“Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing
either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” – Hamlet 2.2
Back in my previous life, before I was the Crabby Cancer Wife, I was known for being nice. I was known for often knowing the right way to say the thing that someone didn’t want to hear. I could find the way to put the difficult into a context that would take some of the sting out of it. I would read between the lines when someone put one’s foot in one’s mouth, and tried to understand based on the meaning and not the faux pas.
These days, I just don’t know if I have it in me.
Recently, I attended a party for dear friends of mine. I was happy to be out of the house for something that wasn’t cancer related, and it only increased my mirth that the occasion itself was a joyful one. I knew many of the guests, and they were all very gracious in greeting me and asking after CrabbyCancerMan. It was the first time I had been out socially in a very long time, and for many of my fellow celebrants, it was the first time they had seen me in person in months. As we sat down for the festive meal, I found myself at a table where I knew almost everyone else seated. They each caught me up on their lives, and soon started peppering me with questions about my dear husband’s progress.
At our table was just one guest who we did not all know. I did my best to politely engage her in conversation, but at the same time, was trying to answer the kind questions of my friends who wanted the latest update. When the gentle guest realized the nature of the questions I was being asked, she blurted out “Oh! Your husband has cancer? Is he gonna get better?”
To hear my friends at the table tell it, you could have heard a pin drop. I was told that even Miss Manners would have been proud of what I said next. I calmly looked at her and said “Thank you for your concern. It is upsetting to talk about my husband’s illness, and as this as a celebration, I’d rather focus on the joyful.” Fortunately, she couldn’t see the daggers coming from my eyes as I said it.
A few days later, I found myself at a very similar event – another joyful occasion, with many friends who I had not seen in a long time. There were many questions and expressions of concern for CrabbyCancerMan, who once again was not well enough to join me. This time I was much more careful about how I spoke about my dear husband to those who were not in the know. I was still seething a bit inside from the previous interaction, and did not want to see a repeat performance. When one well-meaning guest asked me where my beloved was, I simply responded “He wasn’t well enough to come.” She said “I am sorry to hear that.” Wanting to end the conversation, I said “Well, there will be other celebrations.” She said “Oh, I meant, I’m sorry he’s not well. I hope he feels better soon.” Her kindness and pitch-perfect thoughtfulness left me speechless. And then she asked me to dance.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the definition of class.
So here’s a little advice, from me to the world, should you bump into a stranger in my shoes:
- DO offer sympathy in a general way.
- DON’T ask for specifics.
- If you are curious and would like specifics, DO say something like “If you want to talk about it, I’ll listen.”
- DON’T say “Everything happens for a reason,” or “Look on the bright side,” or “You can’t fight fate.”
- DO try to think before you speak. And DO apologize if you feel you have put your foot in your mouth.