Friday, June 4, 2010


DETROIT, MICHIGAN - I don’t have a 9 to 5 job. I used to, I've had a few before, but now my job is spectacularly unique. Oh, I still have a cubicle, still have voice mail, still get performance reviews, still get to attend company picnics and still have to file TPS reports. What I don’t have is a clock-out machine. I've talked to enough people out there that some of you know what I mean. I was once told, "Heidi, I go home after work and I’m done. I don't think about it, don’t talk about it, I'm done until the next day. You never actually clock out.”

A perfect example of that is the airport. I am almost always alone on my trips (speaking engagements, events, etc.) which gives me an opportunity to talk to people around me. I try not to be annoying, before you ask. I speak only when spoken to, just like mama taught me. BUT sometimes there I am, at an airport. The guy right next to me in the terminal is on a call, and he’s obviously struggling. We all ignore him, as if we can’t hear every word. There are about 5 of us, sitting here with our lives intersecting just at this one point in time, most assuredly never to meet again. Trying to ignore a painful conversation between a man and his obviously ex-wife. LALALALALA we can’t hear you!!!

He hangs up, and walks away to get a coffee, sits right back down in his original seat next to me. He sees my pink ribbon, which I wear always. "Do you know someone with breast cancer?" He asks. "Well, yes, to be honest, I know probably hundreds of "someones" with breast cancer. Up to and including myself," I say with a smile. His eyes grow wide – "Really? No kidding?" "No kidding. Come on, who would joke about that? Ick." We both laugh. He whispers and says – you know, my ex-wife had breast cancer. And then his eyes get really sad.

I don't say anything, because I’m kind of a) a dork and b) way on the side of the ex-wife and I don't even know the story yet. Shame on me, whatever. Don't care, we all have our opinions. So he continues, "It just got too hard. I didn't know what to do for her, and she changed. Like totally changed." So I am still smiling, smiling at this man, and not screaming at him. Yay me. "Changed during the treatment, you mean?" I ask, quietly. "Yes," he said. "And then afterwards, too." I ask if she was still on medicine during this intolerable "change" she made him witness. "Yes," he confirms, "she is taking something for her cancer. Will have to for years."

So I turn and face him so he gets what I am saying, and gets it clearly. Like when I talk to my kids and really want them to pay attention, I make them look at me right in the face. I tell him that I, too, am on medicine that has "changed" me. It also is saving my life. "Is she in pain, do you know?" I ask him. He tells me, somewhat sheepishly, that he has no idea. So I tell him about bone pain; a common symptom of many cancer meds. And what that does to you, that pain you can’t rub away, can't medicate, can't erase. That low, constant, throbbing reminder that something you hate has invaded your body and will take your life prematurely. The exhaustion that is a fun little left-over from the radiation that will last for years. The fact that surgeries have left her body more like a road map than that of that hot 17-year-old girl you are looking at across the terminal. "Yep, she changed," I acknowledged. But if you know anyone that has ever gone into battle, they all change. We all live with the battle scars, like dark little leaves in the fall. Just laying there, so visible. So, no, your wife isn't that 17-year-old-girl. But inside of her is the woman you once loved. She’s just scared, and tired, and in pain and now totally alone.

When I'm done talking he says "Well, we are already divorced. So that's it." "Yep," I acknowledge, "that bit is done. But when you talk to her next, which you have to do for the kids, maybe ask how she’s feeling. You can't change her pain, and it might take some time for her to believe you actually care about her at all, but at least it’s a start. It might help you more than her. Being kind to people always makes me feel better." He thanks me, believe it or not, and goes to board his plane. I don't know if he will take my advice, will never know. Such is the nature of the intersecting moments. I get these moments all the time. Sometimes at 3 am I'll get a text from someone who doesn’t know what time zone I’m in but wants to talk. She’s going in to surgery soon and is scared. Do I have a moment? Yes, I do. I don’t actually clock out.

1 comment:

Joe Hendricks said...

Beautifully and powerfully written, Heidi!

I have met some 'abandoned' ladies in the lobbies at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance - such courage to plow on without their sig other, sometimes without any support at all!