Pretty early after my diagnosis, when I first started this blog, I ran into a friend, not someone I know very well but someone who I like very much, at school pick up. I'll call this friend "S". When S and I saw each other, we hugged. I did not recall who initiated the hug. In fact, I didn't even remember the hug. S did. That evening, she sent me a message on Facebook:
This may sound strange, but I wanted to apologize if I was awkward in our interaction yesterday. So, you know when you've had a night of drinking and the next day you proceed to have flashbacks of the night before that make you think, "Really? Did I do that?" Well, when I think back to your interaction, I have this image of me hugging you. Now, let me preface this by saying, I have nothing against hugs. Hugs are great. Hugs with friends you don't see often and are just getting to know...super awkward, and frankly, uncomfortable. (It ranks up there with strangers who touch a woman's pregnant belly.) So sorry about that---
Let me reiterate: I did not even remember this hug. So I wrote back:
I didn't notice anything at all. What did you do? Did we hug? I don't remember. We didn't make out or anything right? Did you have gas? What happened? I hope you haven't been torturing yourself about this for the past 24 hours.
A couple of days later, I ran into S with her husband, who confirmed, that yes, she tortured herself worrying about our hug for about 24 hours. Maybe she would have done so even if I didn't have cancer. Although if I didn't have cancer, she probably wouldn't have hugged me.
Of course, it's not always the other person who initiates the awkwardness. When I was first diagnosed, I struggled with who to tell vs. not to tell. I would find myself on the school playground, talking about mundane things with people while debating in my head whether or not to blurt out "I have breast cancer. That's really all I want to talk about right now so can we stop talking about your kids swim lessons?" Of course I never did that. Well, one time I guess I did. I blurted it out to an acquaintance. We were at the kindergarten open house night in November and she asked the simple-yet-not-so-simple question for me any more, How Are You? so I guess I gave her an update.
"Oh," she said. "I'm sorry." She pointed out the purple ribbon pin on her coat. "I have a friend with pancreatic cancer." And so I said I was sorry to her. I can't recall how much I actually talked about the breast cancer, but I didn't think it was much. Truth is, I didn't even really remember the interaction until earlier this week, when our boys had a playdate for the first time. We were talking at her kitchen table and I began a story with, "I don't know if you know I'm going through treatment for breast cancer..." and she reminded me of that evening when I told her.
"I think you were still in shock," she said.
Uh huh. Shock. What does a person act like when they're in shock? A quick Google search tells me "person may be anxious and excited." I imagined her coming home that evening and telling her husband about the anxious and excited mom who started going on about her breast cancer at kindergarten open house.
Even though I write a blog now called "I had a boob once," I still struggle sometimes with who to tell. Or with how much to talk about it vs. not talk about it. I wonder in my head sometimes as I'm speaking, "Am I talking too much about my cancer?" I imagine the person sitting next to me possibly wanting me to shut up. Of course, I wondered this before I had cancer, too...
I also often notice that when a person starts talking about themselves and their problems, they become uncomfortable and point it out. "Oh enough about me. We should talk about you..." they say. Or here's one: My friend J emailed me shortly after I lost my hair to see how I was doing. She mentioned that her daughter had been throwing up for hours and she felt awkward telling me about how she had held her hair as she vomited.
"Don't worry,"I said, "I'm glad not to have hair if I vomit." And it was the truth.
There's one more thing I want to address, though. And it's kids. Most kids have no filter, as we know. Some of my more awkward moments have been with children. For a while, I wore only a little wintery type cap on my head when I picked my kids up from school. No adults ever asked me about it. But a little girl did. We were standing inside her house as I was dropping Ethan off for a play date. "Why are you wearing a winter hat inside?" I explained that it keeps my head warm. That I was bald. Then I took it off and showed her. She didn't flinch, although she stared at my head for the rest of the visit.
Even more awkward, after I started wearing my wig regularly, Jonas's friend Sam became obsessed with it. The first time he saw me wearing it at pick up, he shrieked in his five-year-old voice, "Your wig is perfect!" Then a few minutes later, "I love your wig!" I appreciated the compliments, but when this continued a few days later at the playground, I started to get a little uncomfortable. I swear I am not exaggerating when I write that he inserted the word "wig" between everything he said. "Can Jonas come over to play? Wig!" "Can you throw me that tennis (WIG) ball?" Fortunately, his obsession with my fake hair and his tourettes have both dissipated recently.
I think David Rackoff, a wonderfully funny and talented writer who died of cancer at 47, summed it all up best:
“But here’s the point I want to make about the stuff people say.Unless someone looks you in the eye and hisses, ‘You fucking asshole,
I can’t wait until you die of this,’ people are really trying their
best. Just like being happy and sad, you will find yourself on both
sides of the equation over your lifetime, either saying or hearing the
wrong thing. Let’s all give each other a pass, shall we?"