The kindness of strangers

People of various skin colours holding handsThere may be more than a million people in Calgary, but sometimes the city seems very small. There are many people in my small community, which includes my neighbourhood, my gym, even the local grocery store, that I know by face or even by name. I can’t be the only one who has more acquaintances than close friends.

In particular, I have attended the same gym for many years now.  When I was first diagnosed with leukemia, I gave up the deep-water fitness classes I used to attend religiously because I just didn’t have the strength or the energy. A beloved teacher kindly arranged for a group get-well card from the regulars. Through my recovery, I’ve shifted to yoga classes, with only a small overlap of attendees.

Recently, I tried to return to the pool once a week, only to realize that a lot more of me is visible in pool attire than in yoga gear. My swimming buddies were quick to ask questions about the big bruises I sport, especially on my hips. How to explain that I actually cause most of those bruises by injecting myself daily with blood thinners? That I don’t have a lot of platelets, which makes the bruising worse? And that, frankly, I’m a huge klutz? So, to be honest, I make myself black and blue.

I know that people mean well when they ask, but, believe it or not given all I’ve told you thus far, sometimes I don’t really want to talk about my health. It’s complicated, I’m complicated, I may not know you all that well if at all, and, no offence but I don’t really want to get into it with you. Of course, then I feel guilty for having such a strong reaction to the questioning.

In truth, I too ask lots of intimate questions of people, both as a psychologist and as a curious person. Recently I caught myself asking someone whether she planned to have children, and before she could answer, I apologized for my intrusive query on such a private matter. Am I as meddlesome as these people feel to me? Probably even moreso.

The beautiful thing about leukemia is that I can choose to tell people whether I’m sick or not. There are no overt signs, especially when I’m fully clothed. There’s a part of me that appreciates people’s interest and caring, but another part that accepts that concern more easily from people I am closer to.

I fear that I’ll seem annoyed or dismissive if I avoid answering these queries. The last thing I’d want to do is make anyone feel bad for asking. My response depends on my relationship with the person that asked and my mood at that particular moment. Am I up to an insensitive response? Will a kinder response make me cry today? Will I be able to get on with my day without stewing about the interaction?

I may need schooling in how to handle these situations gracefully because, instead of figuring out what to do, I just stopped going to swim classes. I don’t believe in avoiding situations that are difficult for me, yet that’s exactly what I’m doing. (Please don’t follow my example here.) There will always be more questions coming from a place of concern and caring. Maybe, with practice, I’ll get better at answering.

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