How are you?
Seems like a simple question. Three words. Uncomplicated
Or is it?
When you to say to someone ‘how are you?’ What do you expect back?
The standard knee-jerk ‘fine, thanks. You?’
Or would you prefer something more considered? Genuine
It’s a tricky one.
On one hand you want an honest connection with someone. Beyond the auto-pilot mode.
But on the other. Let’s ‘fess up. We don’t want too much honesty do we? No long monologues about your dreams thanks very much. Not unless they’re really dirty of course. And involve someone I know.
It also depends on who it is you’re asking. As well as how you asked it.
Was it a throwaway ‘how are you?’ in the style of ‘do you have a Nectar card?’
Or a more loaded, slightly nerve-wracking ‘how are you?’
Or perhaps it was the ever so confusing ‘you alright?’ I hate that one. Is it an actual bloody question to be answered? Or just a hypothetical?
Sometimes the subtly of all this just becomes too much for people. Remember. It is only 3 words. Of 3 letters each. There’s not much time to process all those variables. To gauge what is expected from your answer.
And let’s face it. A lot of the time we don’t even know how we’re feeling. There are times I’d happily share what was going on inside. If only I could work it out myself. And then formulate it into words that did it justice.
Which is why – more often that not – it’s just easier to say ‘fine, thanks. You?’
Of course. Sometimes. The person really is fine. And that’s great. It’s not like I want them not to be (that would just make me plain sociopathic).
Oh but wait. There’s another possibility. Maybe things are further than fine, thanks. Maybe things are desperately awful, thanks.
But they just don’t want to talk about it.
A lot of us assume that when bad stuff happens we’ll want to share it.
‘It’s good to talk’
‘A problem shared is a problem halved’
And all the rest…
And why not? It makes sense to me. Talk to others in the same boat. Reach out to professionals. Get support wherever you can.
Support groups. Online forums. Community nurses. They’re all there for the taking. And all very popular.
Mum could not have been more opposite.
She didn’t understand how other people might want to do these things. Go to support groups. Join online forums. And as for community nurses. They could take a running jump. To her they spelt her biggest fear: H.O.S.P.I.C.E.
At diagnosis she felt perfectly fine. Full of energy. Her spritely self. There was no reason to imagine she was ill at all.
No. She didn’t want to talk to anyone.
I did try a few times. To change her mind.
After one of our early oncology appointments. On the way out. In the hospital reception. I steered her towards a Macmillan stand. They’d created a little semi-private area using room dividers. A bit like back at school when you had those little corners for curling up on a bean bag. Getting stuck into your latest Billy Blue Hat book.
The woman was warm. Kind. Empathic. But she also somehow had the expression of a lame dog with a nail stuck in its paw. Her face was grave as mum explained her situation. When the lame dog spoke her tone was serious and solemn. Her smile oozed sympathy. On every frequency – from the body language to the turn of phrase – the message she transmitted was ‘Christ. This is bad. You poor cow. Game over love’.
If Mum hadn’t been full of fear for herself before that, she certainly was now.
She didn’t want sympathy. She wanted to get up and get on. This was a woman who I never knew to stay in bed past 8.00am. Even when she was ill. With a raging fever. She’d be up. Dressed. Full face of makeup. I’m not saying that was right. That she shouldn’t have given herself a break. Of course she should have. But that’s who she was.
Another time I encouraged her to go to a support group. Lung cancer patients. She said it was as depressing as hell. Poor weak-looking souls. In wheelchairs. Oxygen tanks. She couldn’t relate to them. Asked how on earth that could help her.
She said she was perfectly happy in denial. Laughed about it.
She wanted to concentrate on normality. On being well. Being active. Fit. Doing her daily high-speed walks around the park. Like Mary Berry on speed.
Not on having lung cancer. Inoperable. Incurable. Terminal. Lung cancer
She didn’t want people to look at her with pity. For them to avoid random stop-&-chats with her in Waitrose. To censor themselves. Their stories. She wanted people to have a conversation with Geraldine. Not cancer-ridden Geraldine.
So she made the decision to keep it private. That only close family members would know. Not friends. Not extended family. And most of all. Especially not neighbours.
I did worry that she would feel alone. Isolated. It still bothers me now – 2 years on from her death.
She could talk to us of course. To me. But it can’t have been straightforward for her. We were her family. All with our own pre-packaged roles tightly woven into the DNA of our communication. Even as a woman in my mid 30s, to mum I was just her little girl. To be protected. Looked after. Not the other way around.
But it was her choice. Whether that was based in denial. Or in optimism. Or somewhere in between.
The most important thing was she dealt with it how she wanted.
She was the leading lady after all. And it was up to us to fit in around her.
So. That combination of 3 words. How. Are. You. They became even more of a minefield for mum. How to answer. What to say… No-one likes to lie. Surely.
She dreaded bumping into people. Not because she didn’t want to talk to them. She did. She loved to hear all about what they were up to. Find out all the gossip. Keep up with the curtain-twitching. It made her feel part of it. Like everything was normal. But it was that beginning exchange she dreaded. That damn question. ‘How are you?’
I did too. In my own way. But for different reasons. There were just too many possibilities in one answer.
Q: How are you, Angela?
(My thoughts: Erm… Devastated? Coping? Afraid of what’s going to happen? In disbelief that soon she’ll be gone? Ok I guess…considering pretty much every day I wake up crying and every night I cry myself to sleep?)
A: Fine, thanks. You?
Life is complicated at the best of times. It’s impossible to distill our experience into one short answer to a 3 worded question.
In fact, can we just stop saying it? Ban ‘how are you’ altogether.
I’ll run a campaign.
Introduce an alternative perhaps. Something more generalised. Easier to handle
Like a thumbs up/thumbs down system.
Thumbs up = life is good
Thumbs down = I’m struggling. Please help
Horizontal thumbs = Meh. I’m just making the best of it
Life is just a lot of horizontal thumbs really.
Wow. Profound…. I’m off to print up the t-shirts!
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