My First Run-in with the Things People Say

The shaving of my head brought about the first idiotic encounter almost immediately….After the deed, Vanessa and Del and I went a few blocks down the road to a restaurant with an outdoor dining area. So we’re sitting there enjoying each other’s company…when a woman in a hajib comes up begging.

Now, Brussels has enough beggars to compete with any American city. (This is strange, since there’s so much social help. But that’s beside the point.) In particular, most of the beggars around here are by far and large Muslim. Many of them use to children to beg for or with them (often glassy-eyed with forced sedation, so the authorities say), and often it is obvious they are in some sort of gang-run begging ring. She hovers closely and thrusts her hand out at us without a word. Her attitude is that of someone demanding money as if you owe it to them. It’s clear she part of a ring.

So, we shake our heads no, then continue our conversation. The woman just stands there at our table. I have my hat off, going bald to the world (and kinda loving it). She stares at me a moment, points and says something in French that I don’t understand. I don’t really care what she said, but can tell by the ugly expressions she pulls that it was something unwelcome, so I just ignore her. Finally she leaves as Vanessa makes an incredulous face. When I say that I didn’t catch her comment, Vanessa shares that the beggar said to me, “Now why did you go and do that?…You look like a man, you know!”

Of course this was terribly rude, but still — What do I care what this beggar thinks? Del was quite upset, but I pointed out that a woman who is not even allowed to show her head (much less to work or have a thought of her own) has no business giving fashion advice! The irony was just too thick to miss and I laughed it off sincerely.

The lady has gone to stand a few meters away, talking to another hajib-wearing beggar. There are a few guys lurking nearby them, clearly there to collect any money they gather. Del calmly gets up, walks over to the women and says, “You know, that was very rude. She happens to be sick.” He comes back and resumes his meal. Vanessa and I are jabbering away, when I notice Del staring fiercely in a way he never glares at anyone. (Well, except maybe the kitchen cabinet after he bumps his head on it.)

The woman has gone to her beggar pimps (or whatever you’d call them) and is talking to them, pointing clearly at Del like she’s tattling. I tell him to relax. That I couldn’t give a crap. “Don’t get us in a fight with a Muslim street gang over this, please,” I say. The guys are now staring at him in a way that is meant to be intimidating. But Dels’ furious, glaring right back, clenching his jaw and waving his fingers in a dare to press him. Of course nothing comes of this, but it’s the only time I’ve seen vehemence from him and I admit – given that, it was sweet.

Of course, when it comes to cancer (and things like) people will always say stupid things. Wrong things. But most people don’t mean anything but well. I’ve rarely been offended by anything said, as I try to remember that it’s impossible for one to know how any particular person will take what you say. My advice to the one “suffering” is to consider the spirit in which it was said. Just ask yourself, “what’s the intention behind the words?” Listen to that and forget the rest. That doesn’t rescue everyone, but most. (And if you determine the person is trying to be less than kind, don’t be afraid to speak to them accordingly.)

The only times I let comments irritate me is when its a close friend (who should know a little better) and I outright tell them, “That’s not really what I need to hear right now.” If they continue to say the misguided sentiments, well, that’s just idiotic.

If you are a friend to someone going through this, listen to her. If all else fails and you don’t know what to say, say that. Go, “I don’t know what to say.” She will understand. She may even tell you what to say! Whatever you do, just don’t try to give her fashion advice.

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Filed under breast cancer, chemo, hair, life, this time LAST year

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