a scientist, specializing in cancer research–wouldn’t respond to my phone calls or emails and finally said look I’m so busy presenting at these international conferences and I don’t know anything about breast cancer anyway, so don’t ask me.

My birthday is in a few days. I guess I’m just bitter.

Here is my brief insecure birthday whine:Nobody wants to come out with us to my birthday dinner and drinks in Hermosa on Saturday night except for my husband and two friends whose arms I have twisted. At least somebody is coming out with us, so I can feel normal for a day.

At times, I am feeling totally bitter and irritated at anybody who happens to be blindly happy for no fucking reason. FUck you. I want to say to them and throw darts into the little fantasy balloon of their lives. Fuck you and the horse you rode in on. Even though–I secretly wish that this was me and that I was clinking a martini glass with 100 people toasting to my honor and my perfectly healthy mom and dad there and my husband proclaiming his love for me on the microphone in front of all my best friends, and a dj and an open bar with designer clothes, carefree smiles, etc. A birthday cake with 31 candles on it and my nearest and dearest singing to me in unison and being taken away on an elephant while being fanned with palm fronds by hot bare-chested men, a 2-million dollar book contrast with movie rights optioned out and Angelina Jolie playing me in the made-for-tv movie of my life, I’ll keep these little sick thoughts to myself.

I feel like my whole life–which I’ve been waiting to start–is really just idling. I feel like I’m too old for this shit.

When will it all end? Not life. I like life and all the sensual pleasure of existence.  I love all the beauty of taste, touch, sight and smell. But when will all this shit end?
Not any time soon, I guess. Just have to keep steady and, oh yeah, breathe.

Last thing I listened to as I finish this post: The White Stripes – We\’re Going To Be Friends

Comments

  1. I’m so glad you’re writing about this. It does help. Man, I understand what you are going through, maybe not exactly, because you are so right, every woman is different and it is NOT cut and dry, and my mom is not your mom…and no two moms are alike…but I do know more than say, that friend who “almost gets it because they are so totally overwhelmed as well! By work, my kids, oh man!” Nope. I get it better than that.

    I never had anyone be so ruthlessly absurdly crass as to use the words “just” and “cut ’em off” in the same sentence in regards to my mothers ailing breasts….wow. That is really amazing (and not in a good way.)

    I love your stories of random kindness and connection between strangers. We are all looking for some sense of order and magic under all this chaos and bleak pragmatism…and stories like this really give us a sense of this. I think the universe is putting these people in your path for solidarity — so you realize you are not alone in what you’re going through, not just intellectually, but viscerally, personally and specifically, hearing their stories.

    I totally hear you about those people who don’t want to come down off their cloud….I’ve been that person occasionally, so I understand their perspective somewhat…for me, it was only when my grasp on optimism was so tenuous I couldn’t afford to rock the boat or I’d fall in deep again….it was usually self-preservation- motivated for me, so maybe that can help diffuse the flame a little bit, or maybe not. Maybe that’s just me and these people are rolling in good fortune and they are just selfish sons of bitches. Both types exist of course. But yeah, I do remember those friends…the ones who couldn’t stand to sit in the stew of my bad fortune without offering up some brainless platitude.

    Like some well-meaning, but annoyingly optimistic friend who told me *at my dad’s memorial service.* “You know, he’s not really gone.”

    She was referring to our shared spiritual belief of a soul that transcends physical form, and while it’s true that I tend to believe this, what she said filled me with rage. I truly wanted to unload: “Actually, that’s *exactly* what he is. Gone with a capital G. Gone gone gone, like the tolling of a great bell. He is fucking NOT in this world, so I don’t know how much more “Gone” he can be!”

    I think, unfortunately, I said something meek instead.

    It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to make someone feel better who is having a crisis. But your post speaks to the importance of solidarity and acceptance…not trying to change something we just can’t change, but the importance of being able to sit with a friend, or even a stranger, in the stew of their misfortune. To sit and have a drink with them in that stew, but not to try and make it better. Because words don’t changer reality. Even though we all wish they could sometimes.

    I always totally identify with what you are saying about how it feels like we’ve been trying to arrive forever, idling, and when will the bullshit stop and our real lives begin?

    I think a lot of us feel that way. It reminds me of a poem Barry Spacks wrotes which said something to the affect of, “We’ve been waiting to arrive, but we’ve been here all along.” I think a lot of that expectation comes from our young selves who saw published books and thought, “I could do that!” And then comes the reality lesson, which is that it takes years, and so much more work than we ever imagined. And is by no means even remotely guaranteed.

    And then also the hard truth that it may only just get harder as we get older…more health problems, more ailing parents…who knows! The good news is…well, I don’t really have good news exactly…I just felt like saying “The good news is…” after saying something so bleak and dreary. But I guess “the silver lining” would be a better way to put it. The silver lining is that all this bullshit will ensure that you will never be that annoying person who doesn’t understand how to meet the simple truth of another’s palpable pain. And that is of value in this world of brainless platitude-profferers to be sure.

    Thanks for a great post, Alex!

    TC
    P.S. A book which gave me some peace and perspective when I was feeling like this was Pema Chordron’s Start Where You Are. It’s just a little mini book…she is a Zen nun, I believe. Anyway, you should check it out. It might speak to you. On on!!

  2. I just discovered your blog today and I’m so excited! I was so excited about this blog, I almost forgot to get dressed and go to work. Sorry that I don’t live closer and can’t lend in-person support. “You’re so strong” is the most annoying cop-out ever.

    Also, I love your take on testicular cancer versus breast cancer. Just cut ’em off? Bleck!

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