This morning, while being wheeled into work (because J is a freaking rockstar of awesome), we met up with a former coworker of ours. This woman is French, and has a super thick accent, and is very sweet. She hadn’t seen me for quite a while, and the walker was new to her.
“Good morneeng, Vashtee, are you okay? Deed you hurt yourself?”
“Oh! Hi! How are you?”
“I am good, but zees walkair, are you okay?”
“Oh. Uh.” I looked at J, who was no help. He was busy trying to get my wheels over the building’s threshold, something we struggle with every morning. “Not…really? I..have ALS.”
“I have not haird of zees ALS, what ees eet? Are you going to be ok?”
“It’s…” Ugh. What do I tell her? I’m gonna die, sorry we haven’t seen each other in awhile?
She misinterprets my struggle as reluctance. “Eet’s okay, you don’t ‘ave to talk about eet, eef you don’t want to.”
“Oh, no, no.” I settle for, “It’s a degenerative disease, I’m losing my ability to walk.”
Even that slice of information makes her sad. And it’s awkward. A new kind of awkward, a language barrier, subtleties of tone and subtext kind of awkward. Usually if someone doesn’t recognize the names of my disease, I can say, ‘neurodegenerative’ and they infer the ‘terminal’ part by tone and expression. And then we move on. But she doesn’t understand, and I don’t want to be so crass as to just cheerfully say “I’m dying” as I do with folks I know better, but there aren’t better and simpler words that are gentle. So I leave it there.
Delivering news of a terminal diagnosis is hard. I have complete empathy for doctors, this has to be the shittiest part of their job. But when the diagnosis is yours, and that relative/friend of the patient is a dear friend/relative of yours, not just some professional duty, it’s harder. It’s a strange and terrible combination of delivering devastating news and divulging a horrible secret. And watching the parade of emotions cross your faces, the ‘holy shit this is awful but this is HER dying so I can’t be selfish and grieve on my own behalf I have to be strong for her and not let it phase me but holy GOD, man I can’t believe she is DYING but she’s standing there looking like she’s sorry for ME..’ That part doesn’t get less awkward.
The worst time was when I told Danielle. She started crying, and when I reached over to comfort her, she brushed me off, dismissing her tears with a headshake and “It’s not about you.” I still don’t know what the hell that was supposed to mean. But I never asked.
Delivering the news hasn’t gotten easier. I’ve gotten better vocabulary, gotten a smoother delivery, but telling someone who has English as a secondary language was an all new difficulty level for me. It was an interesting experience.
A new level of awkward.