Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Lighten up, Candide, it'll be okay.
It's been a long time since I first made that joke. When faced with grim circumstance, sometimes the best we can do is to simply ignore whatever dire outcome may result, and just keep on trying.
Denial gets a bad wrap. It absolutely can become a very dangerous tool in a life, we've all seen that happen around us at times. Sometimes though, there is no action that can be taken to head off disaster, and that's where a goodly dose of denial can be a sanity saving device.
I made my now oft used Candide joke to my orthopedic surgeon. Following a car accident, which had not been my fault, I needed to have a fair amount of surgical reconstruction performed on my right heel in order to stand much of a chance of walking again. My surgeon was a funny, placid sort of man. Unlike most stereotypes of surgeons, he had a dry wit. A gentle personality completely missing the cliched arrogance associated with surgeons. If there was a man you could trust to cut you open, he would be it. A bomb could go off in an operating theater and he'd mildly raise an eyebrow in the general direction of the disaster, and get back to the task at hand. It was my misfortune that this accident had happened just prior to Christmas, and that surgery would be performed on New Year's Day. It was not a particularly festive season that year, but all things considered, I had been exceptionally fortunate.
My surgeon was telling me, in his completely unflappable way, of the many and varied things that could go dreadfully wrong, as he was required to do. Informed patients aren't merely easier to treat, it helps head off future lawsuits. When he got to the part about the myriad of terrors associated with having a tourniquet just below my knee for hours, while I was completely unconscious, I told him to lighten up, Candide, it would be okay.
We got each other. We both understood grim humor, and in what was actually an amusing fifteen minutes, we took every possible dour outcome to a hilarious end. If I lost my leg due to the tourniquet, I'd just get an eye-patch and a parrot, while adopting a Salty Dog persona. That sort of thing. My surgeon knew that I really did understand the risks.
Why be so cavalier? I had no choice in the matter. Don't get me wrong, I could have skipped the surgery but my ability to walk would have been severely compromised, and the likelihood that I'd have severe circulatory issues was rather high. It was surgery or bust for me.
Everything turned out well. I was lucky then, and I tend to be lucky. My troubles right now aren't even really mine.
Voltaire's Candide never really had much turn out well, but he kept moving forward. If he was on a ship in the sea, he would naturally be swept overboard, but plucked from the drink. If he was foolish enough to drink to the health of a king, he'd end up being conscripted into the army and nearly flayed alive when he tried to do the sensible thing and desert. Candide had some rotten luck, epically so.
We all feel a little bit like Candide, at times. It's a very funny book, by the way, if you are a fan of satiric humor. If you aren't, it's fairly appalling, I suppose.
My mother-in-law reminds me of Candide. That poor woman, she once wanted to be a Rockette but instead she married my husband's father, and together they followed the Catholic family planning that led to seven children. This has been an adventure fraught with much peril. When her husband was suddenly killed seven years ago, on she carried. She just kept going forward. I'll spare you the many calamities that have surrounded her voyage through the sea of life, but the seas, they have been rough. Two children currently suffering from severe drug addictions. Some mental illness that are equally pronounced. One grandchild born with grim prognosis, predicting an early death from a condition for which there is no cure.
At the end of this week my mother-in-law will have surgery and later that same day she'll find out how far her recently diagnosed breast cancer has spread. It hardly feels like a time to make merry and a person less deserving of yet another crisis I'd have a hard time naming.
When we asked her what we could do, anything, name it! Her reply was simple, "I just want to act like everything is normal. Give me your Christmas Lists. I love the holidays, I love to shop!" and she genuinely means it.
My mother-in-law, a good soul who keeps stumbling forward into life, hoping everything will eventually work out. I truly hope she gets a good outcome this time, and I thought back to that time when there was no choice but to await whatever grim outcome may or may not be.
All she wants is a healthy dose of denial for a bit. She deserves it. Since there is nothing I can do but hope against hope for her, my husband and his family, it's time to embrace the denial. Slight problem: I had no idea for what to ask. None. Nada. Zilch. My mind was a yawning chasm and my list was due today.
I was standing in the shower, staring off into space, thinking of Candide and wondering what to tell my mother-in-law, whose request is so logical, and kind, "Please distract me. Give me something to do. Treat me like all is well. I love the holidays."
Hemingway, a writer I don't particularly admire, used to refer to a blank page as something like "The White Bull". Most of the time I want to commit Hemingway's prose to flames whenever I think of it, but a blank mind feels much the same. Having been given a task, the one thing that could genuinely help, I was covered in what my son would refer to as "epic fail".
All she wants is to have a happy holiday, I thought, think of something! Anything at all. Something that would make her feel festive and capable. Distract her, for the love of all that is good and decent. I couldn't think of a thing. It was vaguely amusing in a horrible sort of way, what in the world was wrong with me?
When someone actually tells you what you can do for them, it would be awfully nice to actually do it. Ease her mind a bit, but my own had seized like an overheated engine.
She just wants to celebrate the things she can. She just wants to wrap presents, and take care of the people she loves, I thought. I have a nimble mind, I've always had a nimble mind, what was wrong with me?
And then the blogs saved me.
I went tearing out of the shower, grabbing a robe as I went, and emailed my sister-in-law with the list my mother-in-law had requested by today.
You saved Candide, Jo, Kathryn, Jennifer, just to name a few. There are many more.
"Tell her I need Christmas decorations, please. Anything, the brighter, the cheerier, the better. Go nuts! Scottie shaped Santas, plaid snowmen, CDs of Christmas music. If it sings carols in an electronic voice? I want it to be mine."
If you wonder what good you have done in the universe recently, I will tell you: You helped a widowed mother of seven grown children, staring down the barrel of a bad luck once again, forget her troubles. Blog after blog talking about the season, featuring pictures of ornaments, and trees, talking about who made what, and from where your ornaments, and memories came.
She'll be able to surround herself with decorations, perusing them for hours, and looking them over carefully. I can't think of anything that will make her happier.
"That's perfect, I knew you'd think of something. That will make her so happy." My sister-in-law almost immediately replied.
Actually, it wasn't me. It was you. Yes, you.
May the blessings of the season be yours. Thank you all so much. What good do blogs do?
Today they helped poor, beleaguered Candide, indeed.