All right. Here’s what they always tell you about performance anxiety:
1) Imagine everyone in your audience is naked.
(Never got this one. I’m supposed to relax because everybody’s naked? Other people’s nakedness usually has the opposite effect on me.)
2) What’s the worst — the absolutely worst — that can happen?
(Wow, that one sucks, too. The worst that can happen is that I will totally humiliate myself on national TV. Or, even more absolutely worse, that I will perform so badly that I won’t make it on national TV.)
Who keeps coming up with unhelpful gems like this?
* * * * *
So, there I was, going over the contents of my suitcase with Ella, the very sweet (and well-dressed) wardrobe supervisor on the shoot. Ella looks over my clothes and shakes her head. “It’s not that anything is bad, exactly,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s just that I feel like I’ve seen it all before. I want you to look different.”
I looked at my clothes — the blouses, the blue jeans. Ella was right. I’d seen it all before, too. Maybe because I’d worn it all, over and over.
Finally, Ella approves my navy-blue sundress and yellow cardigan sweater.
* * * * *
After that, I sit under a tent on the Universal Studios lot with a few other people who are there for the StandUp2Cancer documentary shoot. Every few minutes, a bus goes through, full of tourists. “We wanted to film Apollo 13 at NASA headquarters in Houston,” the recorded voice announces. “But NASA wouldn’t let us. We had to film it here at Universal Studios. Over here, Will Ferrell filmed his latest movie.”
Everyone cranes necks in our direction. One of the other interviewees points out that the recorded voice doesn’t say, “Today, we’re filming a documentary about cancer in this studio.” No, we agree, that would be too much of a bummer. Much better to talk about Will Ferrell.
Heather is the first of the interviewees I meet. She’s young, in her mid-thirties. She tells me she’s a 13-year survivor of breast cancer. I start to pipe up that I am, too, but fortunately don’t speak quickly enough. She’s going on to say that she then had melanoma and has lived with Stage 4 cancer for the past five years.
Almost every time I’m in a group of cancer survivors, I meet someone like Heather. These are people who look normal. You look at them and delude yourself into thinking you know who they are. But you don’t. Like Heather, they’ve lived through unbearable experiences that you can’t begin to imagine.
Thirteen years ago, I had cancer and went through a difficult year. My experience is nothing compared to someone like Heather’s. She’s lived in a world I’ve only had brief glimpses of through some of my friends. She knows everything and I know squat.
Another woman, Karen, is about my age. Her husband Will just died of colorectal cancer in June. She still wears a button inscribed “Go Will” in his honor. Before his death, Will had a trophy inscribed to Karen for everything she had done for him. Friends gave it to her after his memorial service. Then, there’s Anthony, whose brother has been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. We sit together under the tent and eat a catered lunch and wait to be interviewed.
A pair of younger women show up later in the afternoon. One is quite young and dazzlingly beautiful — tall and thin, with long, curly hair. She models part-time, she tells me. She’s here because her mother died of breast cancer when she was a teenager. Her eyes fill with tears when she talks about it.
The bus goes by again, telling the stories of Apollo 13 and Will Ferrell. By now, we all have it memorized.
* * * * *
I am interviewed, finally, at about 7 p.m. I step into the midst of blazing lights and talk about how I approached dealing with cancer almost 13 years ago. I can’t remember much of what I said. I rambled, probably, about my own experiences. I didn’t imagine everybody was naked and I forgot about the absolutely worst thing that could happen (mass-media humiliation). I just talked. Then I got to meet Errol Morris and asked him what he really thought about Robert McNamara. He said McNamara was his favorite war criminal of all time.
I ended the interview by saying what was most important to me — that after having cancer in my mid-forties, I am now 58, I feel creaky sometimes, and I’m contemplating eventual old age. After losing so many friends to cancer, people who will never live to be old, I try to remind myself what a privilege it is to age. I feel that I can never let myself forget this if I am going to honor their memories.
I’ve outlived people who were better than I was, whose attitudes were wonderful, who should have lived if there were justice in the world. If I do anything important with my life, it will never to forget them. I’ve been a witness to the lives and struggles and deaths of some incredible and heroic people. When it came down to it, that was all I had to say.
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)