I’ve been thinking a lot lately about appropriation. As a middle class white woman, I’m usually thinking about appropriation, is it insensitive for me to practice yoga? Can I say oy? What about bitches? Is this print just geometric or am I accidentally wearing something that is ripping off a meaningful pattern to a culture I have nothing to do with. Worrying whether I’m taking someone’s joy or pain or culture and making it fit my needs is one of my great concerns, for better or worse.
Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about the appropriation of grief. My friend, Oren, has cancer. He has the kind of cancer that comes with a devastating prognosis, the kind where the focus turns to making your remaining time comfortable, to hoping you can have one last amazing family vacation. The kind where everything you thought was ahead of you isn’t just changed forever, it isn’t there. I am devastated, completely, and confused and angry and so, so sad. But for reasons I can’t completely put my finger on, I also feel immensely guilty for my sadness. I feel as though it is selfish to be this sad, and that even though Oren is a friend and his wife Beth is one of the most important people in my life, it is not my story to tell and it is not my place to be this heart sick. I worry that by talking about Oren, and Beth, and the kids, that I will be changing the story to be about me and my pain instead of them and their pain. That I will be appropriating their grief.
About a week before Oren’s diagnosis, I stayed with them. I was up in Baltimore for a MICA event and was supposed to stay with the family, but Beth got called out of town last minute. She assured me that Oren and the kids were still looking forward to seeing me, so I kept the arrangement. That Saturday, after a long day of meetings and meetings and dinner plans that turned into late night work-ish related social obligations I finally made it to their house in Baltimore County around midnight. Poor Oren, ever the most polite person in this universe, was up to greet me and make small talk and show me around. When I went to bed that night, knowing that I had to wake up at the crack of dawn to make it to the next morning’s meetings, I was drowning in guilt. I felt terrible for taking advantage of a friend’s guest room without actually socializing. I felt ungrateful and small and I was so sure that Oren had texted Beth something along the lines of “can you believe this bitch.” I consoled myself only with the fact that in all the years I’ve known Oren he’s maybe said 500 words in my presence, so probably he was relieved to not have to entertain me without the buffer of Beth, the person we share in common. I’m sure, of course, that was bullshit and Oren thinks I’m an ungrateful shit muffin but, we all tell ourselves lies to get through the day. The next morning I woke up early to spend an hour with the kids, Liam and Madeline, before I had to go. We read books and ate breakfast and Liam showed me what Super Mario looks like now and then, as I was moving my stuff towards the door, Oren woke up and it was time to say goodbye. All I could think as I was awkwardly walking out and trying to make excuses for being so very rude was that I would make it up to them, the Blauer-Millers. That we would come to Owings Mills and spend a whole week just with them, do absolutely fucking nothing except hang out, the 6 of us, and I would make it up to them for being the house guest who comes and dirties the sheets and makes you stay up late waiting for them and doesn’t even stay for coffee.
A week later I saw a message from Beth that said they had gone to the hospital, that they thought it might be cancer, that they weren’t sure what was going on. Shortly after that, it was Stage Four. It was terminal. There was a fundraiser to send the Blauer Millers on one last vacation. And all I could think, all I can think, is that’s not okay. Oren wrote this beautiful post about the diagnosis where he talks about the future and the end of his life and his family and the whole horrible situation with such eloquence and grace. And all I can think is no. One last vacation isn’t enough. My friend, my friends, deserve so much more. And even though I mostly relate to Oren through Beth and the kids and if left in a room together we would have the most awkward conversation of all time because Oren is polite and quiet and very wry and I am a bumbling idiot, I want more. For Oren, and for Beth, and for those amazing kids, and for their family and friends and for me. It is incredibly selfish and gets to the heart of my fear of appropriation that the way that I am interacting with this situation is to feel completely fucking devastated that I’ll never get to make it up to Oren that I was the worst house guest ever. As if whether or not I was rude during a visit (I was, let’s be honest) is weighing on him at all right now. As if, in the scheme of things, my feelings matter at all right now.
In the end, what actually matters is that Oren is loved, that he has support, that he is comfortable, that he spends the rest of his life with his family. All of those things will be true. Whether he lives more or less time than he was given by doctors, whether or not he is able to take one more incredible vacation with his family, whether or not the miracle that we are all desperately hoping for happens, Oren will be loved. And when he is gone, we, I, will do everything possible to make sure that Beth, and Liam, and Madeline are loved and cared for.