Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Casual Conversation

Over the past few weeks we've become our own little group, our own "movable feast". The composition of the group changes daily, but by now we've all ridden together and know each other's story.

Today our Cancer Society Volunteer Driver is a young Russian woman with spiked red hair and a surprisingly harsh laugh. She is finding her way to our homes using a GPS Monitor, our various addresses pre-programmed and a pleasant female voice guiding her through a maze of backstreets.

On the radio, Neil Diamond is singing about his love for "Cracklin' Rosie", that store brought woman.

Robert, in the front passenger seat, is squirming and restless, glancing back at us as if to work up the courage to make a statement.

"Did you say something, Robert?" I prompt.

"No, no! Nothing," he says, turning his gaze resolutely toward the front window. For about ten seconds, and then he turns quickly back to the three of us in the back seat. "Do you mind if I ask, how do you handle casual conversations?"

"Casual conversations?"

"You know, you pass someone, they say "Hi, how are you?", you say "Fine, and you?", they say "Fine" and you both go your separate ways. Except nothing is really fine with you these days, so it feels like you're telling them a lie."

"Saying I have cancer does tend to turn casual conversation into something a lot more serious, and complicated, and maybe turn into a lot longer conversation than either of you have time for." I agree.

"And how many times do you have the energy to be up for such a conversation?" Robert shakes his head vigorously.

Cari, the accountant, on my left, is eager to join in, "Oh, I know just what you mean. I was at the hairdressers yesterday and she was making polite conversation, asking me what I was doing with my afternoon. If I tell her I'm going for radiation at Princess Margaret Hospital, that becomes a whole different kind of conversation than I had the strength for."

"For some people it brings out the need to tell you horror stories about family members or friends who've just had the worst experiences. I mean real nightmares!" Rube, the dental hygienist, on my right, agrees.

"So how do you handle those conversations, Rube?" I ask.

"I just tell them I'm fine. I mean I haven't lost my hair or anything, I don't look ill, and if I don't know them well or don't have the time, I just say I'm fine. I mean, they don't really want to know how you're doing. They're just saying hi."

"But does that feel like a lie," Robert asks.

"Never," says Cari adamantly. "Like Rube says, it's just a social convention, that kind of talk. They won't even remember passing you by five seconds later. And if you start telling everyone about your cancer you start feeling like a drama queen."

"I guess," Robert agrees reluctantly.

"I guess you have to play it by ear," I say. "If you have the time and know the person well enough, you might tell them. If not then its fine to just say you're okay."

"So how is everyone this morning?" asks the Russian driver, breaking into her odd harsh laugh.

We laugh along with her and the car winds its torturous way deeper into the city and our various treatment protocols at PMH. Our little group now lost in thought about the individual fates that await us.