Strange(r) Encounters: Listen and Learn Edition

September is hard for me, draining.  Childhood Cancer Awareness Month starts out strong, but by the end, as it nears, I am tired.  And a little bit like an overexposed nerve, raw and vulnerable.  I thought this year would be easier, as I am not writing about Donna's cancer, just cutting and pasting for new folks to discover.  Yeah, it ain't easier.  Still hard, still draining.

One of the things that is both fulfilling and difficult are the loads of letters and encounters I have with folks moved by Donna's story.  I am beyond humbled to read the stories that folks are kind enough to send me.  Like last year, I am behind on responding to all of them.  There is a lot of pain out there related to cancer.  Children, siblings, spouses, parents, grandparents, friends -- so many good folks lost or in treatment.  It feels oppressive, sometimes, the weight cancer still demands I carry, both for myself, and since sharing Donna's story, for others, too. 

Forgive me if I am not my usual charming self.  I'm trying, but it ain't really working, is it?

Last week I wrote about an email message I had received about feeding Donna McDonald's.  To me, it was a throw away post -- I thought it was a bit fluffy, honestly.  Turns out, it struck a chord.  Lots of you had lots of feelings about both 'McDonaldgate' and my response to it. 

I am still getting the hang of people actually reading what I write and it still takes me by surprise.  In my head, I will always and forever be the shy, not terribly interesting outsider, looking in at all the other kids having fun.  The reality that my writing is often a fun and bright destination for thousands is well, WHACK-A-DOODLE.  You know I'm a dork, right?

I promised that the next day I would write a follow-up post about another exchange with a stranger.  Well, full disclosure time, I went on retreat after that post.  There are some big things happening in my personal life, it's allergy season again (Hello, Sudafed!), and to be honest, I was simply flummoxed by both public and private responses to that post.  A week later, here I am again, six days late and lots of dollars short.  I truly appreciate both your patience and interest.  Here goes:

The day started great and I was happy to be taking my aunt, a Catholic sister, to the movies.  There was a documentary playing about Catholic sisters and their work in social justice.  Hard to believe, but we got there and it was sold out.  BOOM.  I had promised my 83 year old aunt a night out on the town, and instead, we were shut down.  I had originally hoped I could finagle a couple extra tickets given that I was with a NUN, but no go.  After a quick chat with my aunt, it was decided I would buy tickets for another night.  Just after I had finished that, a stranger approached me saying she had an extra ticket for my aunt for that night's show. 

Well, my aunt jumped on it.  She came for a movie and she was gonna see a movie!  What I didn't immediately realize is that the stranger had given my aunt her ticket, leaving no ticket for herself.  Wow.  The kindness of strangers strikes again.  How utterly generous.  Even more, she demanded to buy me booze and popcorn while my aunt watched the film, and we would chat and get to know one another.  Hmmmm.  Okay.  This felt like one of those odd, potentially awesome exchanges, so I was game.  I offered to get the concessions and was shut down.  Stranger would have none of it.

We sat down in the suddenly empty and quiet lobby.  The art school students were cashing out the box office.  We chatted.  Stranger was interesting, had done some amazing things in her 60+ years of life.  She had the tendency to ask a question of me but then answer it herself.  Honestly, it made sense to me.  Maybe she was lonely and her night out at the movies had turned into a night out chatting with a stranger.  I was happy listening.  And her life story was fascinating.  Truly.  There are so many different types of pain in the world, so many ways a child is denied what they need.  She shared openly about her own childhood and how tough experiences had shaped her adulthood.

After a long while, she said, "But enough about me, I want to know about you."  I shared a bit.  I was a mother, a wife, a social worker, a writer.  I also mentioned being a prospective adoptive parent, as that was loosely related to her own story.  Stranger jumped on that.  She strongly advised that we only choose a healthy child and then offered some suggestions about how we could find a local child to adopt.  Blogging teaches you that everyone has an opinion and a story, so hearing another avenue to explore was not unexpected. 

Stranger then asked why we were choosing to adopt.  I told her about Donna.  Briefly, as Stranger had a lot to say, too.  The fact that we had lost a child to cancer confirmed her suggestion that we only parent a healthy child.  I countered that things aren't always as they seem -- that Donna was born perfectly healthy and that we simply don't know what lies ahead for us.  Well, Stranger had a lot to say about that, too.  I got an earful about pediatric cancer research and its uselessless.  That the numbers of kids affected simply were not sufficient to merit all the money spent on them. 

I played devil's advocate and talked about how 60 years ago leukemia was a death sentence, but that today 90% of children with leukemia will survive.  Stranger had a counter argument for everything.  Survivors of pediatric cancer would be doomed soon enough, she said, with secondary cancers that would take their lives.  I told her about the treatment Donna had and that she lived for 31 months after an initial prognosis of 3 months.  I got a lecture about cost and suffering. 

I was dumbstruck.  I've had blog commenters say the exact same thing to me, but never had someone said that to my face. 

What she really, really wanted to impart to me, though, as she clarified later, was that whatever energy and $ we dedicated to Donna's Good Things, the charity created to honor Donna's life, it would be wasted.  W.A.S.T.E.D.  "Do-gooder charities" only harm the people they are attempting to help.  She shared more of her story.  You can't argue with another's story -- it is theirs, not yours -- and she did, indeed, seem damaged by what life had not given her, what charities could not overcome in her sad upbringing. 

What she advised was that Mary Tyler Dad and I adopt not one, but two or more children if we could do it.  Love those children thoroughly.  Love those children completely.  Her point was that loving and shaping contributing members of society -- whole people who knew and trusted love -- would be a more powerful tribute to Donna than any charity ever could be. 

And then she left, quick as a flash.

It is easy to discount the words of a stranger, as I easily did with the McDonald's mom.  It is less easy to discount the words of a hurt and empty person sitting across from you who just bought you popcorn.  "I want to be a real person someday," was what Stranger said to me earlier in the conversation, then chuckled as she guessed she hadn't quite made it there yet.  I can't condemn her.  I can't argue with her.  I just feel for her, hurt for her, oddly, understand her. 

Sometimes, you gots to tell people to STFU.  And other times, you have to be quiet and listen and learn and understand. 

And then finish your popcorn.

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    It's a powerful thing to have someone tell you their honest opinions to your face. And to be able to understand where they are coming from when they are almost attacking you is not easy.

  • In reply to Heather Smith:

    It wasn't easy, no, and in the moment, trust me, I was reeling. But this gal was sad and hurt -- I could see that. Her words were not about me or Donna, but about her and what her life didn't give her.

    The thing she wants us to provide most for another child(ren) are the things she never had. She is still trying to recover from that, even at 60+ years. Life is not easy. For any of us.

    Thanks for reading and commenting. MTM.

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    You are a very strong and powerful woman, MTM. And your words are truly inspiring.

  • Did she explain why she felt that pediatric cancer research was a waste? Perhaps she or someone close to her lost a child to pediatric cancer?
    You handled that experience gracefully, Sheila. I know I wouldn't have been able to maintain my composure.

  • In reply to kantal113:

    She did explain -- too much for a 1200 word blog post. VERY Cliff Notes version was that she felt the money spent on research would be put to much better use for healthy children that lacked resources. She firmly believed that any child diagnosed with cancer was a done deal, a lost cause, and that the millions used to research a disease that will ultimately kill all of them would be MUCH better spent on helping disadvantaged healthy children.

    Love to you, Karin. MTM.

  • I'm with Karin, I would also have had a hard time maintaining a listening stance. You are full of grace, Sheila, and love and wisdom and humour and compassion. Whether you believe it or not.

    love and hugs to you

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    In reply to ehmcke:

    I'm with Karin and ehmcke - it would have taken all the strength I could muster not to punch her, or, at the very least, tell her to STFU.

  • Wow! I SO love this post, full of empathy and understanding. For you to be able to listen to a (what appears to be somewhat misguided) counterpoint, and appreciate Stranger's personal life experience from which it stems, and be able do this during Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, of all times, is extraordinary.

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    At the very minimum I would have had to say to this woman "we will have to agree to disagree." I am certain you don't consider the extra time you spent with Donna on this earth to have been a waste of time and resources. I can not even imagine having the nerve this woman had, to say this to you!

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    Once again a post of yours has me tearing up. That encounter you described is, in a nutshell, my life philosophy played out. You could have been offended. You could have taken her words as an affront to you and all you stand for. You could have seen those words as an insult and argued and been enraged. Instead you stopped, you put aside your feelings and simply listened. You realized as you listened that it was never about you, but always about her. And in realizing that you understood where she was coming from and though you disagreed, you could see exactly why she felt as she did. If only everyone could do this every day, in every encounter, including the ones with themselves, what an amazing world this would be. Imagine all the progress we could make when we understood where everyone was coming from and could work together from a place of compassion and kindness. You are more than what you see yourself as. Please keep doing what you do. It is making a difference every day. <3

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    I just wanted to tell you that you inspire and touch me, MTM. You amaze me with the grace that you handled that woman's pain and anger. God bless you.

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    I read Donna's story and was touched in many ways.

    I would have really struggled to stay silent with the stranger. Though I know I am preaching to the choir, I would like to add my thoughts on why pediatric cancer research doesn't just matter, but it absolutely vital.

    My son was diagnosed with a Wilm's tumor in March. Because of the outstanding research done, he has not needed chemotherapy or radiation. None. Long term survival rates for his stage are above 95%. 40-50 years ago, those rates were closer to 50%. Just 15 years ago, all children with this diagnosis went through chemotherapy. The vast majority still do. I am thankful every minute that we have been so fortunate.

    Yes, my son is just one example. However, what the stranger could not possibly appreciate is that pediatric cancer leaves the families (even of survivors) broken and forever changed. We appreciate life and yet fear the future in ways that are incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it. Curing pediatric cancer saves more than just the children. It saves families. It saves Hope.

  • Wow. I cannot imagine being so gracious. Thank you for the lovely reminder that it is sometimes better just to listen and send folks along. We don't know what kind of pain and baggage other people are carrying, and everyone is carrying some. Thank you.

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