Call me crazy, but lately, I’ve been much more observant of the assholes that surround me. I’m pretty sure they’re taking over the country. I think I used to be one of them. UGH.
Sometimes, it takes something, like having cancer, to teach you — better yet, REMIND you — to have patience, self-awareness and open-mindedness.
Let me tell you a few stories about some assholes, myself included…
I’ve been working since age 14, hard. At everything I do. When I got my first PR job out of college, I started working even harder. I’m talking up at 5:30 a.m. and sometimes not home until 10 or 11 p.m. I’m talking grab a quick lunch and eat it at your desk while you continue to meet whatever deadlines are piling up. I’m talking minimal vacation time. As the years passed, I was able to find a bit more work/life balance, but that’s only because I drew boundaries… the work didn’t get any less difficult and I continued to have to find ways to do more with less.
When I still worked in NYC, I’d pay attention to people during my morning commute, or while gazing out of my office window. I’d zone in on the jerks who were casually lunching, shopping, exercising… and I’d get totally annoyed. I’d think, “WTF DO THEY DO for a living? What have they DONE to earn that kind of freedom? HOW DO I GET TO DO THAT?”
And I wouldn’t be happy for them… I’d be bitter. I’d be jealous.
I’d assume they were living off of the trust fund that their daddy left them, or their wealthy enabling parents were still paying their bills. I’d see a woman and think, how lucky is she that she gets to be a stay at home mom who lunches and shops. I’d think, he or she must be a server, bartender or actor/model, independently wealthy. Since I started my own successful skincare business, a few years ago I thought, maybe they too are bossbabes who run virtual empires… when is my business gonna take off so I can do THAT?
When I was told I had cancer in June, I knew I needed to stop working immediately… I needed an entire month before surgery in order to prepare for my bilateral mastectomy, to research my reconstruction options, to find the right doctors, to get myself in decent physical shape, to get my mind right after a cancer diagnosis and massive break-up.
And one day, as I sat at a sandwich shop on a Tuesday afternoon in late June, it occurred to me… “Mary, you small-minded asshole… maybe all those people you silently judged for years, out of jealousy, were going through some really hard shit. Maybe they had cancer too, or another horrific disease and only had a few months left to live. Maybe they were caring for a spouse or a parent and couldn’t work, and this was the break they desperately needed from the insanity their lives had become…”
I was too absorbed in my own daily, grueling routine that I’d never thought of that. And guess what… most people don’t. It’s human nature. But we should…
A day or two before my surgery, my best friend Laura took me to see the movie “Trainwreck” in the middle of the day. The theater was mostly empty, and it was showing in one of those newer theaters with reclining chairs. I’d just launched this blog, and announced what I was going through, so while the ads were running on the screen, before the previews started, I asked Laura to take a picture of me reclining so I could post it on social media with a clever caption. Well, some man sitting 10 rows behind me was apparently pissed…
From what felt like miles away, he yelled at me from the back of the theater, telling ME how rude, disruptive and inconsiderate I was being for using my cell phone during a movie… this all taking place while the lights were still on. I, of course, laughed very confidently and in my best Long Island accent told him to mind his business and to stop being so dramatic. I wonder what his reaction would have been if I’d said, “sorry sir… I have breast cancer, am having massive surgery tomorrow and I’ve never been to a theater like this… I was just trying to capture a moment with one of my oldest and dearest best friends.” Would he have understood? Would he have felt like a total asshole?
A similar situation happened to me when I was 16 and going through chemotherapy. I was bald and my brother John, an eclectic dude who likes art and music and things that are dark, took me to the mall. I was rocking a bald head like I always did, and some flannel and grunge, and so was John. We enter through Macy’s and I don’t realize it, but as I passed an older woman, her daughter and grandchild, they stopped dead in their tracks and stared me down in horror. Then, with my brother in earshot, the grandmother said to her daughter, “How disgusting… kids these days… walking around like skinheads trying to attract attention…”
My brother tapped her on her shoulder, smiled kindly, and said, “She’s got cancer… ASSHOLE.”
I’ve spent the last two months recovering at my parent’s house, unable to drive, and for the most part, only leaving to go to a doctor appointment. When I was still in a lot of physical pain, car rides to these appointments were extremely uncomfortable, sometimes excruciating. To avoid my wrath, my mother or father would have to drive slowly… they’d have to nearly stop before approaching a big bump or pothole. Most of my appointments were early in the day during rush hour or heavy commuter traffic, and we’d often have to take the Long Island Expressway, where everyone drives like an asshole. Everyone rode our ass, we’d get honked at, we’d get cursed at, because we were going the speed limit… in the right lane. Like, come on assholes… at least I know how to drive slow with class.
But if I were them, and I’ve BEEN them, late for work, annoyed about having to go to work in general, I might have done the same thing… But would they have acted that way had they known the passenger was recovering from a double mastectomy?
Now that you know, will YOU act that way on the road?
I’m still not cleared to drive and I’m fine with that… I’m terrified at the thought of driving myself given the limitations in my range of motion and fragility of my body. And I’m terrified of the road ragers out there, who will swerve aggressively around me because I too am going too slow, or who are too busy talking on their cell phones to pay attention… I’m just not ready to be that agile and quick with my instincts.
Perhaps the most astounding asshole moment happened earlier this month when I traveled by plane to Austin, Texas. I’d booked this trip months ago, well before I found out I had breast cancer, and wasn’t prepared to lose $1,000 on a trip I’d already paid for. I needed a doctor’s note clearing me to fly, with limitations… one being, I needed someone to carry my luggage for me, including my carry-on. I called American Airlines ahead of time to let them know my situation. The woman on the phone was extremely accommodating and explained what I should do upon checking in. Apparently, no matter what your limitations are, any traveler with a disability requiring special assistance must ride in a wheelchair.
TSA was also very accommodating, and when it was time to board at the gate, a TSA agent brought me to the waiting area, where he left me… without the wheelchair. Next, I hear an agent call my name over the loudspeaker: “Will Mary Lewis please present herself at the desk.” So, leaving my carry on unattended like you’re told never to do, I walked up to the desk, where the American Airlines attendant looked me up and down and said, “It says you have special needs, you don’t look like you have special needs, do you need a wheelchair?”
I whipped out my doctor’s note, explained that I’d just had surgery to my upper body and was unable to carry any weight… I would kindly need help putting my bag overhead on the plane. She raised her finger to me and said, “I don’t know who at American told you we could help you with that. Whoever told you that was lying. The staff on board are not responsible for handling any passenger’s luggage, so if you cannot lift it, you must check it.”
I confidently, and calmly, explained that I’d spoken with someone who clearly told me I’d have help, and that I’d been helped up until this point. She proceeded to tell me, “Well, I’m just saying, I’m just here to tell you the FACTS… it is the sole discretion of the stewards to lift any packages for you… they will only do it out of the goodness of their hearts and have every right to refuse you should they choose to. So if they refuse, you will have to figure it out.”
I replied, “MA’AM… in what world would someone deny a person who’s physically unable due to having had a surgery?” She said, matter of factly, “It is not in the stewards’ contracts. If they get injured in any way handling your bags, they are not allowed to collect workman’s compensation.”
So it’s not about kindness… it’s about money.
This infuriated me. I turned into gangster Mary.
“So MA’AM… question for you… I was summonsed to your desk, as if the TSA agent hadn’t dumped me off in the waiting area… what if I DIDN’T have the use of my legs, how would I have gotten up here safely? And how exactly does American assist passengers who need wheelchair assistance and literally cannot stand up on board to manage their carry on?”
Her verbatim response: “PEOPLE LIKE THAT ARE NOT ENTITLED TO A CARRY-ON… THEY MUST CHECK ALL OF THEIR LUGGAGE.”
Wow. so American Airlines discriminates against disabled passengers too… interesting.
I said a few choice, SMART, words and her mouth shut. A wheelchair arrived to bring me on board. I told Ms. Sally J shame on her for making someone like me, who’d just survived breast cancer, feel completely humiliated, belittled and a burden to an airline that’s been around for decades, bears our country’s name and which charges an obnoxious price for a seat on their shitty planes. How dare she patronize me and make me feel obligated to divulge very personal information about my health in order for the airline to do the right thing. I actually started to cry as I was wheeled down the ramp… I was so pissed. When I got on board, and the steward came by and saw me in tears, she was MORTIFIED. She said, “You know… some people just don’t have kindness… of course I’ll help you, with whatever you need.”
She wanted to say, “Yea… that lady at the gate is an asshole.” At least not everyone at American is an asshole. I haven’t called in the complaint yet… even writing this drained me of precious energy they aren’t worthy of.
Here’s the deal… we all act like assholes when we’re not fully present. It’s unfortunate. It’s unkind. It makes us ugly. It’s unnecessary. But it happens. And all you need to do is catch yourself in those moments and be humble. It’s really hard to judge someone when they do the right thing… even if at first they acted like an asshole.
I’m really going to try to be a better person. I’ve always loved that part about having cancer… all the good things that come out of it. All the things you learn and appreciate. The better person you become because of it.
But I don’t want you to have to go through cancer. I’m already teaching you everything you need to know… so please… don’t be an asshole. You have no idea what the person on the receiving end is dealing with.