The other day I had an interesting conversation with my piano teacher. Note to the critics: yeah, I’m taking piano lessons! Surprised? It’s my new hobby!
I had not had a lot of time to practice during the last week so my performance was less than stellar. And my normal performance being already less than stellar, this meant that my performance was actually, uh, uberstellarless. For those who don’t speak German that means really not so great.
She didn’t seem to mind (I am sure it’s because she sees in the depths of my soul the incredible talent lying in wait there that just needs to be nurtured into bloom) but did ask what had kept me so busy during the last week.
And this brought up the Whole Cancer Thing. Because the problem is, I hadn’t told her about it. I ‘ve only known her for about a month, and although we’ve chatted about our personal lives a bit, it has stayed mostly on surface issues like where we live and where we work.
And it’s not that I don’t want to tell her. It’s actually just that I want to protect her from having to deal with it. It’s awkward. She’s an innocent bystander, and I don’t feel like having her sit there with huge eyes as I chuckle and say: “Oh you know, just busy with regular stuff like work and errands and a complicated hospital appointment for my cancer kid…”
So what do you say? I have actually avoided talking about my kids altogether in some cases. Like, I was out with a bunch of local expat moms not too long ago, many of whom I had not met before. This was right in the middle of Elliot’s treatment. It was actually impossible to talk to another mom without the subject of our kids coming up. I felt like I was juggling forks, the way I kept having to change the subject (how do I come up with metaphors like that, by the way? Does it only make sense in my brain, or do you see it too?)
Finally, after diverting the subject back to her kids several times, and giving vague answers like “yes my son normally goes to the local public school” I finally felt I was getting backed into a corner. I was surrounded by 4 or 5 other moms and the subject of the chicken pox vaccine was being debated, and I was asked directly if I had vaccinated Elliot or if he had already had it.
Now, Elliot had chicken pox. It was a few months before the cancer diagnosis. And, well, chemo treatment erases previously acquired immunities. And chicken pox is very dangerous during chemo treatment, the virus can be amplified by some of the chemo drugs he got, and turn deadly. So chicken pox is a particularly sensitive subject to most cancermoms. To normal moms, it’s chicken pox. Itchy spots. A heartfelt debate about the merits of vaccinating versus naturally acquired immunity. Pox parties. These are normal mom conversations. I used to have these types of talks before. But now I just stand there, and when someone turns to me and asks me… I hesitated.
Do you lie to protect the people from a subject you know they don’t really want to talk about?
“Yes, my son had chicken pox when he was 4. What a week! Ha ha. “ Smile and move away, grab another champagne flute.
“Oh I didn’t practice piano because my kids and work kept me busy. Ha ha.” Smile and plink away. (No champagne flutes during piano lessons, darn it, probably would help my piano teacher not have that look on her face while I’m playing like her shoes are on too tight.)
Or do you just answer the damn question?
“Well, Elliot had chicken pox. But since he has CANCER, he now bah blah blah…” It doesn’t matter what you say after this because everyone is now frozen with fear because you said the word CANCER. They have all taken a small step away from you and are clutching their flutes. (We’re still talking champagne here, not musical instruments, although it did conjure a new metaphor that ended up so complex I thought better to drop it.)
I know people who are just casual acquaintances don’t deserve to have their heart sink into their shoes on a nice evening out with friends just because I answered a question. But I also feel stupid and phony when I deliberately pretend I am someone I’m not. I’m a cancer mom, like it or not.
So what’s the solution? I welcome your replies. (The flute subject is open for discussion too if you want).
In the meantime, since I couldn’t find a stock photo of an innocent bystander juggling forks (which would have been the most appropriate for this post), here’s a photo of Elliot in his new soccer outfit! Not sure why the peace sign, but ok.