Well it’s about time I told you this story.
It was 1982. Ninth grade. I was in my friend’s parents’ basement, killing time on the sofa while she executed her daily ablutions in the bathroom. We called it, much like the kids today, “getting ready”. Ready for us, like kids today, meant achieving maximum attractiveness to all potential objects of our attraction, which on any given day could constitute boys from school, boys from the neighbourhood, boys from the mall, boys from the Dairy Queen, boys driving by in cars, and including but not limited to, boys in our imagination or granted by a randomly appearing wish granting genie. Getting ready was similar but different than kids today, and typically involved the usage of a solid half bottle of Final Net Hairspray, which if you’ve never had the pleasure of encountering, is essentially composed of 70 percent isopropyl hand cleaner and liquid gum, or as my daughter puts it, Oh my god I’m gonna puke that shit smells like straight tequila!
The goal with the Final Net application, as per the fashion of the day, was to produce a volume of hair to face ratio of 2:1 for day wear, 3:1 for a school dance, making our faces appear lost in space, or as we saw it through the cloud of spritz, delicate and beautiful. Want a small, cute turned up nose? Well frame it inside 73 centimeters of hair circumference. Getting ‘ready’ was a time investment. No one could accuse our generation of laziness. We may not have willingly loaded dishwashers, but that was because we had prioritized our efforts. We worked smart, friends.
So, while clouds of products and perfumes were wafting from Sally’s bathroom, I answered my restlessness by reaching for a Reader’s Digest from her parents’ coffee table reading selection. And that is how I came to learn about Andrew (I am changing names to protect the innocent here, and by innocent I mean me, from my ailing memory as it’s been a few years since I was 14). Andrew was a healthy and happy young man, who one day OUT OF THE BLUE, discovered a lump in his wrist. Andrew sought medical attention. He consulted with doctors. Several as I recall it. Because he was pretty pissed that all of his doctors poo-poo’d his concerns. And now, by the time he was writing the article, he was actually dying of cancer. Terminal. Unsavable. All over a small lump in his wrist. And as I sat there, contemplating this terrible awful morbid news, I glanced at the date on the magazine, and fully realized that Andrew’s few months were recently up. This was his last Fuck You to those who had failed him. He was dead.
Andrew followed me around for a few days. Not in a REAL LIVE CASPER THE GHOST kind of way. That started WAY later. But in a somber, think about mortality and injustice, haunting jarring kind of way. You may be shocked to hear it friends, but I have always had a bleeding heart and penchant for correcting injustice (hence the whole law experiment). Anyhow, there I am boy hunting with Sally, and also Andrew, strolling the sunny streets, being picked up by space ships because our bangs function as actual antennae, smoking our cigarettes, drinking coffee all day, and shit mix when we can get our hands on it at night. Hanging out at the hockey rink freezing our asses off in the stands so that Robbie and Jim will check us out as they skate off the ice. But all with a twinge in my heart.
Which brings us to the fated day. Get ready for this. It’s morning. Now, if you think our hairstyles were cray cray, they had nothing on our pants wearing. I want to say we wore them tight. But that just doesn’t cut it. You see, our denim was not the forgiving bendy stretchy stuff of today’s skinny jean. No. Our denim was thick, heavy, stiff and damning. Virtual plywood. We needed utensils to get into our denim. The tighter the better. If you could see the outline of your hip bones, that was sexy. If you didn’t have protruding hip bones because candy, denim provided you with the opportunity to sculpt some. The preferred method for applying denim was always a tag team approach; always a safety buddy. But it wasn’t always practical, and some mornings you just found yourself alone, on your bed, lying down, slathered in Crisco and wrenching up your zipper with a coat hanger, knowing that you were sure to lose a pound or two by end of day because your pants would be too tight to eat lunch in, and NOT AT ALL EXPECTING that Andrew was hanging back in the room, like a spider on the ceiling ready to drop from a thread awaiting the moment your hand accidentally grazed the intersection of your left thigh and your young lady parts, and you found it. The Grim Reaper. The harbinger of your young death, and the end of carefree existence as you then knew it.THE LUMP.
I mean you knew what it was, because it was the exact way Andrew had described it. Same size. Same consistency. Your face was hot with panic. You don’t know what kind of superpowers got you the rest of the way into those pants, or backcombed your hair, or focused on anything in English class, but your attendance was checked off so you must have made it there. You weren’t going to the doctor, DUH, because the fleeting thought of having to gesture to your nether regions and then have this middle aged man in a white coat actually INVESTIGATE the place where no other human had actually investigated was TEN THOUSAND times worth than your inevitable death. You weren’t going to tell your Mom because you knew that that would just lead to the middle aged doctor, and you weren’t going to tell your friends, because you simply could not locate a established category of acceptable conversation, not even secrets and confessions (I let Bobby feel me up in the alley after the dance didn’t juxtapose well with I have a lump in my underwear).
So, you just accepted. The panic wore off, and you just began to see the world through the lens of I am fourteen and I am dying. Which made you feel separate and apart, and very alone. I think it’s fair to say that both secrets and death make us feel very alone. And there is a sad story in here. I am sad for the way we are, and for how many young people are trapped in fear and confusion and the inability to be helped. But the sad story I am sharing with you today, is not about my loneliness and fear for a time.
Because, once I came to terms with my plight, I began to plan. You know when you imagine winning the lotto? Like if it’s one million you’ll pay off your mortgage; 5 million you’ll buy your Mom a house and fund your Dad’s biz; 100 million definitely world peace. Well, I had my own version of the life lotto. I formulated the one year, two year and five year plans. But five year was my favourite. I mean Andrew had a few years on me when his disease took him, so I figured I might have some wiggle room. This seemed REASONABLE, to my 14 year old death addled mind. In The Five Year Plan, I would attend Law School. I would have a child (I was a bit young to register that this might not be an ideal outcome for the child). And this plan felt good friends. It felt HOPEFUL. It felt, dare I say LIBERATING.
Because, when I became THE DYING GIRL, I no longer felt pressured. I no longer felt BURDENED. I no longer had to figure out how I was going to get the grades in high school to get the grades in University to be one of the five percent of applicants who made it into law school. I no longer had to figure out how I was going to starve my way into my very very unforgiving skinny jeans, sculpt protruding hip bones, and meet the very very questionable beauty standards of the day. I no longer had to answer the question “What are you going to do with your life?” and the ensuing interrogation as to HOW to ever loving God with my meager fourteen year old skill set I planned to overcome the 9,999 hurdles in my way, SO HELP ME GOD, as if I was a bloody fucking embarrassing fool not to have arrived at how to OUTSMART the competition, the other children, the future, THE WORLD and the remaining cast of The Hunger Games, thirty odd years before its time.
And that felt closer to peace. It felt lighter. It felt like I could eat a French fry. A year was doable. On a good day, a strong day, five years was even doable.
I could just want something and plan something free of all of the LIVING UP TO, because I was in fact DYING. And it turns out that that, beloveds, was a better way to live.
So what does that tell us? What does it tell us that a fourteen year old girl has to receive a death sentence in order to get out from under that kind of pressure? Because 1982 was definitely to blame for big hair and tight pants but it didn’t take a patent out on pressure. Pressure just keeps piling on. The STATS, get stattier. The odds are EVER LESS in our youth’s favour. And while it may be oh so exaggerated in our young, we all have her inside. A young vulnerable emotional self who needs to be let off the fucking HOOK.
And if not NOW, when? COVID, my friends, has thrown down the gauntlet. It has given us our death sentence (sadly for some of us like Andrew a realized one). But for some of us it is a wake up call. Not to smarten up. Not to try harder or practice better hygiene and gratitude. Not to PILE more onto the pile. But to stop bullying ourselves. To stop interrogating the fourteen year old girl, and instead give her some fucking encouragement. Teach her that she matters, because she is part of 8 billion parts that all matter.
When we are all holding hands six feet apart, I am not thinking about how I am going to rise above or be enough. Even if I don’t know how any of us will survive recession or depression or a ventilator. I feel in it together. And that is the safety inside of the danger.
I have found you, and I am not prepared to give you up.
So maybe let’s tell “her” (you, me, all of our vulnerable places) that she isn’t in it alone.
That she doesn’t have to rise above anyone.
Because they are all here to lift her up.
We are all here to lift you up.
I am sure you have run the math and worked it out that I did not in fact have an actual tumour. Struck by thirty seconds of bravery when death had at last taken too much of a toll on my young life, I visited the middle aged doctor by my wee self, without telling a soul. He declared that I had a blocked gland caused by wearing jeans that were too tight, a common medical disorder at the time. But emotional isolation, and separation from one another that causes us to divide and compete and act as adversaries? Well that is the disease, and that is the sad story.
I don’t remember much after that, except that I had written a short story for English class about a young girl who is dying of cancer. My teacher gave me 100 percent and commented that she wished she could write like me, with a P.S. I hope this is fiction. And I left it in the drawer and went off to law school. Because how are you going to survive The Hunger Games with a piece of paper and a pen?
P.S. You’ve been asking me how to get your friends and loved ones the help I’ve been able to give you. We can do that. Contact me and we’ll talk details.
P.P.S. One of the kindest things you can do for me is to share my writing. If you enjoyed today’s Monday Musing and know someone else who would please forward it to a friend.