September is hard for me, draining. Childhood Cancer Awareness Month starts out strong, but by the end, as it nears, I am tired. And a little bit like an overexposed nerve, raw and vulnerable. I thought this year would be easier, as I am not writing about Donna’s cancer, just cutting and pasting for new folks to discover. Yeah, it ain’t easier. Still hard, still draining.
One of the things that is both fulfilling and difficult are the loads of letters and encounters I have with folks moved by Donna’s story. I am beyond humbled to read the stories that folks are kind enough to send me. Like last year, I am behind on responding to all of them. There is a lot of pain out there related to cancer. Children, siblings, spouses, parents, grandparents, friends — so many good folks lost or in treatment. It feels oppressive, sometimes, the weight cancer still demands I carry, both for myself, and since sharing Donna’s story, for others, too.
Forgive me if I am not my usual charming self. I’m trying, but it ain’t really working, is it?
Last week I wrote about an email message I had received about feeding Donna McDonald’s. To me, it was a throw away post — I thought it was a bit fluffy, honestly. Turns out, it struck a chord. Lots of you had lots of feelings about both ‘McDonaldgate’ and my response to it.
I am still getting the hang of people actually reading what I write and it still takes me by surprise. In my head, I will always and forever be the shy, not terribly interesting outsider, looking in at all the other kids having fun. The reality that my writing is often a fun and bright destination for thousands is well, WHACK-A-DOODLE. You know I’m a dork, right?
I promised that the next day I would write a follow-up post about another exchange with a stranger. Well, full disclosure time, I went on retreat after that post. There are some big things happening in my personal life, it’s allergy season again (Hello, Sudafed!), and to be honest, I was simply flummoxed by both public and private responses to that post. A week later, here I am again, six days late and lots of dollars short. I truly appreciate both your patience and interest. Here goes:
The day started great and I was happy to be taking my aunt, a Catholic sister, to the movies. There was a documentary playing about Catholic sisters and their work in social justice. Hard to believe, but we got there and it was sold out. BOOM. I had promised my 83 year old aunt a night out on the town, and instead, we were shut down. I had originally hoped I could finagle a couple extra tickets given that I was with a NUN, but no go. After a quick chat with my aunt, it was decided I would buy tickets for another night. Just after I had finished that, a stranger approached me saying she had an extra ticket for my aunt for that night’s show.
Well, my aunt jumped on it. She came for a movie and she was gonna see a movie! What I didn’t immediately realize is that the stranger had given my aunt her ticket, leaving no ticket for herself. Wow. The kindness of strangers strikes again. How utterly generous. Even more, she demanded to buy me booze and popcorn while my aunt watched the film, and we would chat and get to know one another. Hmmmm. Okay. This felt like one of those odd, potentially awesome exchanges, so I was game. I offered to get the concessions and was shut down. Stranger would have none of it.
We sat down in the suddenly empty and quiet lobby. The art school students were cashing out the box office. We chatted. Stranger was interesting, had done some amazing things in her 60+ years of life. She had the tendency to ask a question of me but then answer it herself. Honestly, it made sense to me. Maybe she was lonely and her night out at the movies had turned into a night out chatting with a stranger. I was happy listening. And her life story was fascinating. Truly. There are so many different types of pain in the world, so many ways a child is denied what they need. She shared openly about her own childhood and how tough experiences had shaped her adulthood.
After a long while, she said, “But enough about me, I want to know about you.” I shared a bit. I was a mother, a wife, a social worker, a writer. I also mentioned being a prospective adoptive parent, as that was loosely related to her own story. Stranger jumped on that. She strongly advised that we only choose a healthy child and then offered some suggestions about how we could find a local child to adopt. Blogging teaches you that everyone has an opinion and a story, so hearing another avenue to explore was not unexpected.
Stranger then asked why we were choosing to adopt. I told her about Donna. Briefly, as Stranger had a lot to say, too. The fact that we had lost a child to cancer confirmed her suggestion that we only parent a healthy child. I countered that things aren’t always as they seem — that Donna was born perfectly healthy and that we simply don’t know what lies ahead for us. Well, Stranger had a lot to say about that, too. I got an earful about pediatric cancer research and its uselessless. That the numbers of kids affected simply were not sufficient to merit all the money spent on them.
I played devil’s advocate and talked about how 60 years ago leukemia was a death sentence, but that today 90% of children with leukemia will survive. Stranger had a counter argument for everything. Survivors of pediatric cancer would be doomed soon enough, she said, with secondary cancers that would take their lives. I told her about the treatment Donna had and that she lived for 31 months after an initial prognosis of 3 months. I got a lecture about cost and suffering.
I was dumbstruck. I’ve had blog commenters say the exact same thing to me, but never had someone said that to my face.
What she really, really wanted to impart to me, though, as she clarified later, was that whatever energy and $ we dedicated to Donna’s Good Things, the charity created to honor Donna’s life, it would be wasted. W.A.S.T.E.D. “Do-gooder charities” only harm the people they are attempting to help. She shared more of her story. You can’t argue with another’s story — it is theirs, not yours — and she did, indeed, seem damaged by what life had not given her, what charities could not overcome in her sad upbringing.
What she advised was that Mary Tyler Dad and I adopt not one, but two or more children if we could do it. Love those children thoroughly. Love those children completely. Her point was that loving and shaping contributing members of society — whole people who knew and trusted love — would be a more powerful tribute to Donna than any charity ever could be.
And then she left, quick as a flash.
It is easy to discount the words of a stranger, as I easily did with the McDonald’s mom. It is less easy to discount the words of a hurt and empty person sitting across from you who just bought you popcorn. “I want to be a real person someday,” was what Stranger said to me earlier in the conversation, then chuckled as she guessed she hadn’t quite made it there yet. I can’t condemn her. I can’t argue with her. I just feel for her, hurt for her, oddly, understand her.
Sometimes, you gots to tell people to STFU. And other times, you have to be quiet and listen and learn and understand.
And then finish your popcorn.