The nurses tells me, “You guys are amazing.” It’s 9, 10 am in the morning and we’ve been in the hospital for almost 12 hours—we will be there another 48 before being transferred to another hospital. I have just lived through the hardest night of my life. I do not feel amazing. I feel like something the cat dragged in, chewed up, swallowed, then puked up, and stomped on.
Compliments in crisis are hard to take. You don’t really have the capacity respond to them with a simple, “Thank you.” Also, I think, they invite self-reflection at a time when you can’t really afford it, because it goes from “Fuck, yeah, I’m amazing!” to “No. No, I’m not. How did I let things get this bad, how did I not recognize the symptoms, why did I not act earlier?” in microseconds.
“I sure as fuck don’t feel amazing,” I tell the nurse and she tries to reassure me how amazing indeed I am, by comparing me, favourably, with the scores of un-amazing parents she’s seen. I understand those parents completely. I stand with them, not apart from them. I too am a mess, helpless, indignant, in denial, frustrated, angry, so angry.
Apparently, I just hide it better.
My mom tells me I’m amazing too, all the time, and I finally tell her she needs to fucking stop. I tell you the same thing, and you’re hurt. You’re trying to reflect something good and beautiful at me, you’re trying—you say to me—to acknowledge what I’m doing and going through. My courage, my commitment, bla bla bla, stop talking, for the love of God, stop talking now. I get your intention, but you make me feel like you are acknowledging a lie, encouraging a facade, and preventing me from telling you how hard things are, how unhappy I am.
I am not, by the way, unhappy today. This is a happy moment—me, coffee, notebook, pen. The sun is shining—yesterday was a good day—today, I might start on our 2018 taxes, the process interrupted in March—I’m going to make a list of new publishers to query for that book—this is a happy moment and nothing that happens later will take this moment away from me.
Him: Meditation or marijuana?
Jane: Neither. I’m writing. Do you understand?
I’ve been trying to figure out, for months now, what the right thing to say to someone who’s suffering is. And I think Thich Nhat Hahn nailed it:
“I know you’re suffering, and I’m here for you.”
Nothing more—we really can’t hear anything else.
I have many good friends and when things were at their worst and Flora was in the hospital, I got a lot of “What can I do to help?” “Anything you need, just ask” texts. So I can tell you all this—the next time a friend of yours is in crisis, do this: bring them soup, make up a care package of chocolate, break into their house and do the dishes and clean the bathroom, hire a maid, drop off non-perishable groceries. If you are making an offer that requires making a decision, make it very, very specific: “I will come by your house on Tuesday at 4 pm to take Ender to the zoo, so you can go to the hospital for the night.” “I am going to Superstore on Sunday, and I’ll pick up groceries for you. Don’t worry about a list—I know what you need.” (Non-perishables, frozen prepared meals, and snacks. People in crisis do not make salads, roasted vegetables, or risotto. Finding a can opener is hard enough.)
Asking, “What can I do to help?” turns me into your project manager. And, in crisis, I cannot do that. Project management requires high executive skills. People in crisis have a hard time showering.
Him: Ungrateful much?
Jane: Ah, good point. Why do you want to help me, exactly? Because you want to alleviate my suffering—or because you want me to feel grateful to you? Or because you want to feel good that you’re the sort of person who helps? Motivation matters, and my crisis is not a feel-good opportunity for you. My deep gratitude practice notwithstanding, if you want to help me because you want me to feel grateful, you can take your help and shove it up your ass without the aid of lube.
By the way, Ender and I celebrated the end of his easy illness by spending $800 at Costco on all the things, so don’t buy me groceries. We never have to go shopping again.
Cinder: You do know how much I eat, right?
Jane: Hush. Let me enjoy, for a few more days, the illusion that I’ve just taken down a mammoth, and the village has more than enough meat to see it through the winter. I mean, summer.
Cinder: You’re so weird.
Speaking of weird—Thich Nhat Hahn (yes, he’s weird—I expect to be that woo-woo and spiritual, you have to be—it just isn’t normal to be that compassionate and loving and insightful), he says, when you tell me, “You’re amazing,” what I should say is, “You’re partly right.” And he’s a wise egg, so I’m going to try that. Shall we practice?
You: You’re amazing.
Jane: You’re partly right. Mostly, I’m a fucking mess but I’m doing my best. Most of the time. Sometimes, I just lie there and wish this was the sort of crisis one could call the fire department for. Do you remember, during the flood, all those firefighters? Yum. That’s what I need now. Not a team of six—I won’t be greedy. Three will do. And they will say, “Are you all right? Do you need anything heavy moved? Do you need a taxpayer-funded, first-respondents-in-uniform, gorgeous-humans-who-work-out-all-the-time-in-uniform hug?”
You: You’re so weird.
Jane: You’re partly right. I’m also very normal. And, amazing.