I first met Paula on the sidelines of our sons’ soccer games. She was short, blond, and mouthy. Like me, she was a screamer on the athletic fields — but louder. When I got to know her better, I told people I’d rather have Paula on my side than the Mafia. I meant it.
Away from the soccer field, our lives were very different. She was a fulltime housewife and mother of three almost-grown sons — and the most scrupulous and exacting housekeeper and household manager I’ve ever known. My family’s household, in contrast, was more like a rattletrap jalopy than a well-oiled machine. I’d always worked outside the home, and “scrupulous” and “exacting” weren’t terms that usually cropped up in the same sentences with my name.
Paula and I didn’t really become good friends till she was diagnosed with colon cancer a few years ago. I’d had my own bout with cancer several years before, and it’s remarkable how a similar diagnosis gives you so much in common. Having a dread disease puts you in a lonely place that almost no one else can understand (which isn’t to say other clueless people don’t give you advice about your illness and your life. They do it constantly.)
But, anyway, Paula. She had surgery and chemo and more surgery and more chemo. She was remarkable, indomitable. She kept getting slammed by recurrences and metastases, but she kept getting up. When she was well enough, she still ran on the Hike and Bike Trail in downtown Austin. And she still kept her house in perfect order — until she couldn’t.
I had lunch with her on one of those hard days, at a time when the hard days had begun to outnumber any other kind of day. “I can’t do anything,” she said. “I can barely shop for food or cook or clean. I can’t do anything I used to do.”
She went on, and I tried to comfort her. Of course she couldn’t take care of the house. She was sick, she was doing too much already. It was understandable. It was —
But I could tell I wasn’t getting through to her.
Who was she, she asked me, if she couldn’t work nonstop at her home, if she couldn’t take care of her husband and sons? Who was she? She was no one. She was worthless. She was nothing.
Worthless, nothing, nobody, useless. That sounded sadly familiar to me.
“Oh,” I said. “I guess you hear the same voices I do. The ones that tell you you’re no good.”
“All the time,” she said.
Those voices. They sang a shrill chorus every day, starting early, finishing late. Day to day, they could be semi-placated by hard work and some kind of accomplishment — but they were always back the next morning, ready to harangue. They spoke with such authority. They knew you better than you knew yourself. They knew how unworthy you really were.
Maybe everybody in the universe is supposed to be “entitled” these days. But somebody vile sent some of us a different message: Every day, we needed to earn our small foothold on the planet. If we worked hard enough, we could beat back those voices that told us we were no good.
“Jeez, they won’t give you a break even when you have cancer,” I said.
Paula just shook her head. The truth was, she was dying of cancer and we both knew it. But you don’t talk about everything. even in a close friendship.
The weeks and months passed. Paula’s house was crowded with neighbors and friends, with the young men she’d mothered as firmly and generously as she’d mothered her own sons. They told her, again and again, how much she had meant to them and how much they loved her.
“Do you understand how much people love you?” I asked her occasionally. “Is it getting through to you?”
She said it was. Finally.
Paula’s memorial service took place on a hot autumn afternoon. The Lutheran church was so packed that my husband, son, and I sat far up in a balcony. We had to strain to hear the farewells that were spoken from below.
It’s been almost four years since Paula died. Like all of my good friends who have died, she’s still with me now and then. She reminds me of how you never know when you first meet a person how important she might be in your life. I can close my eyes and see the two of us — screaming soccer moms on the sidelines, a little shrill and obnoxious to the outside world, silently harsh and unforgiving to ourselves.
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle. I see those words, too, in so many forms. For some of us, the greatest battle is to be kind to our unworthy selves.
(Copyright 2015 by Ruth Pennebaker)
You might want to read Aristotle’s Always Hogging the Credit