Sunday, May 30, 2010

Hell is Relative

I am fond of proverbs. My absolute favorites are those I create myself. Heck, if Mao can have his Little Red Book, I can have "The Little Blue Book of Paula." (Blue is my favorite color, not to mention how well it reflects my political leanings. Note, too, that the title of this post is NOT "Hell is Relatives." That theme probably merits its very own post.)

Seven years ago, my son underwent 8 months of intense chemotherapy for a rare form of leukemia. As our family moves through that experience and the changed life that follows, I sometimes share our story with the people I meet. Extended family and close friends were told about the cancer early on; for acquaintances and new contacts, I had to feel ready, it had to feel right to tell them. Many people I know are still unaware, but that's because I perceive my role as "cancer mom" to be only one aspect of myself, just like many people don't know I bake sourdough bread.

I remember one conversation in particular, with a buddy of mine from a writer's group I attended. She read a short story I had written, a vignette about an interaction I had with my son while he was hospitalized. I had purposely worded the piece to suggest it was fictional, when in reality every scene, every action and word was memoir. After she offered her critique, I shared that it was a true story. "Wow," she responded. "I can see how such an experience would color your writing. How could it not?" She offered her sympathy, and like many people, expressed that she could not imagine how she would cope with such a devastating diagnosis, with the idea that her child could die.

In another conversation, at another time, she had told me details of her own life; that her oldest child struggled with behavior problems at school, had difficulty making friends, threatened to hurt himself as a consequence of his frustration with his world. "One doctor said he has Asperger's, but another one thought he might have Bipolar, so they are trying him on some meds." My response was supportive; my thoughts were of gratitude. Cancer I can deal with; but mental illness? Something that can't be cured; a treatment approach based on intelligent guesses and the process of elimination? No thanks.

This interaction with my fellow writer came to mind this week when I talked individually with two of my customers, each struggling with a difficult situation, who happened to know each other (but didn't know that I knew the other party.) Each person expressed an identical sympathy and pity for the other: "Yah, this is tough, but I think about what X is going through and I can handle this. Just reminds me that, you know, somebody's got it worse."

I like my hell, the hell I was assigned by fate. I can understand and accept it, I can live with it. And I wouldn't want to trade it for your hell.

It should be axiomatic: Hell is Relative.

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