On my way to the eye glasses shop--the place is right next to the campus--I found myself watching for familiar faces I might run into at the busy intersection. Since my diagnosis over a year ago, the few times I came to campus to pick up mail or books from my office, I came late in the evening lest I should run into colleagues. Mostly I did not want to be seen with the hairless, steroid-induced moonface, or to have to explain anything to the ones not yet in the know. When the moonface is long gone and the hair is long back, however, the dread of running into random acquaintances lingers. Most people are generous and kind; and you think you are somewhat used to that "oh I'm so sorry" conversation. But actually you never know where that interaction might spiral down to, and you're a bit afraid of what you might learn from all that--about yourself, and about the other person. Serious illnesses like cancer will put you in situations where you get to see things that you wouldn't normally see in other people. It's either that, or with a new, unprecedented degree of self-centeredness you develop this uncanny ability to be offended and find fault with others.
An older colleague wrote me a long email on hearing about my diagnosis. As a person who had had breast cancer some years before, she was most sympathetic and I was grateful. But her repeated insistence upon visiting me at home was quite out of line. We weren't that close, and having guests like her over was out of the question in my condition then. Chemotherapy puts your general social life on hold. You try to carry on with a normal routine but there are many days when you just can't see people, period. Of all people she should have known that. I begrudged the time and energy I had to spend in politely diverting her offers to visit me. Then she wanted to give me the hats from her own chemo. In general, I'm in favor of recycling. But her hats? Truth be told, I didn't want to inherit the relics of her cancer. I could make my case with the obsessive compulsive disorder plea, but I guess I never did like her. When I told her that I already had more than enough hats and that she shouldn't go out of her way, she said she'd send them via someone else. She just wouldn't let it go. A few weeks later, another email. The hats couldn't be dry-cleaned for there was no parking space in front of the dry cleaner's she had to go to. She was going to send them as they were, and told me to wash them or have them dry-cleaned before use. Too tired to be polite, I finally said outright that I didn't want them. She gave up that idea then, but ended up sending me a book about anti-cancer food. The only problem is that the book is in Japanese and I don't know Japanese. The book came with her message that my sister could translate it for me. She could, indeed. But in all honesty I cannot imagine any cancer patient willing to slave one's sibling to translate a common sensical book about healthful foodstuff. That book is now rotting away in the cupboard. All the same, long minutes on one of those sick, white blood cell alert days had to be spent in writing her a thank you note for that precious, thoughtful gift.
One day in December, I received an email from a professor I know from a feminist scholars association--in the same discipline but another university. In the email she said she had heard I was sick. Surprisingly, though, it wasn't one of those "get well soon" notes. Without even asking me how I was holding up, she asked for a copy of my essay on Walter Benjamin, PDF file preferred. It was necessary for her research. It would have been understandable if she had had no idea what I was going through. But she did state that she had heard. Yet she was asking me to make photocopies and put them in the post or sit up in front of the computer and sort through my files for her convenience. Why did she not go to the library or use web databases? Was she being considerate and treating me as if I wasn't sick? I never got to ask, for I didn't bother to write back.
A few weeks ago, on my way to the garbage recycle spot in my apartment complex, I ran into a professor in another department. She'd moved to the same complex and was disposing of her recycle materials. We had had coffee or lunch a couple of times a couple years back. Then she wanted to hang out more but I extricated myself from her invitations with some sense of guilt. Her complaint about not having friends at work made me wary, although I didn't care enough to figure out why. I preferred to think that she was just boring or something. And I hadn't seen her for a couple of years until that day. In front of the recycle spot, the first thing she asked me when I mentioned my illness was, "It isn't terminal, is it?" I was baffled that someone of her age and education was capable of uttering something so inadequate. She was smiling, too. The extent to which that question baffled me is matched only by the extent to which her parting words disturbed me: "Be careful. They say it recurs, you know." When careless curiosity about what stage my case was can be easily upsetting, it's hard to say what to make of such remarks. I never could tell whether she was malicious or colossally clueless. On the other hand, I could see why she would complain about having no friends. My lingering sense of guilt about blowing her off couldn't have dissippated any faster. Now I am extra careful on the garbage recycle day so I wouldn't run into her and her inadequacy.
And when I went to the faculty meeting for the first time in over a year two weeks ago, they were glad to see me well again. But one colleague seemed noticeably displeased with my appearance. The visible discomfort in his face invited a lot of questions on my side. Maybe I was just another possible obstacle to having his way, or maybe he was unhappy to suddenly find his all-important self in company that required some form of acknowledgment. I don't know. I can come up with a thousand theories, but in the end it boils down to him not knowing how to properly address others as the occasion calls for. There are people who honestly don't know what to say to me--but these cases are all different. Some can't find the right words for what they feel; some are too afraid to hurt my feelings with quick words. But there are awkward silences and wrong words caused by serious social ineptness or a simple lack of sympathy. Being on the receiving end of these latter cases is never pleasant even when you're not afflicted with a life-threatening illness. One might think, having cancer does not entitle one to special treatment from all quarters. But I object. Who would want to live in a world where everyone thinks even a cancer patient shouldn't get a little special consideration? I'm not talking about wanting to get away with murder, am I? His reluctant inquiry after my health was the worst of the kind, delivered five minutes after I sat down next to him, the only empty spot. While I was answering him, he even stopped listening to me mid-sentence, and began talking to someone else. He didn't know how to, or didn't care to, put up a passible performance of politeness. I realized that, in our supposedly collegial interaction of the past seven years, if there was anything he valued in me, it was my service to him. I can't say I didn't know it, but it was as if that ugly truth I never wanted to acknowledge even to myself suddenly came to light then and there.
Work is a strange place where it's best to keep most people at a reasonable distance and most personal feelings and thoughts under the surface. Sure, a few friends who will watch your back are essential; but I'd rather not think too much or too deeply about the rest of them, unless it's absolutely necessary, and not show too much of myself. I would have liked to stick to that particular way of maintaining a friendly yet functional relationship with colleagues. But since last fall, some things couldn't be helped, and it's too bad. Certain details about my body became casual knowledge to many people at work and beyond. I don't like it. And I can't say I like certain things I've come to see about some of those people. Not to mention the (lack of) depth of my own character. It was more (and worse) than I needed or cared to know. This is part of the unexpected and unwelcome fruit of going through a crisis. Sure, it's not like everyone has to tiptoe around me 24/7, and I often resented being treated too much like an invalid. I admit that my frequent inability to handle the strange emotional kinks made me super bitchy. You try to objectify things, reminding yourself that this was a situation as difficult for others to handle as it was for yourself. Still, inexplicable incidents make you wonder what it is with academics, including yourself.