I used to go to a crazy cancer support group. The woman who was the sickest among us, who was dying, in fact, never wanted to talk about illness or death. She wanted to talk about how important it was to fold her husband’s shirts very precisely. She also talked a lot about her dreams, which were invariably about as interesting as her husband’s shirts. Her dreams went on and on, in elaborate, painstaking detail. One evening, she finished a 15-minute discourse on an intricate, seemingly endless dream about cleaning her house, then announced something that chilled me to my toenails: “That’s not all,” she said. “There’s a lot more. This dream is a trilogy.” Oh, God.
I took to thinking I needed a second support group to make sure my first support group didn’t drive me totally nuts. I also fantasized about arriving at the group and — first thing — asking, “What do none of us want to talk about tonight?”
I didn’t do it, of course. I was as crazy as everybody else in the group in my own, unacknowledged way, and there were plenty of topics I would have driven thousands of miles to avoid. For some reason, I could talk about death, but so what? Big deal. “I’m more afraid of life than I am of death,” I tell my husband and he looks at me as if I were certifiable. What could be worse than death? Plenty of things.
Take yesterday and today, for example. I’ve spent my time at the computer like a bleary-eyed gambler at a slot machine, cramming in quarters and flipping the switch or whatever they call the damn thing you pull. Over and over. Staring and exhausted, feeling useless, noting I have the attention span of a gnat. I do feel useless when I can’t work, as if I’m wasting badly needed space on this planet, exhausting the oxygen supply, contributing nothing but ennui and aimlessness. The Internet is perfect for times like this, making you kid yourself that you’re learning things and connecting, when, in fact, you are only wasting your time and exhausting yourself by trying not to notice whatever it is you’re trying to avoid.
Whatever it is. For me, it’s the heaviness and sadness that come from losing two friends recently. From the lingering guilt that I could have been a better friend to both of them, but now it’s too late.
But we’re supposed to move on, right? Pull ourselves up by our bootstraps even if we don’t wear boots. Get going, move on, stop wallowing, stop giving into self-indulgence. Grief and sadness — those would be self-indulgent. Avoid them at all cost. Get on with your life.
So, we get on with our lives. We get on by talking about folding a husband’s shirts and exploring fragments of dreams, instead of the reality of malignant cells, and surfing the Internet to avoid everything important and everything that hurts. Except that’s not getting on with life. That’s avoiding life. The laundry, the shirts, the Internet can wait. If you’re going to live, you need to enter the darkness eventually.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)