Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tactless behaviour

It was November, 2002. I was working on contract in a Government of Ontario Ministry. Nissa worked two desks away. “I’ve been here too long,” she asked on my first day on the job, “what’s it like in the private sector?”

“Pretty much the same,” I said. “Everybody complains that there isn’t enough money and feels overworked. We just got free coffee. And slightly different cubicles.”

Nissa was friendly, if a bit paranoid. She was convinced that government officials were reading her email (I recommend that she not send anything that she didn’t want anyone to read). I installed Winamp on her computer, which she was convinced wouldn’t work and would result in me being fired. A few days later, I un-installed it when I found out that, indeed, it was a firing offence to install 3rd party software. I then re-read the rules and re-installed it in such a way that I was not violating any directives whatsoever (it involved a CD and a folder outside of the shared drives) so she decided she liked me.

Everyone likes to be liked. But being liked by Nissa was becoming surreal. One morning, she walked past my desk laughing, looked at me, and said “So, anyhow. Carl was there. And he’s got that beard down to here. And he listened to that track and started laughing because it was his car in the first place that had that old tape deck, and…”

And so on. She’d dropped me into a conversation that I’d hadn’t been having in the first place. She did this occasionally, but she liked me and I was new to the job and my father was still alive but getting sicker day by day. She asked after him, and how I was doing, and our coffee breaks were spent like that.

By November of that year, the medication wasn’t working and my father was spending more and more time semi-conscious. It was around the time that our daily phone calls stopped – it was within days of the first call where he forgot who he was talking to, or simply fell asleep and was unable to remember why he was on the phone. I was quietly devastated (a loud, public devastation wasn’t going to help anything) and was trying to keep my hopes up by whatever means possible. He wasn’t gone yet. The next wave of meds might help. And everything else I could muster.

We had gone upstairs for coffee when she was quizzing me. “Has he been awake at all, recently?” she asked.

“Only around six hours a day. But this happened around a month ago and when we changed doses it helped a lot. We’re also going back into chemotherapy before Christmas…”

“Really?” she interrupted. “You really think that it’s going to help?”

She looked angry as she said it. I also knew that I wasn’t the best judge of character and intonation at the time. It’s possible that I had heard angry when she was just being inquisitive.

“It could help,” I told her. “It’s something worth trying.”

“Yeah, maybe,” she said. “ do know that it might just kill him, right? You’ve got to think about that. You realize that he’s really sick and he’s going to die soon, right? You’ve got to face that he’s going to die.”

This time, it didn’t feel like her being angry. Like a lecture, yes. A concerned one. And with a complete lack of tact, yes. You can’t plan something that tactless. The old cliché about children under the age of six and anyone over the age of ninety saying the first thing that comes into their mind struck me as very true just then.

Welcome to Nissa. Who wasn’t under six or over ninety. And even as I wanted to kill her, I liked her. Sort of simultaneously. She wasn’t stupid and she wasn’t mean. She was trying to be supportive or at least to be sure that I wasn’t deluding myself. But she had obviously hit some kind of breakdown about the way that one should do this. I hadn’t reached the despairing stage over my father – you can’t give up on somebody until they’re gone – but I was unenthusiastic about another wave of chemo.

I didn’t need her to understand all that was about to be lost – and she had no right to tell me.

I also didn’t need to be expending the energy in understanding all of this on her behalf. A cup of coffee and a chat would have been lovely. A long game of ‘What I Said vs. What I Meant’ was on the horizon and I didn’t have the strength to deal with it.

She put sweetener into her coffee. “That stuff causes cancer,” I told her.

It doesn’t. Not according to most doctors and scientists. But she got the point and we went downstairs talking about Christmas, which was no less painful. Just less immediate. We could at least agree on the fact it was going to be cold.


Anonymous said...

My best and closest friend died of cancer. I slammed anyone who said she was going to die. I felt like the only reason she did die was because no one believed her that she was going to be ok. She lived a long time after she was supposed to die. Hooked up to an epidural so that she would not feel the pain of the cancer having eaten her body from the inside out. She told me she had holes on the out side now. She lived until she decided that she would die. If everyone had been supportive and given energy to her living, I feel that even in the end she could have some how spontaneously healed. I know it's against conventional thought but she should not have been alive all that time and she was. Heck, a sperm and an egg creates an entire human being - how can we dare to think we know the answers.

The other thought that eats at me is that why did she not die when she was supposed to? Why did she live through all that pain if only to die.

And then - when she did decide to die, why didn't she let me know the plan had changed. Told me when to step in with her kids. What to do with out her. How she wanted me to be involved or not.

Interesting this public form thing MJD. It's me. CW

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