I've said some of the dumbest things in my life to sick people. Here's one of the worst. About a dozen years ago, I learned that a teaching colleague had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. But when I first heard the story (from another colleague), he'd just told me "cancer"--he wasn't sure which kind. I greatly admired my stricken colleague, and when I finally caught him alone in the faculty room one day, I told him I was sorry about his diagnosis (so far, so good); then I asked ... What kind is it?
He said, Prostate.
And erupting out of my mouth like an impatient Old Faithful was this: Oh, good! That's not a big deal. My father had it, etc. ... I went on for a while. (Is there anyone more confident that someone ignorant?)
My speech delivered, I headed back to my office feeling satisfied--maybe even a bit self-righteous--about how I'd consoled a friend.
I'm glad that my colleague didn't punch me--but if he had, I now would understand it. For it wasn't all that long after my clueless comments that I received the same cancer diagnosis (January 2005), and I've spent the ensuing years (nearing a decade) enduring all sorts of medical procedures and indignities. And terrors. And I've learned that prostate cancer is no simple thing--no easy ride; I've learned the dimensions of my insensitivity to my colleague; I've learned that many of us--myself included--just don't know what to say to the sick.
Let me preface what follows with this: I always appreciate it when people try to console me--even when their words don't always come out the right way, even when they say things that match in cluelessness what I'd said to my colleague. It's humbling just to know that someone else cares.
I also feel somewhat guilty when people say comforting things. Although this disease has been a battle for me, I do not really feel sick; I am still able to do many of the things I love to do. As I've written here before, at the cancer centers that have treated me (Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals) I've seen people (of all ages) in absolutely miserable condition. I know that in Cancer World I am a lucky resident. (Still, who wants to live in Cancer World?) My current meds are having deleterious effects--but, again, nothing debilitating. Just uncomfortable--and depressing because I know they are not going to go away after a while.
Anyway, here are some things that I don't really make anyone feel better--at least they don't make me feel any better. And I'm fully aware that I have said/done them all myself!
- Narratives about the "similar" cases of people you've known. Okay, so maybe your brother-in-law had prostate cancer and is now an NBA All-Star ... but remember: Everyone is different. Procedures and medications affect different people in different ways. Just because your brother-in-law emerged from it successfully doesn't mean anyone else will. I know this is meant to be encouraging (and I take it that way when I hear it), but to the ill? The only case that matters most of the time is our own. How the guy who lives down the block from you fared isn't all that relevant.
- Stories about non-Rx meds (or treatments) you read about on the Internet--or heard about. I know a guy who took X (or drank Y or injected Z) and a few months later he was back on the NBA All-Star Team ... (see above).
- "Well, you look great!" First of all, I don't. Second of all, an unsound house with a new coat of paint looks great, too.
- Jocularity. Don't let your prostate prostrate you! Ha. Ha.
- Faux confidence: Well, if anyone can defeat this, you can. They are few bigger words in English that if (but competes in size).
- Prayer. This is an awkward one for me because I'm not a religious man. I do know that the people who tell me they are praying for me believe very deeply that they are doing the most intimate and hopeful thing they can for me. And I am very grateful for that--and often deeply moved. But I know that ailing religious people find more comfort in promises of prayer that non-religious ones do.
Again--I know that many of us just don't know what to say or do in the face of another's medical struggles. And I'm guessing that things that don't comfort me could very well bring deep help to someone else. I'm must sort of thinking aloud--isn't that what a blog is for?
So what does work for me? Well, nothing really. I mean, some things I hear are sweet, affecting, even expressed so well that tears leap to my eyes. But--after all is said and done--people deal with illness and decline and all other human difficulties and darkness on their own. Some are fortunate to have the hands of loved ones to hold (I am among them--and profoundly grateful). But illness and death are most often a solo journey.
That said--here are some things that have helped from time to time.
- A touch on the shoulder, a whispered word or two.
- When I was going through my many radiation treatments, a few years ago, one WRA colleague--Christine Borrmann (whom I'd taught years ago in 9th grade)--showed up at our house every few days with some food she'd prepared for us. She didn't say a lot; she didn't stay long. She just brought it ... letting us know how she felt. It was an unexpected sort of eloquence. And I won't forget it.
- A question.
As I finish this post, I'm realizing that I've written this mostly for myself. I've ever been more or less clueless about what to say or do for others. Right now, for example, we are dealing with the sad decline of my mother (she will 95 next month). This once energetic, articulate woman now spends her days in a wheelchair, can no longer read much more than a simple magazine, has to struggle for just about every word she utters. Often her speech is so garbled I cannot understand her. I still write letters to her every week, call her often, and when I'm with her (only a few times a year, I fear--she lives in Mass.), I often find the only thing I can do is hold her hand, caress it, and remember other, earlier days when life seemed immense and endless--and moved to the rhythm of her enormous heart.