Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Mistrust of Praise (Conclusion)

"You are so beautiful," I said, holding her hand and kissing her forehead.

She looked at me dubiously and croaked, "You don't have to say that."

Her voice was a hoarse, breathless whisper. I heard it as much with my heart as with my ears. I had waited two days to hear it again, and I was in tears that I had my chance.

"You are so beautiful," I said. "You inspire me, you make me a better man and a better person. I am in love and have been for 14 years. You teach me, you love me, you take care of me and you have grown up with me."

She looked, her eyes uneven, one pupil larger than the other. She could not see me well, I knew. But her hearing would be the last thing, and she needed to hear it all. Spasm or not, she squeezed my hand. Her eyes closed. I squeezed back.

"You are and have always been the most loyal, sweet, smart, kind, thoughtful, generous, adventurous, glamorous, sexy and loving woman I have ever met," I said.

She gulped and I kissed her cheek.

"You are the greatest honor I have ever been given, and I say given because do not know that I have ever earned or deserved you or even had a hope of really being worthy," I said.

Tears slid out of her eyes and she mouthed "You have," then eked out, "You are, honey."

I felt the hot trail of my tears burn down my cheeks as I continued to recall my list of things to say. "I didn't always praise you at the beginning. I was afraid that you would take me for granted or maybe you would take advantage, I was insecure," I said "I'm sorry."

She nodded at it all and I kissed her nose, letting a tear mix with hers before I gently wiped her cheeks and rasped "I am glad I got over it, and I always meant what I told you about how good you are."

She opened her eyes and the strength of her voice startled me. "I am glad too, honey," she said, then, her voice fading again, she added "You always said what you felt."

I knew she was tired and I leaned down. "I love you, beautiful," I said.

She looked up at me with her eyes slit and mouthed, "I know." A rueful half-smile almost formed and she was out again. It was a gentle joke to lighten the moment. I kissed her again and her breathing was the slow, familiar rhythm it had become.

I knew she accepted at least my own praise, and that I had offered her as much as she could handle in a moment of wakefulness. She accepted not my praise of her baking or cooking, which she could dismiss as a recipe and secretly enjoy, but of her.

To get that acceptance and see her lightly revel in my attention was an honor in its own right.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Mistrust of Praise (2)

I was never more crushed by Marcie's condition than when she used it as a rational to undermine anything good that came her way. She was terrible at it. Everything and anything that could be chalked up to the disease immediately was.

Marcie hated being singled out in any case. Her acute dislike for such recognition became much more pronounced as the cancer progressed or as she reached milestones.

So loathsome was the idea of being associated with the disease to Marcie that she went so far as to hate everything about the phenomenon of breast cancer. Foremost and most hated among her pop culture targets was the Pink Ribbon campaign.

"Oh my god, why is veveryone buying me pink?" she asked me one day as she rummaged through a care package from a well-meaning friend. "God, I fucking hate Susan Komen and her stupidass campaign."

She had obviously had enough. She tossed the good back in the bag and looked up at me, exasperated.

"And the ribbons?! Oh my God, please don't hate me, Frank, but if one more person comes over to me at work with a pin or a ribbon or a little doodad with a ribbon or a sticker, I am going to stick it right in their face," she said, flopping back.

She laughed and crawled into my lap with a huff. "I don't want to be the cancer woman," she said. "I want to go back to being the homemade cakes and cookie chick."

But of course, she was much more than that. Marcie was a miracle worker and a business generator. She did not slow down or falter and always kept up the pace. Unfortunately, no one had ever given her the recognition she deserved.

That changed. When her disease finally resulted in the treatments that took her away from work, she was selected as Employee of the Year. I congratulated her.

"Honey, that is so wonderful," I said. "Are you going to make it to the ceremony? I know you feel better, and I would love to take you out to your awards ceremony."

She looked at me as if I had bitten the head off of a monkey or committed some other bewildering atrocity. She then gave me the followup look, the tilt of the head as if to ask, "Are you that stupid?"

"FRANK! It's a fucking pity award," she said. "They did not award this to me because of what I did, they are giving this to me because of the fucking cancer. Just get out of here and leave me alone."

She began to sob, and then she was wracked and her hands covered her face. "It's so humiliating," she moaned. "I worked so hard all these years, and I know they only gave it to me because I am sick and they think I am going to die."

I did my best to console her at first. "No, no, no... they just realize how important you are now that you are at home," I said. "They miss you and you carried that place, honey."

I just held her and she sniffed into my chest, "Really? Do you really think that?"

Yes, I certainly did. Scumbag salesmen would drop multimedia projects on her desk and she would get them done, though it was not her job. Managers would assign her report generation well outside her department.

Marcie handled well her duties with Jim Drummond, her boss, and did raw coding and design for her projects, usually a duty for the content and web folks. She was in business development, but everyone else seemed to think that meant, "load her ass up when her manager is not in."

Jim, as much as she loved him, was almost never in. When he was, he walked around in thought. At any rate, Marcie never complained, and would have had scant cover if she had. So everyone leaned on her, and she did it all, saving her complaints for me, at home.

So when she accepted that she deserved it, she made it clear that it came with a caveat.

"I know I earned it," she said. "But they only gave it to me because now they would feel guilty if they cheated me again."

And if that was not complete acceptance, it was better than the cancer winning it, and I felt much better, as I know she did. But she was still not completely pleased.

"I just know whatever salesperson they were going to give this to is sitting there thinking that I wouldn't have won if it wasn't for the cancer," she said.

"I hope," I said. "If that is the case, that they win a lot of awards to make up for it, and for the exact same reason, whoever they might be."

She looked up and was angry at first, but she smiled at me and kissed my cheek, the metallic bitterness of chemotherapy on her breath and lips. She curled into me tightly.

"Yeah, those fuckers," she said. "They can have my award if they take the cancer with it."

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Mistrust of Praise (1)

Marcie was proud. She was proud of her independence and her grit, her will and her self-supported status. She was proud of her red hair and beautiful skin, her near-unflappable happiness and her indomitability. She was strong and she knew her own worth.

But she was internally driven, and the outside world’s positive attention was not always comforting to her. In fact, quite to the contrary, it often made her uneasy to receive praise outside the context of our relationship and our families.

Despite her pride and occasional vanity, Marcie was always hard on herself. What self-praise she allowed for in her life was always tempered by internal doubt, much of it due to an esteem-punishing childhood.

Marcie overcame receiving less recognition for her successes and wonderful qualities than she deserved while she was with me, and soon she was letting my compliments in, becoming quite fond of hearing them. But she was still suspicious of any doting treatises anyone else might offer.

The day she turned that corner with me I remember quite well. It was several months into our relationship. Heretofore, any plaudits or approbations had been met with rolling eyes or a narrow-eyed, wary countenance and a knowing nod, dismissed as blandishments and blarney.

“Suuuuure,” I remember her saying one day as I showered her with my adoration. “We’ll see how long that lasts.”

But her tune changed abruptly one Sunday morning after a hearty breakfast and a very, very rare bottle of Mo√ęt Chandon doled out over several mnimosas.

“Oooph,” I said, smiling down at her as she lay in my lap and looked at the ceiling with her mouth open, licking her lips. She set her flute of mimosa down and grabbed my hand and held it in both of hers, putting it between her breasts and squeezing, wringing it.

“Tell me again,” she said, her eyes wide but still locked on the ceiling, waiting with a smile, her mouth a little open. “Why do you love me so much?”

I chuckled and she looked up in a very stern way, and then pretended she was going to bite my hand, looking wild-eyed at me, tipsy and playful. I got the picture.

“Okay, okay!” I said, leaning down and kissing her lips. “I like you…”

She squealed a little. “Hee heeeeee…”

I proceeded to detail her virtues and delicious vices from her toes to her top, her mind to her mien, her muff to her mop, and everything in between. She listened, sometimes covering her face and kicking her legs, laughing her silent laugh and only meeting my eyes when I paused. I could have continued, but she suddenly stopped me.

“Okay, mister. That’s enough for now,” she said, shutting my mouth with a big, wet kiss. ”I need to get ready for my parents, and you need to get out of the house.”

I may have won the right to shower her with love and sweet nothings, but Marcie was not completely open to glory. When she received little bits and trickles of external appreciation, she became uncomfortable. She never quite accepted public adulation.

When her work environment decided to chime in, lauding her for years of wonderful work and service beyond the call of her position, it could not have come at a worse time.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day

"Hey, honey," she said, kissing me on the cheek and looking in my eyes. "I am going to the movies, then I will be at the grocery store. I'll see you tonight, okay?"

I smiled and nodded, held her hand and closed my Anchor book. Memorial Day was usually a day to reflect, and she generally stayed out of my way for it. She kissed me again.

"I love you," she said. "Relax and I'll bring you home a little treat."

I nodded and watched her go, then turned back to my boot camp book, flipping through the pages and recalling one memory per face, one memory per frame, sometimes more. I lingered over a few.

This was their day. Car accidents, combat, misadventure, the grind of life after the service and the callous turned backs of the people they served, these didn't matter. That they served and then died did. My company had only a few over the years, but for my father, or my great-uncle Jerry or for any world war two vet, it was more a case of very few left to remember them and more of them to reflect on.

But this was the day for that, and Marcie knew I set it aside for that, and that is what I did. When she came home, we ate and drank wine, and the toast was always the same.

"To all the friends and comrades who would have like to meet you," I said, each year we were together, every Memorial Day.

Her toast was always the same, too. "To you, a true friend to heroes."

And dinner was usually silent afterward, but warm.