I have issues with illness and I think I can go so far as to say I have issues with weakness too. I know that’s a pretty broad statement, but we’ve all had moments of being weak in some way in our lives. Whether it’s being the smallest kid on the playground, or too sick to do what others do, or not having the knowledge or mental abilities of others, we’ve all been less than what we want at some point, and I think we can all agree it doesn’t feel good. And somewhere along the way, I’ve come to associate being sick with being weak. Maybe it’s a throwback to something primal. The weak get sick, the sick are easier prey, and nature doesn’t care if that illness is “something common” or “unavoidable”. In the wild, sick animals either die young or become an easy meal for others. Somehow, modern science hasn’t exactly changed this animal attitude in me.
After having kids, I have to say my perspective has changed a little. After all, my kids do get sick and it’s terrible. Even if it’s a basic cold, it breaks your heart to see their worried, watery eyes and their runny noses that they don’t exactly know how to handle. They’re kids, they don’t understand what’s going on or why it’s happening, and of course you have sympathy for them and become willing to do whatever it takes to heal them. Yet I still struggle with that need to do anything and everything to make them feel better, and telling them to “suck it up”. I know it sounds cold and I do struggle with it. This attitude extends to adults as well, the difference is if you’re a kid, I’m more likely to cut you some slack. But if you’re an adult, especially a male, you won’t be getting much, if any, love from me.
As with everything, I guess it goes back to childhood. Being raised by a single mom, there were no sick days because there was usually no one to take care of you. Sure, great grandma would watch us sometimes, but that was no trip to the park. School was a friendlier place and at least that way you got to see your friends and not fall behind in work. Grandma was serious old-school, smoked like a chimney, and watched golf or soaps (read=BORING). She wasn’t neglectful, but she showed little mercy on the sick. And let’s talk about moms. She’s young for a mom of someone my age, 54, but she’s had over 50 surgeries, most of them on her knees, shoulder, and ankle. From the time I can remember I marveled at the scars on her legs—their pearly/purple/pink hue and how they snaked across the area where her knee-cap should have been. Mom showed very little fear or weakness, even though she nearly died on the operating table several times. When she’d go away for surgeries I’d ball my eyes out, worried she wouldn’t come back, yet she trucked on out that door confident (at least on the surface). And of course, grandma never cried and simply told me to stop followed by a, “There’s just no goddamn sense in it!”
Then there was AIDS. On top of all this, my mom was a counselor for AIDS patients, usually in their last 6 months or year of life. This was in the ’80s, the beginning of understanding this disease and I’m putting it mild to say that shit wasn’t easy. My brother and I spent much of our evenings and weekends in the hospital, splitting time between the waiting room and the room of whoever was dying. This began when I was 6 or 7 and my brother was 8 or 9. It was really an amazing experience to be with these people and hear their stories. I can’t begin to explain the impact of being so unabashedly exposed to death, IV drug use, and homosexuality at such an early age.
Being half Japanese in an all-white small town, I had struggled through discrimination. Chris Rock has this hilarious skit where he states, “The black man has to FLY to where the white man can walk” and that’s exactly how I felt. I couldn’t just be a good student, I had to be the BEST student. I couldn’t just play the trumpet, I had to be first chair. I joined the baseball team and it wasn’t okay to just play the game, I competed. All this slowly cut me a place at the table, and I was still made painfully aware of my differences, but at least I could sit at the table, even if it was uncomfortable. But once the other parents and kids found out mom was helping AIDS patients, they wanted us banned. They held a special PTA meeting where my mom had to defend the fact we didn’t have AIDS and weren’t contagious. It wasn’t long before my brother and I were called fags and homos. All this before I reached 5th grade. Despite all this, I really enjoyed my time with these unique people suffering from this terrible disease, and learned a lifetime of lessons from them. Of course the hardest part of knowing people with AIDS was attending their funerals. In my life I’ve been to far more funerals than weddings.
So yeah, after saying all that shit, I’d say it’s pretty clear why I take issue with illness. It’s unacceptable. It’s dangerous—especially if others see it—and you can’t escape from or cure some illnesses. I’m constantly struggling with common sense, scientific fact, and my experience. I tell myself over and over that being sick is natural and everyone deserves compassion when they’re sick, and weakness isn’t something to look down on. Yet, when I do begin to feel sad or “soft”, in the back of mind, there’s a little smoking grandma screaming “there’s just no goddamn sense in it!”
What’s you’re experience?