the flip side

As a teenager, I was pushed to volunteer. It was required for school. It was required by my parents. It was just something I had to do. I volunteered at a crisis nursery, watching the toddlers of young women who needed a break presumably because they were in crisis. I volunteered at an animal museum, feeding little raccoons with baby bottles and dropping dinner into the beaks of baby birds fallen from nests (we all know what that lead to). I volunteered at a women’s center in college, a gender/sexuality rights organization during study abroad, and also during college, at a Day Laborers’ Center. And in the following years, there were girls groups and food drives and all kinds of volunteering.

Participation in the public sphere— I did lots of it. My kind of participation was exclusively from the giving/volunteering/programming/providing perspective.

Sure, I participated in girls/tech groups as an adolescent, but I was never the most marginalized in the group, and there was always someone else it was helping and I was always encouraged to make sure those others were helped. I cannot recall a time when I was on the receiving end of these kinds of services: my community has never been offered AMIGOS volunteers and I have never been offered a bag of donated food for the holidays.

Enter cancer.

Now that I have a life-threatening disease, I am eligible for all kinds of services. Acupuncture. Free wigs. Support groups and buddy systems. Counseling. Massage. Prescription pay support. River rafting trips. Young cancer bumper stickers.

And suddenly, I want none of it. I know what they say, the volunteers/programmers/givers/planners/providers/organizers, and I know what they say because I’ve probably said it. They question why I don’t want the services. After all, free wigs, that’s so great— why would I pay? And river rafting, how could I not want to go? What about support groups and buddies- I need that!

It just kind of rubs me the wrong way, the people standing behind the table with the hats for people with cancer. Hand-made. Of course. They don’t have cancer.

I am annoyed when the people pairing me with a young cancer buddy want me to recount my life story on the phone, and want to discuss the details of my diagnosis. I’ve never met these people. Why would I bare my soul? I can hear her though, waiting for me to answer the questions with more words than I have so that she can “match” me. My answer is too short, the silence screams across the phone line. As though she could ever know me well enough to “match” me from a phone conversation. So why bother? Any cancer buddy will do. I don’t need to recount my life story, and frankly, it’s intrusive. I can tell she is wondering why I’m not more forth coming. After all, she’s a “good one!” She’s “caring” and says all the right things. Yet, there’s no pause to consider why they actually need to know all this information in order to “match me” with a “cancer buddy,” or to consider the fact that maybe I didn’t want this phone call.

Even so, I really like my cancer-buddy. She doesn’t do any of these annoying things the person who matched me with her does. But then, she had cancer. It’s entirely different.

I can still pass as not-having-cancer. In the hospital, as I walk by the tables of hats and blankets that are for chemo patients, I know they don’t think to offer them to me. I don’t yet look unhealthy. I keep my head down, and keep walking. It’s like being outside of my own skin to be the one to whom the service is actually supposed to be offered, especially when I’d never be recognized as such, at least for the next few weeks until I’m bald.

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