So Sad, It’s Funny

More guest blogging! (Sad) Stevie is back again to shed light on the nature of depression, and how his funny (abusive) friends work in parallel with his prescription meds. But Mr. Safran hardly personifies his Disease any more than I mope around as Mrs. Cancer. In fact, this whole essay makes me want to hug and hang out with him. There are plans for that, which will include lots of razzing about hogging my CANCER blog to chat up my expanding audience (five countries today!) with blather about his big boo hoo disease.*

 

So Sad It’s Funny, by Steve Safran

Being a guest writer on someone’s cancer blog is tricky. It’s especially tricky when you’re an attention hog. It’s exponentially tricky when you’re up against Britt. When faced with such an admirable foe, the only question one can reasonably ask is “How do I make this about me?”

I’ll go with my depression.

Depression is an odd illness. It’s the only one I know of where people tell you that there’s no reason you should have it. “You have a great life – what do you have to be depressed about?” But that’s like asking Britt, “You have awesome hair – what do you have to be cancerous about?”

So yes, I have depression, as I have since I was 14. And I have come to accept that there is no real cure. But I did keep it quiet for a very long time – the whole stigma thing. It’s not cancer after all. It’s not fatal – although there are plenty of sufferers who decided it was better to make it terminal, so to speak.

Many people believe that this is an illness of weakness, laziness, and choice rather than of chemical imbalance. (I include myself in this occasionally.) While Britt fought her illness, I continued to fight my own. And I wondered – how can I feel so bad about myself while Britt fights a “real” illness?

Britt’s cancer can be shown on tests; what I have is less tangible. It’s a diagnosis without a visual. The course of treatment is debatable in the sense that five doctors will guess ten different ways of going about it. There is no one way. And, as far as I have experienced, there is no cure. I’m a 25-year chemistry experiment. And nobody will ever pronounce me depression-free.

Add to this epilepsy that I developed in my 30s and a lifelong fight with migraines and panic attacks, and it’s enough to make you plotz, as My People would say in the shtetl. (Jewy Writing Tip: When you can’t come up with a punchline, use as much Yiddish as possible. Italicize for extra comedy effect.)

Yet this is not a cry for help. Illness actually makes for pretty good comedy.

You may have noticed that I tend toward the humorous, even the dark humorous side of things. This is not a coincidence. People have long noted the “laughing on the outside, crying on the inside” kinds of humorists. That’s me. Funny helps fight The Sad.

So I get why Britt can be so funny in the midst of such horror. When met with a mortal enemy, you can run or you can laugh in its face. We who choose the latter do so not so much out of bravery (for I will never be associated with such a term) but out of defense. Although not by any stretch the best medicine, humor is a salve. Laughing releases some sort of chemical-thing that makes your brain-thing happier or something like that. I will leave the actual science in this space to Britt or, really, anyone who can make it through freshman Bio.

“Comedy Is Not Pretty” wrote Steve Martin. It’s the ironic title of his third album, and damn right he is. Great humor needs a foe. Britt, Debby, Ran, Jason and I needle each other endlessly on Facebook – and that’s what friends do. At least, that’s what we do. Normal friends may actually be polite to each other. Who’s to say? I’ll take the needling. I’ll take outright abuse, so long as it’s witty. Because there’s a weird kind of love in that. It’s not pretty, but it’s pretty funny.

Being “Depressed” isn’t who I am. Britt’s not “Cancered,” after all. Although I do enjoy making up words, and may save that for future use.

Depression, cancer, illness… it’s not pretty. But it can be pretty funny.

 

Funny, dapper Stevie looking… happy?

*Just a small sample of friendly needling. Of course Cancer doesn’t trump Depression. But describing me as an “admirable foe” has me searching for my Made Up Word Gauntlet.

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Haters

Recently I crossed paths with an old acquaintance from my surgery days. She wasn’t a friend, just someone who worked in the same hospitals, and lived in the same set of buildings we all piled into during off hours. Since those days long ago, both of us have gone on to create families and pursue our passions. Mine: picking up Legos, assimilating with Asians, gardening, breast cancer, armchair evangelism, and relentless blogging; Hers: raising children and becoming a successful and well-liked surgeon. This is someone I see only once or twice a year, which makes it easy to forget that she hates me.

Maybe hate is a strong word. She probably doesn’t think of me at all until I show up all chipper and chatty. Having spent many years with long, blond hair and a weakness for clothes that swish or cling, I’m accustomed to being judged. And often the Book of Britt totally matches its silly cover. I once botched an interview by unprofessionally describing both the experiments being done in my lab and the tenured Harvard professor mentoring me as “sexy.” (I still blanch when I recall the blank stare from the un-amused interviewer.) My enthusiasm for life, science, my three boys, my friends… it occasionally bubbles over into my cocktail conversations and makes me seem more frivolous than I am. My demographic is mostly men over fifty who don’t mind if a younger woman slips “sexy” into the discussion. But professional women who sandwich a career saving lives into the daily grind of raising children are going to find me occasionally ridiculous.

Those of you who tolerate me on a more regular basis can vouch for the fact that I’m not always absurd. There have been plenty of black-tie-optional events where my demeanor and décolletage are appropriately restrained. Over the years, as my hemlines have dropped, so has the Stockton Family habit of saying absolutely everything that comes into my head. And even if at first blush you find me irritating in my ebullience, I’m going to do my middle child best to make you like me. But some people will be stubbornly immune to my charms. After our recent reunion, even Bernie admitted that this otherwise lovely woman won’t be adding me to her holiday card list. “It isn’t her. Everyone really likes her. It’s you… she really doesn’t like you.” Thanks, honey.

Of course, this recent snubbing has me if not desperate to win her over, then at least launching some theories about why anyone wouldn’t find me fabulous. Maybe my insistence on looking super girly in a decidedly masculine room dotted with pant-suited women is annoying. Maybe I’m a disappointing statistic, dragging down the perception of Women in Surgery, by choosing not to pursue it. There’s April’s theory: suspicion of some call room dalliance with her husband a decade ago. I suppose it’s also entirely possible that I’m ridiculous. Who knows? But not even my pixie haircut echo of Cancer could coax this woman into exchanging pleasantries. I suppose I could take some sort of odd pride in being this repellent.

Admittedly, what I perceived as a social slight might not have been that at all. Maybe after a long day of doing important and inspiring things, she couldn’t muster the energy to exchange more than two words with anyone other than the small children she’s racing home to kiss goodnight. And someone who can write five self-involved paragraphs about ten socially awkward minutes is easily considered a bit irritating and vain. Certainly I don’t need to be liked by everyone. (Total lie. I do, and I completely expect to be.) I don’t see this person enough for it to matter in a committed-to-win-her-over way, but if we were more neighborly, I just might kill her with kindness, bombard her with baked goods, overwhelm her with offers for the this and that of child care. And she’d totally love me. Totally. Cue montage of us shoe shopping, heads thrown back cackling over our chardonnays, side by side in downward dog, arms locked entering the theater to see Twilight.

Or… she totally wouldn’t. I am assuming not only that this person finds me loathsome, but also that I know why. The only thing I do know is that I can be rattled by one little surgeon who doesn’t think I’m the bees knees. However I live with two little boys that do, and a larger boy who happily embraces my sunny-side-up-ness, my lack of interest in returning to the world of medicine, and my ability to work “sexy” into a discussion. And I like that girl. I think I’ll go pour her some Prosecco.

Says inappropriate things, flirts with your husband, is happy all of the time… let’s be friends!

The Living Room

I love this guest-blogging thing. “Oh, enough about me… what do you think about me?” And I didn’t have to write a word. But I’ve tried to. Attempting to write this @#&$*!@* story as a Book, it always begins in April’s Fancy Room. But after reading this piece, and her plan for our re-christening of the joint, my memories of that dark day are a bit brighter. What will make April cringe even more than my frequent references to her dreaded Parlor? Posting a photo of her! But I think everyone deserves to take in her physical beauty after nearly a year of witnessing her abundance of the inner kind.

 

In Britt’s eyes the worst day of it all begins in my living room, and as the 1st anniversary approaches (does something so dreadful merit that title?), I feel the need to exorcise my living room, both literally and figuratively.  It all began in that damn room.  I cringe every time I hear Britt talk about “April’s living room.”  Lucky me. I get to live here, forever… or at least until the kids are done school and I can have my pied-á-terre in Paris.  I cringe every time I hear Britt talk about the living room.

So, let me briefly describe this so-called “Living Room.” This warmly colored space is an unmistakably grownup room:  muted Oriental rug, a kidney-shaped olive couch and gorgeous, 10-foot draperies. This room is for adults only; the velvet couches and antique curio cabinets do not lend themselves to knee hockey, which is often played in the adjacent playroom.  The only time the children dare to relax in the living room is when they are playing the piano.  While beautiful, this room is the farthest thing from a LIVING room.

My husband and his always-proper family often call this room The Parlor.  So, in Bryan’s mind, we shouldn’t even have a parlor, until we need The Parlor.  We have always joked that the first time we will really use The Parlor is when we gather for a wake or a funeral.  How, then, is this a LIVING room?  Well, let’s say we’ve had our wake– or rather our awakening– there.  This awakening reminded us of what’s important and what’s precious in our lives: family, friendship, love, and hope.

So, let’s get rid of the Parlor and make it a real room for Living.  That’s what this anniversary is about, and for me, the exorcism needs to begin now.  I’m not sure I can throw out all of the furniture, rug, and curio cabinet, but we can LIVE in the room.  Britt is LIVING, and that is a celebration.  While that room was the stage for the beginning of a terrible year, I think we should re-enter this space with red wine and bubbles and celebrate. I want to relive the good memories of boat rides, bridge jumping, date night dinners, spontaneous trips to New Orleans, and purple leather jacket splurging. And I want to look forward to making new ones:  maybe even Turks this spring?  Forever more, my living room will be a reminder of the hard won reward of Living, of the attitude we adopt to focus on the joy of Living. And there’s no room for that kind of optimism in The Parlor.

Me and April… with so much to celebrate.

Relish

Thursday was Teddy’s birthday, and like every year, he jumped out of bed before sunrise to announce, quite loudly, IT’S MY BIRTHDAY, and to find a stack of presents alongside of his Halloween haul. Legos, Kit Kats, and later… ninja-embellished cake: a dreamy day for any 8-year-old boy. I let him open all of the toys, even though there wouldn’t be enough time to assemble the entire Ultrasonic Raider before school. And because it was his birthday, only giggled at his teary admonishments when it was time to head to the bus stop: “Why did you have to have me on a school day? It’s NO FAIR!” (Also not fair: two consecutive pregnant summers). After tooth brushing and backpack locating and that-jacket-isn’t-warm-enough, I put my littlest boy– my teeny breech baby– on the bus, holding back the floodgate of emotions that accompany all of my milestone-y moments of late. Teddy is 8, I’m all healthy and haired and here, and Legos will keep me from any real, active parenting responsibilities for a few days. We are lucky lucky lucky Lees with a dry basement and nary a felled tree to boot.

At the moment, the Lee household is brimming with relatives. Bernie’s sister, her two adorable children, and A-Ma fled powerless, damp NJ to shack up with us for at least another week. Alice (Bernie’s niece who lives with us) and my mom, who is probably stranded until Amtrak develops some sort of submarine capabilities, are here, too. It’s quite cozy and fun in spite of meal planning math, mom’s dishwasher obsession, A-Ma’s new cancer theories, and adorable children with a stubborn aversion to sleep. But we have power and Prosecco, so no complaints here.

Bernie and I were nearly stranded, ourselves. We went to New Orleans for a conference last weekend, but escaped just ahead of Sandy… and just in time to stare nervously at the probable trajectory of our trees. It was the first time I have left the boys since The Big Bummer News, so another milestone-y moment I enjoyed… with Cajon-spiced abandon. Unfortunately, my post chemo stomach wasn’t ready for a hey-that’s-probably-even-better-fried! trip to the bayou. Turns out NOLA isn’t the best spot for Cancer Girl Trying to Be Healthy. Nope, that town is the naughty friend who drags you, cackling, into her web of bad decisions. She also smells like urine and has really slutty outfits.

I could trash that city for another two paragraphs, but instead, will tell you about the fabulous people I saw there. You might have seen The Greenspuns on these pages before. They’re the ones with the awesomely supportive messages, the funny and sweet sentiments of people who just… get it. David, a sworn atheist, sent up super Jewish prayers on my behalf. Rachel, his pretty, chatty wife is someone who obliterates formality in honor of obviously-we’re-going-to-be-friends. As we get older, and adult attachments are formed around schools, clubs, kids, and work, I appreciate that kind of authentic buddy-ness… especially when it’s coming from someone whip smart and married to one of my favorite plastic surgeons (and I know quite a few).

I also got to see the Mathes’s. David and I were residents together for two years and developed a kinship that involved a lot of giggling of the overworked and sleep-deprived. Probably the most charming attribute of someone all published and impressive and famous-among-the-transplant-crowd is an irrepressible tendency to make fun of himself, to embrace silliness, and to be willing pop the cork on the gift wine even though it’s already 2am. He and his beautiful wife have been faithful readers of this drivel… Amanda sometimes messaging me within minutes of a post. That my two favorite Davids from residency should become plastic surgeons in the same field as my husband is probably not odd coincidence. Obviously, I’m drawn to these goofy-smart perfectionist types… and so happy to bump into them at finer hotels everywhere at least twice a year.

I didn’t intend to embarrass them with these snapshotty descriptions, but The Davids, and their wives who have become dear friends, have been on my mind for more reasons than the joy of reconnecting with them in my post-hair era. Recently, I’ve been… well maybe barraged is too big a word, but there are just too many woman receiving this Big Bummer News. Because Bernie’s job puts him right into the middle of the tragedy of so many women (how does he do this?), of course I’m going to hear some stories. But lately it’s so many friend-of-friends, acquaintances, that woman-you-met-at-that-party… and everyone is too young, and with small children, and as Teddy said, IT’S NOT FAIR! Just today, a wonderful woman asked me how to help her newly diagnosed sister. Immediately I thought of my recently reunited friends in New Orleans. I told her how vital it was for me to have these people in my life– to know someone was praying, caring, just keeping me in mind. That the Greenspuns would re-visit a park and toast to my health, that Amanda would shorten a bedtime story to read a comparison of my dad to a watermelon… and that they would share those stories with me? My inner romantic believes Cancer’s got nothing on the power of that.

Love trumps fear. It won’t cure Cancer or keep your hair from falling out or make it all a bad dream (things I wished for). But it does put a cap on the terror of it all. Last night as I was putting ninja-cake stuffed boys to bed, I told them to ignore the chattering and never-want-to-go-to-bed wailings of their adorable cousins. Brodie pulled his covers to his chin and said, “Why don’t they want to go to bed? I relish it!” After complimenting him on the vocabulary, I asked him why he thought it was easier for him to get to sleep. “Because I have a little brother right next to me to talk to!” It is actually always that simple. And it’s exactly how I feel about all of you: all pulling up the covers and relishing it.

Ninja cake! It was here, then gone, without a sound…