Thursday, March 7, 2013

What It Is

When I was a sophomore at Bowdoin, I took my first photography class. I can't remember my professor's name although I remember exactly how he dressed (like a slightly preppy lumberjack), how he spoke (as if he had the faintest accent), and even how he wrote his comments on the back of my photographs (diagonally, with pencil). On one of the first days of class, my professor passed out a piece of paper towel and a thick marker to each student. He told us to write something, our name or some other word, I can’t remember.

I immediately struggled with this seemingly simple assignment. The paper towel didn't want to work with the thick inky permanent marker, and the marker felt the same stubborn way in return. I tried to be neat and fill in the edges of the letters where the ink had run, but it just ran more and eventually, my paper towel looked like a mess made by someone who was trying not to make a mess.

When we were done, most students’ paper towels looked like mine. This was way more fun than listening to a lecture, but I didn't really get what was going on. Then our professor found a paper towel that looked different. I can't remember if it was his own paper towel or another student's, but either way, the lettering on that paper towel was unique. Its artist had obviously realized how the marker and the paper towel interacted and instead of trying to force something that wasn't meant to be, the artist let the natural interaction guide him or her. I remember seeing the letters on that paper towel and thinking they looked interesting and even, oddly beautiful.

* * * 

When I began this post last night, the Canton High School boys hockey team (and Teddy) were on the bus back from the Cape. Annabel and I had hung back because I didn't feel right skipping out of work early for a hockey game since I often need to skip out for treatment and doctor appointments. So Sean and I followed the game via text message updates while we made Annabel her dinner, gave her a bath, and tried to convince her to put on her pajamas.

The boys lost their game last night, which means that their season is over. That's a tough pill to swallow because hockey, and perhaps even more so, Canton High School hockey, means a whole lot to thousands of people in and around Canton, including everyone in our house.

I definitely didn't sit down here last night or this morning thinking I could say something to make disappointed Cantonites feel better. I wish I had that power. But I will do what I am able to do here -- I'll write to try to make myself a bit better -- to try to find some bit of understanding somewhere inside a crappy situation.

Other years when Brian's been down in the dumps after his hockey season ended, I'd talk -- not a lot, but almost certainly, too much. I'd try to think of all of the reasons why he shouldn't be upset -- why it was a great season, why next season will be even better. I'd try to make him feel better by smothering his paper towel with lots of runny ink, so to speak. Gosh, that must have been annoying (as is the overkill of the paper towel, ink analogy).

Last night, I vowed not to do what I used to do. Maybe I have learned a lot in the last half year -- and here’s another one of those things.

On the morning of Sunday August 19th, I published a BLOG that included only a quote. I had tried to write that morning, but I couldn’t, and in the end, I didn’t even want to. The quote was exactly what I needed, and I still find great comfort in it.

Now, months later, I’m in a much better position to explain the night prior -- August 18th. It was the Saturday night at the start of our week long vacation in Falmouth. My family had all gathered around the big table for dinner. I don’t remember what we were eating, which is proof that I must have been in a bad state of mind. Indeed, I was, as it was the scariest time then -- those weeks of not knowing the stage of my cancer or how I would fight it. That time when breathing felt like a challenge.

Not long into the meal, someone mentioned something about the next summer. The thought of “a year from now” felt like a tidal wave that flattened me. I lost it, broke down into uncontrollable tears. I could barely sit up in my chair. Brian and my Mom, sitting on either side of me, somehow held me up, but I still remember being curled over in their arms. Meanwhile, everyone else at that table all did the most helpful thing that they could have done at that moment -- they all just let me cry.

No one at that table tried to list for me all of the reasons why I shouldn't cry. No one tried to convince me that everything would be OK. Since I knew my family had these reasons and these arguments all lined up, it was even more remarkable that held on to them in silence. In those few minutes, my family just held me and let me sob and sob until I couldn't sob anymore. They told me I had every right to cry, to be angry and scared and sad. That I had every right to do exactly what I was doing, to feel exactly what I was feeling.

Way back in August, I don't know that I necessarily felt relieved after that cry at the dinner table. But I do know that I felt safer -- maybe even more alive. At the time, that was good enough.

I don’t mean to compare losing a hockey game to having cancer even though it appears like I’m doing just that. And I was certain that Brian would not curl up in a ball and cry last night (he didn’t). But I expected him to be disappointed and he was. His hockey team means great deal to him. This season, especially, meant a great deal to him.

Last night, slightly distracted by trying to (maybe) finish this blog, I didn't try to convince Brian of anything. Maybe there will be a time for that, but it wasn't last night. The best thing I could do was to listen and turn the oven on to heat up a take-out buffalo chicken calzone. All I really said was that he had every right to feel disappointed. It’s disappointing to work really hard for something and have it not happen.

In the end, Brian had a beer and we sat together on the sofa watching Boston’s Finest – a reality TV show about Boston cops. It was, well, interesting, and for a few minutes, we were slightly distracted. Not long after, I fell asleep on his shoulder.

In the end, I think there's something special -- even oddly beautiful -- about having someone with whom you can just feel what you feel. Without pretending. Without even talking. Someone who can sit with you in a moment and let that moment be what it is. Even when that moment hurts. Or rather, especially when that moment hurts. 

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