Terminally Ill Romances Make Me Sick (Part II)

I’ve known a few people going through terrible times in life. Sometimes they’ve been young, sometimes they’ve been old. Very rarely have they been on the cusp of a romance.

Generally speaking, there’s something about illness that doesn’t lend itself to the dramatic. I think mostly it’s exhaustion. Who has the energy for the “do they like me” and other extremes of emotions when basic surviving is at stake?

Which is why romance films centered around sick people makes me sick. It’s definitely a Hollywood disease to to give romance a disproportionate role in someone’s life. Romance, according to the movies, is the thing that brings you back to life, renews your energy, gives you faith in beauty again, gives you hope, a future, etc, etc, etc. Romance has a exalted status in our society, it’s the high ideal we believe worth striving for. A sense of togetherness and communion that we think can only be achieved by a successful romance. It’s what gives life meaning and purpose: to be loved extravagantly by one other human. But it’s missing the point, and it’s a horrible standard by which to measure your own life.

It’s an especially poor standard to give sick people. Sure, they may have a supportive family, a loving family, a mother that dotes, a sister that sacrifices, a brother that entertains, a father that carries them, but do they have a boyfriend/girlfriend? They’re probably missing out if they don’t. At least that’s what I’ve learned from terminally ill romances.

Deifying romance is dangerous under the best of circumstances. Pitting illness against romantic love is abhorrent. It’s bad enough to be sick, let alone having to feel like your life is missing yet another component because you’re not dateable or marriageable because of something you can’t control.

Sure, romances for the terminally ill sounds like a nice idea in theory, the fluffy notion that “love strikes at any time!” And the staunch romanticism of “everyone should be loved!” Both of which are true axioms, but their placement in these situations only serves to add glamor to love and to signify that without it, you’re, well, without love.

But this is far from reality in many situations. Truth is that there can be advantages to being sick. It brings those who were close in closer and those who only wanted to pretend intimacy to go away all together. It makes moments with those you love that much sweeter. And it may be surprising to discover how many people you can love when you’re not caught in a romance movie trope. Which is why this trope is so very harmful. Instead of applauding the myriad of non-sexual relationships in someone’s life, relationships that are sweetened by loss and adversity, it creates a situation that drives home the point that meaning and purpose and happiness in life can only be found in a romantic situation. Souring an already sour situation.

Being ill is not easy, it’s not nice, it’s not good. And it’s not a fairy tale that needs to be sold with romance to support life having meaning. People are so much more than their illness or their romantic relationships.

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Terminally Ill Romances Make Me Sick (Part I)

Movies can fetishize a lot of things that in real life are less fun: klutzes, jumbotrons, romantic stalking, etc, but by far one of the most horrific fetishized tropes is sick people.

There’s a huge market for romances where someone dies of cancer, a bad (see “broken”) heart, or perhaps a terribly obscure incurable disease. The common storyline is that our sick person is eccentric, well-loved, and coming to terms with death (in an offbeat, adorable way). Their healthy love interest is at a loss, perhaps listless, uncertain of the future, and timid. Alternatively, they could be wealthy, preoccupied with status and their own self-importance achieved through busyness and technology. Through loving each other they are able to blah, blah, blah, (s)he dies at the end.

Rarely, if ever does this trope really work in a way that brings dignity to those who suffer with chronic illness without making them a strict moralizing influence for the sake of the bored and healthy.

For film story structure, it’s the equivalent of a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks who meets a wealthy snob. The poverty-stricken is the unblemished sacrifice so the wealthy can gain a soul. In a cancer movie, it’s just more mortally revolting.

There’s a good deal of adventure to be had along the way as the healthy person assists in last wishes of the sick and falls in love with their life, their spirit while simultaneously feeling jealous because they just can’t manage to live their own life to the full.

Also at several points along the way our sick hero(ine) will have any number of profound phrases to bestow on our life-novice who’s just now figured out that perhaps it’s time to take living seriously. But how could anyone be expected to figure that out without the assistance of the dying?

Equally disgusting is the way we’ve glamorized visuals of cancer with fashionable baldness that never seems to stunt the eyelashes nor make a dint in the eyebrows. Similarly, they may be wasting away to nothing, but in an enviable way. Is cancer all it takes to get thin? Who said that anorexia isn’t a fetching in the right environment. Cancer pale is the new heroin chic, too. The sick look just sick enough to appear otherworldly and enlightened but never sick enough to dull the romance of their mission to rescue the healthy.

Watching these movies gives the watcher a kind of feeling that they wish they too could suffer in an important way  and through their sacrifice bring some (wo)man to redemption. But suffering isn’t a romantic prop, and it’s not a ministry to the well. The healthy should perhaps expend a little more of their own energy on discovering how to live life to the full and stop leaning the full weight of the importance of life on the already weakened.

The Nicest Guy

There’s a lot of negative things that have been said about so-called “nice guys”. And there’s been some assertions that nice guys don’t actually really exist at all. It’s just a ruse to lure women into a false sense of security. I have one thing to say to that, and honestly it probably helps support the assertion.

Bill Pullman.

Or should I say Jack?

Of all the celebrated lovers of the screen, few are more fondly regarded and longed for than Jack of While You Were Sleeping.

If you need an education in the psyche of romance, this movie hits a lot of the right notes. It destroys most female notions of “the perfect guy” and supplants it with the “right” guy.  Jack is nice. He’s responsible, he’s mature, he’s protective, he’s considerate, he’s quiet. And yet he’s never boring. I know, unfair comparison. Next to a comatose man anyone looks interesting.

Here’s the kicker. Did Lucy start out by falling in love with Jack? No. She thought she loved Peter. Boy, was she wrong. He looked like everything she wanted and she couldn’t have been luckier that he never noticed her at all.

This can happen in life all too frequently, to women AND men. You like what you like until you realize what you thought you liked isn’t anything like what you really like. Sometimes we want the ideal, not a person. It’s why so many “nice” people get missed.

Yes, Nice Guys. Some women don’t get it right off the bat. Some women think they like the shiny successful, super attractive, confident jerks. And some women…actually DO like these types (we’re weird that way, in that we’re all very different from each other).

But honestly, women are looking for Jacks. Someone who cares about them, listens to their dreams, walks them home across an icy sidewalk, protects them from “the lean”, and knows old fashioned methods for moving sofas (“push it really hard”).

In fact, the only downfall in the entire movie that Jack has, is not owning up to what he wants. He’s too nice. One of the fundamental problems with being nice is that you’re afraid to make waves, too afraid to brave disappointment. Niceness risks nothing. It settles.

So realize with Jack that sometimes it’s okay to say, “you suck”. Even if you’re not sure if it’s the person or the outfit that sucks.

#Keep The Filter On

I remember the freeing feeling of cussing for the first time. The taboo, risque notion was enhanced by the sheer delight in saying a thing I was thinking and not censoring myself. It felt great. It took me a few too many years to learn that there is still a time and a place even for my strongest emotive expressions.

So believe me when I say I understand what it’s like to think something and to feel it’s almost a waste not to say it, either because it’s so accurate, or so funny, or so clever that the world will certainly be rewarded with the genius of your own thoughts. Why should I have to censor myself for someone else’s comfort? Why should anyone be forced to cage up their words inside their mind if they’re true and they’re fitting? Or…funny?

But this is where we must admit that in losing the art of conversation for the economy of conversation we’ve discovered the purity virtue of being blunt. I suppose it’s a specifically American quality to admire blunt, tactless conversation. “Cut through the bull”, I think is the most appropriate phrase. Spare my feelings and cut to the chase. We actually admire people who will “say what everyone else is thinking”. We think that’s brave.

To be a fair, there’s a time to cut to the chase and a time to stop beating around the bush. But for the most part, we could all stand to follow another old adage instead, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

Oh but it’s so difficult, isn’t it? To know when you’re going to get in trouble for saying something. How could anyone possibly keep track of the right thing to say? And sometimes it’s out before you knew it was mean! I get it. Talking to people will always be a minefield. But there are some useful red flags to help  you navigate verbal battlefields.

If one of the below phrases pops out of your mouth, don’t finish that sentence. What you want to say won’t contribute to the conversation at all. You may think it does, but you are wrong. It only adds to the opinion others have of you, and it’s not a flattering one. If what you’re saying is true, then it’s true. No need to wrap it in something else. If what you’re saying is true, but hurtful, saying you know that but you’re going to finish your thought anyway, is worse.

  • Not to be rude – You’re going to be rude. Everyone sees that coming a mile away.
  • No offense – Like “not to be rude” you know what you’re about to do. Don’t.
  • I don’t mean to one-up you – Yes, you do. Of course you do. If you didn’t you wouldn’t say anything.
  • Not to sound racist – It’s going to sound racist. Fact. Don’t say it.
  • Not to sound like a misogynist — You already do, please stop.
  • Just playing devil’s advocate — Consider, does anyone need you to do this? Is the devil really the one you should be advocating for? Rework your argument.
  • I’m just saying – No you’re not, you’re going in for the kill. You’re ending the argument with a throwaway comment; you’re also being completely inane. You might as well have said “I’m talking here right now.” Yes. Yes, you are. Stop it.

If what you want to say is true and needs to be said, but you’re not sure how, guess what? You can take some time to think about it. Conversations are not a race. You can take your time to say what matters. And what’s more, people will appreciate your consideration and the fact that when you speak you’ve considered your words and their feelings.

Also be aware that if you can’t just own up to the fact that you’re a rude, offensive, racist, braggart who “wins” at conversations, don’t worry, everyone knows already.

Rom-Com Dreams

I’ve only seen about a thousand romantic comedies in my life. It’s not all of them, but it’s a sizeable chunk out of the genre. And it’s certainly enough to know exactly how I’d want my life to be like a RomCom.

  • I don’t need an Indie music montage.
  • I don’t want to cry in front of strangers while declaring my love.
  • I’m not interested in having a bitter sexually aggressive best friend or a quirky irresponsible little sister.
  • I don’t have the nagging mother, the indulgent father, the pet cat, or the adorable vehicle (anymore).
  • I don’t want the high paying job that requires seemingly minimal time at work and endless opportunities to go to black tie balls, meet wealthy bachelors, and engage in crazy shenanigans like tipping over a tower of champagne flutes.
  • I have no plans to live in New York, L.A., or travel to some place exotic on a crazy whim using all the credit on my card.
  • I won’t kid you that I don’t want the leading man. Let’s face it, if I had a meet-cute with [Insert your favorite leading man here]  I’d let that little story play out as far as it would go.

But what I DO resonate with is that apartment. That quirky, colorful, aged and worn but happy yellow patchwork apartment. And the giant wine glasses, and the seemingly endless supply of wine. Yeah. At the beginning of the movie when our heroine is puttering around her apartment all alone and we’re supposed to feel sorry for her, all I can think is how can she waste that amazing opportunity??

In an hour and a half she’s going to be selling it, moving in with some boy she kind of knows, but let’s face it, doesn’t really understand, and goodbye apartment, goodbye solo wine drinking, late nights watching A Roman Holiday and eating lasagna in bed.

The next time we see her she’s going to be playing a dramatic lead in some film about the complexities and perils of married life and how difficult it is (think Kate Winslet from The Holiday to Revolutionary Road). She has absolutely no idea how good she has it at this exact moment. Her clothes thrown about the place, and the apartment being so much of her own identity that the second the audience sees it they know who she is. And here comes this guy and sure, he’s suave and attractive, and charming, and adorable. And he’s probably an architect. Or he makes furniture. Or he’s a puppy doctor. But isn’t he mostly just hair gel and a smile in a pastel blue sweater and well fitting jeans?

So anyway, my point is, the real romance of rom-coms is the single life that’s unappreciated. Take time, my friends, to appreciate puttering and lazing, dance parties for one, drinking wine in the tub, and the occasional late-night impulse decision.

Seize the quirky solo nights my friends, while you’ve got them.

Childhood Fantasy Life

It’s probably just me, but I never played “bride” as a kid. I played “teacher” with my cabbage patch dolls, I dressed up my cabbage patch dolls, I rollerbladed (not with my cabbage patch dolls). I read Encyclopedia Brown, The BFG and The Outsiders. I made my dogs dress up in cabbage patch kid clothes (and one small black t-shirt that just said “the boss”). But I never played pretend wedding.

My earliest adult aspirations involved becoming an actress, or a teacher, or Pocahontas. I don’t remember wanting to get married. (This may also be due to a mistaken notion that marriage required a blood test and I was so afraid of needles that I internally decided if I never got married, I’d never have to give blood and didn’t that just sound like the neatest solution to my phobia.)

I’ll confess to doing all of the above in my tweens and teens. I doodled, I planned, I designed the perfect wedding dress. I’ll give you a hint: it was white. (Also the most diva dress you can imagine, we are talking yards upon yards of fabric, and at one point, probably in the eighth grade, the sleeves resembled actual wings — which is kind of ironic now that I mention it.)

So when does it happen? When do we start doodling our first name with our crush’s last name, and designing the perfect wedding dress and planning out what our dream houses will look like? When do we become marriage obsessed? When does it become aspirational to settle down and not to get out? How did I make the shift from Native American princess boldly roaming the wild outdoors of the church parking lot, to deciding if I was going to wear a veil or a tiara for my Big Day?

Honestly I think it’s related to how terrifically awkward middle school and high school can feel. Because in middle school and in high school, what you want more than anything is to not look how you feel then. Awkward, uncomfortable, uncoordinated, frankly ugly. And brides are never ugly. I wanted to be assured that when I became an adult someone would want me. I wanted the security that I knew a marriage and a husband and a house represented. I wanted the “bride’s day”.

For me this is the real sticking point. I never wanted to be married; I just wanted to be the center of positive attention. A groom barely figured into it at all. Sure, he was there, but in the same way an usher is, or a carpet runner. It’s a wedding prop. Probably ancillary even to the doves and the string quartet. A wedding was the gateway to the security I was craving, and the last hurrah I assumed before life settled into the sameness I associated then with married life. The routine monotonous security of the suburbs. To paraphrase a favorite quote from Sleepless in Seattle: “You don’t want to be [married]. You want to be [married] in a movie.” And when I finally figured that out, that’s when I got over wanting to just get married.

However, to this day I still have not gotten over the fact that I will never be Pocahontas or Sacagawea.

Giving and Taking Offense

“Think before you speak” is a handy proverb I grew up with. For the most part it’s a nice way of saying don’t be tactless or inane. But in shorthand it’s probably better known by the aphorism “better to be thought an idiot than open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

Culturally speaking we’re in a new day and age though where not only is any thought encouraged to be spoken out loud (“I’m just saying”, “I won’t apologize for being blunt”, #nofilter, “don’t be a snowflake”, and a host of others), but we’re also encountering a phenomenon that believes in almost absolute censorship in the event someone’s feelings are compromised.

Because social media makes any joke accessible to any other human, context markers are lost. And because any tweet is shared instantly with millions, we sometimes forget that perhaps that speaker wasn’t talking about our immediate condition.

In other words, we’ve lost the ability to censor ourselves intelligently, and the ability to not turn everything we read into a personal attack. What’s worse is that this is no longer an online phenomenon, it’s invaded our real lives and our personal conversations.

I read a blog post recently titled, “If Someone With Chronic Illness Says They’re Tired, Please Think Before Responding, ‘Me Too'”, and reading the title filled me with an overwhelming helplessness. Now we can’t even relate to someone about the most common condition of being TIRED?

Of course, this title could be altered to accommodate any overly fatigued group. You could insert “children” in place of “Chronic Illness”. You could insert “three jobs”. You could insert “PTSD”. Truth is, there’s no end of ways to be justifiably and excessively tired.

But what happens when we begin preemptively censoring others is that we’ve largely missed the point of communal living. Which is that “me too” is relational, not selfish. It’s sharing the human condition where we all admit that we get run down during the day.

Now, I’ll admit as a chronic illness participant myself that I absolute adore “winning” at being exhausted, and in my lesser moments over the past decade+ of being an arthritic, I’ve definitely gloried in making someone feel at least a small degree of shame at attempting to relate to my fatigue.

But this is not the person I aspire to be. To borrow one of my absolute favorite quotes by Mark Haddon in A Spot of Bother, “…it occurred to him that there were two parts to being a better person. One part was thinking about other people. The other part was not giving a toss about what other people thought.”

To be brief: Value the fatigue of others, and don’t value their opinion of your fatigue. What’s neat about this phrase is you can change out fatigue with whatever you choose. For example: “Value the feelings of others, and don’t value their opinion of your feelings.”

Communal living boils down to balancing compassion for others with care of self. Sit back and relax. Take yourself out of combative interactions with the reassuring notion that they’re not trying to attack you, they’re just trying to relate to you. And probably they’re doing a bad job; social interactions are hard. Don’t make them harder than they have to be. Follow the excellent advice from James 1:19: “Be swift to hear, slow to speech, slow to wrath.”

To Our Mother Friends

My mother-friends.

They are beautiful. They hold the impossible potential of a child in their arms, and rest under the incredible burden of loving their children. I am old enough now that I have lots of friends who are mothers, and some of them invite me in to their homes and lives and let me learn and observe and play and pick up from school and twirl in circles and make cookies and paint pictures, and generally bounce back and forth between my mother friend and my new child-friends with the energy of a temporary installation. I have conversations with these little ones, who are fed, clothed, diapered, and rested almost entirely in spite of themselves by their mothers. These little ones who could do nothing by or for themselves, and prove it daily with their runny noses and eating habits. I watch them move in confidence of each provision for their welfare, utterly faith-filled in their unconscious expectation of the good from their Mothers.

I see them grow older and awkward, quiet, morose, angry, confused, rebellious, a little ridiculous, as we all were. And I see my mother friends hold the impossible potential still, a little more bent by the storms of becoming A So-Called Person that seem intentionally aimed to hurt the mothers, to resist and estrange them, to separate from their families—this second labor that seems to hurt as much as the first. I see my mother-friends who have suffered unutterable losses, multiple deaths— not only of life, but of hope, of joy, of health, of promise or expectation, of friendship of Son or Daughter (or in-law), of unborn-stillborn-miscarried. I hear the conversations of wondering, worrying, of dread and fear and sorrow and stillness and unanswered prayers that continue into infinity because Mothers. Never. Quit. No matter how much they want to.

You are beautiful, my mother-friends. I see in you the stories of Mary, Elizabeth, Hannah, and Sarah. You are consistently exhausted and exhilarated and filled with a passion that defies understanding. You are hiding in your bedroom for one more minute of peace before facing the enthusiastic barrage of questions, contradictions, commands, and cuddles, and yet the instant something threatens the noise-makers you can move with lightning-speed. Know this; it is a privilege to watch you love your children—even when you (or they) are irritated, frustrated, or disappointed and (obviously) unable to hide those honest emotions.

Even when they call you out on your shit in front of strangers, family, or friends. Even when they melt down while we are shopping for their Halloween costumes. Even when they give me sticky food-faced kisses or pick their nose for twenty minutes solid or loudly act up when I’m visiting. Especially when they make very honest and usually hilarious observations about my age, marital status, relative maturity (“are you big or little? Cause you look little. But I think you’re big.” “Are you in college?! No?! BUT YOU SHOULD HAVE KIDS BY NOW!” and, recently, “How old are you again? You’re THEWTY-EIGHT?! One-two-thwee-fou-five-twelve-eleven-thewteen-sixteen-seventeen…”). It is an honor to hear you speak about the joys and sorrows and fears and inadequacies you feel as you parent, to hear you dream about their futures, and to talk about the talents and troubles you see taking root in them as they grow up.

Your love is extraordinary, and it is transforming you into the woman you were meant to become. Your love changes the world. One diaper at a time. One recital, one soccer game, one swimming lesson at a time. One meltdown, one rebellious, scathing comment, one prayer at a time.

*the photograph above was taken by my friend Laura, on a short weekend trip with the girls, which for the first time included a second generation, my niece Lucy.

 

Briefly Wrong

Maybe it’s because I’m a naturally more argumentative person, or because I’m highly opinionated, or divisive, or whatever it is you’d want to call me when I’m being contrary, but I have, on average, at least a dozen arguments a day.

About 50% of those are even out loud.

The rest, I’m sad to say, are all internal repeats of arguments I’ve had in the past. Arguments that are years, or even over a decade old. Not even good arguments, really, just points that were made that I didn’t have a rebuttal for THEN but I definitely do NOW.

I can’t seem to kick this internal compulsion to correct them, or to correct old, wrong ideas when I come across them again. I have to fight the urge to go up to them even though we haven’t spoken in five years or, 15 years, and say, “you were wrong about ____________. I now have the dream response that I’ve spent at least twelve showers finessing until I’m confident every single angle and point of attack has been countered. Ha-HAH!”

If only others could remember their wrongness with the brilliant clarity that I remember their wrongness. SIGH.

Of the qualities we inevitably all tolerate in each other, constant correcting has to be among the most abrasive. (Probably don’t correct me on this, it’ll just validate it)

Trouble is, correctors have this fundamental idea that being right is of extreme importance. And how could anyone possibly go about their day being wrong about something when it’s very easy to set them on the right path? It’s like discovering at 10pm that you’ve got breakfast from 8am stuck in your teeth still. What? No one thought to mention it??

But there is this idea in each one of us I think that the opinions we hold are the right ones. And they continue to be the right beliefs until someone comes along and convinces us otherwise, and now suddenly we yet again have the right beliefs.

You see, the truth is that we all only ever feel that we are wrong briefly, that wrongness is a passing situation, easily corrected by converting your mind again to something that is right, or by ignoring any information that is contrary to your previously held rightness.

You will never encounter someone in this life who says, “Well that’s just my opinion on politics. It’s wrong. But I’ve decided to keep using it as a basis for all my decisions anyway.”

Someone might be glib enough to say, “I might be wrong”, but speaking to you confidentially as someone who’s said this before, it’s usually sarcastic.

So I’ll still go on arguing in my head with all those phantoms of friends gone by, but perhaps, maybe just perhaps, it’s because I’m still not convinced I’m right, I’m just not ready to admit it yet.

Eat the Rice

I’ve never made a secret of my lacking kitchen skills, but this past weekend I really topped my worst efforts.

It happened the way most problems do: I got cocky. I thought I could cook rice and walk away. What a rookie mistake. It started boiling before I knew it and I hastily returned to my neglected post and turned the burner down to low, as is correct. The rice continued to boil for an abnormally long time after I did this, but I didn’t concern myself with the mysterious ways of water in a pot, I was too busy worrying about the fish I was frying in the oven (I know that’s not frying fish, but I couldn’t resist the metaphor). Simultaneous to these two events I’m attempting a stir fry (literally). After all, it’s Friday, the day for stir frys (stir Friday).

Quick story about my stovetop. I have only two burners that can function without smoking up the kitchen. The first burner I ruined was because I let all the water boil out of a whistle-less tea kettle and some of the kettle remains stuck to the burner and now whenever it heats up the smoke detectors go off. The second burner I spilled milk on a few months ago because I got a little excited about the macaroni and cheese I was making.

I decided to chance the tea kettle burner. Sure enough a smoke detector starts going off. It’s so much louder than I anticipate. Always. And I can never hear where it’s coming from. So of course I mistake the carbon monoxide detector for the smoke alarm and I tear that down ineffectually.

Alarm still blaring I drag a chair out out to reach the one over the entry way door and I manage to get that off but still there’s a smoke alarm going. I turn off the defective burner and move to the living room to grab that one, all the while wondering why I have so many smoke detectors in this not large apartment.

I huck the smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detector into the deep recesses of the living room and go back to the kitchen, hungry and irate.

This is roughly when the third smoke alarm, which I had forgotten about, starts chiming.

At this point I fully expect my landlord, who lives below me to storm upstairs wondering why I’m so intent on burning down my apartment.

After lobbing this smoke detector also into the living room I go back into the kitchen and decide to check on the rice. Which is when I realize I turned a complete unoccupied burner on low, and never turned the rice burner off high.

I ate the rice the basically inedible, mostly charcoal rice. I was not about to let it go to waste. I’d waited a good 30ish minutes for that rice that I paid for out of a hard earned paycheck.

So in honor of my mother’s birthday, and in gratitude to the original woman who taught me how to eat around culinary mistakes and gave me a life lesson I’d never forget, thanks, Mom, for not being the best cook in all the world, but the most adaptable.

PS, for the record, I cannot remember my mother once having this amount of trouble cooking, but her small oops in the kitchen have been instrumental to me whenever I encounter the big oops of life, in the kitchen or outside of it.