Monday, March 31, 2014

A PSA of Sorts

What Not to Say
(A PSA of sorts)

Dear Stranger (or, in this case, new Dental Hygienist):

It was really nice to meet you today. Sounds like you are enjoying your new home, Richmond, after traveling cross-state from “the Valley,” as you called it. Upon investigating, I found out you meant Harrisonburg, which, as you now know, is where I went to school. I love it there. Miss the mountains every day.

I apologize if I don’t really remember much else of our conversation. First, as you must know from your many years in the field, it’s hard for patients to actually “converse” with various tubes and instruments in their mouths. I’m normally a talkative sort, but I actually look forward to the time at the dentist as a little respite from my usually overactive love of filling conversational holes. No pun intended, of course.

Seriously though, you seem nice enough, despite the way you started our relationship, so I plan on giving you another chance. On not letting this first impression ruin our professional partnership, the end goal of which is to keep my teeth both in my mouth and shiny. Oh, you don’t know what I’m talking about? You don’t remember what you said that could be so upsetting? If it's okay, I'd like to explain.

It begins when you look over my chart, ask me whether anything has changed in my history. Question the health of my teeth. Then, as I knew you eventually would, you get to the status of my overall health. “How are you?” you wonder, too intently, slowing down the words so I catch their depth. “I’m doing fine,” I say over-cheerily, hoping to keep the topic on my oral care, “Great, actually.” A small pause while you continued reading my chart gives me ample time to get comfortable in my chair. 

Really?” you ask, in your best motherly voice, brow furrowed, looking concerned, “Doing okay?” 

By this point, I know what you’re getting at. You’re seeing notes about my breast cancer, with which I was diagnosed almost five years before. You’re pointing out to me that I'm taking Tamoxifen, the pronunciation of which you eventually butcher when you’re going over my medications. I ache to stop you there: “Yep. Doing great. Good report from my oncologist last week and everything.”

“On-COL-o-gist??,” you ask, and quickly look down again at my chart, surprised.

“Oh, yes,” I say, “I’m sorry. I thought you were asking about my breast cancer.” More silence. Dammit, I should've kept my mouth shut. “I’m a survivor,” I say softly, because the word still gets stuck in my throat whenever I try to believe it.

And then in a heartbeat, there we are: in the midst of you telling me a story. About your relative (I can’t remember if it was an aunt or a cousin), who died of breast cancer not long ago. You are sad, you are shaking your head, still looking at my chart. You are in my shoes, as if you and I are both fighting the same fight. 

But if we were, the story would've remained silent. It wouldn't have needed to be spoken.

I am used to this. Used to strangers or people I barely know telling me, mere instants after finding out that I have had breast cancer, that their mother/sister/aunt/ cousin/grandmother/best friend had it, too. Each time I hear it, I inwardly cross my fingers and say a little prayer that you, stranger, won’t over share with me, unless it’s to tell me that they’re doing great, they’re feeling good, they’re living a fantastic life.

Too often, however, strangers and acquaintances share with me details of how short their loved one’s life was, how long her fight. How she struggled, how he hurt, how much everyone misses him or her so much. I end up performing a bizarre juggling act: apologizing for your loss, knocking on wood, praying out loud, while not upsetting you in the process, trying to soothe you, and curbing my anxiety. This is not uncommon. Most of the time, I can steer the conversation in a positive direction, especially since it's rarely an appropriate venue or time to discuss it. 

One neighbor stops me, as I stand, bald from chemo, holding my children’s hands at their swim meet the summer I was diagnosed, to tell me that “every single woman” in her family has died from breast cancer. “Every. Single. One,” she emphasizes during this story, which (believe it or not) I have heard more than once before. I loosen my children's grips, hurry them along to "go play," and try to escape as soon as I can. Another woman I know only through our children starts every conversation with me about my breast cancer; through the years, it's always the same. I care for her, so I don't say anything. Most recently, she shares the news that her best friend, the one she had been telling me about for years, had died just this month. She says it was horrible; she is hurting still. I tell her I am so sorry. And I am. 

I don't tell her I'm scared.

The very worst stories shared with me against my own will are those like the one you shared today:

“Yes, it was really just so sad, because she was doing so well and was so healthy for so many years. Then it came back and she . . . just . . .died.” Your voice and eyes are still raw with hurt. It is awful to see this, sitting a mile away in my chair, both because I hate to see people hurt and because I promise you I hate this disease as much as you do.

Now, your words are out there, floating in the light cast by the overhead lamp, drifting downward to where I sit, silent and helpless, below. Wishing I hadn’t heard. Wishing I didn’t know that new piece of information, the new anecdote I will never forget. Wishing I wasn’t letting it soak into my brain, my heart, my prayers.

We move on in our appointment through the standard routine, and I don't say anything when you flick my own spit all over my face. I guess I’m struck dumb because 1) you know I have had breast cancer, 2) you have just shared a horrible story about breast cancer, and 3) you don’t know me. In no way do these three facts fit logically into any equation. We’ve never talked about this before, but you still feel like you can share this painful truth, this awful result with me. This doesn’t make sense, and a small part of me wants to scream, “What the fuck are you doing telling me that? Don’t you know I pray night and day to be here to see my children grow?”  But I don’t. Because I look at you and see that hurt in your eyes, and I just can’t be the reason it gets deeper. I won't be.

Now, though, I wanted to write you (and all others out there who may ever read this) to give you some advice. Pass it along and share it if you wish, because I promise you it will help strangers and loved ones alike. Sweet Dental Hygienist Lady, I know you are hurting and I know you’ve been through something awful, tragic, and life-altering, but here it is: before you share, before you confide, think. Think about who you’re talking to. That’s it. It’s not necessarily easy, because when we hurt it’s human nature to reach out to other humans to heal and try to find comfort. But try to think about who you are asking comfort from, and whether they can really give it to you.

I know a lot about myself. I know that I’m weak in many, many areas (including but not limited to singing, athletic prowess, mathematical problem solving, remembering funny jokes, organization, domestic skills, and more). But I do know the following attributes make up who I am: I am funny, intelligent, compassionate, goofy, loyal, and--perhaps most importantly--strong as hell. These are more than just attributes; these are my defenses, my defining characteristics, that keep me going when the going gets tough. But not today. Today, they weren’t enough.

Today, dear stranger, you beat me. You knocked me to my knees. You hit me in my Achilles, so to speak. In the middle of a dentist’s office, without warning, you forced me to consider, once again, leaving my children motherless. For this, I have no defenses. Through no fault of your own but cluelessness, you sent me crawling home to grab my dog, curl in a fetal position under my favorite blanket, and cry. You slapped me in the face with my biggest fear, and it is still stinging hours later. 

Did you mean to? No. So that’s why I’m writing you this letter today. So you know. So you think before you share. So you get help and seek compassion from the right people. 

I would address this letter to any one of the dozens and dozens of people who used to tell the younger me (a 10-year-old giving herself an insulin injection in a restaurant bathroom for instance) that “Oh, my grandmother has diabetes. She just had both feet amputated.”  Or I would send it on behalf of my friends who have sick children or other relatives to any number of well-meaning, but ill-informed, strangers or acquaintances who overshare, tell too much about the could-bes and the what-ifs that we all dread and, sometimes, barely know how to handle. I wish I could do that for my friends, actually. 

My friends? Why yes, I’m here for them. Always. I’m not addressing my friends in this rhetorical letter, by no stretch of the imagination. That’s different, of course. We know each other and are traveling this rocky life-ride together. We support each other, we lean on each other, we confide our biggest fears, worst nightmares, and greatest dreams. And we know when a smile or a hug is enough. Speaking the unspeakable has a time and a place, and because of the intimacy of friendship, we know (or at least hope we do) when that is. In fact, I have no idea how I would be who I am today without my friends . . . the humor, intelligence, compassion, goofiness, loyalty, and strength that I mention above all radiate from their presence in my life.

New Hygienist, thank you for reading. I truly am so sorry for your loss, and I agree that cancer sucks. Feel free to pass this along to others, or to ball it up in the trash and consider me a bitter, scared old fool. 

I won’t send it anyway. I know you meant well.


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Oscar Race 2014: A Mom's Review

My love of movies started when I was three. I remember seeing Lady in the Tramp, and I remember the cool, dark, gigantic room, the thick red curtains on either side of the screen, and the prodding anticipation. Oh, and the popcorn.

What little girls' dreams are made of.
My terrifying fear of movies began one year later when, as a four-year-old cinephile, I accompanied my dad to such child-friendly, edge-of-your-seat narratives as The Towering Inferno and Earthquake. The prodding anticipation evolved rather quickly into an intense, piercing petrification of the world as I had known it. Not only did I become convinced that our car was going to be swallowed into the streets of Roanoke, Virginia, at any given moment, but I learned the typical child's life lessons of never taking the elevator in a flaming high rise. As in EVER. To this day, I remember the noise. And I start to sweat if stuck in my car on a bridge, in case the "big one" hits at that very moment. My recurring nightmares of plummeting (and zig zagging, oddly enough) elevators may or may not be related. Luckily, I can still light candles and visit my friends in San Francisco.

But I digress. There's a long period in my early childhood that is empty of movie memories, either because I didn't go to any what with a newborn brother and all, or because my subconscious blacked out further action thrillers. But then came Grease, Star Wars, and a plethora of other movies that were luckily over my head in their contexts but managed to hook me once and for all. I loved the movies then, and I love the movies now. I love their art, their passion, their beautiful way of slowing down life and examining it under a micro- (or macro-) scope. A good movie is heaven. It is painful, it is love, it is real.

This year, I'm on a quest to see as many Oscar-nominated movies as possible before Sunday evening, March 2nd. Sunday afternoon, March 2nd, you will likely find me, popcorn in hand, alone in a theater cramming in that one last flick. Because I've been indulging myself, friends have asked which movies I recommend, what my opinions are, and what's worth seeing. This cracks me up. I'm not a critic. I'm just a forty-four year old mom who is looking to soak into approximately two hours and twenty minutes of another life. Then come back to my own lovely reality.

But since some have asked, I give you my Energetic, Extremely Biased, Unofficial Update (or EEBUU, as they call it in the biz) on the Oscar Race, 2014 Edition. Although I am quite positive there is little to no redeeming value to my opinion, I recognize the preciousness of parents' free time and therefore consider this the (literal) least I can do for my fellow mamas and daddies out there. (Please note: the list is neither inclusive nor educated.)

Have Seen:

Nebraska. Thought I wanted to see it, then didn't. Then did again, then didn't again. Then went with two friends and am SO GLAD I DID. I loved its slow pace (thank you, Alexander Payne, whom I shall beg to direct the movie that I'm working on in my head), its simple beauty, it's real and painful humor, and the acting. The acting! June Squibb with the potty mouth and inappropriateness and negativity--we all know someone like her in our own families. (Except me, family members reading this.) Bruce Dern = quiet brilliance. Fun performances by minor characters, too. And holy moly, Will Forte, where'd you come from? I was so drawn to the way his character would simply look at his father in this film, trying to figure out who the hell he is. I get it. You'll get it. It's funny, beautiful, painful, and just plain great.

What big girls' dreams are made of.
American Hustle. Oh, hell yeah, what a fun movie. Fun is a great word, I promise, because you'll just enjoy being there. It's quirky and odd, it's flashbacky and nostalgic, it's stressful in the best of ways. Great acting. I had a little bit of a hard time following the story at a coupla times, and because I went alone, I couldn't lean over and say "Huh?" when I needed to. Other than that, loved it. Jennifer Lawrence? Yes. Christian Bale? Perfect. Amy Adams. Love. And Bradley Cooper? Oh, Bradley. You are amazing and I heart you. I will forever cherish that scene of you next to the kitchen counter with Amy. Thank you.

Saving Mr. Banks. The family flick that should come with a warning to the effect of the following: If your life has ever slightly been turned to shambles because of alcoholism, please use caution when viewing this film. Mine, like many people's, has. Dramatically. But I thought I was going to see a cute little picture about Mary Poppins's uppity creator, so the hour-long nervous breakdown I had in the middle (how 'bout that Fair scene? Lawdy.) distracted me somewhat. But the acting was good, the scenery awesome, and it was entertaining. Colin Farrell owes me around $375 for therapy bills, by the way.

Dallas Buyers Club. Traditionally, a movie about drug use would be rated NFT (Not For Tracy), but I was compelled by the acting chops of Jared and Matthew. This is the one film that I tell all of my good friends they MUST SEE. It's perfectly acted. You will want to take a hot shower with an entire bottle of Purel afterward (that's one dirty lifestyle. Yick.), but you will leave knowing more about humanity. I will be floored if both Matty and Jared don't win Oscars. They should, in this girl's book. See it.

Animated Shorts. What a great, great night at the movies. These six or so films (with 2 runners up) were so amazing, diverse, intelligent, heartwarming, and (one in particular that started with a cute squirrel and ended with the total annihilation of the planet) just plain bizarre. This is the first year I've seen one of the less-commerical Oscar nom options, and now I can't wait to see more. Take the kids. Go. Explore new art. And let me know how much you cry during the mechanical dog cartoon.

Her. Um. What to say about her? I wanted to like it. I really did. I consider myself fairly artsy, intelligent, open . . . most of the time, at least. And I like Joaquin Phoenix. But I couldn't help but just say to myself, almost constantly, "That is so stooopid." Over and over. Probably out loud. I didn't get it. Sure, I know there's a profound statement being made about humanity and losing touch with each other in both the literal and emotional senses of the word, but. Still. It lacked something that I can't quite put my finger on, and it sorta drove me crazy. And I could've done without all the human-OS sex. I promise I'm not a prude.

Philomena. Lovely. Everything. The scenery, the story (no matter how painful in parts), the stellar acting, the subtle humor, the real-life-ness of it. This is what a movie should be about: transporting you to another place, another time, while pulling your heart along for the journey. Plus, who doesn't love some great British/Irish accents?

Haven't Yet Seen But Will Still Review:

Gravity. (See also: Towering Inferno; Earthquake; years of nightmares) I know Sandy is good in it, and I love looking at George Clooney until my eyes burn, but . . . seems like a lotta stars, loudness, and stress. Will I go? Yes, begrudgingly.

Wolf of Wall Street. Leo is growing on me, slowly, like a really sexy mold on a ten-year-old loaf of bread. Loved him in the movie about J Edgar Hoover, and he creeped me the f*** out in Django Unchained. In an amazingly acted kind of way. Plus, I love me the use of a good F bomb, so yes, I'll see it. Looking forward to the nuttiness. And Jonah Hill.

12 Years a Slave. I know I need to see this. As in, really, really need to see it to be an educated, informed human being. I know it's amazing, and I know the acting is incredible (despite Brad Pitt. Sorry, that was mean.) But it seems like it's going to hurt my heart a whole lot, so I'm putting it off. One day very soon I will get on my big-girl pants (and pack a box of tissues) and go. The film looks stellar. Go see it and tell me if I should.

Captain Phillips. I am torn. Tom Hanks has jumped the shark just by being Tom Hanks. But the Somalian pirates' actors are supposed to do one amazing job, so I think I need to get my butt to the theater to see this one. Not sure how the story will flow (and fill 2 hours), but maybe I'll be surprised.

Other Oscar Nominated Short Films, Documentaries, etc. Similar to how I feel about 12 Years a Slave, I'm scared. Ouchy. Some topics are so intense, so powerful . . . but I really need to suck it up. Want to go and support the movie makers of the world. Documentaries are an amazing art form. Love them so. Will go see them, but only if you go with me and comfort me and buy me Milk Duds.

Well, I hope my years of "experience" have helped you narrow down your list. Remember, these are simply my biased opinions. I wish you successful movie going and zero infernos, always.