By Lauren Miller (@lomillah)
My dad has cancer. He was diagnosed October 10, 2013. You probably don’t know because I didn’t want a lot of people knowing. Once I tell people, I get a pity-filled, “I’m sorry. I had no idea.”
Then I say, “You know, it’s been tough, but we’re getting through it. We just have to stay positive.”
They inevitably reply, “I’m sure. That’s really all you can do.”
Then I effectively kill any ounce of hopeful life and comfort left in the room as I sigh, “Yeah.”
That conversation is exactly what I thought I was trying to avoid. I didn’t want special treatment. I didn’t want to be a charity case. I thought I would get pity. I thought I would become Lauren, the girl who’s dad has cancer, not Lauren, a personable high school student.
The problem is that Prospect is in a very connected suburban community with not a lot going on. My dad was something different, so the news got out. My parents started by telling our friends and family. For as hard as it is to receive bad news, it’s even harder to tell it. Then, in late October, my mom started a profile on Caring Bridge (see edge, “Timeline of my dad’s cancer.”) From that point forward, everyone knew about me. I don’t blame my parents; it was the right thing for them to do. It’s the type of thing that would have crushed me if I tried to keep it a secret. I just didn’t see it like that at the time.
Once the news was out, gifts started arriving at our door. A friend of ours had set up a neighborhood dinner calendar for us. Every treatment day, you could expect a cooler full of dinner ready for us waiting on our doorstep, and in the beginning, it was nice. It was nice to have a support system of people who cared about me and my family. It was nice to have an assured good meal on the most emotionally draining days.
After a while, though, the niceness began to feel like pity, and I got tired. I got tired of answering the door with a positive face. I got tired of saying, “Thank you so much. You have no idea how much this means to us.” I got tired of acting like I didn’t feel like a lesser person when accepting it. I was 16, and I viewed myself as more than capable of sustaining basic human needs.
I like to think of myself as strong and independent, but for as strong as I am, there is no way I can say that the cancer was easy for me. More than the fear of the unknown, it was hard see it break down my parents. My mom is the strongest person I know, but in a span of two years, the stress physically weighed down her face. I can’t remember a night not falling asleep to the hum of my dad’s keyboard when I was younger, but now as I enter my third hour of homework I can hear his snore from upstairs. My parents weren’t these indestructible feats of nature anymore;, they were just people. They’re extremely stressed. They sometimes fall apart, and they’re aging. That part is the most terrifying.
After my dad’s surgery to remove most of the cancer in December, life just kind of continued on. I almost forgot about it, really. My only reminders were the meals and unusually short-tempered parents signifying a chemo day. Overall, I was doing just fine. Life was almost normal, so the pity felt wasted on me. I thought we were unluckily lucky. My dad is receiving state-of-the-art treatment, and we have enough money to be able to afford it. The situation sucked, but it could have been a lot worse. Instead of pitying me, I wanted people to give it to others who actually needed it.
Looking back at that time, I realize I lumped nearly all of the help — good and bad — under the pity. It was a self-centered thing to do; it made it all about me and how I felt instead of putting my parents first and foremost.
Now, I know the difference. Earnest helping was all the people who dropped off the meals at my house. They cared about us and wanted to help in the best way they knew how.
Pity isn’t so much about what you say, but how and when you say it. Pity was people being overly empathetic to the point where it was fake. It was the people who treated me with more delicacy than someone “normal.” Those who pitied my family often shout-whispered in public how sorry they were so everyone around them could hear. While not everyone who pitied me did it for attention, I definitely think some did just to self-affirm what a good person they were,. wWhereas those who helped us out did so modestly. They did not boast of their good deeds for a pat on the back from others, and they were very somber and modest when talking to me about it.
I only realized I was wrong two weeks ago in World Religions. We were airing issues that were bothering us, and one student said he had a friend that he drove everywhere but never got compensated for it. World Religions teacher John Camardella had him leave the room, and we all freely, anonymously gave whatever we could to him. For most people, this was a dollar. When he came back his immediate reaction was, “I’m not going to accept this. I can’t accept this. I don’t need this.”
It’s true; he had a job, but around 27 anonymous dollars were there sitting on his desk, and panic set in his face when he realized he couldn’t give it back. He made me realize that I had thought like that, too. A simple change in perspective gave me the ability to see how much a small donation can help.
I did not give a dollar because I pitied him. I gave him a dollar because I had been there, too. We all will have difficult obstacles in our life. When someone else reaches one of their obstacles, it is our job to help. Most importantly we should give the kind of help we would want to get.
When we get that help, we need to be gracious and realize that we are not lesser for it. While you may not need this advice yet, you will. From someone who has gone through this, with all due respect, get off of your pedestal. You are not superhuman, and that is okay.
My family did not need dinners to be made for us, gift cards given to us or special treatment, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t nice to have. I’ve learned to accept that even though my family has received charity doesn’t mean that we’re a charity case. I’m still learning that I am in fact not secretly Wonder Woman, that it’s okay to not be okay all the time.