Growing up I noticed something curious pretty early on. Every day my dad would greet people he knew, and every time the exchange went like this:
“Good morning, Sherwood. How are you today?”
“Fine, thanks, and you?”
“Fine, thank you.”
What struck me was that this couldn’t possibly always be true, that I knew for a fact that my father, for example, was not fine, but was suffering horribly from hemorrhoidal flareup that morning. But he never answered “How are you today?” with “Suffering from hemorrhoidal flareup, thanks.”
In fact, I realized that people never answered “How are you today?” with “Well, I’m a bit sad, actually – my great aunt was just flattened by an ice cream truck.” Or “I’m pretty stressed out what with Jim Jr. failing school and his sister dating some guy with a tattoo of Satan on his forehead.” Or even, “Hey! Great! Got a blowjob from the wife last night!”
No, “How are you?” wasn’t really a question. It was a ritual, a nicety, a social contract that didn’t demand a truthful answer, but instead demanded a simple “finethanksandyou.” You didn’t deviate from the script because if you did you were breaking that social contract.
So a couple of months back, during covid-19’s full lock-down, Susan was in the hospital in Barcelona and I was back and forth daily, getting forever stopped and questioned by police. While in the hospital, Susan decided that it was critically important that we bring a bread maker into our kitchen and our lives, and she found a second-hand one in Castelldefels, a town on the way home from Barcelona. So we made an illegal detour to buy an illicit bread maker.
As the couple selling it are showing me how to use it, the wife says, “Your wife said that she was in the hospital. Is she okay?” I look at the woman, shake my head, and say, “Nope.”
Both she and her husband looked startled. They had expected ‘finethanksandyou’, and I had gone and shattered their expectations, broken the social contract.
They were clearly distressed, and I don’t enjoy causing people distress. But at that moment I simply couldn’t answer “She’s fine, thanks,” because it wasn’t true. And because I was just so tired of trying to downplay my wife’s illness to make other people comfortable.
Finally they blinked and I said, by way of explanation, “She has cancer.” And they both said something along the lines of that’s really terrible and we’re sorry to hear that, and we shared a sincere human moment that would have been impossible had I been more conventionally discreet and reserved. And that felt kind of good.
“How’s your wife?” Obviously, the answer to this question depends primarily on who’s asking it (and what I think they want to hear). A week or so after we got the life-expectancy news I was at the house of some good friends when they asked me how Susan was doing. I chuckled woefully, took a deep breath, and asked, “How much do you want to know?”
“As much as you’re comfortable telling us,” was the answer. Which, by the way, is the perfect response. It says “I’m genuinely interested, but don’t want to in any way press you.”
So I gave them the whole story. Because I believed they actually wanted to know and because I felt close enough with them to be completely honest. I don’t want to burden people with my own woes (that’s what blogs are for), but chances are that if you ask me how Susan is doing I’m unlikely to sugarcoat the response.
But I also don’t want to make people uncomfortable, nor do I want our conversations to be all cancer all the time. Yes, our daily lives and our routines are now dominated by Susan’s cancer. It’s a part of every meal, every plan, every diversion. It permeates our days like some low-level toxic fog. But our lives are not about the cancer. The cancer is just a factor in our lives.
So what I’m ultimately saying is this. If you want to know how Susan is doing, I’m happy to talk about that, but I’m not going to try to make you feel better about it. If by chance I don’t feel like talking about it, I’ll just tell you, without rancor or resentment.
Oh, and here’s something to avoid: If I say, “Well, she’s in a lot of pain these days,” the correct response is NOT, “When my uncle died of cancer he was in terrible pain toward the end.” In fact, it’s better that you don’t talk about people who died of cancer at all. Chances are that I won’t be much interested in how your mother’s cousin’s ex-wife endured agonizing breast cancer.
Listen, I understand it’s difficult to know how to talk about this stuff. I’ve always been absolutely rubbish in situations with other people’s illness. I mostly dealt with it by pretending it didn’t exist. But it does exist, and by necessity I’ve learned a lot about how to communicate about it.
So how’s my wife? Ugh, the answer to that is another blog post entirely. But I think that if we can all be more genuine, a little more open with each other, then all of these difficult experiences we’re currently going through – covid 19, cancer, economic turmoil, political and racial division and strife, masks and miscommunications – might be a little easier for us all.
Sometimes when someone asks you “How are you today?,” tell them about the great aunt and the ice cream truck, or about your hemorrhoidal flareup, and maybe you can share a real human interaction that goes beyond the shallow social rituals of ‘finethanksandyou.’