Saturday, October 10, 2009

To a remarkable woman

A couple times a week I receive emails about a blog entry or two. But a couple years or so ago I received an email from a woman who was just diagnosed with breast cancer. She didn't know me and I didn't know her.

I still don't know why she selected me to write to. I'm not exactly approachable. I am a very private person in real life and I protect that privacy very carefully. Most of the people I know don't even know I have a blog and if they do it doesn't interest them enough to read it, therefore I feel safe using a neutral version of my name and writing whatever I want. There's a strange sort of anonymity in being out front with yourself. My words rarely make people want to bond with me other than on an intellectual level.

But in real life things are different. I am not my words. I am a fairly ordinary person who lives quietly and simply. I don't have a whole lot of friends because I don't have the kind of social skills that allow me to blatantly lie and pretend I'm someone I'm not to people who don't really care about me as a person anyway. I also have an innate sense that allows me to detect scammers, insincere people, and the terminally stupid. I don't even try with them. I just disappear from their lives and ignore them when they try to enter mine. It's no great loss on either side.

Nothing went off when I read her email except that I was moved by her situation and felt compelled to reply. There was a raw honesty to it that I appreciated, especially in a world where little white lies take the place of honest interaction. Of course, my first question was why me? Didn't she have friends or family?

Her response disturbed me until I did some research and discovered that it was fairly common for those facing death to isolate themselves from their loved ones. She was in the process of doing this but she didn't want to die alone and without, as she said, being heard about things she couldn't explain to others. She knew that no matter how hard she fought, her days were numbered and she wanted to clear some things up in herself before she died. She liked what I wrote and felt I wasn't subject to other people's opinions, that I didn't allow others to beat me down into a version of me that was socially acceptable to them. I liked that she saw all this and didn't run away or exclude me or banish me or trash me as a result, so I agreed to be her pen pal. I realized I needed her too.

This is some of what I learned from her in the time we communicated. Like me, she grew up poor. And like me this poverty was the result of circumstances inflicted on the family by one or both parents. Her mother drank and when she was drunk she would lose whatever job she had or she would drink her paycheck. My father gambled everything away the moment he got it. It was an illness with him, and when you combined it with an intense hatred of women, well..let's just say we had a lot of similar childhood traumas.

We wrote a lot to each other about the hurts we suffered growing up. I was fortunate to have good teeth most of my life but she wasn't. I remember an heartbreaking email she wrote me about the chemo destroying her teeth and how she couldn't afford to go to a dentist so she never went out anymore except to the doctor. This was on top of memories where she was teased in school because her teeth were crooked. All her friends, as did mine, wore braces as teens. They were out of reach for us financially as were new clothes, the latest fashion trend, even a pair of shoes that didn't draw smirks and taunts from our classmates.

I thought I didn't suffer over it as she did but I learned a lot about how things like being teased for crooked teeth shape your concept of self. I learned that maybe I did suffer because I wasn't pretty enough, that some didn't accept me because I didn't look like them, or made fun of me behind my back because my family spoke with accents, or we were homeless some of the time. You really don't get over that stuff easily. I was just never able to admit it to anyone but her.

We both shared a passion for peace, often to the point where we alienated those who were wrapped up in some sorry excuse for patriotism, or they simply got tired of our one note song. It didn't matter to us any more than it mattered when others excluded us from their cliques because we weren't like them. Peace was something worth fighting for, writing about, preaching about. If not us, then who? We knew silence on issues like unjust wars just created an environment that allowed unjust wars to continue. We could not remain silent and yes, we suffered over this, but some pain is worth feeling. Both of us could not have lived with ourselves if we ignored our own voices.

But we knew there were selfish people in the world, the spoiled and pampered pooches who exaggerated their own minor sufferings just to get some attention. We knew that issues such as peace and equality and trying to make a better world were threats against their own needs for attention. We exchanged stories about the most outlandishly selfish people we knew.

I shared with her the time a few years ago when Jeff was diagnosed with a brain tumor and one of our neighbors who let her livestock run around unattended and disturb the peace of everyone around her as she played hippie farmer, ignored his need for the sleep, peace and quiet he needed to heal. We begged her to do something to take care of the problem but her response was that it didn't bother her so she didn't feel any need to do anything, and then a few days later when Jeff was facing a second surgery, she went whining at the top of her lungs to her neighbor across the street about her friend having brain cancer. It was one of those WTF moments I never understood, even years later until my pen pal explained it to me. "She has an awesome need for attention, it sounds like and she'll get it wherever she can. It's why I isolated myself. People love to flock around the dying so they can get sympathy for themselves."

Of course she was right. I saw it then as I saw a lot of what she pointed out to me. She helped me through the pruning of people like that from my life. "They just drain you, Kate, with their need for attention. Dump them before they eat you alive because they don't care about you at all." She told me this was the wisdom of the dying, to see the excess and reduce life down to what is essential for day to day survival.

I owe her for this. I will always owe her for this as I am much happier with the friends I kept. I don't feel as beat up or used anymore. She gave me that wholeness and it has helped me heal a lot of crap in my life.

She also helped me become less of a victim to others, because as she pointed out, those of us who are excluded and ridiculed in school, in the workplace, on mailing lists, on social networks, soon develop a victim complex. "Once you give in to this, then it's like sharks smelling blood in the water," she wrote. "They'll use you to pay back anyone who ever did anything to them. They got left out of a clique in high school, they'll make sure they exclude you from their clique in adulthood."

Yes, that happened to me I admitted, reluctantly because I felt a sense of shame over not being liked, as if it was my fault somehow. She taught me it was not my fault, that it was something defective in others when they felt a need to judge, to exclude, to treat others as personal doormats for things done to them by others. "One person is as good as another to them. Get out of their way and let them move on to someone else. We're all interchangeable to people like that."

We wrote a lot about love, about what it means to accept someone flaws and all. We agreed there are no perfect people, but that doesn't mean we had to let ourselves be abused by those who were both imperfect and mean.

About six months after we had been writing to each other she got involved in an abusive relationship. It went bad after a month and it left her terrified and drained. She asked me for help. We lived too far away from each other for me to gather up some big old dudes and go pay her boyfriend a vist, so I got some virtual help. At the time I was on a discussion list and I asked the women on there for donations to help her get out of the abusive situation she was in. They came through as only women can and the money they donated helped her get away and spend her final days without worrying about being beat up for crying.

I remember the day she emailed me from her one room studio apartment that let her feel safe for the first time in many years. I cried and cried for her that day, for all women who find the courage and the means to leave. My mother never did and we all suffered for it. My pen pal became a symbol of hope for all women the day she walked out that door. I wanted so much to hug her but had to satisfy myself with sending her a bouquet of flowers I couldn't really afford but needed to send anyway.

In the last month she wrote less and I could tell she was having a difficult time. Social services provided a caretaker for her so she wouldn't die alone on the floor trying to reach the phone, which was her greatest fear. "I want to be alone but I don't want to die alone and helpless," she wrote me in one of her final emails.

I didn't hear from her all last week and I knew then she was gone. This morning there was a bulk email from one of her relatives who didn't identify his relationship to her. It said simply that she died yesterday and her mail account would be closed in a few days. There would be no services.

And with that, it was over. I knew she had suffered a lot in the last couple months, that even the pain medicine didn't help. I knew she was ready for it to be over and in my heart I have to find a way to let her go peacefully. But today I miss her. Today I have all kinds of unfinished words to say to her, but I will leave it at two: thank you.


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