It’s almost always meant well. The asker is curious: you have, after all, been diagnosed with cancer, and you haven’t seen each other in awhile. The asker wants an update. They want to know what’s going on. And so, there’s the initial hello, then the pause:
“How are you? How are you doing?”
Sometimes it’s a text message. Sometimes an email.
“How are you doing?”
And you, bearer of the proliferating morass, standing politely with drink in hand, are expected to answer. You have perhaps just had blood drawn, perhaps your tumor markers are higher (indicating growth), your blood counts are off; or you have finished your most recent infusion, grasp fingers that sting with neuropathy, feel too tired some days to even get mail, are bald, breastless, riddled with grief, adrift at work, scattering bills and papers, forgetful, with eyes watering and home disheveled, lie in bed for hours, just brushing your teeth was a climb to Kilimanjaro; take-out dinner boxes litter the countertops, the diarrhea and nausea fluctuate in a horrid yin/yang, and perhaps your gums bleed, toenails have fallen off —
how are you how are you
And in the movie version, the dream sequence. Flashbacks to a past life. In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Offred remembers her daughter at the beach. I think of running, my long hair with the car windows down, drinking Coke, summer drives with my little girl, hikes with my husband, raucous laughter over wine, faded glass over a country road somewhere, faded, fading.
how are you
Do you want to say, “Fine”? Do you want to say, “Hanging in?” I do, I do. I want to give a glib answer. I don’t want to remember, don’t want to talk. I am more than this disease, am more than an update, and cannot answer to this kind, albeit temporary concern. It is kinder sometimes to not ask, kinder perhaps to think what the question means.
I have erred in this, have erred in the asking. But now, on the receiving side, I find myself sometimes unwilling to reply.
Because the question can trigger remembering. The question can trigger the kind of response that is interrupted – my friend’s mom had breast cancer, too!- with an anecdote that has no bearing, does not help. Or suddenly help is offered, as is unwanted advice about “alternative” treatments. Pineapple cures. Coffee enemas. Or judgement. Or glazed eyes, a disinterest in the reply.
Better, maybe, to say “How’s it going?” or “How about those Dodgers?” Another way: “I’m here for you, here if you ever want to talk.” Or even, “I don’t know what to say, but I’m here.”
We are all stumbling with how to ask, how to answer. Compassion is a given.
Yet sometimes it’s better not to ask. Sometimes coffee or tea is best. Sometimes a quick “I’m at the store – what do you need?” is manna from heaven. Or sometimes silence and companionship – your presence – are gifts enough.
But I want to add, feel it’s important to add: I always take it with kindness, as it is meant. The intent at the heart of the question is always welcome.
How about you? How do you deal with “How are you?”