When I was younger and more carefree, I would always be accosted by the strangest people. People at the fringe of society, people with lots of baggage, lots of imagination, and an irresistible urge to tell their story. I call them the Crazies; it’s an term of endearment, because it takes a lot of courage and self-effacement to be a Crazy in this world. To dance to the beat of your own drum, when every social convention beckons us back to order. It’s incredibly difficult to be maladjusted, marginal, or even just a little different and many of these people suffer a great deal, as we can all imagine.
I don’t know what about me told them it was ok to just walk up to me and start talking, as if I had been their lifelong friend and we were just catching up. This happened constantly: on the street, in the subway, in airplanes; day or night, and in every country I’ve travelled to.
Sometimes people talked to me in different languages, as though I could understand, nodding “yes? yes? you see what I mean, sister?”. Like the guy I met on a train from Rome to Florence who was wearing a foil-covered motorcycle helmet to protect himself from harmful rays, and who gave me a small turtle figurine to keep me lucky (it did). Or that woman on the subway in Montreal who was covered in homemade tattoos, was clearly drunk at 9am and who really needed to tell someone that”music really saves your life doesn’t it, if you listen?”.
Not all people I talked to were real Crazies. A lot of people are just looking for a friendly ear. There was that time I had a 7 hour conversation with a man who sat beside me on an airplane from Amsterdam to Nairobi – we had a blast, the stewardesses thought we laughed too loud but didn’t say anything because the guy was a pilot or something. By the end, I knew his troubles with his teenage daughter, his doubts about his work, and everything about airplanes and airports you can imagine. He was a real joker, he could turn even the most serious subjects (airport security anyone?) into a laughing fit. At destination, we knew each others’ lives inside out, yet had never exchanged first names.
Airports are a place that seem to bring people together. Something about the stress of traveling, or the anxiety of being reduced to a barefoot automaton during security checks. I somehow always end up in the line where someone has a complicated story to tell, or needs a witness, or an interpreter. African mamas adorned in ceremonial outfits who would suddenly hand me their babies while they went for a pee break; people whose flights were delayed would end up telling me the entire back story of why they were there in the first place, starting from childhood. All this time, I never even had to ask a question.
“Anything to declare?”A very naive customs officer
When my life got too busy with work and I started taking myself too seriously, I disconnected from what made me such a good audience. None of the Crazies wanted to talk to me anymore… I was afraid of them, they of me. Once on the airplane, I would pull my mask over my eyes and sleep for the entire flight. I would see a slightly unhinged man from the corner of my eye and immediately stare at my feet. That silence lasted for years, until recently, when I was forced to hang out at the hospital on a daily basis.
I have to be honest and say that as much as cancer took from me, it also gave me a few gifts. One of those was that as I became more vulnerable, I also became more open. As I felt threatened, and scared, and in pain, I was also able connect to other people’s fears and pain. I think I also reconnected with my essential purpose, and with the essence of the human experience. Halfway through my treatments, the Crazies came back and I realized how much I’d missed those impromptu encounters for all these years.
The first one to talk to me was a lady who seemed to have finished all her treatments months ago but wanted to hang out in the cancer center nonetheless. She came in to weigh herself. She had a full head of hair. She was on the heavy side and was wearing rubber boots on a perfectly sunny day, along with three carefully arranged layers of ponchos of various colours. She had a feathery dream catcher and a large crystal hanging from her neck and she clinked and chimed when she walked. She was dissatisfied because she hadn’t lost as much weight as she wanted. Only 10 pounds! (I wonder how much she would have lost if she’d taken her clothes and jewelry off).
I was waiting to see my doctor so – captive audience – I listened. I offered the encouragement she seemed to be seeking: “10 pounds is a good start, no?”. She beamed a toothy smile, and launched into a tirade: “I’m tellin’ ya, the cancer, it’s because of the Fosate they put in shit we eat! EVERYTHING! like even sliced bread! I eat 5 slices of Gadoua every morning! and even Coke has it, that’s what’s making it so fuzzy, the Fosate! Heyyyyy…I told all my friends they have to stop drinking soft drinks or they’ll be like me, eh!” (I think she meant Glyphosate, because it was all over the news at the time).
I didn’t have time to tell her maybe cutting down sugary drinks and bread might be a way to go to lose more weight, that she was off on another rant about how doctors were always late for their appointments, “like they learned that in school, I swear, eh!”. She wasn’t angry at all, just smiling all the time, bouncing up and down in her kaki boots, swooshing her clothes left and right. Happy to be there.
Funny how when a person starts expressing a loud opinion, the circle around her gets wider. People are afraid of things that are different and maybe a little extravagant, so soon enough everyone else took different seats and it was just her and me. She was hilarious. Of course she’d had cancer but it was over and now this was all a big adventure for her. She taunted the nurses and made gentle fun of my hair (of which I had none at the time). She told me about her toenails (split and grey!), and her chin hairs and all the pills she was taking to counter the side effects of the other pills she was taking. She put Life in that waiting room, where we would otherwise all sit gloomily, not looking at one another, staring at our phones, pretending not to be here.
The second was Mr. C. We met when I walked in on him semi-naked in a changing room he had forgotten to lock. He was evidently having treatments in the lower part of his body. Bladder or prostate, my guess. He was an older man, I would guess in his late 60s. He was very timid, and seemed quite lonely. He had a bit of a sad, saggy mouse look about him: thinning hair arranged in a combover to the left, big ears, small pointy nose, with strange rosy lips, everything pointing downward. Mr. C and I were on the same schedule for radiation, every day for 6 weeks. I walked in on him undressing four times. The second time I joked: “Next time I will have to invite you for coffee!”. After that I think he left the door unlocked on purpose, because every time I opened the door, he’d get that naughty smile kids put on when they prank you. On the fourth time he hesitantly reminded me about the coffee – I offered to go get some, he blushed, but he couldn’t drink coffee during his treatment.
We talked every day before our treatments, each of us sitting in uncomfortable plastic chairs, wearing those ridiculous hospital gowns that are designed to create intimacy among strangers. I swear somewhere there is an industrial uniform designer whose mission it was to create the most humiliating piece of garment possible, one that says: “MAY YOU BE FOREVER IN NAKED AWE WHEN FACING THE MEDICAL PROFESSION!!!”
After two weeks Mr. C told me about his “horrible, terrible diarrhea, I mean really it came out so suddenly… there was so much! I thought I would pass…”. That day he had wide frightened eyes, and he seemed truly traumatized by the experience. The nurse told him it would pass. He didn’t seem reassured. I think what scared him the most was that he was alone when it happened. I mean, what if he hadpassed out? What happens to all those people who are sick AND alone? I had no comfort to offer, unfortunately, other than what the nurse had said. By that time, my own skin was a ghastly shade of charred and I was having trouble moving my arm. The nurse told me it would pass.
Luckily for both of us, the gastric trouble ended, and every morning after that he told me how he hadn’t had diarrhea. We counted down the days to the end of treatments and he seemed genuinely sad when my doctor decided to add 5 sessions to my plan. While we waited, he told me that he commuted two hours by train to come to the hospital every day, and two hours back. It was a whole day trip for him. He told me about his 11 year old grandson, whom he babysat on occasional Saturdays, and how disappointed he was that the kid would prefer playing video games to fishing or biking with his grandpa, when he was there with nothing to do.
– “Sometimes I go, and all I do is sit until his mom gets back. Easy, but…”, he said with an uneasy smile. He seemed forlorn and lost. Every morning he greeted me with the biggest smile. If he didn’t see me, he’d hang out after his treatment until I arrived. He wanted me to tell him how I was doing, and what I would do after all this was over. Planning for the future takes a big place when you can see the end of treatments, in cancer. He said he’d like to try something new; maybe he’d finally travel, except he was alone, and afraid. When he finished his treatments I gave him a hug and a kiss on each cheek, and he blushed: “I hope to never see you again here”, he said. I had another week to go, and I missed him every morning. I hope he went to Paris or somewhere exotic.
Weeks have passed and nowadays, I walk around without looking at my feet, so maybe that’s why more people feel inclined to share a bit of conversation with me. I also have the greatest ice breaker with my kids, who insist on saying hello to every single person they meet, and occasionally dole out a hug. Makes for long, but interesting milk runs… Random old people will smile, street people give us thumbs up, truck drivers honk. I feel like I’m living in an episode of Mr. Rogers’ neighbourhood, where everyone is friendly. It’s good to be home again in the world.