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.