I have nothing but sympathy for the people in my life right now; it is so hard to talk to someone who is going through a slow-motion tragedy, and I understand that. I understand it in a much more visceral way now that I’m on the other side of the process than I did when it was friends or coworkers who were watching a loved one slip away. It’s so hard to know what to say, what tone to take; whether to address the issue directly (“how are you doing, really?”) or whether to wait and watch for cues from the affected person. I know that people don’t really know what to say to me. But while I was able to be (I think) fairly gracious about it for a long time, as my father declines I am becoming increasingly crankier and more impatient, regardless of who the other party is and what they’re saying.
Last night was a prime example. Two prime examples. The first was Beard, a guy in the group I modeled for. Beard is a model himself, and actually got me this gig. He’s also the guy who encouraged me to audition for the Guild, and he’s been a great supporter--he’s always recommending me to artists, and telling me how fabulous a model I am, and so forth and so on until I’m pretty embarrassed. We’ve modeled together, which was okay (better for him than me, apparently, as we’ll see in a minute here) and we’ve talked a little bit. He knows what’s going on in my life, and knows that I’m being careful about not committing to jobs I think I might not be able to complete (I recently turned down an eight-week sculpture gig with a group he’s in, for what should be obvious reasons.) So as he was setting up his easel and I was getting undressed, he asked me how my dad was doing.
He’s going, I said, wanting to not have that conversation right before I got on the stand.
Are you going back? he asked. I nodded.
For a short visit?
Which seemed like a dumb question to me, but I let it go. Short visit? Hello? My father is now barely functional. He’s lucid, although he’s starting to miss things, and his memory seems to be slipping. My mother had just told me on the phone that she was upset because the visiting nurse who comes to bathe my dad hadn’t brushed his teeth, leading me to wonder why this woman had gotten into nursing in the first place. My mother is exhausted, the bedroom is full of medical equipment, the oncologist is giving her a hard time because Dad’s not in hospice care, and Beard is asking me if I’m going back for a short visit? What does he think I’m going to do? Sail in, say Hey dad, how’s the dying going?, and sail back out so I can come back to California double-quick and be naked in front of more artists?
No, that’s not how it works. I’m going home, and I’m staying as long as I need to. That is how it works. But I wasn’t going to get into it with Beard, so I made a noncommittal noise, set my egg timer for twenty minutes, and started in on the gesture poses.
I thought that was it, but as we were packing up at the end of the night, there was a discussion about next week’s session. I’d originally been scheduled to do it, but Kindness and I had agreed to move me to last night, in case I had to leave suddenly. She had then decided to do a double-model session, with Beard as one and a new woman I don’t know as the other. The new woman hasn’t committed yet, and Beard got all excited by the prospect of my taking her place, and the three of us talked about it a little. I got the distinct impression that Beard was prepared to call this other woman and ask her not to take the job, if it meant that I would do it. I couldn’t agree to that. I said that I would be happy to take the job if the other woman couldn’t make it and if I was still in town, but I couldn’t commit to it. And Beard kept pushing me to take it, and I started to get really peeved. Kindness stepped in and pointed out that while she was sure everyone would be fine with seeing me two weeks in a row and it would be great if I could do it, it absolutely depended on my schedule, and that I shouldn’t feel pressured. But Beard wasn’t getting the hint. It was like he just had no clue.
Although having a clue is not always helpful either. Generally I’m finding that people who have been through this have a better sense of what to say and when, but that’s not always true. Sometimes they’re the worst, at least for me to be talking to at a particular time. Maybe they’re still so involved in their own grieving process that in the process of trying to comfort me, they end up just going on and on about the details of their parent’s passing, and I can’t make them stop no matter what I do. One modeling client of mine, a woman with whom I only ever have phone contact, is a huge culprit. I hear the story of her trip home to take care of her ailing mother virtually every time we talk. It was fine and helpful the first time... but by the third time, I was getting pretty antsy. And especially since this is so delicate, I don’t feel like I can remind her that she’s told me the story before, as I could if it were a story about something else.
And then last night, after rescuing me from Beard, Kindness did the exact same thing. She gave me a ride to the BART station after the job (which was muted but good;apparently the screaming I was doing on the inside wasn’t visible on the outside, and this reminds me of something else I want to say about public nudity that will hold.) I tried to keep the conversation off my father because the last time she drove me to BART, I ended up just missing my train because we were talking, and I had to wait twenty-some minutes without a jacket and it was positively glacial on the platform. So this time, I chattered all the way to the station about trivial things, cheerful cheerful, everything’s fine. But as soon as the car was at the drop-off point, she put it in park and nailed me. Of course she wouldn’t see it that way, and I know it wasn’t her intent at all. I know she is trying to be helpful. But hearing the story about her mom again was not helpful in the slightest, and had the effect of totally puncturing what small good mood I had been able to pull together. She kept telling me that I should follow my heart on whether I call the airline and try to change my ticket so I can go back sooner, that I should take care of myself, do what seemed best to me, yet it was clear that she was still upset that she hadn’t been present when her mother passed, and that she was trying to influence me towards making the choice she wished she had. I virtually leapt out of the car, barely saying a decent goodbye; I mumbled something about how I had to go home right away and do some thinking and thankyouverymuchfortheride and got out before she could draw breath to start talking again.
I felt terrible about it, but I was angry too. Because right at the point where she had turned the conversation to my father and my situation, I had said, I am getting tired of talking about this. A statement people closer to me recognize as a warning sign that I’m about to get really defensive and unpleasant (Mom knows this one all too well, I think I got it from Dad) and an opportune moment to back the hell off, but that apparently isn’t strong enough for people who don’t know me as well. By the time I got out of the car I was shaking.
It is as if there really isn’t anything that anyone can say to me right now. Naiad got it right when I saw her at D’s on Sunday; she just gave me one of her big Valkyrie hugs where my toes drag on the floor and told me that if I ever needed her, she was the queen of cheap Internet airline fares and she would be there. AX tells me that I’m a good daughter (we’re reassuring each other a lot right now, as his father is in town looking at apartments so AX can keep an eye on him) and holds me when I cry. Many of my other friends tell me they’re sorry, and wait to see if I need to talk about it; when I don’t they easily change the subject. Other than Teutonia, who went off on a horrible riff about how my mother should just let go and let my father die (and that swiftly became understandable--and heartbreaking--when Teutonia revealed that her own mother won’t let her talk to her dying father), I usually feel like my friends have got the balance figured out.
Other people, maybe I just shouldn’t talk to right now. Fingers in my ears and la la laing all the way.