Friday, March 04, 2011
Years ago, over lunch with a friend who had been treated for very advanced breast cancer, I asked the question many of us ask when we see people we haven’t seen for a while: “How are you?” My friend very kindly responded that the question was one to which, given her situation, she couldn’t possibly know the answer. Better for her if I asked “How are you today?” or “What kind of a day are you having?”
If you think about it, none of us can really know “how we are” on any given day. We can know how we feel, but not what’s going on inside our bodies. For example, people who turn out to have breast cancer often feel healthy until they are told by their doctors that that lump found on their most recent mammogram is not benign.
And we can sometimes not tell by looking at someone that s/he is ill. If you look at me now for example, I look pretty much as I always have. My hair isn’t falling out, my skin tone is good, and my smile is pleasant. But I have a disease — ALS, or Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — a degenerative neurological illness for which there is no cure.
When people ask me how I am, it drives me nuts. I don’t want to discuss with everyone I see what it means to live everyday with a disease that I know will make me less and less functional, and ultimately kill me. How fast this will happen is unknown, but that doesn’t make it easier to talk about.
What kind of a day I’m having, or how I am today, is an easier question to answer: I’m tired or not, it’s easy or hard for me to walk, or I have too much going on to tell. But at least these kinds of questions don’t feel as prying and insensitive as “how are you?”
Christopher Hitchens, author and journalist who has advanced esophageal cancer, recently said something when asked how he was that is worth remembering. He put it something like this: “I’m dying. So are you. But I’m doing it faster than you are.”
I’m too busy living to spend time answering questions about my thoughts on dying. And, in any event, I don’t want to discuss that topic with everyone I see. So, don’t ask me how I am.
P.S. Big thanks to Roche Janken for setting up my website, and encouraging me to write this particular blog.
© Barbara A. Brenner March, 2011