This piece isn’t about the fact that my first affair was with a girl, although that is a fact. It’s about how one spoken line, a few words, can change a life, a mood, an entire situation.
In the ’60s my sister and I met a guy who had started something called reality therapy. The questions you ask yourself before speaking are: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind? We fell in love with the concept, and maybe with the guy too.
Many years later, when my son Dan started to lose his ability to hold a fork, to do his own insulin shot, and then started falling after taking only a few steps, screaming obscenities, I didn’t ask those questions. I said the exact worst thing anyone could say. I said, “I know how you feel.” It wasn’t true, it wasn’t necessary, and, I learned by his reaction, it wasn’t kind. He was 22 and had been diagnosed with MS, and I was telling him, “I know how you feel”? Of course I didn’t know how he felt, but what I meant straight from my breaking heart was, I know how hard this must be. But even those words weren’t accurate. I knew nothing of what he was going through. I only knew how hard it was for me. I learned after a bit of time and a little shrinkage, the best thing, the only thing, to have said was, “I can’t even imagine what this is like for you.”
In the first few of the 16 years Dan was sick, my dear friend Gerry just watched. He saw the relationship up close and very personal. He listened and he observed, and he never said a word until one day he said the thing that would change everything. He said, and it just about killed me to hear, “Your pain is so great, Dan doesn’t have room for his own.”
When I say it changed everything, I mean I switched from suffering in front of my boy to taking a huge step back, and for the first time, listening and letting him have his own experience.
So words that comfort, words that change a life direction, well-considered words, are what reality therapy is clearly about.
Once, without realizing it, I somehow said exactly the right thing. I found out how right a few years ago when a young woman came up to me holding a golden velvet scarf, and said, “You won’t remember me, but 10 years ago you stopped me on Main Street in Vineyard Haven. I had quit my job, closed my bank account, and written my suicide note, and you said, “Oh my God! You are lighting up the whole sidewalk. It might be that gorgeous scarf, but I think it’s your energy.” I just want you to know you saved my life, and I want you to have the scarf. I’ve saved it all these years.”
I still can’t believe how easily my words had rolled off my tongue without having a clue that they could have such an impact.
And yet I’ve noticed that a lot of people (and sometimes I’m one of them) think the kind thought but don’t go the extra mile to express it.
I was in a locker room once, and probably unattractively nude, when I overheard two women talking. One said, “Can you believe Maryanne’s cream of mushroom soup last night? Wasn’t that amazing?” And the other woman said, “It was the best I’ve ever had.” Now to be fair, their lockers were right next to mine, but to be completely transparent (no pun on the nudity), I eavesdropped, and this time, even though I had never seen these women before, I guess I felt we three had bonded. After all, what’s more intimate than dripping together in our birthday suits? Without skipping a beat, I said, “Well, did you tell Maryanne?” They looked at each other like, “Who the f___ are you?” Finally one of them said, “She knows she’s a great cook.” That’s where I wanted to lecture about the difference between withholding and gushing.
And the affair with my roommate in college? It was 1963, and on a long-distance call to my mentor older sister whom I hadn’t seen for a year, I had whispered that I desperately needed to talk to her. I told her I couldn’t say it over the phone. Three days later she walked in the door and after our initial hugs, said, “So? Tell me!” And I said, “I can’t tell you here. We have to go out somewhere.” So we jumped in the car and started driving around the neighborhood.
“Now, WHAT already?” she demanded, a bit peeved by this point. I said (gulp), “I’m a lesbian.” She said, “Oh, thank God. I thought you were going to tell me you were pregnant.” And if that weren’t enough to dissolve the 21-story building made of guilt I had been carrying on my shoulders, she said, “Have you even done it with a boy yet?” And I said, “No.” And she said, “Then why are you so anxious to label yourself? Why don’t you just do this and see what that’s like?”
In just a few chosen words she took away the shame and opened up the door of possibilities. And reminded me if it isn’t true and it isn’t necessary and it isn’t kind, let’s just keep our mouths shut. Otherwise, open wide.