Wednesday, September 15, 2010

the secret life of women


M. is in her thirties, married with two children under the age of five. She has metastasized breast cancer. Recently she had an operation on her brain to remove scar tissue from the cancer that had been killed with radiation. She has cancer in her lungs and her liver. I see her often. She wears mom jeans and button up shirts and plain practical shoes and if she ever wore makeup as a mother, she has quit now, with the swelling and bloating of her face, constant running eyes and stinging skin that her weekly chemo regime has given her. She picks up her children with a smile every time. She chats with the other mothers and teachers and laughs often. She asks for practical life and children advice and quotes lyrics from songs that she loves. She's dying. Sometimes, she posts on FB and people say ' keep your spirits up! ' or, ' you can do it, M! '. I wonder what she thinks of all this. She married her high school sweetheart and has prom pictures with her hair teased up and her slim girlish body tucked into a black dress. Her husband's face is more exhausted every time I see him. He can barely meet my eyes now to say hello. I wonder what he thinks of all this, and his wife who must keep her head up and 'do it!'. What is she supposed to be doing? I'm not sure. Keep living the way people are used to her living until she dies, I suppose. Anne Lamott says some things are unbearable, and we just don't want to believe it is so, so we encourage and support in the face of the most monstrous realities, effectively denying the person the right to sharing their real experience. I'm not sure what the other ideas would be, but it's worth thinking about.

L. is a young, married new mom. She comes from an Orthodox Jewish family who immigrated here from South Africa. She grew up observant but not truly Orthodox in ritual. She does not wear a wig or eat only kosher. She does not sit away from her husband until a Rabbi has assured her that no drop of blood is left on her underwear from her time of month. However, she was expected to seriously date and marry only Jewish men. In her early twenties, she met and fell head over heels in love with a non-Jew, and became seriously involved. Her father and mother issued an ultimatum: either break off the relationship, or we will no longer have anything to do with you. She would not. They did. For two years her parents did not speak to her or see her, a family that until that time was incredibly close knit and spent much of their free time together.

After the two years she gave, and left him. Now married to a nice Jewish man, her relations with her mother and father again are constant and by all appearances close. They spend an evening with the family every week, often for Friday night feast, take a plethora of pictures that are then framed and hung in all houses, and spend all major holidays and occasions together as well. Her parents dote on their granddaughter and the family is whole again. I watch her talking and laughing with them and wonder what her heart feels now.

The women in my own family hold close to the vest their hearts. Fears, desires, passions and motivations are silent. Intellectual pursuits are paramount, and discussed vigorously. Family stories are acceptable as long as they are completely innocent ( hard to come by unless we are discussing the newest generation ) or cloaked in 'joking', which is often, to me, more painful and awkward than the truth itself. I am not the kind to ever joke to make a hard point, and it is hurtful to me when it is directed my way. I am silenced. I don't know how to respond to the secret message, so I don't respond at all. I don't know where I came from, some strange clockwork of relatives I do not know or never met, with a passion for revelation and stories told out loud. Of course like any family, my family of origin works differently around each other than they do with anyone else, unfortunately- not that everyone would agree with me- for the worse, with strange and cruel dynamics often brewing in the pot, spoiling the goods and leaving the truths of our lives silent. Not every dinner is for bare bones truth, not every meeting for the spilling of the heart, but when the environment is so disjointed that these things can never, or almost never happen, it is the end of the expansion of love or intimacy. I love my family of origin, but with rare exception don't really know any of them. My attempts at honesty with my own thoughts or emotions have often been met with open derision in the form of sarcasm or direct mocking, or aggressive interrupting and talking over me that is exhausting. Maybe the political pundits can accomplish a meaningful exchange this way- maybe not- but I can't.
She Means Well... said...

You made me cry - and it's only 9am. Salt tears in my morning coffee.

Cassie said...

Beautiful prose. Anne Lomott proposes something real and I am afraid true. I shall remember this...the next time I want to respond to a heartbreak immediately.

T. Clear said...

The going-on-in-spite-of-it-all, the "holding-up" -- it's perhaps the only language/vocabulary we possess "in the face of the most monstrous realities". One of my dearest friends passed away in May after 17 years of "holding-up", and by that time she was so bored -- yes, bored! -- with cancer and cancer-talk that she'd demand we talk about something else. I guess what's important is a sensitivity, if possible, to those we love.

Maggie May said...

T Clear I agree...the sensitivity...the example Lamott gives is a woman she knew who lost her eyesight, and simply could not reconcile herself happily to it, seeing 'the bright side' the way everyone encouraged/badgered? her too, and ended up dumping her friends because she could not stay or be the way they needed her to be. It's human to want someone to perk up, to get on with it, and of course we cannot bear the burden of someone's constant misery, but to refuse to listen and acknowledge the deepest losses that cannot be fixed by saying 'time heals all wounds' (not true) ' you can do it! ' etc leaves a person essentially alone in their experience. To be able to sit with ' this is awful ' and acknowledge it, without dressing it up or adding a bunch of tidy encouragements, can be essential to being able to do exactly what others want us to..to perk up, to hold up, etc.

Lindsey said...

Oh, this makes my eyes well with tears. We all hold such secrets, known to only a few or to nobody ... you plumb some of them here so beautifully. Thank you.

Ms. Moon said...

We all deal with the unbearable in whatever way we can.
I have been thinking lately about what it would be like if each of us truly spoke our hearts in ways so deep that we could quit shouting (silently) "NO! You don't get it at all. You are not hearing what I'm (not) saying."

Marion said...

Maggie May, such a heart-rending post! My heart goes out to the woman with cancer, and to all women AND men suffering from this horrid disease...

You said: "I love my family of origin, but with rare exception don't really know any of them. My attempts at honesty with my own thoughts or emotions have often been met with open derision..." I can so relate to this! I could have written your paragraph about your family. All my sister says when I see her (only about twice a year) is usually something like, "Boy, your ass is WIDE! How much do you weigh?" And on and on. (Like many women post-menopause, I'm about 20 pounds overweight, not what you'd call obese...but oh, how her words hurt!) Never mind I fight daily with chronic back pain and deep depression....which I never even mention with family. None of them even know I've written poetry and I've done it for over 40 years. It's sad, but I've come to realize that I have to make my own family and have done so with loving friends. I love the quote, "Friends are family you choose for yourself."

Love, Hugs & Blessings, dear Maggie May!

justmakingourway said...

So interesting - this post. I have just started therapy and it is already making me see things in new ways. Like how - even though no one ever said anything like this to me - I have come to think that since my Mom died 28 years ago, when I was 11, I should somehow be "over it." I'm just beginning to realize that I can still be sad and angry. Amazing.

Dari said...

Wow, this is beautiful. Life can be so shitty at times, but I would rather face it with eyes wide open and not sugar-coat things {most of the time...}. I am an inherently positive person but I don't have blinders on either. How can people live life not being honest with themselves, others or to their emotions? Thank you for sharing this.

P.S. I am dense but are these all true stories and is that your family situation?

Sarcastic Bastard said...

Your writing is beautiful. A revelation.

Giulia said...

Nothing shuts me & others (like one of my sisters) down like the saccharine stuff. (Let me be clear: I do not have cancer, she does.) A few years back my sister was talking about a new film & how much she'd like to see it. So we chatted about when/how (I live 45-50 minutes away in a city & no car).

It happened that a neighbor, a nice woman, had popped in & practically ordered us not to see it as it was "too depressing for B." & we should see xy or z instead.

She's gone, dude. It was the last straw (& there were others like her.) She organized a multi-week dinner every night by different neighbors -- a huge help for someone with 6 children & a husband who was freaking out & had an intense job he needed to keep (insurance, ya know). Three weeks in to this lovely idea, what did this person do? She reported it to the local paper.

I cannot tell you how bewildered & upset my sister was. Other relatives felt it would be "ungrateful" not to participate in a story. To whom, I asked. Well, to the neighbor, the other women who made dinners. I shrieked: we grew up taking casseroles, etc. to people who suffered loss, to someone who was ill. It was what you did...we didn't have to have it documented. (BTW, some of us are semi-public--writers, teachers, poet, sculptor, etc. It's not like we haven't been in articles, quoted publicly before...but this was different.)

They dithered & didn't say no & it was one more big deal, energy draining experience. This time with photographers. I refused to participate & my sister's neighbors think I'm evil. (Thank goodness, now I don't have to spend time easing THEIR fears--that is what it was about. Also about wanting wider public attention.)

Infantilizing people who are ill robs them of dignity. Take a cue from the person who is ill or dealing with another life-changing/challenging (literally) matter. You know the old "love people the way they need to be loved, not the way you want them to be loved?" Same thing.

Sometimes, some of us would like to unclam but don't because of this Oprah-fied, sob sister era. Gee, think I have strong feelings? I can't even type clearly. Anyway, I was going to not link but you have no way out of it...xo

Giulia said...

Well, my comment was too long & I'll redo it. Maybe I'll have to write something & link to you, MM. Because this is a huge subject for me, some of my family, friends. Some of us would unclam if we didn't live in this saccharaine, sob sister, Cheer up, blah blah era. Can't stand it.

(Thanks for posting this..)

xo

Hannah Stephenson said...

Good lord, this is an amazing piece of writing and contemplation. Like the others, I love the Anne Lamott quote...

I love this.

controllingaspicyuniverse said...

this is beautifully composed...

related note: what's the origin/story behind the photo? It's haunting and reminds me of something from Tom's Midnight Garden...

Karen said...

Maggie May~

I'm just learning now that silence can be brave and necessary. I'm learning that 'being there' is sometimes more profound than anything I could say.

Maggie May said...

I'm absorbing these replies. Grateful for them.

These are all true stories, including my own.

Nancy C said...

That second story just kills me. How can she possibly play nice after such a betrayal? How?

I do believe that passive-aggressive "joking" is one of the worst forms of cruelty.

Miss Tricky said...

My husband wonders aloud to me frequently how I managed to come out the way I did after being raised in a family like mine. A family that sounds similar, in different ways, to yours...

I always tell him the same two things:

1. I am not done becoming anything, yet.
And, 2. They never appeared to be anything but unreasonable to me so I didn't put much stock in the way they behaved.

Now that I think about it, this tidbit may not be relevant. It just seemd like you too, grew up knowing that "their" way wasn't your way.

I love that you wonder!

Annje said...

There is so much to say. Lamont is right, some things are unbearable, but we don't understand that until it happens to us. I only had a taste of that, but I HATED when people told me to keep my spirits up when I was sick. When you face something that unbearable, you have to be allowed to feel whatever you need to feel- but I get that people don't know what to say either, so you say something encouraging.
I feel for her husband, it is so hard to watch from that close distance-heartbreaking!

I also relate to your experience of family. It is almost too painful for me when I get together with mine. The "humor", the stories, all the emotional baggage and resentments and judgements, the criticisms, the comparisons, the mocking and selfishness-it is unbearable. I have no idea where I came from, how I came from my family...

katiecrackernuts said...

I think about this often, our secret lives, that is. Too many thoughts to pen ... we should chat. One day.

Jeanne said...

I once heard Paula Poundstone say, "As human beings evolved and learned to walk upright, families became dysfunctional.

And I for one would pay that price again."

Not always sure it was worth it....

Corinne said...

I think my husbands family is like yours... and it's stifling, even just marrying into it.
If nothing else, these stories, these truths, must help you navigate with your own family... know what you want to give them.
(maybe not, it's at the end of the day and your writing blew me away, and I don't exactly know what to say... but wanted you to know that I read and absorbed every single word...)

Laura said...

I think one curse of being a woman--and blessing on the flip--is the complicated range of emotions we feel. So often I am left feeling like I am just too much.

I love how you lay it bare here, maggie. oh, if only. if only, if only. i guess i'm feeling sad tonight.

Ellen said...

Our honest hearts can be so painful to open to others. We walk around smiling as though all is well. all are fine...fine ...do others care or as just ask as a courtesy? I appreciate all your open raw emotions ...as I still fear that edge...

Elizabeth said...

This post is amazing. I feel the strain, near daily, to "keep on keeping on" and all that other nonsense. And while I know it to be somewhat true because it's "what I do," it's the times when I am allowed to be or act or reveal otherwise that I am most healed and whole.

I love how you weave such intense personal stuff into beautiful philosophy, Maggie, that is universal.

krista said...

i always wonder at the lines we draw inside ourselves, the boundaries laid around our hearts. what happens when the people closest in proximity cross them, erase them, pretend they aren't there.

nanette said...

Dear Maggie,

As you know, I read your blog, but rarely comment...I'd like to add something, if I may, about how when something unbearable happens to us, it seems we are the ones that must make the other person/s feel good. We must listen to their, "But you have your writing," or "But you are pretty." or "But you can't just sleep all day, you must just go on." Now, who says?..Is there a law: You must go on...Article 777 of some penal code?....

But what what is often never mentioned by anyone are the people who act like nothing ever happened..These are the worst of all, in my opinion. I exaggerate here only to make a point, but picture this: You show up for dinner and your head is cut in half, your face is hanging like wax off your bone structure and your hand shakes, your voice quivers, you do anything to keep a stiff upper lip. And your friend doesn't even ask or say: "What happened?" or "Can I help you?" They just order their salmon. And worse, they are wealthy and with the stroke of a pen or an ATM withdrawal of hardly any money (to them) really only 5 or 6 of these extravagant dinners that you don't even want, they could lift you out of your situation, with a promise to pay it back. But they don't.

And each month you are invited to this dinner which they pay for, and each month they say nothing. Then, one day, they start a fight with you and they're gone..These are the worst people of all. They deny...they withhold, they leave and it's heartbreaking. These are not friends at all.

PukaNani said...

Magpie,
I do not get into blogs much, but I was fascinated by your friend with cancer. My ister Kelli died of breast Cancer. She was diagnosed in her late 20's, went throught he whole Chemo thing, lost 28 lymph nodes, and her Right breast. She was a suvivor! She was so confident and fought it like a tropper. She put herself in Gods hands and he pulled through for her. She had to 3 beautiful YOUNG gilrs under the age of 5, were rooting for her, and HER high School sweetheart too...Of course she was the kind of person, who NEVER spoke of hate, and EVERYONE loved her genuine person.
After going to Maui in 2001, 1 week after September 11th...We celebrated her living through it and being a suvivor. March 26, 2002 20 days after her 36th Birthday, she passed away. In February she found out she had bone, liver, lung, brain, and the baby in her womb was also full of cancer.
I still mourn for my sister, but I see her in the eyes of her beautiful daughters...Thank you for sharing.

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