Friday, July 15, 2011

I am a jerk

Readers and friends,

I recognised so many of those names as they came into my inbox with donations. The 63 people who donated are people I've known personally for many years, people I've known through writing and blogging, people I've had heated arguments with in commboxes, people I've worked with, people you might have heard of, people I barely know and some I've never heard of until now. I'm astounded and humbled.

But I think perhaps I shouldn't be so surprised, and I'll get to that more below.

To let you know, in the last few days, donations have covered the airfare for two friends, one coming over from Scotland for the first half of August and the other all the way from Raleigh, North Carolina, to stay for the second half.

There is also enough left over after airfares that ancillary medical fees will be easily covered at least for the next month.

My reaction to this has been a little surprising. I'm embarrassed. I feel as though I have gravely and unjustly underestimated ... well, everyone really. I have given my friends and readers and everyone one else terribly short shrift. The experience has shown me that I have a pretty deep-seated set of assumptions about people and that a lot of them are simply wrong.

Some of you may know that I left home very young and have very little family. By the time I was thirty, I'd been fending for myself in the world for half my life. I am often reticent to talk about my personal life as you know. I've learned that it does not do to share too much. But some of you know some of the background, so you will understand when I say that I have, what a friend calls, "family of origin issues" (the acronym is pronounced "phooey"). This has left me, as it will, with a profound distrust of other people and the assumption that when the chips are really down, I can count on no one but myself.

The other evening, I was having a talk about this with a friend. I was watching my friends here booking flights to go back "home" for their annual summer exodus from Rome, a process that usually leaves me somewhat depressed. It highlights the fact that there isn't really a "home" for me to go to. For as long as I can remember, whenever I am having one of those conversations, and the question arises, "What do you really want, Hilary?" my gut-instinct answer, the one hidden underneath a lifetime of cynicism and carefully trained wit, the one I never say out loud, is that I want to go home. It's been the one thing I've wanted since I was fifteen, and it's the one thing that will never, ever happen.

This year, it made me more than depressed to watch all my local friends leaving; it made me frightened. I hadn't bargained on the cancer thing still going on so late in the year. I got the diagnosis on March 9 and things have dragged and dragged. There were weeks of waiting for test results and whatever else it is one waits for in a public healthcare system. I don't know really how it happened so slowly, but now that things are finally happening fast, it is the worst possible time and I was in a near panic that I would be facing the worst part of it alone.

Until now, I've had a whole team of people to take phone calls from non-English speaking doctors, and to arrange appointments, to deal with government red tape, to make runs to the pharmacy when I can't, and one at a time, each one of these people has either left or will be gone soon.

I am now going to share: those of my readers who are like me and find such things excruciatingly embarrassing, should avert your eyes.

I've mentioned before, I think, how my brain is evil. Well, one of the elaborate theories my Evil Brain has come up with, and refuses to drop, is that there are two classes of relationships between people. Primary relationships are the ones that incur the most duties on the people in them. For the most part, they are the ones you are born with: mother, father, brother, sister, children. These are the kinds of relationships that take priority in life. When it is a choice between duty to one of these and anything else, that relationship takes first place. The only primary relationship you can acquire without being born into it is marriage.

Secondary relationships are everything else. Friends, co-workers, colleagues, neighbours. With these, the duty is still there, but is not as strong. In a secondary relationship, you are bound to help when help is needed, but only so far as it does not interfere with other important things in life, with your duties to your family, say, or to work or school.

I don't have any primary relationships. My mother is dead, my father has been out of my life for decades; I'm an only child and so was my father, so there were no aunts, uncles or cousins. My mother was estranged from her family and I've never heard from any of them. Until I went back to England in 2008, I had not heard from my mother's foster family in Manchester since I was six.

I have been aware of this relationship hierarchy since I left home and was confronted with the reality of having no one in the world to really rely upon. It's a hard lesson to learn when you're a teenager, but at least in my case it was swift.

When I was fifteen, I took a bus from the arctic where I had been living with my mother and stepfather, back to Victoria. My father picked me up at the bus station. I stayed with him a week and then he told me we had an appointment with the family court. We went into a court room and my father told the judge that he didn't want to care for me and that I should be made a ward of the court. The papers were signed and I was taken from there to the first of a series of foster homes. I was a ward of the state until I was 19, then a social worker told me I had to get a job. I never heard from my father again.

I can imagine what you are thinking, having read this, and I'm right there with you (I can also hear a few of you saying, "It answers so many questions..."). But you might be surprised to hear that it did not occur to me until I was in my 30s that anything untoward had happened. It wasn't until I told it to a priest, who had been trained in psychology, and saw his reaction that I started to understand how appalling it was. At the time, I just accepted it and got on with surviving, which might have had something to do with my already well-developed familiarity with my father's character.

In the years since then, I have to admit that I have developed a set of emotional and psychological barriers to other people, that have shaped who I am and that would be very difficult to overcome. I can't assume that they are all bad, but there are ways in which they have hardened me.

All of which leads me back to the cancer crisis. This is really the first time that I've faced something with which I am actually not capable of dealing alone. This has, naturally, set up a kind of war between my ears. When the cancer thing started, my friends and helpers, co-workers and colleagues, readers and supporters, and a whole bunch of other people I've never met or heard of, all dove into the breach to help. Often without being asked. Despite this, my Evil Brain continues to insist that depending on another human being, particularly a group of humans, is at the very least, extremely unwise. It's a funny thing about habits of thought, as I'm sure any confessor will tell you, they powerfully resist the evidence of our senses.

I hardly know what to say at this stage. Everything I need to deal with this is in place. I suppose that my Evil Brain is more or less unkillable and I will continue to be "astounded" by people helping me. Maybe at some point, I'm going to give my friends the credit they deserve.

Until then, I hope y'all won't be offended by my surprise that you all are decent, kind, honourable and caring.


I'm really trying to be less of a jerk.




Sue Sims said...

It seems to me, Hilary, that you are now totally qualified to make a fortune by writing a MisLit book...You wouldn't happen to have been abused by Evil Nuns as well, by any chance? If so, you have a full hand, and publishers should be falling over themselves to give you a massive contract. They wouldn't even need to supply a ghostwriter.

However, I hope you don't rush into print to blame the world for everything that's happened: I think that a bit more of your stoicism, acceptance and ability to be witty even in the most awful situations is utterly admirable.

Courage, mon ami, le diable est mort!

The Crescat said...

I went through the same series of emotions when so many rushed to my aide when I needed medical assistance and then a year later when the same people came through again to see that I finally made my dreams of visiting Rome a reality. You had a great deal to do with that as well by offering a room in your lovely and cozy flat.

I won't gush on and on about your generosity and brave assumption that I wasn't a twisted axe murderer. I know how you loathe emotional displays.

We are one in the same in that respect. The kindness of strangers has done much to extinguish the flames of cynicism in myself and made me a little more trusting.

It's all so very scary when faced with becoming a little less hardened. I took years to build my shell and now I am supposed to dismantle the very defenses I built? Yikes.

Anyway, this was a beautiful post... and not in some flowery poetic way that we both disdain, but in a very human way.

And you should write a book.

Liz said...

First of all can I say, holy cow is that REALLY YOU, Sue Sims whom I met online over a decade ago and lost track of????

Hilary, I am not at all amazed that your friends have been so kind. My guess is that you've been kind to them over the years as well. It sometimes is one of those "cast your bread upon the waters: things.

It's really hard to trust people when the very people in whom you should have been able to always put your trust let you down so badly. However, I'm sure that your friends understand the wound that causes you to feel astonishment at their caring deeds.
I'll bet none of them see you as a jerk.

Anonymous said...

Hello Hilary;

Fellow Cdn. here. I have learned from you today. Humility.


The Raven (C. Corax) said...

Dear Miss White,

You're not a jerk.

Agellius said...

I like sharing personal stuff, so I enjoyed it. : )

Anonymous said...

Hi. I had never heard of you until I read about you on The Crescat. I came over, read, and donated. I too am single with vey little family, and generally I'm fine with it. (I have also thought I would love to live in Italy). But when you are alone and get sick enough, it can be truly terrifying. I totally sympathize with your being very sick (or made to feel hideous after some treatment) and not being sure there will be someone there. Actually I think you have done a better job of organizing friendly help than I would have done.

Morals of the story:
1. Make friends with Miss Crescat. Girl knows how to summon help when needed.
2. Blog and share your life. People will come from everywhere to help. God doesn't say, "don't be needy." Quite the opposite, I think. When you are in actual need, and you are, ASK. (Hey, it made me feel good to help - your asking gave me a chance to say to myself, "I helped someone out today. One day, that might be me, and I hope someone will help me like that."). Win, for everyone.

Sue Sims said...

Hilary - please forgive me for using your blog as an email!

Liz - I assume it's me! My email address is

Anonymous said...

Get better. Even Mark Shea gave you a plug!

Liz said...

Thanks, Hilary, for hosting a forum where I rediscovered an old internet friend.

I hope that the rest of this summer goes much more easily than you are anticipating, and that there will be people there to continue to help with all the little details of life while you're in the midst of it. If I were in Italy, I'd be more than happy to help run errands, etc. Unfortunately, Italy is not on my agenda.

Martial Artist said...

Dear Miss White,

When I shared this comment with my wife, she asked me to tell you to remember that" there is one 'phooey' that has always been there, and will always BE there. She is our Blessed Mother. She has been watching and caring all these years and will not abandon you."

May God bless and heal you,
Keith Töpfer

SoaringSoprano said...

Miss White,

I found your lovely blog through Seraphic's, and have been quietly following for some time now. I don't think you are a jerk at all, although that may be because I feel we are alike in how we deal with things. What you are going through is scary and difficult even for people who have primary relationships, and so I applaud you for your strength thus far and for your beautiful ability to ask for help. Be assured that I will do all that I can, monetarily and spiritually, to help.

God bless you and Our lady keep you!

~Ms. McG

Anonymous said...

I can't imagine being in your situation, Hilary, and I'm sure people have enjoyed helping out with donations, b/c we have all been blessed in one way or another by your writing and blog.

Anonymous said...

I'm just wondering, since your crossing everyone off your jerk list, whether it might not be a little hasty to cross me off? Perhaps I could sort of man the fort for a while, and do the odd snarly post?

Anonymous said...

By the way---I'm 'anonymous'. I didn't do that just to annoy you or break the rules or anything, I just pressed the wrong button. Honest.
p.s. you always seem to get the strangest squiggly passowrd things---the previous one was 'fulter' and this on is 'somatemb' which sounds liike a drug from Brave New World.

Fr. T. said...

It's Fr. T. (aka Thomas Edward Trottier of the Oratory)---something is wrong somewhere. (n.b. password this time is 'forapu' which sounds like something a six year old might think up.

Fr. T. again. said...

How about, "I was fultering on the somatemb but when Stan's boy pointed to the forapu it really cheered me up."

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Oh! new O's P. contest: nonsense verse made up of commbox security words.

Great idea!

Anonymous said...

Did you really live in the Arctic? Someday, tell us more about that. Something diverting to read while these 95-degree F. NYC days (I think that's about equivalent to a 35-degree C. Santa Marinella day) -- drag on and on.

I too am trying in fits and starts to be less and less of a jerk. Most days I think I make several failed attempts. Stay cool,


if "w as a vowel" is acceptable, perhaps my word can be added to our accidental literature:


Fr. T. said...

I think shkqhw might be an actual Czech word---they aren't big on vowels over there.
New word: obintec as in, "I called the obintec but he said he couldn't come until next Thursday as he had accidentally stuffed the cat down the drain, and did I know a good plumber."

Fr.T. said...

nogro:"I was going to use nogro in a sentence on Hillary's blog but something told me it might be in extremely bad taste as we are supposed to be cheering her up."
This is really addictive.

Fr.T. said...

I went to see my dealer
and all he could sell me was an ounci
I said that wasn't nearly enough
not even to get me a little bit bounci.

Meredith said...

Someone told me once that friends are the family you choose. I think that's true.

Steve T. said...

Hilary, I am a jerk too. Think St. Jerome with none of the deep faith or theological sophistication. Don't sweat it.

Word: crier

~Katherine~ said...

Miss Hilary,

I've only happened upon your blog in the last couple of weeks, but have thoroughly enjoyed what I have read thus far and have been deeply moved to read of your diagnosis.

Suffice to say that I am all too often a "jerk" for reasons similar to yours, and that when I've had to soften my shell it's been a painful process, but very worth it.

You are in my prayers, and should you ever decide to travel to Fort Worth, Texas, I should love to stand you a high tea complete with all sorts of things that one's doctors get so fussy about.

wv: chnoni.
I once wore my chnoni hat merrily,
But met a fashionista named Beverly.
Said Beverly, "Kat,
Just give it up flat,
You'll ne'er match the chicness of Hilary!"