Thursday, November 6, 2014

Becoming a “better” person is tougher than I thought


When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I thought... Well, I thought a lot of things. Diagnosed in September of 2013, I wondered if I would see Christmas. Obviously, that was very early on and was probably one of the first thoughts I actually had about it.

Then, as I became more aware of what I was truly dealing with, I thought having cancer offered me the perfect opportunity to become a better person, which in its own way was just as naive as wondering if I would be around at Christmas time.

And I'm not sure if being a “better” person was what I really meant. I think I was a pretty decent person at the time. I wasn't as angry as I had been for much of my life and I had certainly stopped taking my anger out on other people or pets, for the most part. I think I was a good friend, although you'd have to check with them. I was generous with time and money. I was funny and liked to make people laugh.

But, being sick, I thought I would stop dragging my feet when it came to doing things that were important. If I loved someone, for example, I would be sure they knew it. I think I even gave that advice to you in an earlier column. Turns out that really is a multi-layered task.

I had no trouble telling people in my life now that I loved them. I think, at least on some level, that I knew there wouldn't be too many surprises in that group. I mean, I figured most of them would say, “I love you too.”

See, “I love you” only has two appropriate responses: “Thank you” and, more importantly, “I love you too.” “I don't blame you,” is hardly an appropriate reply, for example. Neither is, “You and God knows how many others.?” And of course, “What's not to love?” is just plain lame.

What really makes saying “I love you” so risky is that your declaration may be met... with silence, or something non-committal like “That's nice.” Wow. If you're like me, you immediately want to take it back. “Yeah? Well, I just said that to see what you would say. I didn't really mean it.” The wrong reply makes you feel like a chump. Sort of like, I suppose, giving some kind of talk in front of a large number of people and realizing that your pants are unzipped, or the female equivalent thereof. What are you going to do? True, it's bad, but how is surreptitiously trying to zip them up going to make anything better?

So, as it became obvious that my multiple myeloma was going to give me time to take care of some of the second-layer “I love yous,” I started to put some serious thought to the task. There were people I had hurt, who had hurt me, or with whom I had just lost touch that I wanted to get to and explain. Explain what? Good question, but I know love was in there somewhere.

There are probably about eight people who would fit in this group. My mom and dad are both dead, so there is nothing to say or do, at least openly. Still, eight is quite a few. Fourteen months down the road, how many have I performed this important act with? Well, counting everybody, and leaving out my parents, that would be... none.

Hey. Don't judge! Besides, it's haaaarrrrddd. I don't even know where most of those people are. The fact that most of them are women who have probably changed their last names doesn't make it any easier. Again, I've done all the skimming-sort of things, mostly Google and Facebook. But, to be honest, I haven't tried real hard. I mean, I don't like feeling like I'm talking to a group of people with my pants unzipped, what's the rush? By the way, I've actually had my pants fall down in front of a group of people two or three times and that's bad enough (don't ask). And that doesn't count the incident in the hospital during my stem cell transplant.

Well, it's all fun and games until you find out someone you've been meaning to contact, someone you've known how to find all along, is very ill and may, in fact, not survive.

Here's what upsets me most about that situation at this point in my life: you'd think that someone with an incurable, albeit treatable, form of cancer would understand that you need to take care of these things now. Haven't I admonished others about doing it? What kind of person in my position fails to do that. Well, me, as it turns out.

I got word earlier this week that the man I have considered one of the most important in my life, since I first met him back in 1972, was sick and there was a good chance he might not recover. Damn! And double damn! All the excuses you've used for not getting in contact for 15 or so years sound... lame? Stupid? Embarrassing? All of the above and more? Yes.

As I tried to decide what to do about it I came up with a solution: don't bother. Don't bother with excuses; there are no good ones. “But, I have cancer.” Yeah, and as my mother would have said, “Have ye lost the powerrrrr o' yer hands?” Well, no, mum. “And whit aboot the otherrrr 14 years?” Yes, mum.

It was a horrible feeling, worse even than when my father died. My dad had been unavailable to me for most of my life; initially his choice, eventually mine (“The Cat's in the Cradle” kind of thing). But this man has guided me through so many difficult times in my life that they defy counting. Why did we drift apart. Me. That's kind of what I meant by thinking having cancer would make me a better person. I would deal with situations like this much better.

Well, no. But, then word came that he had made a truly surprising recovery, and had actually been moved to a facility for rehabilitation. I felt like Scrooge on Christmas morning. So, I did... nothing. Suppose I lay my feelings out and nothing comes back? Oy.

That lasted about another day. I swallowed my pride, ego, embarrassment, whatever and laid it all out to him in a letter. I told him all the things he had done for me, how important he had always been to me, and, yes, I told him that I loved him. I even mailed the letter right away.

Now, not to be crude, but I just need to keep my pants zipped and wait.

There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere.”