You get what you get and you love it

Susanne and I got some pretty bad news last night about a colleague of hers who is ill. She’d been having a sore throat for a few weeks, and went to see her doctor. Out here in Walla Walla there seem to be something like 3.8 doctors for every regular person, so perhaps she could have just passed one on the way to the actual medical center, but they don’t exactly walk around with floating neon signs over their heads proclaiming “Random Health Care Service Here, Cheap.” In fact, thinking about it, that was one of the things that still makes me mad about all that time spent watching Electric Company—I never would get to make orange letters appear over my head as I pronounced words. Such false advertising.

So the doctor sent her to an ear, nose, and throat doctor, who sent her to an oncologist, who scheduled a surgery for next week. I don’t know a heck of a lot about cancer, but I do know that when a relative of mine came down with prostate cancer, the physician said it was okay to wait a few months so he could finish a project. This is not that kind of scenario.

A couple of months ago this lady and I were at a potluck dinner of Susanne’s colleagues, so for the non-faculty such as myself, it’s a little bit of navigating around insider gossip and attempting to bring the conversation away from academics to something more average, without looking like an anti-intellectual Neanderthal. Happily, she and I landed on the topic of Flipping Out, the Bravo reality show about a Califnornia designer with OCD-like perfectionism. He’s nearly impossible to work for, likes his employees to be attractive and subservient, but he has a strong ribbon of compassion that ensures his humanness. It’s also fun to watch the people around him learn how to manage him, and then one realizes that while unorthodox, these are still mutually beneficial relationships with a big dash of absurd just to round out the interpersonal interest.

It’s hard to describe, but this connoisseur of garbage television is Grandmother Incarnate. If you were to take grandmothers everywhere and exaggerate them—warbly voice, prone to high highs and grumbly lows, include the dottiness that comes with no longer giving a shit what anyone thinks of you, and throw in some excessive levels of energy, you’d have her, all in a 4-foot, 10-inch frame. This woman stands on the desks in the front of her classrooms to give lectures. And is not afraid to dance to get her point across.

She was dismayed about Jeff Lewis, who had found out, in the course of this last season, that his best friend of many years had stolen construction/design work from him and denied it, vehemently. So over dinner conversation she remarked to me, her decibel range approximating that of 20 3-year-olds who’ve just had some good measure of processed sugar:

“Oh, I just can’t believe what happened to that poor Jeff Lewis! It’s so sad!” This was pronounced a bit more flaccidly, like this:

“OOOOOOOOh, oi just can’t beLEEEVE what HAAppened to that POOOOOOR Jeffff LOOOOis! It’s SOOOOO SAD!”

We agreed that we needed to catch up later after the reunion show, which is how Bravo ekes out a few more bucks in revenue without actually having a full camera crew, as one interviewer, who seems to have been trained at the Entertainment Tonight School of Broadcasting, talks to everyone who appeared in the previous season. Or at least the ones who were contractually bound to appear.

That conversation tabled, we moved on to other discussion points, and somehow it came up that I’d once been a patient at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia when I was, obviously, a child. Actually, I was 16. It was January, 1987. I was there for a neurological issue (yes, I’ve heard all the jokes), missing my junior year midterms as I spent a week recuperating. On the floor with me were two conjoined twins, later made famous on TLC, attached at the tops of their heads. One was significantly larger than the other, but they were both playing chess against each other, over by the nurses’s station, so being different sizes didn’t seem to intellectually advantage one over the other. Unless, I guess, someone was throwing a lot of games. If I had to spend every waking moment with another person I might do something like that.

Anyway, I’d had an IV for a few days to contend with, and I got sick of dragging it around every time I left the bed. One evening my Dad and I were taking a walk around the floor, shortly after the IV had come out. He asked me how I was doing. We passed the twins.

“At least I’m not attached to anything,” I said, to my own horror as I thought about the context. He patted my shoulder to suggest I wasn’t going to hell for my faux pas. “I wonder if they get along,” he said.

According to TLC, they get along great.

I’m not sure why this story came up during dinner with this older colleague, but my point about it at the time was that you know, everyone has something to contend with, and you just decide you have to handle it and get through it. I could be attached at the head to a smaller me who has to keep dealing with my twin’s annoying Reti opening on a daily basis. Or I could be in a small town, unable to sort through what to make of myself here, absent old friends and sans any kind of substantial income potential. As my niece said when she was 4, one disappointing Christmas, “You get what you get and you love it.” Young and innocent aside, she was explaining why her older sister should not covet the wood puzzle not given to her, so she wasn’t exactly free of ulterior motives. But whatever, it’s still a good line.

When the doctor gave her a diagnosis and course of treatment, she started thinking about our conversation, apparently, and has taken the “you just handle it” as a mantra. It seems that I should write a card for her, tell her something funny, since she appreciates a belly laugh and is such a tiny fireball of humor. I wish I could make cancer funny, but I’m failing. I find a lot of things funny—doctors and hospitals, for sure. Human bodies are funny; how else to explain ear wax and tongue structure? Not uh, not ear wax and tongue structure at the same time, of course. Just in general.

But there’s something about cancer that is just plain harrowing. Cells out of control, cells on a rampage with a maniacal streak toward body domination. Something as tiny as the nail on my little finger can throw any of my organs into shock enough that they stop working, abjectly relinquishing their duties to filter my blood, or let my brain know where my limbs are in space, or decide that it’s not necessary enough for me to smell the food on the plate in front of me. I hate the very idea of cancer—that my own body can decide to self-destruct. So I hate knowing that it’s so unbearably common.

I didn’t feel this way about the diseases I’ve encountered. I’ve made jokes about having all of them; the epilepsy (anyone need a milkshake?), the lazy eye I’ve attempted to repair seven times now, and so on. Perhaps when they happen to me I feel free to find the humorous stuff. When they happen to someone else I just want to go all Braveheart on them, even if Mel is an anti-semitic drunkard. I still want to get my Scottish rage out.

So I am working on something funny, something card-sized, something that she can hang her hat on, that I can pass to her with a warm meal for her after-surgery dining needs. If I’m open to what’s funny, maybe it’ll hit me. But not hit me hard.

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Categories: ponderings, transplanted


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3 Comments on “You get what you get and you love it”

  1. Karen Mc
    December 4, 2009 at 7:49 pm #

    Ev, You hit it exactly, when you’re fighting the cancer, you have to see the humor to get thru it – it’s all that will balance all of the 3 am bad times. Please make sure that you make her her favorite dessert to go with that meal – what a great thing to do! k

  2. TerrellB
    December 7, 2009 at 1:09 pm #

    I started out thinking of cancer as some type of heinous assault. Now I think that cancer is more like a bunch of juvenile delinquent cells. I realized after watching hours of science documentaries that one of the main problem with cancer cells is that all they want to do is reproduce. They don’t want to grow up and hold a job. Let’s take the liver as an example. If a bunch of cancer cells take up residence (or were converted to the cancer lifestyle) imagine your liver’s struggle to just do its job when half the cells are holding a reproduction party.

    • evmaroon
      December 15, 2009 at 11:20 pm #

      Thanks, Terrell and Karen– I think it would be great to explore the visualizations that people have around their own experiences with cancer, or when they’ve encountered loved ones with cancer. I like the hoodlums concept. And when Mary asks for a food donation, I’ll be sure to bring by whatever she likes!

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