When the elephant takes over the room

This past weekend, I bumped into a fellow I hadn’t seen in a long while. Let’s call him Adam, since it’s the first name that I (and God) came up with. Adam and I run in some similar circles, so I often know snippets about what’s going on in his life. I imagine he knows snippets about what’s happening in my life too, not to exaggerate my importance to him.

Our conversation started out just fine. I caught up on Adam’s work life, which I knew had undergone some changes since we last spoke. He seemed interested to tell me what was happening, and I appreciated his update.

As the focus shifted to me, Adam asked: “Keeping busy?” We can assume, given what we had just been discussing, that Adam was asking about my work life as well. I was a bit perplexed by Adam’s question, and I’m sure my expression betrayed me.

I should mention that although I had not seen Adam since I was diagnosed with leukemia, I was 99.9% sure he knew I was ill. (Remember, we run in similar circles and all. Word gets around.) I assume, rightly or wrongly, that when I bump into someone who knows I have leukemia, someone who hasn’t seen me since I was diagnosed, that that person might acknowledge my health challenges in some way. Is that a fair assumption? Probably not. Maybe I’m just hoping the person I’m talking to will bring it up, so I won’t have to do it myself.

There are so many ways I could have responded to Adam’s query. I could have told him I was indeed busy and left it at that–I was late for yoga after all–but that didn’t feel right. I could have told him that in fact I’ve been really busy lately with doctor’s appointments and medical tests and hospital visits and, in between all that, worrying about my health–in fact, cancer is running me off my feet lately–but I don’t think that’s what he was after.

Instead, I paused and said: “I have leukemia [stated as a question, as if I wasn’t sure he knew], so, no, I’m not working much at all lately.” The conversation died soon thereafter. Yes, I killed it. Or did he? I know he didn’t mean to with his innocent question. Most normal adults would have easily been able to answer him.

I don’t always talk about my elephant, but when I know she’s in the room, as she was with Adam, I find it hard to pretend she’s not. Sure, the conversation died, but I believe, in this case, I’d have felt worse if I’d ignored my reality altogether. Sometimes I have to acknowledge the cancer before I can move on to talk about anything else, even if cancer will bring the conversation to a standstill. But I’m risking the other person’s discomfort in the process. Is that fair?

Maybe I’d feel unsettled either way, come to think of it. I hate it when there’s not just one right answer. Or maybe there is, and I just don’t see it. Feel free to help me out here.

Elephant on therapist's couch

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2 thoughts on “When the elephant takes over the room

  1. I think you figured it out as you wrote this post as I could follow your train of thought as I read it. There is no right or wrong answer. You have to do what feels right in each situation. And sometimes it might make others feel uncomfortable but that is their problem, not yours. Cancer is your reality.

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