I have this friend, well, alright, she’s not really a friend, because friend is an inadequate word to describe her relation to me. This small, yet weighty, word that people use far too frivolously to describe their various associations, does not begin to encompass the gorgeous expanse of this relationship. When I first met her, it was the summer of 2007, at a barbecue. Oddly, we took one look at one another, smiled and soon thereafter burst into tears. In the middle of the barbecue, both of us.
We spoke to only one another the entire time we were at the shindig. Later, when we spoke of what exactly happened to lead both of our eyes to well up with tears, we understood it was a sort of mutual recognition of another member of the tribe. It was almost like we were saying, “hey there, what took you so long?” Because we felt as if we had known each other before. This happens sometimes in childhood. You see someone and you know at once that they will “get” you, accept you and love you, inspite of yourself. That they are a member of your tribe. When it happens in adulthood, after you are almost fully formed, with all sorts of issues, it is truly a gift.
I feel people often make the mistake of thinking that tribe members all look alike or come from the same worlds, religions, economic background. Not so. This soul sister lady is from Wapping, UK, as she will remind you ad nauseam when she gets on what she calls “her working class hero trip”. She is older than me by a decade, blonde, with huge, sparkling blue eyes that are always either brimming with mischief or emotion. Or grumpiness. She is Catholic (except for one week when she declared herself an Atheist, which was mainly so she could gossip without feeling guilty) and also has what we both describe as namby-pamby New Age tendencies. I have the same tendencies. We both like God and get annoyed at them frequently. Sometimes when I ask her how she is and she is in a mood, her cockney twang comes out, “Oh, I could go either way, darling” she’ll say. Meaning, either she will be elated or completely annoyed. The jury is out at that moment. She does not suffer fools (only me, and then only a modicum of my foolishness).
I am in a serious transition, as many people around me are, and I feel for those of us who do not have people or a person to ease the burden and the inevitable pain that comes with these types of life phases. Or at least share the load. Frances is my person. And she has burdens of her own. Her child, a cherubic, golden haired little girl has a syndrome called Rubinstein-Taybi that renders her severely mentally disabled and subjects her to a host of health problems. She is 10 years old and must be looked after – for the most part – as one would a toddler.
One day my kid had, shall we say, a rather explosive stomach ailment and I had to scrub some human waste off the stairs. You get the idea. Those of you with kids, I know, are intimately acquainted with vomit and fecal matter in a way you never thought you would be. As I held my nose and scrubbed the stairs and tried to keep from throttling my kid, who actually did try to run to the toilet as fast as he could, I was suddenly struck by the fact that my friend deals with this on a regular basis. It is part of her child’s affliction and daily reality. It suddenly hit me full on, the weight of this existence. It is hard to know what to say, or how to address someone you know has a distinct challenge in their lives, like cancer or a deformity of some kind. One does not want to make a big deal out of it or say the wrong thing, yet also one does not want to dismiss it. Frances is the first to say this is my daughter and she is retarded. It makes people squirm, I have seen it. It made me laugh because she emphasised the word retarded on purpose. I think that was also when she knew, okay, maybe this one is different. A nutter, like me who laughs at words like retarded. (Political incorrectness makes me happy, just like a puppy does. It has the same, warm and fuzzy effect on me at times, as does uptight people’s discomfiture. Oh beautiful life!)
When I was scrubbing crap and had my a hah moment, I realised I needed to tell Frances that I saw what she had to go through. In all the years I had known her, I never really acknowledged her struggles with her child. This was her normal and I was not going to be the one to state otherwise. She has such a sense of humour about it all and life that one sometimes forgets what a hard reality this must be. I also did not want to come off as pitying, because I will tell you right now, I do not pity Frances one bit. I can’t, she’s from Wapping and in Wapping there is no time for something as retarded (now I am using the word the way my son and his friends do) as self pity or pity in general. The daily business of living is far more important. Also, as the Tibetan Buddhist Nun/Guru Pema Chodron says, pity is not compassion. Pity is actually attachment and ego. Empathy, on the other hand, is a different ball of wax.
As much as I love my kid, I hated cleaning his crap, again, after all these years. One of the greatest milestones in my life was when he was finally potty trained and sleeping through the night. I loved and even miss his baby-ness, but I do not miss some of the stinky stuff that came with it. Well, who would?
So when I saw her next, I told her about the explosive bowel incident and said, “Fran, I know what you have to deal with everyday, and I am more in awe of you now than I was before.” I was hesitant. I did not want to come off as maudlin. She looked at me and said, “Thank you, darling for saying that. Thank you for seeing it.”
We make each other laugh a great deal. Recently we were at a bar on a beach and listening to the most depressing singer. Frances and I reckoned, given his incredible ability to make even a hopeful song like Jason Mrazs, “I’m Yours” sound like a warbling funeral dirge that he had recently broken up with someone. After a brief few minutes of making fun of the hapless singer and coming up with various scenarios as to why he sounded so miserable, some that I think involved his ex taking his dog, I suddenly said, “Fran, do something quick, entertain me. A little soft shoe or something!” And on cue she started dancing, Vaudevillian style and made me laugh. If a situation is terrible, we both recognise the beautiful absurdity and potential gags that will come out of it.
During this past Easter she invited me over for a typical British Easter dinner. The table was set, the potatoes were roasted, it was all very English. All that was missing were pastel coloured hats. We all sat down to eat and Frances’ retarded kid starting spitting on all the food. Pandemonium ensued as her father tried to get her to stop. Everyone started yelling at once. Either at him or her. The whole, lovely table was soon a mess, the prospect of a calm, Easter dinner ruined. And in the middle of the chaos, she and I looked at one another and burst out laughing hysterically. Because it was so wonderfully absurd. Because it is life, unfolding at a fever pitch, and life is so messy. The poo sometimes ends up on the table–metaphorically speaking–and Fran and I always say that is where we are most alike, our need and ability to always–sometimes at inopportune moments–to point out that the poo is, in fact, right there on the table. Most people I think would rather ignore it and pass the salt around it. Not my tribe members. We are the official tribe of laughing in the face of pain and pointing out the poo, and cleaning it up when necessary. Keep calm and carry on, we say. And, somehow, it always works out.