Sunday, November 12, 2017

Dying Girls Need Love

It feels a little too convenient to be true, but I suspect that it is. Our friend Polly, advice-giver in training, has a friend who is undergoing chemo. Polly is trying to be a good friend—credit for that—but she is hardly up to the task. To help her out, her friend has been telling her what to do. Good friends are like that.

Since Polly seems to think that everyone’s problems are really about her, I will open with her account of trying to be a friend to someone undergoing chemo:

I’ve been trying to trick one of my friends into hanging out on her chemo days or while she’s recovering. I just feel like I could play the role of a good partner, fun or quiet or barely there if necessary. She questions why I’d want to be there, and I guess I don’t really blame her. Even though I see it as a way of showing up and offering her something I’m good at giving, maybe there’s also a little of the ambulance-chaser, disaster-gawker in the mix for me. Even if that’s a side effect of being drawn to the ugly truth at all costs, it can still feel a little suspect. As with any other personality trait, there are good impulses and bad impulses dancing together there.

Now, the friend is right. She is questioning Polly’s motives. Perhaps they are not the best of friends. Perhaps it’s not Polly’s place. Perhaps Polly is intruding. Certainly, Polly's behavior is irritating. The best part is, the friend calls Polly out on her Pollyannish treacle, her mindless pep talks that pretend to be profound, but aren’t.

Polly explains:

I get that this might sound obnoxious. I sometimes talk like this to my friend who’s going through chemo, and even though she’s a skilled novelist capable of capturing the most heartbreaking moments with a few well-chosen words, she’s not into my pep talks. She’s like, “Fuck you, I’m bald and I feel like shit.” Flowery words of inspiration just make her feel worse. So I give her shit and make jokes now. That’s what she likes.

Of course, this does sound obnoxious. And we are aghast at the second sentence, run-on that it is. Polly is amazed to see that her novelist friend, a woman who has mastered the art of prose, would not be into her pep talks. For our part we cannot imagine that anyone would be into Polly’s pep talks. As it happens, the friend is perhaps the first person to call Polly out to her face. Good for her.

Anyway, today’s letter writer is dying of cancer. This 28 year-old single woman wants, above all else, to die in the arms of someone she loves. She has been out looking for love in Tinder—hmmm—but has not yet found it. Now she has found a man she sees as perhaps fulfilling the role, but has not yet told him of her health issues.

Without further ado, here is the letter:

I feel like a strange amalgam of various others who have written to you, but nevertheless, here I am. I’m 28, single, and dying from a cancer that is breaking my body and spirit down at an alarming rate. Obviously, so many things about this situation scare and sadden me. But the thing that consumes me most, day in and day out, is the fear and heartbreak of not having a partner there with me through the two or so years I have left or holding my hand when it’s finally time to go. Having been confronted by mortality at a young age, I feel I know more about myself than many 28-year-olds do, and one thing I know is that I am a relationship person. I was in one relationship from age 20 to 25, and another from age 25 to 26, and while neither were perfect, I felt whole and truly like myself in both of them. And it’s not just because I love the feeling of being loved (though obviously I do), but I truly love giving my love to someone else. It feels like the thing I was meant to do, and the reality that I may never have that again is devastating.

Despite the fact that my days are mostly spent in doctor’s offices or lying in bed (or, frequently, both), I do the whole Tinder thing occasionally just for a sense of normalcy and, yes, male attention. I’m okay with most of these dates being one- or two-time things. It’s a salve, sure, but it’s fun, it gets me out of the house, and no one owes each other anything, which means I feel no need to disclose the fact that I’m a ticking, tumor-ridden time bomb. But when I do come across a guy where there’s some real potential (as is the case right now), I find myself both weaving an intricate web of lies to keep things cool in the present and steeling myself for the eventual parting of ways when I either tell them who I really am or break things off before that even happens.

So my dilemma is this: How do I square my desire for a loving partner with my reality as it is? I want to believe there’s someone out there who I could not only open up to about my health but who would accept and love me in spite of it. But that feels like a fairy tale (FUCK YOU, FAULT IN OUR STARS etc.). And even if it’s not a fairy tale, and that guy materialized, I would be wracked with guilt at the idea of even asking someone to get pulled into this terrifying, morbid mess. So, Polly, do I keep chasing the fairy tale? Do I give up entirely? Is there some other alternative I’m missing? Or is the salve the best I’m going to get until things are so bad that I no longer have the physical strength for any of it?

She signs it, Dying Girls Need Loving, Too?

In truth and in all fairness, we are inclined, as is Polly, to tell her that she should have whatever she wants. If she wants to die in her lover’s arms, we are for it. It sounds like a fairy tale, but, given her situation, she has every right to want to live out a fairy tale.

Polly is right on this point:

The real question is whether the fantasy of love will be a salve or not. Personally, I’m a big fan of choosing your illusion. I think every big, overwhelming event in life — sickness, kids, marriage, death — demands some suspension of disbelief. Fantasies and fairy tales present themselves to us culturally as modes of escape, but sometimes they’re actually a way of savoring the present; it just depends on how we use them. 

And of course, it is a fantasy. Again, we are for it. If it works for her, all to the better. And yet, did you notice that this 28 year-old seems to have no one in her life, no family members, no friends. Isn’t that slightly suspicious? This will sound slightly morbid, but if you are dying wouldn’t you want to be surrounded by people who loved you, who had cared for you throughout your life, and not someone you had met two months ago and had basically hired to play a part.

Apparently, whenever the letter writer feels well enough she goes on Tinder, finds men and hooks up. We wish her all the best. She must be thinking that she has nothing to lose, so why not?

Perhaps it’s therapeutic. Perhaps she feels for an instant that someone really wants her. And yet, hookups tend to disappear after the fact, leaving young women feeling alone and abandoned. Perhaps a second or third date, a developing relationship would make it all feel better, but I suspect that it will not.

Because, as she knows and as even Polly understands, anyone who agrees to act that role in her personal fairy tale will probably not have the best of motives. How does he distinguish the woman from her illness? We do not, incidentally, know her prognosis.

As for the question of when she should tell a man that she is ill, the answer, Polly knows it too, is very, very soon. The longer she waits the more she will feel like she is cheating him of vital information.

As for her last question, whether she should give up her quest for true love, I agree that if that is what she wants then she has every right to go for it.

And yet, would it not be better to spend more time with her family, more time with her friends, more time with activities that did not leave feeling empty at the end. The salient point of this letter is her failing to mention the existence of anyone else in her life. Hopefully, she is not detaching herself from the people who love her because she is out looking for Prince Charming.

Of course, Polly cannot resist offering up the kind of mindless pep talk that her novelist friend does not want to hear. It would have been nice if Polly had recommended that this woman spend more time with the people who love her not, but, she prefers to go all Zorba the Greek, seize the day, feel your feelings:

But I also think that you should cling fast to the fact that this is your life and yours alone, and it’s beautiful already in its own rough, ragged way. It already matters. It doesn’t matter more if someone is there with you. It matters now. I want to challenge you to dare to see yourself through that lens, whether you find someone worthy of your love or not. I would hate for your search for love to rob you of what you already have. I want you to be able to take every fucked up, scary, morbid moment and every glorious, divine, irreplaceable moment and every mundane setback and dreary wait and imperfect, faintly satisfying moment in between and add them up to something truly romantic.

Most of all, though, I want you to know that this world loves you more than you can possibly imagine. I want you to believe that. Even though the most terrifying and morbid evidence would seem to suggest otherwise, the truth is that this world adores you like the most devoted lover. I can’t prove it, but I know that it’s real. When you struggle, the leaves on the trees shudder, the sun weeps, Beethoven’s violins cry, and the spirits of the dead and the living are on your side. We are all living inside the same terrifying, sweet, sad question with you. Do you feel that? That part is not a fairy tale. That part is real.

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to tell someone who feels sick most of the time to feel her feelings.

One is not surprised, but has it not crossed her mind or Polly's mind or anyone's mind that this young woman might also find some comfort and consolation in religion? It's one thing to hire a lothario to hold your hand when you die, but perhaps she should have considered that religion can also provide comfort and consolation at such times. Is she not really looking for God's love? Is she making herself more worthy of God's love by hooking up? Just a thought.


AesopFan said...

I feel like there is more than a small positive correlation between Polly's advice-framework and the decline of the (not-just-Protestant) work-ethic in education.

James said...

This is just sad in every way. Her situation, her attitude, everything. She does need love for her state, everyone does, just not the kind she's thinking of and reality may not provide the kind she needs.

Linda Fox said...

There was a movie with this plot - Sweet November. The dying woman took on partners for one month only, and, at the end of that month, they parted.

Such bullshit. Such a woman's TV moment.