We all have them. Stories from our childhood that others like to tell about us. Stories we don't remember, and that don't seem to be connected to us and our self-concept. Stories we may not particularly like...
Here's one my mother began to tell in recent years: I was four or five, and sick with the flu so she stayed home from work. An extra day off was rare for her and she planned to take advantage of it by getting some things done. There was also a carpenter working on the house that day. But as they attempted to go about their productive business, I moaned theatrically from my room. Moaned and called for my mother every five minutes.
"Mama, take my temperature."
"Mama, bring me a glass of water."
"Mama, come and sit with me."
Finally, the carpenter packed up his tools in frustration, and said, "I can't work in this house." (If you ask me, he sounds like a constipated primadonna. But of course, when this story is told, no one asks me.)
My mother was immediately embarrassed for her house. It was old, a fixer-upper they'd bought for five thousand dollars in the fifties. Was he saying it was too far gone?
But when she asked what was wrong, the haughty carpenter only snorted. "It's not your house, lady. It's your kid. How do you stand her?"
So no, this is not my favorite story. And what makes me even less fond of it is my family's reaction to it. They never seem to get tired of hearing it; and no matter how time my mother retells it, they hoot at the punchline as if it were the first.
"But Ma, you always said how good I was," I say petulantly, hoping for some kind of retraction. "I was your little angel, remember?"
"Of course, you were good, honey," my mother says, patting my hand. But there is something in her eyes...(In the background, the hooting goes on.)
"The poor kid was sick!" I say irritably. "Was it too much for her to ask for a damn glass of water?"
But once again, no one seems to hear me. They're too busy laughing.
Anyway, I've come a long way from that whiney five-year-old. Or so I thought until this weekend. I'd had a low grade fever and hadn't been feeling too well all week, but on Saturday morning, things took a dramatic downturn. I woke up with the highest temperature I've ever had, heart racing, and a debilitating pain in my side. When I tried to get out of bed, dizziness knocked me back down.
It turned out to be a kidney infection, which is not usually greeted as good news, but my doctor was jubilant. The alternative, "what they were afraid of," would have required an ambulance trip to Boston, and probably a "procedure." An innocuous enough word, I suppose, but these days it's become one of the most dreaded ones in my lexicon.
So the good news was that I didn't have to be admitted. I could go home and rest on my own couch, drink tea (or in this case, cranberry juice) from my own blue cup, sleep in my own bed. The bad news was that I still felt like hell.
I settled myself on the couch, but the pain made it difficult to get comfortable; and my feverish head was too addled to read.
"Ted," I called. "Maybe you should take my temperature."
"Ted, I need a glass of water."
"Ted, come and sit with me; I'm lonely."
Ted, of course, had things to do, and he'd just spent five hours in the emergency room. "I can't just sit with you all day," he tried to explain. And I understood. Well, sort of...
Later in the evening, he was tired when he joined me so he tuned into a podcast on his IPod.
"Aren't you going to talk to me?" I said.
"Huh?" he said.
Then, reading my face, he took out his headphones and tried. The conversation wasn't exactly flowing though. See whining is essentially a monologue. The whiner has all the good lines: I'm hot; I'm cold; my stomach is killing me; my head hurts; you know, I just feel awful; in fact I feel like I'm gonna die right here...But the only line the other person gets is a variation on "Gee, I'm sorry."
When I realized I was getting nowhere, I escaped to the bathroom--internationally known as the best place to throw oneself a pity party. I tried my best to work up a good one.
Why has all this happened to me? I asked. Why do I keep getting sick? And how much can I take?
The only problem was it didn't work. I hadn't really felt sorry for myself since I got my diagnosis in October, and now when I was ready for a good wallow, I just couldn't do it. I looked in the mirror and answered my own question:
Why has all this happened to me? It just did. Deal with it, chump.
Why has my health become such a soap opera with constant histrionics? Think of all the years of good health you had. Were you asking why then? And if not, how dare you start questioning it now?
How much can I take? As much as I have to--and not because I'm particularly strong or brave, but just because there are no alternatives--except suicide and giving in to a case of terminal whining. I wasn't ready for the former; and the latter wasn't working too well for me.
And if my pity party wasn't enough of a bust, by the time I should have been shedding some pretty good crocodile tears, I burst out laughing.
Because at that moment, I remembered my mother's story. And maybe I remembered being that five-year-old with the flu, too. She was miserable and feverish, and even though her mother appeared every time she cried for attention, it didn't help; she still felt lousy. She was too young to know that even the most loving mother or husband, child or friend, cannot protect us from the pain and loneliness that is part of our life on this planet. And if we think they can, or demand they try, we only push them away--as I proved with the carpenter those many years ago.
I don't talk about books and writing all that much here, even though they're my life, but after this story, I figured you could use some good news that's better than a kidney infection:
The Liar's Diary sold in the UK last week, to a very enthusiastic publisher who plan to make it their lead title in spring, 2009, and reissue it in mass market paperback the following year. They say they're committed to doing everything they can to bring me a "huge" readership in the UK. Is life good or what?