Lessons in Grownup Etiquette
Unexpectedly, Friend A calls to say that Friend B is suddenly in the hospital, the kind of serious being in the hospital that must be described with words like “chemotherapy” and “intensive care.”
Friend A is careful to warn me, however—including in a follow-up email—that I must, under no circumstances, contact Friend B because I am not supposed to know that Friend B is seriously ill, or in the hospital, or both. I cannot send a card or a text message, nor can I phone. Visits, of course, are out of the question.
Now, what I would like more than anything else, is for Friend B not to be in the hospital. That is, what I wish is that the (let’s call them) facilitating conditions did not exist in the first place. Beyond that, my next preference would be not to have been enrolled in a Grownup Secret that I don’t know what to do with.
To be honest, I’m not sure how I would behave if I were gravely ill. I do know I wouldn’t want to have to describe the details of my treatment or my prognosis over and over and over again. I wouldn’t want to have to face either false cheerfulness or enforced grimness on the part of my friends. I wouldn’t want medical advice or information about miracle cures downloaded from the internet.
I wouldn’t want to have to confront what Anatole Broyard described, in his book Intoxicated by My Illness, as others’ need for the ill person to be ill properly, to assume the “role” we are taught (by TV movies or Kubler-Ross books or Oprah) is the appropriate one: full of emotional gravitas and spiritual maturity or, alternately, brimming with heart-breaking vulnerability and bracing honesty.
So perhaps, if I were gravely ill, I would also erect cordons around myself to keep my condition secret; perhaps I would elect others to serve as gatekeepers and bodyguards.
At the same time, in the decade that ran roughly from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, as I watched one friend after another fall ill and die from HIV/AIDS-related complications, I realized that the committees of bedside bouncers and concierges of convalescence that gathered around the sick and the dying were often self-appointed, that their duties were not necessarily guided by the wishes of the person who was ill.
At least twice, to my shame, I served as one of those “caregivers” who decided who could know and how much, who could telephone and who could only send a card, who could be granted an audience and who could be entrusted with a set of house keys. Sometimes, the ill person even enjoyed these ministrations, the chance to settle grudges or to enforce those hierarchies of intimacy and friendship that exist always but are virtually never explicated, except during illness or tragedy.
More often, however, it was the sentinels themselves who relished the mandarin power to wield information, to permit or to refuse, to allow or to demur. Even though in those years, and at least in San Francisco, sickness and death were widely considered to be a community spectacle (the way—forgive the macabre parallel—pregnant women are often treated as though they were a public matter), not everyone was entitled to a backstage pass.
I think, nonetheless, if I were ill, that I would want more than anything else to know what was taking place in my friends’ lives; I would be more avid for their news than they could ever be for mine.
I have never been seriously ill, or at least not since I was a small child. But I have been around enough illness—more than enough—to know that it is a tedious, monotonous affair and that its worst feature is its trick of isolating the ill person from life beyond the sick room, the clinic, the rounds of doctors’ offices. It is like exile to a country where you know no one and where the natives speak to you in a strange language that you must learn instantly and resign yourself to using imperfectly.
In that situation, I would want distraction. I would want gossip and movie reviews. I would want to know how the garden was growing and whether the increase in bus fares looked as though it would get through the city council. I would want anything that pulled me upright and reconnected me to the world. Especially if I feared leaving it. Especially if I really was leaving it.
I am not, obviously, in a position to know the “truth” of Friend B’s wishes. Perhaps other people would be of no comfort at all; doubtless there are factors that I cannot apprehend from my location on that other continent, the land of the well.
And yet I can only be perplexed by the decision to keep others at bay—assuming, indeed, that it was a decision. Because to ward off the ham-handed sympathy of others, their awkward curiosity and their palpable discomfort, is also to deny their warmth and humor, their sustenance, their ability to carry with them everywhere, like birds, the seeds of heedlessness and of a voluptuous, temporary amnesia.
So this is for Friend B, who will never read it: what I might have said, if I’d been able. If I were not part of a Grownup Secret I am not grownup enough to understand.