If the Truth will Kill You, Why Can’t Lies Make You Healthy?

How nice to have the luxury of writing in public.  Most days I don’t think of this as a freedom, but I just finished watching Sybil and it has me thinking of the taboos that exist around certain topics, the things we don’t discuss.  As much as I think my life is an open book, I still observe some of the taboos, or at least restrict the audience for some words.  When people are being humorous, they say “Someone would have to die before I could write about my life.”  Are we putting too much weight on the power of our words?  What would happen if we brought out the truth, the whole truth as we know it, in every story?   


There’s a funny tradition in my family, funny-odd, not humorous.  The eldest generation, usually my mother, always decided when someone was fit to hear bad news.  The first time I was aware of this was when a relative died.  I was a young teen.  My mother made the decision that my furthest sister, geographically, shouldn’t hear the news at that time.  That sister had married someone from far away after college and moved to his home.  Mama thought she shouldn’t hear the news when she was at such a distance and couldn’t run home to the funeral or be with the family for comfort.  My sister didn’t learn of the death until her next visit home, a few years later.


My mother’s judgment was not always sound in these matters.  She felt that I could always bear bad news.  After all, I was a doctor.  My best friend was diagnosed with a brain tumor two years before my lupus diagnosis.  She had the most complex parts of her treatment on the west coast, going from Philadelphia to San Francisco.  I accompanied her on one of her trips to San Francisco.  She had radioactive implants placed in the tumor bed in her brain at UCSF Hospital, and had to remain a few days before they were removed and she could be discharged.  I stayed in a hotel and visited daily.  It was the most emotional time in our relationship.  She was more fragile and labile than I had ever seen her, and many tears were shed between us.  It was the first time we talked about her dying.  Embarking on the trip home, I received a phone call in the San Francisco airport.  It was my mother, telling me that one of my nieces had just died in a horrible accident. 


My husband had selected a lovely sea-blue colour and had the house painted while I was gone.  I remember feeling the incongruency between my own sadness over my friend and my niece, and the cheerful paint.  I was crazy inside those days, or maybe just crazed.  Too much grief. 


The whole time my friend was sick and conscious, we pretended that our illnesses were equivalent.  We were best friends commiserating over having long-term illnesses that had changed our lives.  We were trying to be good mothers to our daughters, only three months apart in age, each other’s longest friends to this day.  Our focus was on the things we shared, like the frequent doctor visits and the side effects of the evil prednisone we both took.  Not until the San Francisco trip did we acknowledge that her illness was so much worse, that she was likely to die soon and I was not.  Even after that trip we kept up our cheerful charade until she had deteriorated to the point that she required care in a nursing facility.  On my last visit, her daughter crawled up in her hospital bed and lay by her mom, talking to the paralyzed woman, my dearest friend, who could hardly acknowledge her. 


Many times I’ve been encouraged to fudge the truth or withhold it altogether, because “it would kill him/her”.  Sometimes it was in my family, where some believed that a difficult revelation would cause a stroke or heart attack in an elderly or ill person.  Sometimes it was in my practice, with a loved one believing the real prognosis shouldn’t be shared with the patient.  Deep in my gut, I’ve always felt that only lies can kill us, never truth.  I’ve tried to not mislead or give half-truths or hollow platitudes, but to be the truth-teller, sometimes telling the truth in secret. 


I’ve seen people confusing personal judgment with truth.  The truth as I see it is different from the factual truth sometimes, and I think the factual truth is what we are obliged to share.  I prefer to keep the “as I see it” in the category of beliefs, not truth.  It can be hard to know the difference.  Just because something feels true doesn’t make it so.  I find that I am often an intellectual snob.  I expect people to understand that facts are real, that data should be collected to prove them, and that anecdote can’t be the basis for recommendations to the masses.  This, of course, is only partly true.  The older I’ve become, the more I know that my childhood desire to know “just the facts” will never be realized.  The facts expand, change, mutate to become something else as data collection grows, as understanding of the subject grows, as our instruments for study become better.  They are only facts for the moment, so I have shifted my goal towards being able to change my knowledge and opinions accordingly. 


I am led to consider how this love for facts and truth has left me handicapped when it comes to feelings.  Over many years, I have struggled to be able to hear my feelings, to sit still and call them forth and then rely on them.  I had such disdain for instinctual behaviour in my youth; it has been a struggle to open myself to acknowledgement and validation and acceptance of that emotional side.  I know there is a strong and still-living root for this in my childhood, with my exposure to raw, sometimes violent emotion and irrational behaviour.  My aversion to that happened young without my even realizing it.   


There isn’t an end to this topic of truth-telling.  I have reached a thousand words and I could write 10 thousand more.  But not tonight.




Merry Christmas to All…

It is Christmas morning.  We have a tradition, and Dayna touched on it in her comment (at the end of the previous post).  I’ve been divorced from her dad for thirteen years.  We are friends, with a bond around the common goal of raising a happy, capable daughter.  On Christmas he still comes over in the morning and fixes breakfast and we open gifts.  Later, Dayna and I make the rounds to see her grandparents.  This morning, for the first time, Julian will join us. 

Things that make me happy this Christmas morning:

  • Having four hand-knit stockings for us.  (Pattern to come.)
  • Remembering that we needed stocking stuffers.
  • Dayna knowing two sets of wonderful grandparents.
  • The Today Show is on, keeping me oriented.
  • My dog wasn’t hurt last night when she was hiding under a tree in the mud making mournful sounds.  She had just decided it was time to hide under a tree in the mud.
  • My cup of coffee.
  • Anticipation of my first B-cell killing expedition tomorrow.
  • Having two college-age children in my house for the holidays.
  • Not being on Facebook.
  • Having new red nonstick frying pans for the traditional Christmas hashbrowns.
  • Having someone to cook the hashbrowns that really knows what he’s doing.
  • Having great friends who open their computer and IM you on Christmas morning.  (Love you, girl!)
  • The Tired Old Ass Cream was delivered yesterday, just in time to give to two of my sisters today.  (Thanks, Vermont Country Store!)
  • I am here and thriving and have so much joy in my life!

Merry Christmas everyone!  Happy Holidays if you aren’t celebrating Christmas (’cause you know you’re enjoying the time off)! 

and of course PEACE!

I Want to Write This Morning!

I am sitting up in my bed doing a little dance because I am excited about writing this morning.  I don’t know why, exactly.  I never have trouble finding things to write about because this is a conversation, and if you know me you know that I can talk forever.  I will talk with anyone.  I have conversations in the grocery line, my doctor’s waiting room, across the street to neighbors.  I am very much like my mother in this instance.  When I was a kid I used to wonder why she would strike up conversations so easily.  Now I know that there’s something to connect me to every human being in the world and most of them want to be acknowledged and engaged. 

I can actually remember the point at which I began to feel comfortable talking to “just anyone”.  I was in junior high school, my father had retired from the military and we had moved to Chattanooga (Mama’s home).  We were attending a traditional Baptist church with older people who noticed the children and took an interest in our well-being and progress.  I found that I could answer their questions and then ask them about themselves without too much blushing or stammering, and soon I found myself seeking out certain ones to connect with regularly.  In retrospect, I realize that we were being trained in a number of ways.  The children were encouraged (sometimes forced, never bribed) to speak publicly by performing in plays and talent shows, reading aloud in Sunday School classes, and taking part in special church services that were well-rehearsed “Boys Day” and “Girls Day” celebrations.  By the time I finished high school, I had written presentations, spoken, played piano both for performance and accompaniment, sung in two choirs, planned lessons…First Baptist Church East Eighth Street had thoroughly groomed me. 

When I graduated from high school I had no appreciation for what Chattanooga had given me.  I left for college and planned to never look back.  Due to the foresight and persistance of a relatively small group of citizens, in the next eleven years the city pursued a progressive, inclusive course that helped to draw me back after I finished my medical training.  That progressive nature wasn’t an isolated or new feature here.  When my mother’s matenal grandmother, a white woman married to a black man, boarded buses with her three brown grandchildren in the 1920s, no one persecuted them.  In the 1960s when other southern cities were torn apart by battles over forced integration, Mayor Ralph Kelley took Chattanooga in hand:

  • “In a sweeping change in Chattanooga’s history, Mayor Kelley declared all city facilities “open to all.”  This action on September 24, 1963, opened all public buildings, parks, playgrounds, swimming pools, golf courses and community centers began Chattanooga’s desegregation.  As the south worked through desegregation, Mayor Kelley worked with representatives of all communities in Chattanooga to try to ease citizens’ concerns.” http://www.chattanooga.gov/Mayors_Office/9_1963-1969RalphHKelley.htm

Three years after the death of former Mayor Kelley, his widow, Barbara Kelley, an energetic woman with her own formidable history of public and private service to the city, is running for City Council.  Her webpage shows more of that ability to articulate current issues and willingness to attack them head-on, as well as a love for this community that I share completely.  (http://www.kelleyforcouncil.com/)

I must continue the theme of praising and encouraging Chattanooga because it comes naturally to me to discuss things that I love, and because I am fighting against some powerful self-righteousness and arrogance.  In 1985 I made the decision to return here, and shared that with my fellow residents at Johns Hopkins Hospital.  To my surprise, their comments were steeped in ignorance.  They wanted to know where I would work, if there was a hospital in Chattanooga.  They asked how I would survive in such a “backward” place.  The worst was they suggested that perhaps my excellent training would be “wasted” practicing internal medicine here, as if the perceived population of hicks and foundry workers didn’t deserve the finest medical care.  The fact is, this city was well on the way to becoming the half-million metro area with the beautiful riverfront, active arts community, vibrant downtown and diverse population that I so love now. 

Don’t get me wrong-I’m just as likely to fuss about people who’ve never set foot out of Chattanooga as people who malign it.  I am a proponent of learning about this world, ALL of this world, and feeling our responsibilities and connections as global citizens.  I loved my daddy’s Army career and the way it moved us every few years, sometimes on pretty short notice.  You know that the world is small and accessible when you live in Missouri today and Germany tomorrow, or when you realize that you were born in Germany (yes!) but are an American citizen, or when you look around your classroom and see kids of Japanese, Hawaiian, African, Swiss, and Native American heritage.  That was life as a military kid.

The one huge failing of that life was that I was very late learning continuity of relationships.  Every few years my family was uprooted, and my friendships all ended.  There was no internet and long distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive,  so we’d write letters, frequently at first, but quickly diminishing to  a Christmas “hello” and update, and then we’d lose touch completely.  We quickly made new friends and adjusted to new places, filing the old ones away. 

Lorraine Palos, my best friend from medical school, was my first continuous, long-term friend.  We met late in our freshman year of med school, striking up a conversation on an escalator and knowing by the end of the ride that we would be friends.  At the end of school we separated to residencies two hours apart and kept talking and visiting.  At the end of residency, she stayed on the east coast and I moved back to Tennessee.  We married and kept visiting.  We planned common vacations, hiking in Gatlinburg the year that we both had baby girls in Snugglies.  Our daughters, thus introduced, remain friends.  Lorri taught me everything I know about continuity because she just kept planning for us to be together, even through treatment for a brain tumor that eventually took her away.  I still close my eyes and talk to her. 

It is Sunday, and I am not in church.  Not unusual.  I just realized that one throwback to my childhood is that I change churches every few years.  No guilty feelings here.  In a minute I’m going to pick up the light plum block I’m knitting for my daughter’s afghan, and I’m going to feel reverent and blessed with that beautiful cotton yarn sliding through my fingers.