I’ve been thinking about it a lot and…well…maybe I’m selling my friends short. The truth is that I have read lots of books about people going through situations completely and utterly different from my own whose lives I think I comprehend quite well.
I certainly didn’t have to travel to the fifth dimension myself in order to understand what Meg and Charles Wallace went through when they “tessered” across time and space in order to save their father in Madeleine L’Engle’s book, A Wrinkle In Time. I just understood. It’s a simple as that.
But, then again, maybe my ability to empathize with others stems from the very fact that I have lead a life that’s considered out of the norm.
Everyone is capable of feeling sympathy. Sympathy is the reason that my friends (and their parents) pity me. But, even though they feel sorry for me, and even though they feel compassion for me, I don’t know that they are able to actually put themselves in my place. If they could, then they’d see that, despite the fact that I am a girl without a mother, I am just as capable of having a normal, happy, contented life as they are.
Only empathic people are able to identify with others and truly understand another person’s feelings. And, unfortunately, not everyone seems capable of being empathic.
Isn’t “empathy” an awesome word? It sounds so strong, and forceful, and important. I think that “empathy” is so much grander than “sympathy,” which sounds so wimpy and whiny. It definitely ranks up there with “epiphany” as one of my all-time favorite words.
Anyway, as I was saying, because I am capable of feeling empathy, and because I am unsure that this capacity resides in many of the people around me, I can’t help but wonder if my ability to identify with others (despite the fact that they are experiencing something completely different from anything that I have ever experienced myself) is directly related to the fact that I happen to have a dead mother.
At the same time, I also can’t help but worry that maybe I am just being conceited. Maybe I am endowing myself with some special quality that isn’t really special at all; some quality that every human being possesses (even though not everyone knows how to use it).
Ugh! I can’t bear to think about it anymore.
Am I so desperate to find meaning in my mother’s death that I am giving it a significance that it doesn’t deserve, or do I truly have a heightened sensitivity to other people’s pain?
I don’t know!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I just know that it would be really hard for me to tell Elise, or Natalie, or some other friend about my mother’s various cancer-related ailments (for example) and get only their pity in return. But, how can I possibly expect anything more?
It’s obvious that friends like Ellen and Rose already feel sorry enough for poor, motherless me as it is. Would telling them details about my mother’s illness really give them greater insight into how I feel about all that has happened to me? Or, would it just make them pity me more than they already do? Let’s face it, the truth is that sickness and death is pretty depressing. Maybe it would be better if I kept my stories to myself.
Besides, my few-found memories are giving me a bit of trouble right now. They just don’t seem to want to get into their proper order. Instead of one continuous timeline, they’re exploding into my head in the form of random flashbacks. And, although there is something intensely familiar (almost comforting) about these painful images, I have discovered that I’m having a lot of trouble figuring out what came before and what came after.
For example, at some point during her illness my mother began to limp. Now, it obviously started after doctors removed her breast, but before she was forced to get around in a wheelchair. But, I can’t get a clear enough handle on the timing of things to say with any confidence exactly when she started to limp, how old I was at the time, or how long she limped before she couldn’t walk anymore. I just know that she limped.
At first, she only limped a little – kind of like a person who has just stubbed her toe. But, eventually, the limp got bad enough that she had to use a cane in order to get around at a (relatively) normal pace.
She had two canes. One cane was made of wood – the color of a baseball bat. It was ugly, and I hated it. The other cane was made of clear lucite. I liked that one. I thought that it was cool. In fact, I used to incorporate it into the song and dance routines I liked to perform while standing on my makeshift stage (also known as “the bricks in front of the living room fireplace”).
For some reason that I can’t explain, my mother preferred to use the wooden cane. It bothered me. A lot. But, I never said anything to her about it.
One day, my mother and I were shopping together in a department store when I did something really awful. I was walking behind her, following her from linens to housewares, when I suddenly started to imitate her – to limp. I swear that it wasn’t because i was trying to make fun of her. Really!! I just thought…oh, who knows what I thought.
I wasn’t old enough yet (or aware enough) to understand that, to my mother, the limp was a symbol of her sickness; a reminder that all was not right with the world. All I knew was that she limped, so I wanted to limp too. Little kids are like that. At least, I always was.
Whenever a friend got hurt, and had to wear a cast on her arm, or a splint on her finger, I was always a little…envious. I wanted to be the one with the cool cast or the funky splint. Even the thought of having to walk with crutches excited me a little bit. I don’t know why, but I never associated these things with pain, or with injury. They all just seemed like fun.
In fact, I am still a little bit like that (about certain things). For instance, a lot of my friends are starting to get braces on their teeth. And, even though they are always complaining about how much the metal hurts, and how they can’t chew gum anymore, I still want them.
Unfortunately, the orthodontist says that my top teeth are perfectly straight. I don’t even have an overbite. And, although he does admit that my bottom teeth are a little cramped, he says that my mouth has “character” (whatever that means), and that no one sees my bottom teeth when I talk anyway, so it doesn’t matter if they’re a little uneven. I guess I won’t be getting braces anytime soon. Sigh.
My father says that I am being absolutely ridiculous about the whole “braces thing” (as he likes to call it). But, I am telling you, at some point, everyone thinks that things like limps and splints and braces are cool. I don’t know why, they just do.
Anyway, there I was, walking through the aisles of the local department store, limping just like my mother, when she suddenly spun around and caught me. I say “caught” because I don’t think that I was limping when she was looking in my direction. Which, I know, makes it sound like I was trying to make fun of her. But (once again) I SWEAR that I wasn’t.
She got really, really upset with me (which happened really, really rarely, so I am not at all surprised that I’ve been able to recall this incident so clearly), and she made me promise that I would never do it again – ever. She was so totally freaked out that she was practically crying. I felt awful. I hadn’t meant to hurt her. I just wanted to be like her.
Eventually, I stopped wanting to be like my mom.