Who We Are is What We Do

January 23, 2011

My sister (and superhero mentor) pointed out to me that my last post “was not health related,” to which I replied, “Tough tooties.” After thinking about it though I realized that anything and everything I feel compelled to post here is, in fact, “health” related – it just may not have anything to do with cancer.

With that preamble (designed as disclaimer), I have a short story, complete with a moral but lacking an ending, to tell you all.

This past Monday, as we sat waiting to see his ENT, Gabe received a phone call and, after listening for a minute, he said, “Let me ask. I’ll call you back.” It turned out to be a call from a friend, a girl he has known since Kindergarten, that wanted to know if she could come stay with us for a while. Because he did not seem particularly confused or surprised by the request – and despite the fact that Gabe, without question, inherited my “unflappable” gene – I figured the call was not unexpected and prodded for a bit more detail. (At this point I will digress a bit to point out that if there was ever a contest to determine the most loyal person you will ever meet – Gabe would win. Hands down. Not even a contest.) He explained to me that he had promised his friend that he would not tell anyone anything she had told him – that who, when and what she told would be up to her. When asked though, what he could tell me was that he believed she genuinely needed a place to stay – that this was not simply a case of teenage angst.

(A perhaps unusual characteristic of me as a mother is that I trust my children. For those parents out there wondering how I’ve managed this, just know it is a perpetual process that started almost 16 years ago that involves throwing at least one [as Gabe has dubbed it] ‘fire-pissing mother dragon’ moment when you catch your child in a lie [a truth-distortion or withheld, yet important, information could work too]. In that moment you explain to your child that if you cannot trust them to always, every time, without question, tell you the truth, how could you possibly believe them and be there to back them up when it really matters?)

I told Gabe that she could come stay with us under three conditions: that she tell her mother where she was going, that her mother say okay, and that she be prepared to spill her guts. He delivered the news, explained that we were not at home and told her he would call her later when we were done.

To make a long, and oddly, rather uneventful story short, we picked her and what was easily an 80 pound bag up later that day. The details of her story are irrelevant to this telling – her departure from home was justified even if simply based on the fact that she felt it was so.

So last night, Gabe and I went out to Café Express for dinner (his friend was visiting another friend and Jack could not be disentanged from the computer). Over dinner, he told me about a conversation he and his friends had the night before. As you can imagine, when their friend began telling them a couple of weeks ago of how unhappy she was, every last one of them said, “If you need a place to stay, you can come live with me.” As the hypothetical had become reality, every last one of them went to their parents to ask if she could live with them and, as Gabe reported to me, (almost) every last one of them* said, “Not a chance.”

(*I am happy to insert here that one of my very good friends, who happens to also be the mother of one of Gabe’s best friends, has been of invaluable support to me and, from the beginning, both she and her husband were open to the discussion when initiated by her child. In fact, they have invited her (the homeless one) to stay with them this coming week.)

While the response of these parents did not particularly surprise me, they did certainly disappoint me and, from what Gabe described, disappointed his friends as well. While I cannot honestly say that I haven’t had a moment or two of wondering what the hell I’ve gotten myself mixed up into, those moments have been insignificantly brief. Nevertheless, it was the next part of his telling that has given me mulling fodder for the past 12 hours. He said,

“Yeah. [She] said, ‘Considering the response of all these other parents, I can’t figure out why your mom is so different,’ and I told her, ‘Well, my mom has cancer. She could die tomorrow so, I don’t really think she gives a shit about what other people think or whether she could get in trouble for ‘harboring a runaway’ or ‘kidnapping’ or any of that other paranoid bullshit. She’s doing it because it’s the right thing to do.”

Needless to say, I was humbled by his succinct interpretation of who I am. In that short statement he had called me out for being courageous, ethical, independently minded, selfless, and probably in possession of a host of other attributes any one of us would do just about anything for our children to believe about us. But it is my belief that he was dead-on in his assessment of me that one, gets me into trouble* and two, spreads a host of other questions at my feet.

[*After all, it is thoroughly unacceptable in our culture to accept, no less claim, this level of accolade. To do so nullifies the accolade, particularly the ‘selfless’ one as, how could a selfless person accept anything? You see, by simply accepting – even just a compliment – you exhibit selfishness. However, as my superhero mentor has pointed out to me, selflessness is often the outcome of a selfish act. After all, some of us just can’t sleep at night knowing we failed to act when called for. And those that know me know I like my sleep.]

The questions scattered at my feet? Many little ones, but these big ones come to mind first.

I wonder if Gabe knows I would have done the same even if I hadn’t been diagnosed with cancer? That, while having a life-threatening diagnosis thrust in your face can certainly change a person, I don’t particularly feel I have changed. My beliefs surrounding right and wrong, worthy and not worthy, justified or unjust may be more clear and more quickly accessed – but I, myself, have not changed.

I wonder why so many others allow fear to be the captain of their ship and find myself inconsolably frustrated when I consider the great things that are not being achieved today because someone was too afraid to act on a thought, idea or opportunity. On the large and cosmic scale, when you think of the greatest discoveries, revolutions and turning points in our history, they are littered with people of immeasurable courage – people willing to be shunned, imprisoned and even killed simply because they knew, even if no one else did that, in the interest of the greater good, it was worth it. By no means do I equate my actions to this level, but in the eye’s of Gabe and his friends – and in particular, his adopted friend – what I have done was nothing short of revolutionary.

Which really, really makes me sad. That taking into my home a teenager that cannot stay at home without contemplating suicide would be considered courageous or selfless or independently minded is not what I want my children to believe. I want them to believe that doing the right thing is what we do. We wear socks with our shoes.* We stop at red lights. We pay for our purchases. We take care of other people.

None of this should be cause for question.

It is what we do.

It is what is right.

* but never with sandals!

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